Review | Listening to Reason: Culture, Subjectivity, and Nineteenth-Century Music, by Michael P. Steinberg; Music in the Culture of Polish Galicia, 1772-1914, by Jolanta T. Pekacz

Listening to Reason: Culture, Subjectivity, and Nineteenth-Century Music, by Michael P. Steinberg. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004. [xiv, 246 p. ISBN 0691116857 $29.95 (cloth)]
Music in the Culture of Polish Galicia, 1772–1914, by Jolanta T. Pekacz. Rochester Studies in Central Europe. Rochester: University of Rochester Press, 2002. [x, 252 p. ISBN 1580461093 $85.00 (cloth)]

That music’s role in culture is a central preoccupation of recent musicology will surprise no one, least of all readers of this journal. Historians of culture, however, have for the most part paid far less attention to music. To be sure, there are noteworthy exceptions: Carl Schorske’s influential Fin-de-Siècle Vienna presented Arnold Schoenberg’s turn to atonality as one of the crucial cultural developments of the period; more recently, James H. Johnson has gone further, presenting a cultural history of 18th- and 19th-century Paris through audience behaviors in Listening in Paris: A Cultural History; and William Weber’s career has been devoted to exploring the rise of the culture of European serious music. Nonetheless, Michael P. Steinberg’s introductory observation remains largely true: historians “have not been as receptive to the musical dimensions of history as the musicologists have increasingly been to historical contexts” (3). Both Steinberg’s Listening to Reason: Culture, Subjectivity and Nineteenth-Century Music and Jolanta T. Pekacz’s Music in the Culture of Polish Galicia, 1772–1914, each written by a historian with an unusually extensive grounding in musicology, set out to correct that disciplinary oversight, arguing not only that music contributes essentially to culture, but also that, far from being a peripheral matter for historians, music ought to be recognized as providing insights into culture not otherwise readily accessible. Beyond that similarity, though, these two studies diverge radically. Indeed, despite the occurrence of both “music” and “culture” in each book’s title, one would for the most part be hard-pressed to make a convincing case that these authors are in fact concerned with the same phenomena. As a result, juxtaposing the two reveals basic conceptual issues that merit consideration by anyone with an interest in understanding music’s historical place(s) in culture.

Some of the contrasts between these two books are obvious: where Steinberg’s title universalizes ([all, one presumes] “nineteenth-century music”), Pekacz’s specifies not just one nation, but one part of one—the territory of Poland annexed by Austria in the partition of 1772; where Steinberg seeks to read cultural developments in specific works of music, Pekacz polemicizes against limiting the study of music in culture to that approach and seeks instead to study “the ways [music] participated in the modernization process—as part of the industrialization; as a tool of moral and social pedagogy; and as an element in constructing individual and collective identities, social status, and a sense of community” (2); and where Steinberg limits his discussion to a select handful of prominent, canonic works, Pekacz seeks to develop “an approach that may be equally applicable to peripheral regions as well as cultural centers, with a potential of providing a meaningful cultural commentary from a variety of musical phenomena, genres, forms, and practices, not only from masterpieces” (4). 

To a certain extent, these differences seem to follow naturally from each author’s topic: on the one hand the world of European art music during its most prominent and familiar period, and on the other a marginalized province in which, when music as high art appeared at all, it was as imported fashion. But there is a more basic difference, rooted in each author’s understanding of a term on which neither dwells: “culture,” which Raymond Williams’s Keywords famously described as “one of the two or three most complicated words in the English language” (full entry). Although, as I will discuss shortly, Steinberg develops a sophisticated conception of music’s role in culture, both his implicit assertion of the general relevance of that culture and his focus on canonic works link him to the concept of culture as unitary civilization, the familiar high culture of canonic music history. By contrast, it is perhaps Pekacz’s greatest strength that she not only explicitly rejects a simple division of musical culture into high and low (5–8), but also clearly defines her goal as establishing music’s place within a single historically and geographically defined location, thereby aligning her conception of culture with that more familiar in social history and anthropology (see William H. Sewell’s recent survey of conceptions of culture in those areas for a useful overview).


