Musical Publics

Armin Nassehi

Prof. Dr. Armin Nassehi has held the chair at the Institute of Sociology at the Ludwig Maximilian Uni-versity of Munich since 1998, specialising in the sociology of culture, political sociology, sociology of religion, sociology of knowledge and sociology of science. His latest book publications: Das große Nein. Eigendynamik und Tragik des gesellschaftlichen Protests (Hamburg 2020) and Unbehagen. Theorie der überforderten Gesellschaft (München 2021). A passionate musician himself, he has often written es-says for the Bayerische Staatsoper and participated in many events.

Anyone wanting to gain a comprehensive overview of an orchestra’s working me-thods will do so exclusively by glancing up at the stage or down into the pit. Only when we look closely will it become clear very quickly that as institutions orchest-ras are based on the principle of the division of labour and made up of many spe-cialists, male and female, each of whose fields of competence and praxis must be expressed symphonically. As such, an orchestra is a preeminent symbol of the way in which a group of specialized individuals, all of whom are simultaneously doing something different in real time and whose activities need to be coordina-ted, can produce something unified. In turn, however, this unity can be achieved only through the carefully preordained coordination of its members’ individual actions. The result is something that can hardly be attributed to a single individual any longer. The powerful figure of the conductor – in the twentieth century, above all, an almost heroic figure and generally a man – ensures that the musici-ans’ individual activities and abilities are subsumed within a greater, universal whole, with the result that it is the conductor, above all, who is credited with the orchestra’s capacity for working as a collective in the symphonic repertory. In his sociological study of music Adorno wrote mockingly about the conductor who, craving recognition, has to conceal the fact that he (or she) is not working at all but merely cultivating a cult that is centred around his (or her) own person. Closer to the truth is no doubt the view that an orchestra is such an intricate entity that it requires a third party to weld together its complex individual sections and create a single whole.
This glance up at the stage and down into the pit reveals the institution of the orchestra, with all of its structural complexities and historical development, to be the performative reflection of complex musical forms that would not exist wit-hout a body of players based on the principle of the division of labour. This prin-ciple is taken to extreme lengths here and, as such, it is a radically modern inven-tion. Long before this principle was introduced into industrial production, into the structures of state administration and into organizational logistics, it was above all the orchestra that had to subsume within itself the concepts of specialization and coordination, functioning as a single pillar and as the totality of society and reconciling individuality and collectivity, differentiation and integration. Anyone who is surprised that such an orchestral form, which is already five hundred years old, has survived for so long may care to bear in mind that this form of social or-ganization was already in advance of ist time, the harbinger of a society whose inner differences and complex variety may not be symphonically integrated but which is all the more conscious in consequence of the problem of coordinating its actions. One could even go further and describe the symphony orchestra, with its particular, timeless form, as a parable of a social model that is capable of reconci-ling individual abilities, specialisms and characteristics with the need for those actions to be coordinated.
We can also redirect our gaze from the stage or pit to the concert hall or to the opera house. In research into the emergence of “publics” that has been conduc-ted in the fields of both history and the social sciences, concerts, opera perfor-mances and chamber recitals are regarded as early settings in which such “publics” have evolved – the same is true of salons and the theatre. In music es-pecially it can be shown that the change from the sort of performance practices associated with the court and with the Church to the practices bound up with the middle classes not only altered the way in which music as an art form saw itself but also led to its increasing independence and, more especially, to the reason for giving concerts in the first place. Courtly praxis had been geared to providing an introduction to the refinements and distinctive lifestyle of the aristocracy, but the middle-class types of performance that opened up in towns and cities brought with them a completely new kind of public. Music migrated from its court-ly setting to concert halls and opera houses, whose sole function was to mount performances and where Baroque and Classical elements survived only as deco-rative adjuncts.
Only once this last-named type of praxis was established did the audience ac-quire a decisive significance. Unlike performances at court and in church, those that took place in public concert halls brought together strangers who may have remained strangers in terms of most of the aspects of their personality but who were held together by a common focus that allowed them to engage in conversa-tion about the success or otherwise of the performance, about the character of the music, about the more notable features of the conductor, about the critical reviews and about the latest political and economic news and all that was happe-ning in society at large. As a result the middle-class concert hall also represents a way of preparing for public life. In the past, middle-class audiences were also a reading public that could create the sense of a public in these encounters preci-sely because their reading matter was similar and the store of their knowledge was calculable. This knowledge could be communicated in a way that was impar-tial but committed, it could be disinterested or interested, and it could be contro-versial while allowing the participants to agree to disagree. It is also possible that the journey to the concert hall, the breaks between the pieces and the gossip about absent members of the audience first lent the concert experience the cha-racter of a social whole. Concerts were an opportunity for middle-class society to discover itself, even if this was true of only a small carrier group. Here it was no classless society that discovered itself but a class with distinctive features. The result may not have been a democratic agora but there was still the ability to face up to controversies and to encounter other people. There was no attempt to reach a consensus but these conditions still provided a chance to acquire the ability to deal with differences of opinion.
The practices associated with these middle-class performances may be said, therefore, to constitute an exercise in public life inasmuch as the forms of social distance that were cultivated here in ways found in few other places could be practised despite all of the points in common – and this is true even of those pe-riods when expressions of public life involved a high degree of political confor-mism. There is some disagreement as to whether we should regard the concert, the middle-class salon or the theatre as a blueprint for political forms of public life under later (nation-)states, but what is undisputed is that symphonic practices presuppose a public that submits itself to public observation and cultivates cor-responding forms of coordinating actions among strangers. Full-time orchestras – or at least the ones in Germany that are supported or even run by central or local government – continue to be seen as a regular part of our cultural lives. his, too, represents a reminiscence of this model of public life as part of a public spectacle. Here the complexity of the orchestra is merely the corresponding equivalent of a significant and persistent praxis – and in a pluralistic, de-mocratized, egalitarian and, last but not least, globalized culture, it is no longer the exclusive place on whose reflection it continues to feed. Yet it is very much this circumstance that makes it all the more significant and remarkable that it has retained such a stable form, a form which, despite its chronic structure, does not appear to be becoming anachronistic. Perhaps the reason for this state of affairs lies in the fact that both were ahead of their times when they came into exis-tence: the orchestra as an untypically complex example of the principle of the distribution or labour and its audience as a community of strangers engaged in conversation. Ad multos annos!