“Ah Beethoven! You were magnificent last night, when three thousand hearts and more beat to the harmony of your muse and every eye was fixed on your melancholy image” wrote Antoine Aimable Elie Elwart (b. 1808) to chief conductor and violinist Habeneck after a brilliant performance by Orchestre de la Société des concerts du Conservatoire, an orchestra voted as “different from any other” by dilettante public of Paris.
At his famous Journal D’Eugene Delacroix of 1847, famous painter remarked Beethoven as “man of his times” and “romantic to the supreme degree” after attending a concert with George Sand.
Without going any further let us try to define the state of this sensational moods by visiting Immanuel Kant’s “Critique of Judgement”. At his famous work, Kant inserts an important opinion under part 17 – The ideal of beauty
“There can be no objective rule of taste by which what is beautiful may be defined by means of concepts. For every judgement from that source is aesthetic, i.e. its determining ground is the feeling of the subject, and not any concept of an object”
It is obvious that both Elwart’s and Delacroix’s judgement is a form of aesthetic since their determining ground is again their own feelings (subject) and nothing related to the object – in this case Beethoven’s music.
So how one can define “taste” and “beauty” ? According to Kant, Taste is the faculty of judging an object or a mode of representation by means of delight or aversion apart from any interest. The object of such delight is called beautiful.
Let’s return back to our object, Beethoven, and try to set forth facts of his grand success at 1828 after his irregular performances of earlier periods.
The Paris premiere of his First Symphony came in 1807 and was rejected. It employed German barbarisms, the reviewers wrote. After years passed, his First had appeared last in 1819 and there was little interest in hearing it again. The Second appeared in 1821 however its slow movement was substituted with Allegretto from the Seventh.
Things dramatically changed when calendars show March 9, 1828. A periodical in France, Journal des debats , remarked the new concert series namely Societe des Concerts as “revolution“, Beethoven’s Eroica was performed and created a delirium like state on Parisians. His Fifth, performed by Habeneck, created prolonged salvos of applause.
By early in the 1832 season, the society had performed all symphonies and in 200 concerts between 1828 and 1859 the series gave 280 performances of Beethoven, compared to 58 for Haydn and 37 for those of Mozart.
How shall we interpret this triumph? In simple words, Romanticism broke down the barriers which had kept audiences from appreciating the music. The tenty years of neglect was excused by French political development which will be discussed briefly.
At the same time French audiences were rediscovering opera in the 1770s they were taking their first, tentative steps toward public concerts.
Founded in 1725 by Anne-Danican Philidor, the concert spirituel was initially intended to provide inspirational music to Parisians on days the Opera was closed. A typical program at the concert spirituel mixed symphonies, concertos and sonatas with vocal oratorios.
What about chamber or instrumental music? Well, the only place to hear them was in the homes of patrons. In the Old Regime an array of noble households sponsored concerts of all types and levels.
Ancelet’s Observations sur la musique (1757) describes concert audiences of 1750s and 60s as “idle persons…who come only to amuse themselves, gossip or make themselves seen“
A new way of listening was emerging at the end of the Old Regime, one more attuned to sentiments and emotions in the music and more engaged aesthetically than earlier audiences.
People now were just as taken with the passions of the music as with the drama of the text. Accustomed modes of listening seemed inadequate to understand the new music.
Expansion in the horizon of perceived musical meaning underway in the 1770s is the number of spectators who now described being drawn to harmony, the musical element mocked at by the earlier in the century as empty arithmetic when its imitations were not clear.
The epidemic of sensibility among musical audiences was more than a response to the emotional appeal of the plots. It was reaction to the music itself. It seems the entire French public stopped listening for images and started listening for emotions. Is this possbile?
Moving of an individual listener beyond hearing sounds and images to hearing emotions depended upon a whole range of variables particular to the person.
Despite Old Regime concertgoers were described as “idle” or “self amuser”, this trend tends to change by the early 1770s and spectators are now seemed to lost their appetite for deliberate plots and preferred harmony, or emotions.
