Sunday, July 29, 2007

When (and Where) did Music Move from Background to Foreground?

Yesterday I described Mozart's "Haffner" serenade as "occasional music." This is a slightly more dignified phrase than "background music;" but the two phrases have roughly the same connotation. This particular composition was written for a wedding; and in eighteenth-century Austria one did not go to weddings to listen to music. Presumably, then, as now, the primary function at a wedding was social talk situated in a context of food (probably, but hardly definitely, better in a posh wedding in 1776 Salzburg that it would be today), fashion, and some form of music tasteful enough to fill any embarrassing silences but not so intrusive as to interrupt conversation. Tafelmusik (which carries both the denotation and connotation of "dinner music") served a similar function. The fact that Mozart would put out a "product" (which is basically how it would be viewed by its "consumers," Sigmund Haffner being very much such a consumer) that deserved attentive listening was irrelevant, if not disruptive to the social occasion.

The above reflection is a product of my just having read Darryl Pinckney's review of Gabriel Banat's new biography of the Chevalier de Saint-Georges. I suspect that many of my contemporaries, like myself, discovered Saint-Georges through the good graces of the Musical Heritage Society (MHS), which used to sell "reprints" of European recordings from publishers such as Erato. MHS had a series called "Of Castles and Cathedrals," each record of which hypothesized a concert that would be performed at a particular castle or cathedral. The first of the series was an imagined concert for Marie Antoinette at the Petit Trianon; and the first side coupled one of Saint-Georges symphonies concertantes with a duo by his teacher, François Gossec. It was from the liner notes that I learned that Saint-Georges was a mulatto from Guadeloupe, a fact that could first be summoned to raise eyebrows at a concert and later receive more serious attention in the study of Black History. Pinckney's review, however, addressed an attribute of that concert (real or imagined) that I had not previously considered:

In the early 1770s, a new type of concert emerged in large court societies. The chatter of the salon quieted down and people began to listen more attentively, or seem to, a reflection of a fashion for seriousness and marking a display of one's elevated sensibility.

Pinckney does not discuss whether this "new type of concert emerged" locally in France or began to crop up in court societies across Europe. He only writes about France because that was the site of most of Saint-Georges' musical activities. However, given the impressions we get about the Archbishop of Salzburg from accounts of Mozart's life, it is not hard to imagine that the trend had not yet "taken" in the Salzburg of 1776; so Mozart most likely only encountered it when he moved to Vienna and the court of Marie Antoinette's relatives!

No comments: