- Listening and Longing: Music Lovers in the Age of Barnum by Daniel Cavicchi
Students of European and American music history might have noted that reception study is often grounded in and draws upon materials familiar to students of literature. To paraphrase the Oxford Companion to Music, investigations into “musical reception” have been construed both as narrowly as journalists’ responses to the premieres of particular compositions and as broadly as responses to entire genres from their creation to the present day. What musicologists call “styles history” represents another form of reception study, since it is devoted in large part to demonstrating how later composers have rewritten earlier composers’ works or drawn upon them. In general, however, music-historical reception studies have mostly involved the reputations of canonical composers and performers, and in this sense the discipline remains a comparatively conservative one. Canonicity as a critical preference has extended even to examinations of such traditional and pop-oriented American musical phenomena as the Carter family, Elvis Presley, and heavy metal bands. Investigations of responses to radio and television broadcasts, sound recordings of various kinds, and digitalization are in their infancy.
In Listening and Longing, Daniel Cavicchi breaks away from the conservative pack. His fascinating account of nineteenth-century New World listening invokes a great many noncanonical figures and activities. Not that he ignores canonical [End Page 85] composers, performers, and critics; Jenny Lind’s 1850 American tour, for example, receives attention (although P. T. Barnum is largely overlooked), as do performances of works by Ludwig van Beethoven, Louis Moreau Gottschalk, and Richard Wagner. Nor are Cavicchi’s efforts on behalf of understanding “American music history from an audience perspective” (5) altogether innovative. Irving Sablosky and Nicholas Tawa, among others, have grappled with audience response. That Cavicchi cites only one of Tawa’s volumes in his bibliography and ignores Sablosky’s What They Heard: Music in America, 1852–1881 (1986) is not surprising, though. Sablosky, for instance, limits himself not only to print journalism as source material, but to a single and singularly opinionated periodical: Dwight’s Journal of Music. Cavicchi knows John Sullivan Dwight’s magazine and quotes from it, but Dwight’s readership lies outside Cavicchi’s exploration of “the role of musical experience in shaping” nineteenth-century American “daily life” (5; italics added). It is the passages Cavicchi cites from the diaries, letters, and other “descriptive fragments” (189) that are altogether fascinating. His close readings of these sometimes rather cryptic sources help us understand everyday nineteenth-century American music experiences as never before.
Several of Cavicchi’s sources—by which I mean the men and women who left us their musical impressions, not the documents in which they recorded them—come to life on his pages. At these moments Listening and Longing reads almost like historical fiction, and good fiction at that. One such source is Francis Bennett, a seventeen-year-old clerk recently arrived in Boston in 1854, who recorded some of his encounters with street bands and the political demonstrations they accompanied. As Cavicchi observes, the bands themselves, as well as other seemingly unplanned and often disruptive music making, occasionally transformed antebellum urban life into a furnace of noise (rather like the medieval “furnace of music” Victor Hugo describes in Notre Dame de Paris). Especially engaging among Cavicchi’s sources is Lucy Lowell, who loved to sing along with her friends but hated to perform in front of her family, and who lamented Victorian-era restrictions that made it socially questionable for women to attend concerts by themselves. Lowell was a musical enthusiast so moved by a performance she attended during the 1884 Boston Wagner Festival that she couldn’t “fix her mind on anything [else] for days afterward” (109). Sablosky, Tawa, and other historians have failed either to uncover these accounts of what was once known as “music appreciation” or to cite them in print. Cavicchi, on the other hand, has done wonderful work in unearthing them, and his list of unpublished archival source materials deserves the...