Published online by Cambridge University Press: 05 September 2013
When James Johnson's Listening in Paris was first published in 1995, it got people talking. Its emphasis on how audiences consumed music rather than on how that music was produced – as in more traditional studies of composers or performers – then appeared refreshingly new. Its straightforward research question ‘Why did French audiences become silent?’ sounded bold. And its interdisciplinary provenance (written by a professor of History rather than Music) was even faintly controversial: Johnson seemed to be claiming that his reception methodology would avoid the indulgently subjective readings of those who had been doing the job up until then. An enthusiastic reviewer went even further, hailing it as ‘a relief from the usual run of constipated musicology’.
Musicologists might have been expected to react, and, sure enough, Johnson was soon taken to task in the pages of the principal journals. The objections were various: his apparently comprehensive thick description was actually not thick enough; the new focus on the audience in fact masked a conservative premise that it is the music of Great Men that determines listening practice. A number of colleagues also queried his use of the concept of ‘harmony’: not just a parameter of musical language, in fact not really a technical term at all, for Johnson it seemed disproportionately suggestive.