Let’s take a brief stop at the narration and summon Kant.
As per Kant, the delight which determines the judgement of taste is independent of all interests. The delight which we connect with the representation of the existence of an object is called interest.
When we lost our interest, we lost the bridge between delight and object. What makes plot boring and harmony exciting is clearly stated by Kant as well:
There are two kinds of beauty: free beauty or beauty which is merely dependent. The first presupposes no concept of what the object should be; the second does presuppose such a concept and, with it, an answering perfection of the object.
Opera and Revolution
Year 1793 was pregnant with change. After beheading of the king, more to come for politics and culture.During the summer the Committee of Public Safety with M. Robespierre in command had became the center of Revolution.
Under the leadership of Robespierre, Jacobin Club had made it clear that they intended the theatre to be the nation’s political classroom. Jacobin leadership worked to remake audiences unified in will and sentiment. Private pleasures are restricted and every citizen would dance in common enthusiasm.
Listeners during the Revolution continued to consider harmony a decisive- and at times deeply moving- element of musical expression. As per their taste, music painted, conveyed or related.
The reason for loosing horizon in musical understanding was government’s calls to share private pleasures, a way of fixing and labeling abstract emotions to make them more intelligible.
Kant’s description of the situation may reveal unconscious mind:
The colours which gave brilliancy to the sketch are part of the charm. They may no doubt, in their own way, revive the object for sensation, but make it really worth looking at and beautiful they can not. The purity alike of colors and of tones seem to contribute to beauty, is by no means to imply that. They make this form more clearly, definitely, and completely perceptible, and besides color the representation by their charm, as they excite and sustain the attention directed to the object itself.
As I stated at the introduction, Romanticism broke down the barriers which had kept audiences from appreciating the music which Jacobins tried to restrict and expected every citizen to dance in common enthusiasm. Plotting history to the stage for political reasons became a boring repitition of past.
Kant: Even a bird’s song, which we can reduce to no musical rule, seems to have more freedom in it, and thus to offer more for taste, than the human voice singing in accordance with all the rules that the art of music prescribes; for we grow tired much sooner of frequent and lengthy repetitions of the latter.
Old repertoires returned to the musical stage soon after fall of Jacobens, and with them came all the artifice the Revolution had tried to suppress. Audiences welcomed the return to more complex orchestral writing after the conservative musical style of Revolution.
On the whole, works with contemporary references disappeared, although those with allusions to the foreign wars could still generate enthusiasm.
The willingness to seek emotional expression continued to lead listeners to credit a greater dramatic capacity to harmony, a process that was well underway before 1789 and continued into the nineteenth century.
Kant: In all judgements by which we describe anything as beautiful we tolerate no one else being of a different opinion, and yet we do not rest our judgement upon concepts, but only on our feeling. Accordingly we introduce this underlying feeling not as a private feeling, but as a common one. Now, for this purpose, experience cannot be made the ground of this common sense, for the latter is invoked to justify judgements containing ‘ought’. Hence common sense is a mere ideal norm.
Listening in Paris, A Cultural History by James H. Johnson (Author), December 1996, First Edition.
De Curzon, Henri, and Christine Groncke. “History and Glory of the Concert-Hall of the Paris Conservatory (1811-1911).” The Musical Quarterly, vol. 3, no. 2, 1917, pp. 304–318.
Beethoven in France, Leo Schrade, 1942
Bloom, Peter Anthony. “Critical Reaction to Beethoven in France: François-Joseph Fétis.” Revue Belge De Musicologie / Belgisch Tijdschrift Voor Muziekwetenschap, 26/27, 1972, pp. 67–83.
Johnson, James H. “Beethoven and the Birth of Romantic Musical Experience in France.” 19th-Century Music, vol. 15, no. 1, 1991, pp. 23–35
Critique of Judgement, Immanuel Kant, Oxford University Press, 2008