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 closest attention. So, of course, do materials he may have been unable to consult or may not have known about. A great many sources remain to be examined in this important area.
Lucy Lowell, however, remains a bit of a mystery. So does Francis Bennett. So, even, does George Templeton Strong, whose reflections on New York City’s [End Page 86] mid-nineteenth-century musical life fill entire volumes. This is one problem that reception as a discipline ultimately cannot solve: we can learn much from records of all kinds, and we should examine all of them with care. But we cannot learn everything: which Wagner Festival performance Lowell heard that so agitated her, for example (the diary entry in question is unusually skimpy), or what precisely it was about that performance that moved her so. Nor can we identify the edition of Beethoven’s “Orpheus” (i.e., the “Andante con moto” movement of the Fourth Piano Concerto) that Strong purchased to help him “investigate” at the keyboard a public performance he had previously enjoyed (134).
Cavicchi, however, is less interested in such details than he is in tracing the emergence of what he calls “audiencing,” especially in terms of class-based, gendered, and political distinctions. He is scarcely the first person to use that neologism; in 1992 John Fisk employed it as part of an examination of Married . . . with Children, a televised situation comedy, and its impact on one group of American viewers. Elsewhere, however, audiencing has been used in conjunction with studies of auditors as performers and with participatory exercises for audience members themselves. Occasionally these latter definitions seem to be what Cavicchi has in mind when he argues that “to dismiss . . . audience activities . . . as not really a form of participation, or to gloss over the complexities of listening as it has developed in history, reflects badly on music scholarship” (189). This lacuna is indeed unfortunate.
At the same time, Cavicchi occasionally blurs distinctions between several of his favorite and closely examined critical categories. In discussing “elite” listeners and the written responses some of them have left us, for example, he sometimes confuses “cultivation” with class distinctions. To call a Boston Brahmin such as Dwight or a wealthy lawyer such as Templeton Strong “elite” may simply be to identify them as economically and socially privileged individuals. Lucy Lowell was also privileged. Yet Bennett, a humble clerk, possessed an education and economic prospects. We forget how many nineteenth-century inhabitants of the United States could not read and write English. In this context, every firsthand account we possess of responses to antebellum music-making would seem “elite” in comparison to the illiterate and impoverished lives of Chinese railroad workers or African American slaves. I prefer H. Wiley Hitchcock’s terms cultivated and vernacular, because Bennett—who lived what Dwight would undoubtedly have considered a “vernacular” life and perhaps possessed unformed tastes—evinced even as a teenager rapidly developing and increasingly “cultivated” powers of musical observation. At the other end of Hitchcock’s polarity there must have been plenty of prosperous businessmen and their wives who, in spite of their incomes and acquaintances, were anything but “cultivated.”
The remaining issue I wish to address is one that Cavicchi merely hints at. This is his seeming dismissal of musical education in terms of reading, playing, [End Page 87] singing, and perhaps even composing music. For well over a century, “cultivated” American musical life revolved entirely around canonical figures and works, and many of its participants, blinded by their own seeming glory, separated themselves from the ruffians they imagined as lacking in learning and taste. Prior to the 1960s (and change came slowly at first during the following decades), musicology itself was all about what connoisseurs knew and the complex notated artifacts they alone were able to interpret. Only recently have music historians embraced the possibilities that “average listeners” matter, that performances matter, that even popular music matters, and that all are subjects worthy of study.
To question whether American university music programs should expect their graduates actually to know something about music, however, smacks of another form of blindness. In recent years whole books “about” music that scarcely mention that art form have appeared in print. More than a few of the music departments Cavicchi criticizes for mandating ensemble-performance participation and a modicum of keyboard ability have started lowering their standards. Some of them are turning out composers whose creativity is limited to the laptop software they own. Of course listening is important—no, invaluable. Of course it is possible to live a fulfilling musical life without specialized training. But where will the music come from unless some people receive such training? Scholars and critics have too often ignored those who are able to absorb music (to borrow Claude Levi-Strauss’s terms) without being able to secrete it. I only hope that music historians of the future will also pay attention to music itself: as material for reception studies as well as for innumerable and delightful purposes of other kinds.