Although this brief comparison may seem headed toward a dismissal of Steinberg’s approach in favor of Pekacz’s, such a conclusion would overlook Steinberg’s real strengths; Listening to Reason is an ambitious and impressive attempt to establish the significance of music within the intellectual culture of the long nineteenth century in Europe. Perhaps its most impressive accomplishment is the theoretical framework it establishes for that significance. With refreshing clarity and concision, Steinberg defines and historicizes a term that would surely be a strong contender on a current version of  Williams’s list of complicated words, and that has become something of a fetish in recent musicology, invoked far more often than it is explained: subjectivity. Beginning with the modernist desire for emancipation and hence autonomy of the subject, Steinberg understands subjectivity as “the life” of that subject (4), where the free, autonomous subject is itself a historically specific creation, “the desire of modernity” (6). Subjectivity, then denotes “the subject in motion, the subject in experience and analysis of itself and the world” (5). Music plays a crucial role in this phenomenon because of what Steinberg terms “the two fictions of modern music”—that “music can and does speak in the first person” and that it also “listens”—in short, music itself is understood as a self-conscious, reflective interlocutor (9). Music, then, quite literally tells us who we are, or at least, who we might become: “listening to music takes place at the same time as music (invested with the fiction of subjectivity) listens and reasons; listening in order to reason, to learn the (political) art of subjectivity” (10). And because Steinberg sees the essential transition to modernity as the leaving behind of a theatrical and controlling baroque culture (the study of which, particularly in Austria, has been a focal point of his previous scholarship) in search of an autonomous, self-realizing subject, the changing record of what music has to say becomes of critical interest to the historian charting the vicissitudes of that development.

Given this critical concern with autonomy and the self as historical phenomena, it comes as no surprise that Theodor Adorno looms large in Steinberg’s work, and like Adorno, Steinberg reads the long music-historical period he considers (“from Mozart to Mahler” [xii], although his penultimate chapter moves chronologically beyond this limit to consider Janáček’s Makropoulos Case, Schoenberg’s Moses und Aaron, and Berg’s Lulu) as one leading inevitably to fragmentation and to defeat of the hope for the subject with which it opened. But Steinberg seeks to develop Adorno’s dispersed commentaries into a coherent account of an era, and his accounts of musical works, while (largely successfully) seeking to characterize without technical detail, have a degree of specificity that Adorno’s often lack.

Steinberg’s case studies are sometimes rich in detail, sometimes almost breathless in their scope, and a summary will inevitably flatten them, but it can suggest the overall course of his argument. His history begins with Mozart’s operas, reading Don GiovanniLe Nozze di Figaro, and Così fan tutte as “steps of a revolutionary articulation of modern subjectivity” (21), in which bourgeois subjectivity is first represented as emerging through an archetypal patricide of the representatives of the baroque order, then placed in class-based and psychically charged opposition to it, and finally presented in a world in which patriarchy and class are suspended to allow an investigation of the nature of desire in relation to the social order. The next chapter considers Beethoven, whose music, Steinberg holds, is unlike Mozart’s in that it eschews representation of particular, concrete selves in favor of an abstract heroism—“autonomous music [that] refuses and resists absolutist postures” (62)—thus engaging in the political critique so absent in the composer’s life. Issues of representation and abstraction in the Fourth Piano Concerto, Fidelio and the Ninth Symphony are the chapter’s principal foci. “Canny and Uncanny Histories,” the following chapter, focuses on musical developments in Leipzig and reads Mendelssohn and Schumann, respectively, as contrasting representatives of a generation for whom historical reflection became a central preoccupation, both musically and intellectually. Steinberg’s nuanced consideration of Mendelssohn negotiating among his heritages of Judaism and Protestantism, civic life and monarchy, and historicist and contemporary styles is one of the book’s highlights.

As he does in many music histories, Wagner here occupies a pivotal position. In Steinberg’s terms, not only does abstract symphonic logic devolve into a system of representational motives, but more crucially for the cultural argument of the book, individual subjectivity gives way to (especially national) identity, presented in the Ringin the generational shift between Siegmund and Siegfried and celebrated in the conclusion of Die Meistersinger, in which the celebration of the national subject requires the banishment of the (Jewish) outsider, Beckmesser. That collective identity need not always align itself with the repressively nationalistic is suggested by the following chapter’s considerably more favorable assessments of representations of the collective in requiems of Brahms, Verdi, and Dvořák. Opera is once again the focus of the next chapter, as Steinberg examines what he terms “posttraumatic” (200) attempts to explore the (im)possibility of subjective voice after Wagner by Debussy, Bartók, Janáček, Schoenberg, and Berg, each considered as positioned in some way (nationally, racially, or sexually) peripheral to the Wagnerian mainstream. Finally, a surprisingly brief consideration of Mahler’s complex engagement with issues of program and absolute music, self-representation and reflection (with Adorno once again offering crucial starting points, and psychoanalysis, a recurrent interpretive strategy throughout, here making one of its most sustained appearances) concludes the book with a portrait of perhaps the ultimate example of music’s rich potential as a medium of reflection on subjectivity: “Overstimulation or analytical organization? Latent or manifest content? Dream or dream analysis? The import of Mahler’s work for the succeeding century rests in the irresolvability of these alternatives” (235).

