Listening in Paris

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

I have had reason to think lately about the history of audience behavior, and ended up reading this book. It’s an analysis of a particular moment in the history of music audiences – the moment in which they decide to shut up and sit still. Specifically, it is an analysis of the sequence of cultural and aesthetic transitions that led to Parisian opera and concert audiences valuing silence and stillness during a performance.

James Johnson takes as his starting point two images. The first is of the typical opera performance during the mid eighteenth-century, perhaps the 1740s. The members of the audience, arranged in their boxes at the royal opera house by very strict rules of status, spend the performance talking and strolling from box to box, occasionally listening, but paying far more attention to one another than to the opera. The second image is a more familiar one, from 1830 or 1840, of a concert hall full of silent rows of intent listeners, who will glare and shush at anyone who whispers or makes noise. How do you get from the one to the other?

Johnson’s answer to this question is mixture of the history of the aesthetic appreciation of music and the history of politics. Early eighteenth-century French audiences, he argues, considered music valuable only insofar as it was imitative. They listened for birds, or battles, or the sound of brooks, or thunder – music was supposed to paint, or depict, specific things. There were conventions for the setting of texts that imposed some fairly severe limitations on operatic music-writing. Audiences and critics in, say, 1740 or so understood music as something that touched the senses rather than the soul. Complex harmony was seen as distracting, or somehow mathematical and academic.

An important transition occurred with the rage for the music of Gluck in the 1770s and 1780s. Gluck’s value in this particular context was that he was familiar enough in how he wrote music that the music was not too strange or challenging, but it was new enough to shift the horizon of expectations. People were suddenly crying and fainting and sobbing as they listened – often very noisily. Music evoked intense emotion. At the same time, listeners had not strayed too far from the earlier style of music appreciation: listeners moved by Gluck described the music in dramatic terms – it made them feel the love, or sadness at a lost sweetheart, or martial valor, or whatever, that the characters on stage were feeling. It was not abstract appreciation of musical beauty in modern terms. French audiences before the Revolution still considered Mozart barbaric and noisy.

It took – of all things – Rossini to effect a shift. Johnson argues that one of the things that makes some modern listeners dismissive of Rossini, the way in which his operatic music can get so wound up in its own pyrotechnics that it leaves the drama behind, did Parisian listeners a service, in that they began to appreciate the thrill of the pyrotechnics on their own terms. They were appreciating music in the abstract, in other words.

Rossini did not accomplish this alone, of course. The massive popularity of Haydn in the early 1800s also played a role. Many audiences appreciated Haydn for what they described as his way of imitating nature, or evoking particular scenes or moods, but Haydn’s music certainly does not lack for abstract appeal, either. This was also a time in which more instrumental concerts of symphonies and chamber works were available to the public – or at least the part of the public that could afford to pay.

But even if one was responding to the abstract beauty of Haydn, why did one have to be still and quiet while doing so? This is one of the points at which the political history component of Johnson’s argument becomes really important. The claim is that the rise in power and influence of the middle class after the Bourbon Restoration affected how people behaved in concerts. As the audience at the opera house or concert hall tilted away from the nobility and more towards the (richer members of the) middle class, the bourgeois emphasis on politeness and non-offensiveness created silence during concerts as both a social duty and as a way of showing one’s own status: you may not be noble, but at least you weren’t the gauche moron whose phone is ringing who whispers or chatters or unwraps candy during a performance. Alongside this you have Romanticism, with its emphasis on deeply personal reactions: but Romanticism doesn’t ‘create’ the solitary, involved listener. Rather, the developments over previous decades in how audiences responded to music made that deep solitary reaction both possible and desirable – these changes made ‘Romanticism’ possible rather than the other way round.

Describing this argumentative move in this way may give the impression that this is the first intrusion of politics into the narrative, and thus it was jarring. This is not the case. The politics of aesthetic appreciation are present throughout, and Johnson handles them quite deftly. If you take his description of the politics of musical appreciation under the ancien regime (short version: personal reaction was subordinated to social deference: it was more important to agree with the right people about the music than have a personal reaction to it, which was not thought to be of particular value: after all, who were you?), during the revolution, and in the early years of the nineteenth century, the part I found most compelling was the crisis in appreciation that was provoked by the revolution.  During the revolution, particularly the period between 1792 and 1794, the push for ideological purity affected the music world in several different ways. Some ways were more obvious, such as the removal of heroic kings from stories, or the staging of works that depicted the revolution itself and its ideals. Some were less so. Radical writers and thinkers about music demanded music that would evoke profound emotion – the Gluck genie could not go back in the bottle, and it’s not clear that anyone wanted it to – but that emotion must be the “will of the people.” Music that provoked ambiguous or abstract or deeply personal responses was a danger to political and ideological purity. The result, at least if we judge by what appeared on stage in Paris, was often music that was politically revolutionary (or at least the words were) but conceptually reactionary: a return to the simpler melodies and orchestrations of the mid eighteenth century.

I was initially a little hesitant about the “bourgeois politeness” part of the argument, because this part seemed like an argumentative widget brought in from the outside. The middle class in the nineteenth century is always swooping in and doing things, right? I mean, I certainly know that self-control and non-offensiveness were key ways in which the middle class defined themselves in the nineteenth century. But this part of the argument has a little bit more of assertion and less of step by step demonstration than some of the earlier sections. I don’t disbelieve what Johnson is saying. But this bit doesn’t have quite the same argumentative force and coherence as the rest of it. The part of this story that I found most compelling was the part that went from 1740 to around 1800 or 1810 or so.

Finally, what this book left me wondering was what the deal was with French people in the eighteenth century. After all, there were German and Italian composers before 1750 writing quite abstract instrumental music, which was being performed and one assumes appreciated, in the very days that those ancien regime opera goers were listening for thunderstorms and birds. Was what Johnson tells us about this shift to abstract and emotional appreciation of music particular to France, or Paris? And if so, why? Along similar lines, I know that opera houses in, say, eighteenth-century London were also noisy and full of chatter, and that British audiences wound up as silent as French ones. Did other types of audience grow silent for roughly the same reasons, or is this, again, a quite specifically French – or quite specifically Parisian – story? I suppose what I want is the companion volumes: Listening in London, or Listening in Berlin, or Listening in Philadelphia.

10 thoughts on “Listening in Paris

  1. I’m thinking of Ong’s book, Orality and Literacy, which mentions the shift to interiority that came with widespread silent reading. Wondering whether audiences shifting to silent listening were also shifting to more developed and widespread silent reading.


    1. The two may well be connected – my guess would be that silent reading became prevalent slightly earlier than silent listening, but I think they both are likely part of the same more general shift toward a more interior way of experiencing art (and also a way of experiencing it that doesn’t interfere with others’ individual experiences.)


  2. I would definitely want to see some comparative data from places other than France. It seems to me that France is quite singular when it comes to opera, even to some extent today but very much so in the 18th and 19th centuries. I’m also a bit skeptical about arguments about behavioural differences between the bourgeoisie and the aristocracy generally, at least after about 1700. It seems to me that for the most part the bourgeoisie is aping aristocratic behaviour in the hope of being accepted into those circles. This is clearly true in the 18th century when the pursuit of a partiscule was almost a mania but seems to remain essentially similar in the 19th century. At least that’s what I read into, say, Proust.


    1. Yeah, arguments that are built on a sharp distinction between the middle class and everyone else, and that use this distinction to explain other, larger things, tend to meet with some skepticism on my part. I’m willing to believe it, but often it seems like a slightly too easy explanation. When I was reading through this book, I kept going back and forth about it – I was both convinced and not convinced by Johnson’s claim. Maybe I need to read more about the 19th-century French middle class.


      1. Me too! It seems that every study I’ve read of the French Revolution in the last thirty years finds fewer differences between the behaviour and mores of the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie. It looks more and more like a continuum stratified by wealth with a bit of a bonus for “old blood” thrown in. Almost like Britain.


      1. Let me clarify: Schopenhauer complaining about women being chatty during the opera, which he sees as proof of the lesser Intellectual Powers of the Weaker Sex. So you see, in his opinion it’s more of a gender divide than a class one.


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