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2011 Rollins Prize Winner

Listening and Longing: Music Lovers in the Age of Barnum. By Daniel Cavicchi, Wesleyan University Press: Middletown, CT, 2011.

Listening CoverThe United States in the 19th century is the setting for Daniel Cavicchi’s exploration of musical culture. This period encompasses a shift from the active pursuit of making music to a passive experience of watching and listening. Cavicchi is not a music historian, nor is he a musicologist. But he takes a comprehensive approach in his research to describe social, cultural, and economic factors involved in the creation of musical audience.

Until the early 1800s, for most of the working class in the United States, music was made, not heard. Making music was a family and community event, particularly in the home around a parlor piano. Immigrants brought their own instruments, but plunking, singing, and strumming were part of the social fabric. Performances were available, but they were often the product of amateurs, parade bands, or singers accompanying traveling circuses. Amateur music was unpolished, parade bands were militaristic or political, and singing circus performers were not necessarily talented. Other than the urban social elite, most people did not simply listen to music, particularly to performances of high quality.

The mid-19th century saw the dawn of professional orchestras in New York, Boston, St. Louis, and Cincinnati. Attending concerts was a new phenomenon. Ticket prices ranged from affordable to outrageously high, according to diaries and reports. Concertgoers, from the rising middle class, modeled their role as audience members after their experience as congregants in church. They sat, quietly and politely listening to the performance in the same manner as a sermon. The formality of a concert was unusual for the middle class, but oddly appealing, and eventually became the norm.

Throughout the book Cavicchi explores societal factors that contributed to the rise of the commercialization of music, which in turn fed into other 19th century innovations from technology to celebrity. Profit could be earned from concert ticket sales, as well as goods and services. The job of music dealer evolved to include music lessons along with sales of sheet music and instruments. Rail travel made it possible for performers and their instruments to travel easily. The hype that greeted Jenny Lind’s U.S. debut was unparalleled. No one in the United States, not even her impresario P.T. Barnum, had heard her sing. Yet her reputation and Barnum’s skills as a promoter created a remarkable sensation in which thousands clamored to secure a ticket to hear Lind, a form of what modern scholars describe as a form of commodity fetishism. In like manner, Lind’s tour also established patterns now called product endorsements (Lind-inspired hats, gloves, furniture), which added to the spectacle.

Ticket prices for many current musical performances ranged from those affordable to the working class to astronomical levels that restricted entrance to those of substantial means. At whatever price, though, the public was inexorably transformed from active to passive, from makers of music to consumers of it.

This is a fascinating book that embraces a wide array of resources to capture a picture of an unusual time in American musical cultural history. The quotations from and analyses of diaries are particularly intriguing and well presented. Perhaps because Cavicchi is not a music historian, his research and reporting is fresh and relatively unbiased.

 The timing of this publication creates an interesting juxtaposition. At present, music performances in 21st century culture are placing more emphasis on amateur performances. The rise of American Idol and other televised performance competitions is giving the stage over once again to participation rather than the passive listener whose development was documented by Cavicchi. While the role of much of the audience continues to be that of passive listeners, there is the hope that more Jenny Linds (or Taylor Swifts) are among us, somewhere, waiting to be discovered.

The book would be particularly suited to seminars on American cultural history or courses on the business of music. It would also be a useful addition to classes examining trends in society and the arts.

—Virginia S. Cowen, PhD

University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey

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