Despite Steinberg’s broad scope and the inevitable brevity of each individual segment, his focus on central issues of musical representation makes for a coherent overall treatment. Still, it is individual insights that remained most striking for me; in addition to the Mendelssohn discussion already mentioned, I might single out his discussion of the seating plan of the Gewandhaus concert hall with its reference to sacred space (106–9), or the analysis of Siegmund’s death as the consequence of his violation of the gender imperatives of male self-cultivation (142–53). And yet, Steinberg’s relentless focus on high culture and canonic music forces the question of whether his accounts really offer the “specific historical, cultural definition” of music’s significance that he suggests they do (30). To take the Gewandhaus plan as a brief example, while it is true that both the hall’s seating, with audience members facing one another across the hall after the manner of a church choir, and the solemn overhead inscription (“Res severa verum gaudium” – true joy is a serious matter) set a lofty tone, the repertoire of the Gewandhaus concerts nevertheless maintained a conventional mix of serious and lighter music well into the nineteenth century, suggesting that music’s role as entertainment remained a real concern for both audiences and programmers. But this specific historical complication is conspicuous by its absence from Steinberg’s discussion.

The absence of contextualization through reference to less canonic but once prevalent contemporary repertoires and to historical audience expectations is felt throughout the book. For instance, scholars including Wye Allanbrook, Mary Hunter, and John A. Rice have richly “thickened” our understanding of the conventions, gestures, and expectations of the Viennese operatic world in ways that make clear the complex intertwining of political, social, and aesthetic nuance that made up the multimedia entertainment event of operatic performance, but Steinberg considers none of their insights in his discussion of Mozart’s operas. The result can be disconcertingly reminiscent of the conventional form of music history in which only masterworks are relevant to one another, and listeners are abstract ideals rather than specific historical figures. Thus, Steinberg argues that the famous opening chords of Don Giovanni come as shocks presenting an external, divine authority and can only retrospectively and “lamely” be understood to represent the Commendatore, with whose climactic reappearance they return, because “we are not . . . informed [of the association] at the first hearing of the overture” (28). His point, though plausible, is undermined by the indeterminate status of the “we” who hear. Are we to listen like original audiences, who returned frequently to the same production, and for whom the first hearing would soon be eclipsed by frequent (if sometimes casually attended to) later ones? Or as the later audience members that we actually are, aware before a single note sounds of not only the work’s towering reputation but also of the link between those chords and the avenging statue?  In neither case does the naive first hearing seem decisive. This observation by no means refutes Steinberg’s interpretation, but it does make clear that we are dealing with a history from the supply side: Steinberg’s is a cultural history of works of art in the context of the narratives and ideologies of intellectual and music history rather than a history of music as practiced in a particular culture. 


It is in part dissatisfaction with those narratives and ideologies that motivates Pekacz’s very different approach. And the programmatic choice of a region so marginal as to be invisible in conventional music histories forces the issue: musical culture as Steinberg conceives it was essentially non-existent in nineteenth-century Galicia. From Pekacz’s perspective, however, Steinberg completely overlooks the bulk of what constitutes music’s role in culture. Not surprisingly, then, her history proceeds far differently than Steinberg’s. If it has a patron scholar-saint, it is not Adorno, but Roger Chartier, whose concept of culture as manifested in appropriation she paraphrases as involving “a history of the various uses of repertoires and genres, brought back to their fundamental social and institutional determinants and lodged in the specific practices that produce them” (9). The modes of music’s consumption become as crucial as its production. This approach opens the possibility of a cultural history built not on prescriptive hearings of works in relation to the changing concerns of a cultural elite, but rather on a broader overview of music’s roles within different strata of society. To provide that cross-section, Pekacz employs a vast and highly varied array of sources, ranging from musical publications and the press through memoirs, archives of the state and of cultural institutions, school ordinances, and statistical overviews. As a result of both Pekacz’s social and material focus and the meticulous detail of her research, Music in the Culture of Polish Galicia can provide an impressively broad portrait of musical practices and venues and carefully analyze the varied uses to which that activity was put by different strata of society.

This approach also means that Pekacz emphasizes not development through time, but rather music’s varied roles, and the study is organized accordingly. The methodological introduction is followed by an introductory sketch of Galician society as a cultural public, outlining the political, social, institutional, and ideological framework in which music existed there. While it might be argued that such a general overview was more necessary for this relatively unfamiliar case than for the largely Austro-German culture that Steinberg studies, this chapter too is symptomatic of Pekacz’s method: it makes unmistakable that this is a study of a particular time and place rather than of a repertoire that is assumed to be of general relevance whatever its origins. Succeeding chapters are devoted to music’s place in commerce and pedagogy and as public entertainment, and its role in constructing cultural identity, community, status, and a sense of nation. While each of these chapters contributes effectively to showing the ways in which music was integrated in Galician life, I would single out the chapter on pedagogy (62–83) as a rare example of detailed consideration of an aspect of musical life that, although pervasive and broadly influential, has rarely received recognition for its formative role in musical culture. 

