October 11, 2006
Episode 12: Classical vs. Popular
In recent episodes:
I've been talking about the origins of the classical music world as we know it today. In episodes seven, eight, and nine, I described the music world of the 18th century, when composers we now call classical were active -- Bach, Handel, Vivaldi, Haydn, Mozart -- were active, but the concept of classical music didn't exist. Music wasn't considered a deeply serious art, and musical performances were mostly entertainment. Almost all the pieces played were new. People talked while the music played, and reacted loudly, clapping and cheering when they heard something they liked. The musicians often improvised, to an extent we can barely imagine today. (All this -- though it's not often taught in music history courses -- is thoroughly documented by scholarly research. I've put many citations at the end of these episodes.)
But then, beginning at the start of the 19th century, things changed. In episode 10, I talk about how the change happened. Three things emerged, which hadn't been there before:
Modernism, which made new classical music seem difficult and obscure
Popular culture, and especially forms of popular music -- jazz and rock -- that in many ways weren't created on western models, and which developed into their own kind of art.
Now classical music was far removed from everyday life, and new classical music was even further removed from it than classical masterworks were. Classical music couldn't get close to contemporary life in any case, since now (in the era after World War II) the world expressed itself in music that wasn't even remotely classical.
How did these things happen? That's what I'm looking at right now. Also in episode 10, I took a look at the rise of classical music, starting with a vignette of Brahms, conducting his music in a new concert hall, and seeing a portrait of himself on the ceiling, next to paintings of Beethoven, Bach, and Mozart. In another vignette -- which shows how performances of old music got established as the norm -- I talked about Brahms taking a major conducting job in Vienna, and hardly ever programming new music, not even by himself.
Episode 11 moved on to something else -- ideas that had to change before classical music as we know it today could exist I talked about the 18th century idea of music as nothing much more than (to quote Kant (the most influential 18th century philosopher), a "play of pleasant sounds." I then described how this changed -- how the romantics thought music was the highest of the arts, because it somehow expressed the deepest truths. That, of course, made it possible to urge that music be listened to in reverent silence, and to make a distinction between artistic music and music that served only as entertainment
So now we come to something crucial in this history, the distinction people started to make between classical music and popular music. Classical music was Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven, plus a few earlier composers like Handel and Bach whom connoisseurs were aware of, and also living composers like Schumann and Mendelssohn, who consciously based their music on classical models. Popular music was Liszt and Rossini, or more generally opera, and anything played by the spectacular and newly fashionable virtuosi.
For a vignette of the contrast between these two worlds,
look at the famous meeting between Rossini and Beethoven, as Rossini described
it many years later. Rossini, of course, was not just the leading opera
composer of the early 19th century, the man whose music surged and sparkled as
no music had before, sweeping people away with its verve and even its
sensuality (people fainted, we read, at the impact of some of his work). He was
the most popular composer of any kind in
And Beethoven, meanwhile, was the most esteemed composer,
the man whose music might not (in our terms) make the pop charts, but whom all
the sophisticates (including Rossini) admired. It wasn't surprising, then, that
when Rossini came to
As Rossini describes it, the visit might as well have been a pilgrimage. There could easily be some exaggeration here; Rossini told the story to Richard Wagner many years later, we know of it from a description of Wagner's visit with Rossini written by Michotte, a Frenchman who'd introduced the two. It's hard to believe that -- between Rossini's telling of the tale and Michotte's retelling of it -- there wasn't some embellishment.
But there's certainly lots of truth. Rossini, the great worldly success, visits Beethoven, the distracted, melancholy artist living in a messy room, with rain leaking through its shabby roof.
The portraits of Beethoven [Rossini supposedly said]...reproduce fairly well his physiognomy. But what no etcher's needle could express [did Rossini really use those words?] was the indefinable sadness spread over his features -- while from under heavy eyebrows his eyes shone as from out of caverns, and, though small, seemed to pierce one.
Beethoven, upon being introduced, got right to the point.
