Gilded Age Fan Club: Daniel Cavicchi’s “Listening and Longing”

By Franklin BrunoJanuary 24, 2012

Listening and Longing by Daniel Cavicchi

IN 1869 PATRICK GILMORE, the former Union army bandleader, who wrote the lyrics to "When Johnny Comes Marching Home," organized the National Peace Jubilee and Grand Music Festival on the model of "monster concerts" introduced in Europe 15 years earlier. (Think of it as a kind of postbellum Bonaroo.) Around 30,000 Bostonians — over a tenth of the city's population at the time — flocked to a makeshift coliseum for several days of concerts by a thousand-member orchestra and massive choral groups of up to 10 times that size. Three years later, the same city's "World Peace Jubilee" doubled the number of singers and musicians, and more than trebled the audience. For the later event, Gilmore imported Johann Strauss, no less, to conduct his own global hits. "Now just conceive of my position face to face with a public of four hundred thousand Americans," the Waltz King later wrote:

Suddenly, a cannon-shot rang out, a gentle hint for us twenty thousand to begin playing the Blue Danube. I gave the signal, my hundred assistant conductors followed me as quickly as they could, and then there broke out an unholy row such as I shall never forget.

The performance was more satisfying to Yankees like 15-year-old Helen Atkins, who reported in her diary that she "enjoyed it ever so much. Strauss played 'the Blue Danube' perfectly mag[nificient] — !!!!! All went off very finely."

The short-lived vogue for musical events on this scale is only one episode in Daniel Cavicchi's ear-opening Listening and Longing: Music Lovers in the Age of Barnum, which traces changes in how some Americans listened to music, and what their listening meant to their lives. Cavicchi, a scholar of American Studies at the Rhode Island School of Design who has previously written on Bruce Springsteen fandom, here escorts us from the Jacksonian era, when the entrepreneurial promotion of professional musical performance first became a regular feature of urban life, through the turn of the twentieth century, when the spread of player pianos and phonographs domesticated musical reception. While Cavicchi allows foreign observers like Strauss to say their piece — along with native commentators from Whitman and Twain to Margaret Fuller — his key sources are the private writings of uncelebrated Americans: easily pleased casual listeners like Atkins, striving clerks like Philadelphian Nathan Beekley (who overspends on "amusement" and turns to opera to avoid the "rowdies" at minstrel shows), and dedicated enthusiasts like Lucy Lowell, another Bostonian, who kept notes on acoustically favorable seats at the city's concert venues.

From pre-Revolutionary times until the early nineteenth-century, public music-making — and, thus, music-listening — in American life was primarily an accompaniment to religious, military, or other social activities. Amateur societies played for their own members, and professionally organized concerts were occasional and typically elite affairs, almost unknown outside of the largest cities. All this began to change in the 1830s and 40s, as urban concentration made regular touring by both concert artists and minstrel companies — traveling by river or railroad — practical and profitable. For most of the country, this was the first time that "people in a metropolis, often not known to each other, were asked to come together ... to exchange cash for the experience of witnessing something novel and amusing." Many of Cavicchi's diarists made note of the amounts they spent on such activities, and some weighed the price paid against the value received, as with any other good or service: "I went to a fifty-cent Sacred Music concert, and a great bore it was."

This "burgeoning concert culture" was disrupted by the Civil War, but its pace quickened again soon afterwards. By the 1860s, increased opportunities to hear music for its own sake set the stage for a new kind of listener: the "music lover," a widely recognized and discussed social type of the time. Unsurprisingly, most were "northern, middle-class, white urbanites" with the time, money, and inclination to pursue personal and social validation through artistic engagement, and Cavicchi, to his credit, never pretends that they represent the full range of American experience. Today we'd call them fans: obsessive concertgoers who doted on favorite works, composers and performers, and whose enthusiasm and discrimination was central to their identities. Many music lovers created these identities in their diaries as much as in lived social space. Take the aforementioned Lucy Lowell, a member of an outlying (but affluent) branch of the august Boston family that included industrial pioneer Francis Cabot and, later, poets Amy and Robert.

Begun as a simple daybook in 1880, when she was 20, Lowell's diaries quickly became a sustained record of her strikingly intense involvement with the city's musical life over the course of hundreds of concerts, recitals, and open rehearsals, documenting both outward impressions — the frustrations of disruptive audiences and sub-standard acoustics — and subjective effects. "Utterly unsettled," Lowell wrote in April of 1884, a week into a Wagner Festival, " ... I suppose it can't be good for a person to go to things that excite her so that she can't fix her mind on anything for days afterwards." Later that decade, Lowell traveled to Bayreuth and Vienna to hear her favorite singers on their home ground. In the latter city, she wrote, "In eve'g we went to the Opera, what would our Puritan ancestors say?"

This rhetorical question is central to the last third of Listening and Longing. Aestheticism has always been a hard sell in America, and the tension between a desire for cultural uplift and the suspicion that an overcultivated sensibility might render one unfit for life's practicalities is fundamental to our country's artistic history. Even as it became acceptable for women to visit concert venues unaccompanied in the period Cavicchi covers (much more so than theaters, with their "guilty third tier" of prostitutes), music-loving itself was increasingly characterized as a "mania" or "enthusiasm" with overtones of psychological disturbance and quasi-religious ecstasy; it was also often associated, somewhat contradictorily, with "feminine" passivity. (With its barely-concealed gay subtext, "Paul's Case: A Study in Temperament," Willa Cather's 1905 portrait of a twangingly sensitive opera usher who turns to embezzlement and suicide, is a characteristic literary representation of the latter concern.)