Even in these latter chapters, where we might expect an overlap with Steinberg’s concern with forms of subjectivity, her approach remains entirely different, based on establishing which music circulated in which segments of society, how and by whom it was performed, and what contemporary accounts reveal about its reception and impact. The specific experience of music, although occasionally hinted at by citations of memoirs (e.g. 152–53, 171) remains largely unconsidered, and works are considered primarily as commodities in trade or representatives of repertoire in particular venues (e.g. the long and varied list of works performed by the Austrian theater in Lwów, 98–99). The chapter on pedagogy, too, focuses on the use of music as a vehicle for delivering approved texts (certainly the officially accepted justification for its inclusion in curricula) rather than on the development of musical competency; more attention to methods of instruction would have been welcome not only because those methods were the object of intense consideration in the nineteenth century, but also because, even if school music was officially valued primarily as a propaganda vehicle, it also offered many students their only formal contact with literate music and thus could exert a formative influence well beyond its officially recognized function. In compensation, however, the concluding chapter’s reflection on the tensions among music’s roles as status marker, community builder, and (mostly unrealized) focal point of national identity provides a fine example of what a sociologically oriented study of a specific musical culture can offer.

Is Pekacz’s approach, then, a model for a cultural musicology that has moved beyond chauvinistic partisanship toward the historical study of all music?  To an extent, yes. Its insistence on the material basis of musical culture, on tracing music’s modes of circulation, and on documenting the full range of musical practice within a given society are salutary antidotes to the work-centricity and abstraction of aesthetic experience that are the heritage of historical musicology. And indeed, the appearance of such other recent work as the collection Music and the Cultures of Print, along with a variety of other individual studies, suggests a belatedly developing awareness of some of these issues within musicology too. But Pekacz’s study too has its limitations.

First, despite the author’s hope that her work “will encourage further research in both history and musicology on regions and musical practices which have been marginalized by traditional disciplinary boundaries” (10), the book leaves one such boundary curiously unexplored: this remains a study of the music of the literate, leaving unconsidered practices outside the scope of the public sphere of print culture, especially rural, orally transmitted music, the traditional domain of the ethnomusicologist and the folklorist. This not only means that the claim to represent the full range of musical practices must be qualified, but it also raises the question of how awareness of those practices may have affected literate musical culture, whether through rejection, idealization, or attempts to reform. Admittedly, documenting such unwritten practices in the past is enormously difficult, but considering their historical traces (often as seen through the accounts of the literate) will be essential to developing a still more inclusive cultural musicology.

But more than that, for all the considerable strengths of Pekacz’s approach, musicologists would rightly be reluctant to dispense entirely with “a close reading of the notes,” whether of “musical masterpieces” or not (3). Just as Pekacz’s study makes clear how much of musical culture Steinberg passes over in silence, Steinberg’s work forces the question of aesthetic experience within Galicia. Granted that music played a host of functional social roles and that aestheticism and belief in music’s transcendent value were largely absent from Galician musical life, but what did matter in the specifically musical experience?  What can be gleaned from the abundant memoirs Pekacz documents, or from analysis of specific musical repertoires, programs, or even the (interestingly varied) series of music title pages included as illustrations (159–68)?  From this perspective, to omit consideration of musical experience because it was not that of traditional high culture, or to avoid on principal close analysis of cultural texts that might suggest aspects of that experience, may be to fall victim to an inverted version of the elitist aesthetic ideology Pekacz is justifiably eager to escape.

It may seem unfair to measure these two books against each other as I have, for to do so inevitably appears to fault each author for doing something s/he did not set out to do. Yet in the end, in seeking to understand music in culture, we are not faced with an either/or choice between the aesthetic-intellectual and the material-social. Awareness of the strengths and omissions of each of these books may, indeed, suggest the possibility of a synthesis, one that will not, to be sure, easily be achieved, particularly in a single work. But the challenge remains: to write a historical account of a musical culture that recognizes that it as at least in part through the specific and irreducible encounter with or practice of particular musics that musical culture exercises its influence, while also acknowledging that aesthetic culture is inevitably both enabled and appropriated by the material practices and social interests among which (and through which) it exists.

David Gramit
University of Alberta 


Johnson, James H. Listening in Paris: A Cultural History. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1995. 

Schorske, Carl E. Fin-de-siècle Vienna: Politics and Culture. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1980. 

Sewell, William H., Jr. “The Concept(s) of Culture.” In Beyond the Cultural Turn: New Directions in the Study of Society and Culture. Ed. Victoria E. Bonnell and Lynn Hunt. Studies on the History of Society and Culture 34. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1999. 35–61.

Van Orden, Kate, ed. Music and the Cultures of Print. Critical and Cultural Musicology 1. New York: Garland, 2000. 

Williams, Raymond. Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society. Revised edition. New York: Oxford University Press, 1983.