"Rossini, you, the composer of the Barbiere di Seviglia? ["The Barber of Seville," a very light
comedy, and to this day Rossini's most popular piece] My congratulations....[But] do never try your hand at anything but comic opera."
Rossini's companion, who unlike Rossini knew German, said (or rather wrote in
Beethoven's notebook, because Beethoven was deaf), "But the maestro Rossini has composed numerous
serious operas," including, as the companion might have said, the one he'd come
Beethoven brushed that off. He'd read through the music of these serious works; he had no use for them. At least he was gracious enough to wish Rossini success with Zelmira, but as the visit ended, and he walked Rossini to the door, he couldn't help repeating his judgment: "Above all, do a lot of 'the Barber'" And there we have it: the confrontation between popular and classical music, 19th century style. The two sides of the divide seem closer, then, than they do now. Beethoven and Rossini at least both wrote for the same musical instruments, and the same kinds of voices; it's not like what we'd see today, in which someone like Beethoven would compose for a symphony orchestra, and someone like Rossini would use synthesizers and electric guitars. But to people living then, the gap in fact was huge, and for Beethoven, Rossini was only good for light entertainment. Rossini himself acknowledged the difference; he makes Beethoven seem almost like a suffering god.
For a more global description of what was going on, nobody does it better than William Weber, a historian who's made a special study of these things:
With the simultaneous collapse of the patronal tradition and the rise of the printing industry, musical taste suddenly went to extremes of levity and seriousness. [Other historical factors, too, were involved, including the evolution I described in the last episode toward thinking of music as the highest of all arts. But most important of all, as Weber establishes elsewhere, was the rise of the middle class, which provided the audience for the newly emerging popular music, and who also bought the sheet music that music publishers were printing.] At one pole stood the virtuosi, those entrepreneurs who created a fire-storm of popular demand for music they advertised as "brilliant but not difficult," music which piqued the ear but made no demands upon the mind. Facile virtuosity was the order of the day, and only a few of the virtuosic corps -- chiefly Lizst and Paganini -- were later to make it into the standard repertoire....
At the opposite
pole were the musicians and supporters of newly founded symphony orchestras who
attempted to maintain the tradition of learned music-making and became fanatic
devotees of the German classical school....For most bourgeois
Debates between these two schools, Weber also says, can seem surprisingly modern; "Reading an article comparing Thalberg [one of leading virtuosos] and Beethoven one might think that it had been written a hundred years later, but setting Elvis Presley against the German master." [I only wish Weber had quoted some of this!] The virtuosos, in effect, were pop stars. Liszt invented the solo piano recital, a concert focused on him and only him. He'd walk around between pieces, and talk to friends in the audience. When he came to a city to play, he might be met by huge crowds, and get carried on their shoulders into town. Women retrieved his cigar butts, and wore them around their necks, close to their skin.
Opera was also a central part of
popular music back then, and in opera houses -- above all in
Here's the Rossini premiere, taking
place in any town in
As the overture begins, you could hear a pin drop [which of course isn't what would happen at most performances; but there was such curiosity about a new opera, specially written for the town where it was premiered, that everyone listened intently]; as it bangs its way triumphantly to an end, the din bursts with unbelievable violence. [No sane composer would end an overture quietly!] It is extolled to high heaven; or alternately, it is whistled, nay rather howled into eternity with merciless shrieks and ululations....[T[hese are men possessed of seven devils, determined at all costs, by dint of shrieking, stamping and battering with their canes against the back of the seats in front, to enforce the triumph of their opinion, and above all, to prove that, come what may, none but their opinion is correct...
Each aria of the new opera, in its turn, is listened to in perfect silence; after which, the cataclyism is let loose once more; and the bellowing of a storm-tormented sea is nothing but the deeblest comparison. The audience makes its opinion of the singers on the one hand, and of the composer on the other, distinctly audible....Rossini rises from his seat at the piano, his handsome face assuming an unwonted expression of gravity. He bows thrice, submitting to storms of applause, and deafened by a most unlikely variety of acclamations, for whole sentences of adulation may be flung at his unresisting head; after which, the company proceeds to the next item.
