Jan Philipp Sprick

Historical Listening and Historically Informed Performance

Since Hermann von Helmholtz’ Sensations of Tone (1863), the discussion of musical listening seems to have become solely the domain of music psychologists. A basic assumption in this context is that musical listening does not change fundamentally over time (Bacht 2010). Schema theory begins from a different perspective: though it combines systematic and historical approaches, its overall aim of ‘historically situated cognition’—to reconstruct a possible listener of the ‘long’ 18th-century—appears to be a truly historical project. An exclusive opposition between historical and systematic analytical methods, however, can often result in anachronistic “historicist naivety” (Christensen 1993). The controversial ‘authenticity debates’ around historical performance practice in the 1980s und 1990s (Taruskin, Dreyfus, Butt et al.) resulted in similar insights. Current discussions of ‘historically informed music theory’ (e.g., schema theory) thus stand to benefit from a comparison with these debates if the following caveat is kept in mind: music has always been performed, but it has not always been analyzed. In this talk, I will discuss methodological and theoretical overlaps between historically informed performance and historically informed listening. Byros’ “paradox of historical listening” (2009, 2012) is an interesting instance of such overlap. Byros claims that if one wants to “demonstrate that historical modes of listening may exist today”, one must articulate some “difference with the present so as to qualify the situatedness of cognition as historical”. Against this paradoxical background, I will argue that ‘historically situated cognition’ is a perspective that could, following Taruskin’s similar ideas towards historically informed performance, only emerge in the 20th or 21st century. Rather than facilitating a reconstruction of a ‘listener of the past,’ the concept creates a ‘messy relation to history’ that enhances creativity in current listening.