Un Italien se vivre franchement à la joissance d’admirer un bel air qu’il entend pour la première fois; un Français n’applaudit qu’avec une sort d’inquiétude, il craint d’approuver une chose médiocre.
(Trans.: An Italian surrenders unreservedly to the sheer pleasure of admiring a beautiful aria that he hears for the first time; a Frenchman will applaud only with a sort of anxiety, for he is afraid to approve something mediocre.)
Stendhal, Vies de Haydn, de Mozart et de Métastase
The French novelist Stendhal (1783-1842)—whose books I sometimes imagine glaring guiltily down at me from my shelves—is an author I have yet to read, but I stumbled upon the above quote in Martha Feldman’s massive musicological tome Opera and Sovereignty. While Stendhal’s ethnic generalities—which were very much in keeping with the mores of his era—are distasteful to me, I find his dichotomy a fascinating departure point for yet another discussion about listening paradigms and musical aesthetics.
I’d like to posit that there’s a third listening path that lies somewhere beyond the hedonistic and the judgmental. I generally eschew casual “lifestyle” listening (so-called) which frequently devolves into not paying attention at all. And everyone who has read these pages has experienced me opining that critical listening (so-called) can all-too-often get in the way of experiencing music. It is possible to listen to music—and I would argue that such listening might ultimately be more fruitful—without being distracted by anything, including preconceptions about what you like and what you don’t like (personal taste) as well as what you think is right and wrong (received opinion).
Preconceptions can take many forms. You can fail to truly be able to listen past something because you’re philosophically opposed to its creation methods. There are people I’ve known over the years who a priori reject something if it is such different things as: based on a twelve-tone row; totally improvised; or created exclusively with pre-recorded sound samples. Similarly, there are folks who let chronological precedence factor in their determination of whether or not something is worthy of being listened to, e.g. rejecting so-called neo-romantic music wholesale since everything in such music, on a macro level, has “already been done.” (It was rather refreshing to recently listen to the symphonies of Niels Gade—which I thought were wonderful except that they sounded too much like Brahms—and subsequently discover that his symphonies predate Brahms.)
At the same time, there are some preconceptions that are impossible to erase. For example, I truly believe that if I were able to hear Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony without all the baggage attached to it—which ultimately has nothing to do with Beethoven and everything to do with how its principal motif has become an iconic sound cliché—I’d find it more exciting. I love Ravel’s Bolero, but I wish I could listen to it and not eventually think about the Blake Edwards movie 10.
This is probably why I spend virtually all of my concert-going time going to hear premieres. You can never have a legitimate negative—or even a positive—pre-association with a brand new piece of music for the obvious reason that you haven’t heard it before.