The critical evening arrives at last. The maestro takes his seat at the piano [this would be Rossini; customarily the composer sat at the keyboard, in the orchestra, for the first three performances of a new opera, perhaps playing the music, to help keep the orchetra together]; the auditiorium is stuffed to bursting-point ...As the hour of the performance draws hear, the town seems like a deserted, hollow shell; the passions, the wavering hopes and gfears, the entire life of a whole thriving population is focused upon the theatre.
Stendhal notes that no such
craziness would be seen in
These popular music performances were frequent, fun, jammed with people, and (with perhaps the exception of Italian opera orchestras) musically accomplished, especially the virtuosi. But classical music presented a different picture. For an extreme (and extremely comical)vignette, look at the Concerts of Ancient Music, founded in 1776 in London, which I e-mailed my subscribers about a couple of weeks ago. (That's one of the benefits of subscribing: You get things not necessarily included in the book episodes. To subscribe, click here, and write "subscribe to the book" in the subject line of the e-mail form that'll appear.) Note, by the way, the early date. Classical music didn't emerge all at once in the 19th century. Like anything in history, it evolved gradually, and the seeds of it had already started to grow as the 18th century ended.
Nor was this organization entirely representative of the classical music groups that formed later on, and played Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven. The Concerts of Ancient Music concentrated on sacred music of earlier eras, and eventually got stuck in a Handel rut, which contributed to their demise around 1840. But the group had other problems:
-- It was dominated by aristocratic amateurs, who were terrible musicians. Performances were so bad that many people laughed.
-- It wouldn't play any music less than 25 years old.
-- For a long time, its leaders thought that the piano was an illegitimate, upstart instrument. They wouldn't allow it at their concerts until as late as 1837.
-- They didn't like Haydn, because they thought his music was too witty to be serious.
But other classical music
organizations, in other European cities, including
The Vienna Philharmonic, also a
professional orchestra that played classical music, was established in 1842,
but in its first years, it hardly ever played. By 1848, it had given only 14
concerts, while Johann Strauss, Sr., had played more than a thousand. In the
1845-46 season, there were 157 popular music concerts
Slowly, though, the genres started to blend (something I'd love to know more about; if anyone knows any sources for more information, please e-mail!). Each side found something to envy in the other. People who loved classical music (I'm using this term, of course, with its early 19th century meaning) envied the far more accomplished performances in popular music concerts. And as the prestige of classical music spread, popular musicians, like Liszt, began to be rebuked because they didn't play enough Beethoven. The classical masterworks, apparently, started to seem less forbidding, even to the popular music audience. Did Italians who heard no melody in Mozart (as Stendhal recounts) learn to hear differently? Apparently they did. Certainly if you follow Verdi's operas, from his emergence in a Stendhal-like Italian opera world in the 1840s up to Falstaff, his joyful last opera, in the 1890s, you hear (again in 19th century terms) less popular music and more classical music, which means that the later operas don't rely on uninhibited melody as much as the earlier ones do, and that in every way they're more complex. Their musical flow is more complicated, their musical ideas are more subtle, and their orchestral sound is far more varied.
William Weber says that the novelty of virtuoso performances wore off, after a while. I can also imagine that the emerging middle-class popular music audience -- the families who bought pianos and sheet music, and whose daughters played music for guests in the evenings -- became more sophisticated, or at least wanted to seem so. It wasn't hard, as time went on, to learn to like symphonies by Haydn and Mozart, and, even if you couldn't manage that, you wouldn't want people with more education and higher status to make fun of your taste.
Besides, maybe in some ways the dividing lines weren't so strict. Rossini, after all, did pay homage to Beethoven. Classical concerts weren't completely austere. Here's something a German critic noticed at a classical concert in 1837:
The author saw how -- in the fourth movement of Beethoven's C Minor Symphony [the Fifth], when a violin passage traveled down from the highest to the lowest like ka rip -- the gentlemen of the orchestra entered into a community with the public, that they exchanged glances, forgetting all customary form.
