Sacred Secular Music, Part I: Listening

Up until around the year 1550, sacred music makes up the vast majority of what we study as musicologists. (This isn’t, of course, because people were only singing sacred music until then – sacred music just happens to have been notated and passed down more efficiently than its secular counterpart.) All of the beautiful chant, motets, masses, chorales, Lutheran cantatas, etc. that RT has been discussing for the last 1,400 or so pages were “use” music; they were created and performed for specific functions, and context was everything. This, indeed, was why the music registered as sacred: with settings of Scripture and an indispensable role in ritual and worship, sacred music confirmed, embodied, and celebrated the core tenets of the faith.

As we move into the 19th century, however, a new form of sacred music is emerging. Ironically, the ever increasing secularization of music in the 17th and 18th centuries led to a “sacralization” of the arts in the 19th. This cultural process is fascinating and really complex, the dual prerequisites for a bloated, unreadable post. For that reason I’ll be taking a stab at addressing a few of the major points to consider in a series of short posts. This is by no means meant to be comprehensive, so please jump in with thoughts and links to help flesh these ideas out! That said, let’s dive right in…

If sacralization implied inhibition of spontaneous performer behavior, that is nothing compared with the constraints that were imposed on audiences, who were now expected (and are still expected) to behave in concert halls the way they behaved in church.   (II, 651)

Traditionally, musicologists have focused their work on (at the risk of sounding obvious) the music itself, while tending to downplay the social history of listening in which the great works find themselves situated. RT has gestured towards this issue numerous times throughout the text, from descriptions of the carnival atmosphere of opera seria performances to reminders that the great masses of Josquin would have been heard in chunks over the course of the ritual, not in its totality as a “work,” as it is today.* As we’ve seen (and commented upon), prior to the period we’re now moving into, music was “functional” and, as such, served a fundamentally social purpose, binding communities together, enhancing religious ritual, and enlivening parties. During the 19th century, however, listening practices in Europe and America began to gradually shift in ways that, in hindsight, turned out to be quite profound.

Audiences throughout the 19th century and into the 20th were more and more expected to listen in captivated, silent awe, rather than the more social, distracted concert culture of yore. The dark, quiet cocoon of the modern concert hall is, indeed, a result of these shifts. Where once religion served the socially sanctioned role as the site of mystical transcendence and ritual, now this experience came to be associated with high art and the Geniuses who created it. The secular had become the sacred.

Of course, the silencing of the concert hall was a very gradual process that occurred unevenly around the globe. For instance, critic George Templeton Strong, writing in New York in 1858, describes the audience at a Phil concert as “crowded and garrulous, like a square mile of tropical forest with its flock of squalling paroquets [sic] and troops of chattering monkeys.” By the early 20th century, however, the near-total subjugation of noisy concert-going behavior seems to have been more or less complete. Even conductors were in on the policing of noise in the service of creating a reverential, indeed sacred space for performance. Pierre Monteux, for example, rapped on the podium with his baton to silence the audience; Koussevitzky folded his arms and quietly, condescendingly waited. Leopold Stokowski was perhaps the era’s strictest silence enforcer: he would actually stop conducting mid performance to lecture the audience on “unnecessary noise,” which included applause: “Don’t talk, don’t rattle your programs, just listen noiselessly.**

Any classical music lover today knows the drill. And in many ways this is absolutely for the good; some writers tend to wax nostalgic for the chattery old days, but we’ve all sat next to a whispering couple and we know how annoying this can be. Further, many works written in the last 200 years were designed for precisely this sort of a space; a composer in 1700 probably wouldn’t have had the audacity to open an opera with a PPP drone, like Wagner does in Das Rheingold. It probably would have been inaudible.

The sacralization of the performance hall, a process with roots in the 19th century and the Romantic aesthetic, was fundamentally tied to new ways of understanding the individual, a subject I hope to take up in another post. It was less about the public, social experience of music and more about the interiority of listening, the individual, subjective contemplation of sublime works. (Stokowski even had plans for a “Temple of Music,” complete with pitch-black listening chambers for each individual in the audience.) In the age of iPods and noise-canceling headphones, this sort of disembodied, individualized listening might seem completely natural. Most music listening in modern society is indeed solitary. We would do well to remember that this is a wild historical aberration; for most of history, and for many in the world today, music is fundamentally about people, bodies, sociality, sharing. The sacralization of listening elevated the status of music profoundly; it also created a distance between the holy masterworks and the isolated individuals listening to them.

(For more on this, see Alex Ross’s spectacularly interesting post here.)


* A couple of great sources that deal with this question: Lawrence Levine, Highbrow/Lowbrow; James H. Johnson, Listening in Paris; Christopher Small, Musicking.

** See Levine, 180-192.

2 Comments

  1. A couple of thoughts as a followup to my comments on the last post:

    As much as I love my ipod, I have always treasured the experience of live concerts precisely because it is *not* solitary. There is something about the experience of sharing the music with dozens, hundreds or even thousands of other people, especially if it is clear that many of them are also listening intently, that you just don’t get from private listening.

    The same is true of church. Worship is a fundamentally public experience. Anyone who has sat for an hour in total silence at a Quaker meeting with a roomful of other people knows that it is very different from spending an hour in private meditation. It is not an experience of isolation, either from God or from other people; it is the exact opposite. That’s why people go to church.

    I can’t help but wonder whether our secular age “gets” this.

  2. I don’t see anything wrong with expecting audiences to be quiet during a concert or opera etc. This is no different than when one goes to the movies.
    The last thing any one wants at the movies is some one making a lot of noise and distracting you from watching the film.
    Why should it be any different at concerts ?

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