Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 2024:
AUDIENCES AND CONCERTS


John Lienhard presents guest Rob Zaretsky

Today, our guest, historian Rob Zaretsky attends a concert. The University of Houston presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

What is the sound of two hands clapping? Hardly a Zen riddle for concertgoers today: it's the sound made before and after the performance of an orchestral piece. If you break this rule out of exhilaration and clap between movements, beware! You'll be frozen by glacial stares from your concert hall neighbors.

Yet such a question would have riddled musicians and their audiences in eighteenth century Paris. Applause? Certainly not at the beginning of a concert or opera, since the audience, especially aristocrats, deliberately arrived late. And scarcely ever during the performance: blue bloods in the boxes were too busy visiting and chatting, while commoners in the parterre too busy gossiping about the aristocrats above. And in the third balcony -- the well-named "paradise" -- representatives from both estates, along with the occasional cardinal, were too busy making love to acknowledge the music.

And at the end of the opera? Since it was bad form to stay for the entire performance, you might as well ask what the sound is of no hands clapping. As the French cultural historian James Johnson observes, "attentiveness was a social faux pas."

Like composition and performance, listening also evolves over time. The concert hall was not always a severe setting, the conductor did not always reign supreme over a submissive orchestra and silent audience; we did not always gather to be moved by music.

Instead, until the early nineteenth century, the opera was a site of sociability. Like a modern sports arena with skyboxes, upper mezzanine and bleachers, one networked or watched others network -- activities which reflected the traditional hierarchy of power. And the music? Think of it as Old Regime Muzak.

One listened differently, then. Meaning in Rameau's operas was contained not in harmony, but in the melodic line that painted words and imitated the world. From the twittering of birds to the skipping of a heart, interpretation was a straightforward affair. Musical experience thus involved "more the outer than the inner person, more the senses than the soul."

Come Romanticism, the medium remained, but the message changed. We no longer attended opera to see and be seen; instead, we attended to ourselves. Musical meaning grew subjective; the listener turned her eyes toward her soul, not her neighbor's antics. And when it comes to inner sentiment, all men and women were equal -- a shift in sensibility that reflected and spurred the growing democratization of music listening at the end of the eighteenth century. The artist now eclipsed the king, while an aristocracy of taste and talent elbowed aside an aristocracy of birth.

The music experience, liberated from external references, became a spiritual experience. The concert hall, now suitably darkened, became a therapeutic gathering. And the decorum that now reigns was introduced to restrain great emotions. The etiquette remains, but what of those ancient upheavals of emotion? Are they still found in the concert hall, or in new venues calling for new responses?

I'm Rob Zaretsky at the university of Houston where we're interested in the way inventive minds work. work.

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James H. Johnson, Listening in Paris: A Cultural History (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1995).

Robert Zaretsky is professor of French history in the University of Houston Honors College, and the Department of Modern and Classical Languages. (He is the author of Nīmes at War: Religion, Politics and Public Opinion in the Department of the Gard, 1938-1944. (Penn State 1995), Cock and Bull Stories: Folco de Baroncelli and the Invention of the Camargue. (Nebraska 2004), co-editor of France at War: Vichy and the Historians. (Berg 2001), translator of Tzevtan Todorov's Voices From the Gulag. (Penn State 2000) and Frail Happiness: An Essay on Rousseau. (Penn State 2001).

musical wagon
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The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-2005 by John H. Lienhard.