Classical audiences had to be taught not to talk or applaud while the music was playing. And the teaching wasn't always successful. People applauded during the first-movement solo cadenza at the premiere of Grieg's Piano Concerto. Even at the most elevated, most solemn musical shrine in all Europe, the theater Wagner built in Bayreuth for performances only of his own deeply serious operas, people (at least in the theater's early days) interrupted the music with applause. (To Wagner's horror, of course).
But still the ideals of classical
music spread. As the 19th century progressed, concerts concentrated more and
more on the music of the past. Between 1815 and 1825, at concerts by one of
Here's a striking vignette that shows popular music merging with classical music. It comes from the chapter on 19th century listening that opens Peter Gay's book The Naked Heart (the fourth volume in a study of the 19th century bourgeoisie). Gay quotes Berlioz -- who saw himself as a classical composer, taking classical music to new places -- as he describes Liszt playing Beethoven on two very different occasions:
[Berlioz] recalled that he had once heard Liszt ruining Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata with extraneous trills, tremolos, and embellishments. [This, of course, would have happened in Liszt's popular music days, when he wanted to astound his audience and only occasionally played anything by Beethoven. The Moonlight Sonata was apparently -- just as it is now! -- one Beethoven piece a popular music fan might enjoy.] But in a later recital, Liszt showed himself more pious as he performed the same piece for a small group of friends. It was late in the afternoon, and the lamp was going out. Berlioz welcomed that; he thought the dim twilight would be right for the opening adagio movement of the C-sharp minor sonata. [Which is still the most familiar part of the piece, the part that almost everybody recognizes.] But Liszt went him one better: he asked that all the lights be extinguished and the fireplace covered. Then, in total darkness, Berlioz remembered, "after a moment's pause, rose in sublime simplicity the noble elegy he had once so strongly disfigured; not a note, not an accent was added to the notes and the accents of the author. It was the shade of Beethoven, conjured up by the virtuoso to whose voice we were listening. We all trembled in silence, and when the last chord had sounded no one spoke -- we were in tears.
Liszt had come over to classical music. Or, as William Weber puts it,
That shrewdie Franz Liszt certainly saw which way the wind was blowing; in 1849 he stopped giving concerts and moved to Goethe's Weimar [or in other words to a city strongly linked to high art, because the great writer Goethe had lived there], where he began writing symphonies in his own serious way and ended up joining the Augustinian order.
There's one emendation I need to add here. As the 19th century wore on, the choice wasn't simply between classical music and popular music. Unconventional young composers like Berlioz and Wagner started to form an avant-garde, which Liszt became part of. Weber isn't quite right to say that Liszt wrote "symphonies." He wrote pieces that came to be called "symphonic poems," pieces organized not -- like a classical symphony -- almost entirely in purely musical ways, but instead shaped around the telling of a story. To the classicists, who included post-Beethoven composers like Mendelssohn, Schumann, and eventually Brahms, the avant-garde could seem cheap and unstable; to the avant-garde, the classicists seemed stuffy. The composers in the avant-garde certainly were classical, in the sense that they didn't even remotely write popular music (using the term, as always here, in the 19th century sense). But they thought the old musical forms, the forms used by Mozart and Beethoven, were now obsolete, and had to be replaced by something much more organic and modern. Nobody should underestimate the tension between the classicists and the avant-garde. Brahms and Wagner, it's well know, were wary of each other (though Brahms, more open-minded than his rival, admired some of Wagner's work). But, far beyond that, Liszt once famously put down Schumann, and Schumann openly -- and utterly -- despised Liszt.
So where did this lead? Directly to the classical music world we know today, in which the old-time classical music rules have completely taken over. We listen in silence; we worship the great composers; we think concert music ought to be complex and lofty. There's just one thing, though. Somehow we've brought the popular music of the 19th century -- insanely silly Rossini operas, flashy Paganini concertos -- into the classical pantheon, and this doesn't make any sense. Our classical music world hasn't just lost touch with the culture around it; it's forgotten its own past.
