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Listening and Longing: Music Lovers in the Age of Barnum

Daniel Cavicchi takes a detailed look at 19th-century music consumers.

(Page 2 of 4)

Cavicchi obviously wasn't able to interview his subjects and distrusts journalism's ability to "capture the experiences of ordinary people." So instead he mined the diaries in some half dozen northeastern archives, quoting 20 or so, half male and half female, of the 50 he located that reference music at all. Unsurprisingly yet disappointingly, all his sources are white – when he tries to redress this inequity in a six-page section called "The Musical Frustrations of the Black Middle Class," he is forced to rely on other historians' research and a typically evocative Frederick Douglass nugget. True, the black middle class was a tiny cohort even more set on respectability than the white middle class. But I'd have welcomed a few reports from the "gallery" to which black concertgoers were banished – high in the balcony, "where prostitutes traditionally plied their trade."

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While hardly the only attraction of this meaty book, the diary material helps us feel what a precious thing music was for most of human history – how rare it used to be for people to hear it performed by anyone not personally known to them. This is especially true pre-Civil War, when the young men's reports carry the narrative. More than one stroller with a day job – usually he's some kind of clerk, although an attorney and a man of means get ink – literally follows the music: attending an opera one night and a minstrel show the next, chasing parade bands or ducking in to hear Ira Sankey's songs before Dwight Moody's sermon.

Cavicchi makes clear that for some of his sample, music was just one item on a menu of entertainments that gave emergent city folk a chance to hone their tastes into "independent sel[ves]." But his thesis that public musical performances epitomized 19th-century psychocultural development carries weight. At once socially grounded and spiritually uplifting, they were perfectly situated to catalyze character formations in which goodness and pleasure had something to do with each other.

Crucially, Cavicchi gives full credit to the role a burgeoning publicity apparatus played in shaping aesthetic preferences music lovers experienced as personal to them. In fact, he begins with a fascinating story about "Swedish Nightingale" Jenny Lind, a singer of sweetly and shrewdly mixed classical and pop airs promoted in 1850 by museum impresario P. T. Barnum into the greatest musical sensation America had yet known. Lind's directness and purity were so welcome a relief from commercial "ballyhoo," then a recent coinage, that Barnum made a mint on merch – sheet music, bonnets, mantillas, pianos. But for Cavicchi, her story is no more redolent than that of her most famous fan, Ossian Euclid Dodge, a comic songwriter who bid $625 for a Lind ticket and ballyhooed that extravagance into a lifetime's success in show business, journalism, and real estate. Dodge's dodge is the pluperfect example of Barnum's achievement: the transformation of mere ticket buyers into autonomous participants in America's musical culture.


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