Social Contexts of Music

One of my favourite books showing a detailed analysis of the social construction of Beethoven’s ‘genius’ is Tia DeNora’s (1995) book.  As a virtual reality or cultural activity, music always requires analysis of the audiences.

Note now the front cover drawing from DeNora’s book, of Beethoven playing to some men.  Can you see the contexts?  All men.  Rich.  Private performance that only they can talk about to others. The ‘rapture’ they are having was newly created and was not a behavior previously ‘done’ with musical performances.  People did not do that with Mozart, for example.  It was part of the social construction of Beethoven’s ‘genius’ (the music was still very original and pure genius however).

But more, look at Beethoven in the drawing.  He is carefully watching the ‘patrons’, being shaped by the responses he is getting.  The audience is shaping him and his music.

His contemporaries did not call him a genius.  DeNora’s analysis of contemporary documents (p. 129) shows six main features that were observed in his music at that time, and were presumably shaped by his audiences:

  • thicker textures
  • fewer scales in the piano music
  • melodies more ambiguous and less periodic
  • harmonies more adventurous and ambiguous
  • dynamic range great, especially sforzandos
  • longer compositions

DeNora also documents the fierce competition for getting audiences into concerts during that period in Vienna, and the strategies used by composers, including Beethoven, to fill halls.  This included naming symphonies and movements, and of course the pomp of the 9th in performance (still brilliant, this does not detract that he could actually write this music but others could not).

Most of these contextual analyses are ignored in most writings about music, and attributions made simply to his ‘genius’.


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