In the next episode: the rise of modernism, and how that made classical music even more classical
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Beethoven and Rossini: O. G. Sonneck, ed., Beeethoven:
Impressions by His Contemporaries.
"With the simultaneous collapse": William Weber, "Mass Culture and the Reshaping of European Musical Taste, 1770-1870." International Review of the Aesthetics and Sociology of Music, Vol. 8, No. 1 (June, 1977), pp. 5-22.
Elvis: William Weber, Music and the Middle Class.
Stendhal, The Life of Rossini, Richard
N. Coe, trans., second edition.
Strauss Senior and Junior: "Strauss (1) Johann (Baptist) Strauss" Grove Music Online, ed. L. Macy (accessed 9/24/06), http://www.grovemusic.com
Concerts of Ancient Music: Music and the Middle Class, pp. 61-66; p. 148 n9.
"classical music didn't emerge all at once": See for instance William Weber, "The Eighteenth Century Origin of the Musical Canon," Journal of the Royal Musical Association, Vol. 114, No. 1 (1989), pp. 6-17
concerts given in Habaneck's home: Music and the Middle Class, p. 70]
numbers of classical and popular music concerts: Music and the Middle Class, p. 159
cigar butt: this is in Alan Walker's Liszt biography; I'll have to find the precise reference
Liszt rebuked: Music and the Middle Class, 60
novelty of virtuoso performances wore off: "Mass Culture and the Reshaping of European Musical Taste, 1770-1870."
Beethoven violin passage: quoted in
Mark Evan Bonds, Music as Thought: Listening to the Symphony
in the Age of Beethoven. Princeton and
to talk: see for instance Peter
Gay, The Naked Heart: The Bourgeois
Grieg concerto: I read this in CD liner notes. I'll have to find the precise citation.
percentage of living and dead composers: "Mass Culture and the Reshaping of European Musical Taste, 1770-1870."
25 percent new music in
Liszt and the Moonlight Sonata: The Naked Heart, p. 28. Gay doesn't say where the Berlioz quote comes from. He only says that he found it in Alessandra Comini's book, Changing Image of Beethoven.
that shrewdie: "Mass Culture and the Reshaping of European Musical Taste, 1770-1870."
Posted by gsandow on October 11, 2006 12:59 AM
Always a great read! Three reactions of mine:
1. I know that applause is the straw man du jour for going after the pretentiousness of classical music, but honestly, Stendahl's description sounds like a slightly better-behaved version of a contemporary opera audience. (You can hear a pin drop during the overture? Where do I get a ticket?) Opera has always had fanatics--in that, at least, it's a success story. I would separate opera audiences from symphonic/chamber audiences (who are too stuffy.)
2. "...[W]e think concert music ought to be complex and lofty." I don't think that's necessarily true. In fact, apart from the standard symphonic cycles, I would bet that the bulk of the orchestral repertoire played in this country over the last fifty years has tended towards the splashy and fun. Stravinsky ballet suites still pack 'em in, as do Ravel, Gershwin's concert works, Rodeo, Symphonic Dances from "West Side Story", etc., etc. Certainly there's more concert music that is complex and lofty, but the fact that that's become a possibility is not necessarily bad: one could point to the increasingly high profile of music among the fine arts as a salutary effect of that shift.
3. Looking ahead to the next section: "Modernism, which made new classical music seem difficult and obscure..." Those terms are pretty much universally lumped together now, and I think we all need a good mental spring cleaning. Two examples: "A Survivor From Warsaw" may be difficult, but it's hardly obscure. On the other hand, take a composer like LaMonte Young--not difficult, but (to my ears, at least) maddeningly esoteric. Yes, there's been a lot of music that is both difficult and obscure, but one doesn't necessarily lead to the other.
Liszt was a "shrewdie"? I have to start working that into my everyday conversation.