Music educators and respectable critics often counseled a more refined and subdued form of appreciation than popular audiences were wont to display, as in William Apthorp's "Musicians and Music Lovers," published in the Atlantic Monthly in 1879:

There is an enjoyment of wine that is not entirely sensual, for it calls into play the powers of comparison and judgment. The connoisseur and the boor enjoy it in very different ways ... Substituting music for wine, we have a very good example of the relative points of view of the musician and the musical layman.

Apthorp's choice of metaphor was pointed: by the same year, the Women's Christian Temperance Union had grown to 120,000 members. The class bias of this concern with the vulgarization of music is even clearer in an account, by a pamphleteer known only as "Asmodeus," of the mob scene at an 1850 concert by Swedish soprano Jenny Lind: "Born and bred Bostonians, of all grades, classes, and conditions of life, from the newsboy to the merchant Prince, from the bar keeper to the money changers ... braying and bleating for the good of Phineas."

Asmodeus's "Phineas" referred to P. T. Barnum, the antebellum pioneer of humbug and ballyhoo, and the star of Cavicchi's subtitle. Barnum's wildly successful promotion of Lind's stateside tour was a watershed in American hype, and the celebritization of musical personalities. Conjuring "Lindmania" by seeding newspapers with accounts of the singer's Continental triumphs in advance of her New York debut, and by introducing participatory marketing innovations from ticket auctions to songwriting contests, Barnum gave the American audiences their first lesson in what collective madness over a star performer should look like. Cavicchi adds to the familiar story of Lind's exploits and Barnum's exploitation by emphasizing the varied purposes Lindmania served for "victims" like Ossian E. Dodge. Dodge — whose name is the source of our colloquial term for a scam or subterfuge — was a semiprofessional writer and singer who made the winning bid (of $625) for a ticket to Lind's Boston appearance. He commemorated the feat by commissioning advertisements and a much-circulated lithograph of himself being introduced to Lind by Barnum. That meeting never occurred, but Dodge's dodges kickstarted his own concertizing career.

As enjoyable as Listening and Longing is — the generous space accorded to these uncelebrated voices makes Listening as Longing a surprisingly novelistic read — there is serious scholarly work going on here as well. Cavicchi's project is also part of an important turn within musicology, or the part of it that borders cultural studies, away from its traditional concern with the analysis of ostensibly autonomous masterpieces, and the genius and skill of their creators and performers, toward the placement of music and musicians, including amateur players, into their social context. One recent polestar for this reorientation has been the British musicologist Christopher Small's notion of "musicking," a gerundive coinage meant to remind us that music, whoever makes it, is as much activity as object. "Audiencing," Cavicchi's parallel term, is an unlovely verbal invention, but one that serves his contention that being — becoming — part of a community of listeners isn't something that just happens, but requires an active shift in self-conception, and the chance to manifest it. Cavicchi's account builds on a growing body of related scholarship, especially in the area of theatrical spectatorship, but he goes farther than most in moving the focus almost entirely away from music's producers and onto its consumers.

Cavicchi's theoretical speculations on the role and meaning of listening itself betray some social-constructionist overreach: scientific "objectification of the ear," and the "interpretive listening" practiced by doctors, miners, and telegraph operators during the period he covers, seem only tenuously connected to his far more convincing and illuminating account of musical culture itself. Recent authors from Evan Eisenberg (The Recording Angel) to David Suisman (Selling Sounds) have linked the commodification and "massification" of music directly to the rise of broadcast and recording technology, and their attendant industries. It would be foolish to deny the importance of these innovations to the way music is now made, disseminated, and heard. And, needless to say, a great deal has changed since the days of Lucy Lowell and her kind, who received music by gathering in public and interpreted it to themselves in private. Those of us who download our music from the cloud and blog our reactions, or link our Spotify playlists to our Facebook accounts, are moving in precisely the opposite direction.

Despite these discontinuities, Listening and Longing performs a valuable service in connecting modern conceptions of fame, fandom, and self-consciously specialized forms of "audiencing" to their nineteenth-century roots. The phenomena Cavicchi describes are emblematic of a broader transition from a local and artisanal economy to our own more elaborately networked commercial one, in which wages were traded for "fully manufactured" products that might come from far-flung locations: in this case, polished performances that could be enjoyed by anyone with the price of a ticket. From this perspective, the freshly dug canals and newly laid train tracks that opened the nation to capitalist expansion are no less significant than the record player and radio to understanding how Americans came to treat music — a pleasure once fleeting, public, and largely local — as one more thing to be bought and sold.

LARB Contributor

Franklin Bruno is the music editor of the Los Angeles Review of Books. His first book of poems, The Accordion Repertoire, and Another, a new album by his band the Human Hearts, will appear in 2012. He is currently writing a book on bridges, middle-eights, and breakdowns in American pop.


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!