Nancy November, Picturing Nineteenth-Century String Quartet Listeners

This article provides further background against which we can interpret the nineteenth-century string quartet iconography that I discussed in my “Theater Piece and Cabinetstück: Nineteenth-Century Visual Ideologies of the String Quartet”, published in this Journal in 2004. That essay examines nineteenth-century depictions of string quartet performance, noting the prominence given to listeners, and the act of listening. The larger question addressed in this essay concerns what visual culture can tell us about listening culture.
In both the semi-public and public concerts of the mid-nineteenth century, scholars have noted, listeners were gradually “reforming”. This was due, in part, to critics’ emphasis on a culture of still, silent, absorbed (“serious”) listening. The emergence of this listening culture was associated first and foremost, but not only, with the performance of string quartets. Influential figures like Iganz Schuppanzigh, Ludwig van Beethoven and various critics, all played their roles in the propagation of the ideology of “serious” listening, especially in early nineteenth-century Vienna.
Although listening practices remained diverse in nineteenth-century musical context, the seeds for “serious” listening had been sown. The ideology of “serious” listening was then strongly endorsed and disseminated in nineteenth-century iconography, especially scenes depicting the playing of string quartets. Nineteenth-century artists, like the prominent critics, composers and performers of the day, then played their role as “reformers” and educators of contemporary listeners. They, too, helped shift contemporaries’ conception of chamber music: from socially engaging practice, to refined, distanced artwork.