Applause: Don't know when you last went to the opera, but if you saw anything like what Stendhal describes, please tell me where! I want to be there. Opera has a very samll number of fanatics now (as compared to the size of the overall opera audience), but a whole audience of fanatics? Where would you find that these days? The orchestra audience, back in the time I wrote about, was vastly smaller than the opera audience. That's one of several reasons you wouldn't have found a reaction like Stendhal describes at an orchestra concert. One other reason is that orchestra concerts as a rule weren't considered very interesting or important until well into the 19th century, despite what we read about the tumultuous premiere of Beethoven's Ninth.
Complex and stuffy: Let's not play apples and oranges What orchestras do these days in America is one thing; the mystique of classical music stands apart from that. And the mystique of classical music is that it's complex and lofty. At some point in this book or elsewhere I'd love to ask how that rubric might be applied to precisely the repetoire you mention, or to a Rossini opera like L'Italiana in Algeri (which makes the Barber of Seville look in comparison like Gotterdammerung).
Modernism: I agree with you, and have for years been urging exactly what you're asking for. But again we're talking about different kinds of fruit. You and I think what we think about modernism; the mainstream classical concert audience just hates it. Because modernist works became some kind of norm from the 1960a onward, the audience began getting tense before they heard even a single note of any new work. They expected to hate it. Any rethinking of modernist music -- long overdue -- will be most effective if it happens outside the classical music world, maybe (as I urged when I called years ago for a rethinking of serialism) in an art museum.
Posted by: Matthew at October 11, 2006 3:02 PM
I think that this is your most inciteful chapter to date. Congratulations!
Posted by: Richard at October 12, 2006 9:38 AM
This comment is a bit general, and not specific to this chapter, but I think it's an interesting one to ponder. A couple of years ago, I attended (and sang at) the incredible Estonian choral festival, their Laulupidu. It was a weekend of choral music that culminated in a choir of about 25,000 people singing for an audience of about 1 million. Estimates say that about 60% of the country attended. When we went to a bar after singing, a hip, attractive young bartender woman expressed her serious bummed-ness over not being able to attend. The city of Tallinn was like a ghost town, except for all the parades and banners and marching and singing all over the place. Choirs that had come from afar were performing in the streets for fun and to warm up.
About the festival itself: T-shirts sold like hotcakes. The conductors were projected on a Jumbotron, and the audiences chanted the composers' names while doing the wave between pieces. After each piece was done, burly men in national costume would repeatedly toss the conductors in the air, accompanied by vigorous screaming of the conductor's name (in rhythm) from the crowd, and then women would dance on stage and put wreaths around the conductors' and composers' necks. The crowd sang along to the songs they particularly liked. If the crowd wouldn't stop chanting and whistling after a well-loved Estonian choral piece, the conductor would do it again (to loud cheering), up to 3 or 4 times. At one point, pretty much the entire choir of 25,000 burst into tears while singing a particularly moving chunk of music about their homeland.
I could go on about this, because the experience profoundly moved me, and has changed me, a lot. But I'd better stop here. My question, though, is How? and Why? How is it that the country of Estonia seems to have so firmly kept "classical" music in its popular life, and allowed them to remain as one? And why there and not here? And is there anything we can learn from that culture and adopt here? And... well, so many more questions. But I wonder whether this phenomenon you're discussing isn't at least somewhat restricted geographically. Are there other places like Estonia in their musical culture?
Scott, thanks so much for this. It's beautiful. I'm going to put your comment in my blog, so more people will read it. Maybe somebody knows the answer to your very important question.
Posted by: Scott at October 15, 2006 12:33 AM
Where did classical and popluar diverge, indeed?
It's funny how professors of classical music in college NEVER talk about pop music. Many classical musicians don't either. But I don't believe them: I can't believe I'm the only one who's squarely in both camps.
You're not! i tihnk music professors talk very differently now. The younger ones like pop music just as much as anybody else, and also understand that they'll never get through to their students -- in introductory music classes -- if they put pop music down.
And here's a straw in the wind -- I've just become faculty advisor to a Juilliard student club, made up of Juilliard students who play in bands. It's a brave new world...
Posted by: Anonymous at October 15, 2006 9:41 AM