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Digitization Dispatch: How to listen to music, circa 1900

Blogs across the Smithsonian will give an inside look at the Institution’s archival collections and practices during a month long blogathon in celebration of October’s American Archives Month. See additional posts from our other participating blogs, as well as related events and resources, on the Smithsonian’s Archives Month website.


Weighing in at a mere 7 pages, On Certain Obstacles to the Highest Enjoyment of Music, provides an unexpectedly scathing glimpse into Daniel Chester French's musical perspective. One of the latest digitizations from the AAPG general collection, this thin volume is a veritable ode to his own imagination via a condemnation of the sensory distractions of other human beings. He hates the musicians and their "bald heads as highlights" to an already disagreeable scene littered with white cuffs and shirttails. He hates the lighting which calls attention to female vocalists who frustratingly replace the "beautiful invisible singer" conjured by his imagination. And don't get him started on the racket caused by fellow concert attendees. He does not care for their applause. That "Bravo!" is superfluous at best, and of course, an obstacle to the highest enjoyment of music at worst!


On certain obstacles to the highest enjoyment of music by Daniel Chester French


What would the late Mr. French think of John Cage's 1952 ode to ambient sound, "4'33"? The modern masterpiece is properly played when the musicians don't play their instruments so that the audience may give the unique sounds which arise their full attention. Perhaps he might have appreciated it's honesty and musing on silence as sound? Or at least had a chuckle at the thought of sacrificing "music" for the sake of other obstacles to listening enjoyment! 

Click here for a youtube clip of a BBC Four performance of "4'33"
Click here for an 1974 oral history interview with John Cage from the Archives of American Art. 


  1. “…the higher order of music is the most thoroughly estimated when we are the most exclusively alone.” – Edgar Allan Poe

  2. Undine, Poe conveys an agreeable sentiment in one sentence; it took the author above several pages to produce an alienating treatise. Interesting and thanks for that perspective!

  3. Willow Hartford

    Willow Hartford

    I really liked your post. Really Cool.

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