Thursday, January 03, 2008

Sucklings of the Muses

Some maintained that it was bad form to stay for the entire opera. The young dandy Almair in La Morlière's Angola, described as a "scrupulous observer of etiquette [bienséance]," claims that there is "nothing so indecent as staying to the end" of an opera. The practice was apparently common enough for the Mercure to mention it disapprovingly: it was a "disgrace," the paper wrote, for women to leave during the last acts of Atys and Roland. Others held a prejudice against listening too intently to the music. A traveler to Paris who was quick to grasp the dynamics of behavior at the Opéra wrote with some derision that the only spectators who listened to the music were "several clerics, several shopkeepers, several schoolboys, sucklings of the muses and soldiers just returning from or about to leave for a tour of duty." And a young nobleman explained to his guest that listening to the music with focused attention was "bourgeois." "There is nothing so damnable," he went on, "as listening to a work like a street merchant or some provincial just off the boat."

For these spectators, attentiveness was a social faux pas, as the Mercure observed: spectators who attempted to listen to a work before judging it, the paper claimed, were regarded by the rest as "creatures from another world." Circulating, conversing, arriving late, and leaving early were an accepted part of eighteenth-century musical experience, grudgingly tolerated by some and positively encouraged by others. "We listen at most to two or three pieces consecrated by fashion," as a character in Angola declares, "and at the end we excessively praise or thoroughly damn the whole work."

(James H. Johnson, Listening in Paris: A Cultural History (University of California Press, 1995), p. 31)

A peculiar effect of Johnson's brand of cultural history is that the experiences at the opera of sucklings of the muses and others on the sidelines of the business of the aristocracy don't really count as musical experiences. They have no meaning. Musical meaning, Johnson says, "resides in the particular moment of reception, one shaped by dominant aesthetic and social expectations that are themselves historically structured" (p. 2). He denies that there are as many Don Giovannis as there have been listeners. He holds that there is absolutely zero meaning outside of a horizon of expectations which is socially defined and cannot be understood as belonging to individuals (p. 3). Johnson' analysis, then, produces the curious effect that an Eighteenth-Century aristocrat who doesn't listen to an opera has a musical experience while attendees who do listen do not have meaningful musical experiences. Of course, we recieve Johnson's work amid dominant aesthetic and social expectations that are themselves historically structured. (How then should I interepret signs of conflict in his account, the possibility of other readings of the same material?) One dominant expectation greeting Johnson's work may be that sucklings of the muses have no meaningful experiences, no horizons worth exploring, no history that needs to be told. Yet if I didn't suspect Johnson of harboring a secret affection for the sucklings of the muses I would read no further–and I intent to read further. I've already decided that Listening in Paris is quite an engaging book.

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posted by Fido the Yak at 1:25 PM.


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