- Musical Listening in the German Enlightenment: Attention, Wonder and Astonishment
The phenomenon of listening during the eighteenth century could be of considerable interest to us at the beginning of the twenty-first century, in part because we see audiences in decline in our time, and we may actually be able to learn something from the Enlightenment. We need not necessarily link our interest in this topic to the present, since the eighteenth century in its own right generates sufficient interest. During that century the relationship between composers and listeners changed significantly, in part because of changing cultural and social conditions, and by the end of the century audiences emerged that bore a resemblance to those of today. As various types of public concerts became more common, audiences needed to be engaged by the music written for them for their interest to be sustained, and composers responded to this, not by pandering to the taste of the lowest common denominator, but by writing music that could both engage the intellect through a process of intelligibility and also appeal to the senses with richness of tone, melody, harmony and tonality, in short with beauty that could ravish the listener. For both composers and listeners the eighteenth century proved to be an exciting time to be alive.
There are various ways in which one could get at this subject, and much fine scholarship exists to show the variety. This includes examination of the audience itself, especially the concert organizations to be found in different countries, looking not only at the management and programs but also the social makeup of the audience. Another way is to explore the relationships that composers had with the public, from people who purchased music and performed solo works or chamber music, to the large audiences and the relationships composers had with them through attending concerts, management, and individual concert-goers. The sources of information on these matters can provide fascinating reading, available in concert documents, letters, and even literary works that include music making, such as some of the novels by Jane Austen and Goethe.
Opinions on this subject can also be found in the plethora of treatises from the eighteenth century, and Matthew Riley in his Musical Listening in the German Enlightenment: Attention, Wonder and Astonishment, chooses to focus exclusively on these, especially by Meier, Sulzer, and Forkel, and also some of the theoretical writing of Rous-seau, appearing for example in the Dictionnaire de musique or the Encyclopédie. The choice of sources together with the resulting focus gives the book a very different slant than one would suspect from the title, directing it much more towards aesthetics as a branch of philosophy than actual [End Page 961] audiences or listeners, or the way that composers engaged them. This is not to say that these issues do not emerge in the aesthetic discussions that form the body of the book; the writers in question have much to say about such matters, but seldom in relation to the practical concerns of composers or the inclinations of audiences and listeners. In developing their views on music these writers of course had to talk about listeners as well, since music does not exist in a vacuum bereft of an audience, but their views generally emerge from the peculiar conceptions of music they espouse, of which the audience response is a necessary component.
The choice of the sources creates some interesting issues for Riley, although he has little interest in addressing them. One concerns the audience for whom this type of writing is intended. Some of these writers may have believed they could actually educate listeners, helping to transform the Liebhaber (amateur) into the Kenner (connoisseur), but more often their real audience was other aestheticians with whom they may have had fundamental disagreements. No one is more polemical than Rousseau in this respect, one of the leading contributors to the guerre de Bouffon, ramming down the throats of the pro-French writers his support...