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June 16, 2007

Was the past really like the present?

by Greg Sandow

This is fun.

Some brief responses. (Well, not so brief. I don't seem to have "brief" in my repertoire, for which I apologize.)

To Robert Levine (hi, Robert): I think, if you were plunked down in Mozart's time, yes, you'd find other violists playing music you know, but I don't think you'd entirely recognize the musical world you'd suddenly be in. Parenthetically, I'll note that the classical music world seems to have forgotten some of its history, especially the parts that suggest that classical music practice has changed rather drastically over the centuries, so that the classical music world we now have isn't much like the classical music world of the past. It's really bracing to dig into the real history -- which, Robert, neither you nor I were taught anything about in music school, so it's not our fault if we don't know it now. The current generation of music historians, though -- or at least some of them -- are all over it.

So -- Mozart's time. The first thing we'd find surprising (to put it mildly) would be the behavior of the audience. They wouldn't be quiet. They'd talk while the music was playing, and applaud the moment they heard something they liked, right in the middle of the performance.

Secondly, performances would be, by our standards, pretty disorganized. There wasn't much rehearsal. (Robert, you'd be way ahead of the game. You'd already have played the Magic Flute viola part, while your colleagues in the viola section would be hacking their way through more or less at sight.)

And third, the orchestras improvised. This was a shock for me when I read it. One authority on this is Neal Zaslaw, the leading musicological authority on the Mozart symphonies. He's written an eye-popping paper on improvisation by 18th century German orchestras. Sometimes the entire first violin section would all improvise at once, each player making up his own version of the music. (They all would have been male back then.) All of them, that is, making up independent versions of what they saw written in their parts, no matter how discordant the result would have been. (Berlioz complained of this when he visited Italy in his own time, a couple of generations after Mozart. The violinists at Italy's leading opera house, La Scala, did what 18th century German orchestras did, and Berlioz hated it.)

There would be other differences, too. What it adds up to is a much more populist, much less canonic, much less "artistic," much more populist musical world than we have now, at least in classical music. It was noisier, more audience-based. Much more, in fact, like the pop world is today. One painting form the time, by Canaletto (this is discussed in Christopher Small's book Musicking) shows an 18th century performance that in some ways looks very much like what goes on in a rock club now. There's an orchestra on stage, and in the rest of the building, people are talking, walking around, and eating. Right in front of the stage is a knot of people listening intently. This is the world you'd be in, Robert, if you were transported back into the 18th century. If you happened to be in Prague, and played viola in the world premiere of Don Giovanni, you would have heard the singers playing Don Giovanni and Leporello improvise parts of the second act finale. (This is documented, very tastily, in Thomas Forrest Kelly's book First Nights at the Opera.)

(The Zaslaw citation: John Spitzer and Neal Zaslaw, "Improvised Ornamentation in Eighteenth-Century Orchestras," Journal of the American Musicological Society, Vol. 39, No. 3 (Autumn, 1986), pp. 524-577. I don't mean to be a pedant, but this stuff is so new to people in the classical music world that some may doubt it really exists.)

And about classical downloads: Yes, it's well known that younger people are downloading classical music, far more than they ever bought it in record stores. This is part of a larger phenomenon -- a wonderful trend toward interest in a wide variety of music. But let's not exaggerate it. It doesn't mean that kids are listening to entire symphonies, and especially it doesn't mean that they're going to classical concerts, or that they'd want to. Who doesn't like the sound of classical music? Its appeal, simply as something you'd listen to, isn't in question. What's worth pondering, rather, is the way in which we're asked to listen to it -- entire concerts of old classical repertoire, played in formal dress, with an older, largely passive audience.

Footnote about Bill Osborne. He keeps popping up in these discussions, always saying the same thing. The question for him -- especially since, for God's sake, he lives in Germany! -- would be why he doesn't note that government funding for the arts in Europe has been falling for many years now. The Berlin Philharmonic, for instance, now gets only half its funding (if that) from government sources, As a result, the Berlin Philharmonic and other European orchestras are out there scrambling for cash much like American orchestras, even if they don't yet need to do it to the same extent. But they're certainly bringing in American consultants to teach them how to raise funds, and how to do marketing.

Posted by gsandow at June 16, 2007 9:24 AM


Greg, your assertion that funding for the arts in Europe has been falling is not at all true. In fact, in most countries it has been rising. Germany was placed under strong economic pressures due to the massive task of rebuilding East Germany. During that period they eliminated 8 of the 144 State run orchestras leaving a total of 136. And about half of those were actually redundancies due to unification. The German economy has now regained its strength, and once again the Germans are increasing their arts funding.

France and Holland voted to reject the European constitution exactly because its neo-liberal agendas would have forced them to dismantle much of their social democracies. Even the Blair government in Britain greatly increased arts funding. In fact, it was one of the most important parts of the party's political platform. Your comments are just more American misinformation and squirming about international comparisons.

The Berlin Philharmonic is a special case, and your use of it as an example is entirely misinformed and misleading. The orchestra decided to go private in the early 80s for the simple fact that they make so much money they no longer wanted to the profits to go to the State. (They were also angered by politicians insistence that they accept women as members.)

And I wouldn't put too much stock in Berlin presumably bringing in American consultants for fund raising and marketing. The orchestra has over 95% capacity attendance rates and is one of the richest orchestras in the world. The Vienna Philharmonic is also an interesting case. I forget the exact number but most of its tickets are sold out for something like the next 15 years. The Munich State Opera has such a demand for tickets it has to distribute them with a lottery system.

Americans would likely respond to classical music this way too if they were given adequate opportunities and better educations.

I wonder if you aren't a bit biased, Greg. How happy would they be down at the Wall Street Journal to see you advocating greater governmental support for the arts? The editorial board there is radically neo-con.

William Osborne

Posted by: William Osborne at June 16, 2007 10:43 AM

I would like to add some information to further correct Greg's confusion about European arts funding - though it is far more than most of you will want to read -- especially since the indentation for the many quotes does not seem to appear. I include a lot of documentation from the press. The articles confirm that arts funding in Britain doubled from £198m when Labour came to power in 1997 to £411m in 2004. The articles also note that in 2004 French governmentl spending for the arts rose 5.9%, which was three times inflation. They also discuss the generous funding systems in other countries such as Finland. The economies of Spain and Ireland have skyrocketed since they entered the European Union. Their per capita increases in arts funding have been phenomenal.

In general, there is much more lively discussion and debate in the European press about arts funding than in the States. The first clip is from the BBC's website, May 24, 2004 and is entitle "London is 'Classical Music Capitol.'" It argues that public funding actually helps orchestras stay in touch with the public's musical interests and tastes.

The LPO had just performed Howard Shore's score for Lord of Rings for an audience of more than 3000 people. Timothy Walker, artistic director of the LPO noted, "We have to do great symphonic repertoire. But film music is a great part of our musical life. We are funded by the taxpayer and we have a duty to appeal to as wide an audience as possible."
Mr. Walker pointed to London's "five great orchestras and two opera houses" as proof of the city's musical pre-eminence. "New York has just one symphony orchestra," he said by way of comparison.

(For those who might not know, the orchestras are the London Philharmonic Orchestra, London Symphony Orchestra, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Philharmonia, and the BBC Symphony Orchestra. London also has two opera houses.)

The article notes that even though the city has five orchestras, the LPO sells about 82% of all tickets for its concerts, and many events are sold out. No big need for iPods and Indie Rock influenced concerts there.

Mr. Walker said it would be possible to raise attendance to 90%, but he would be:

"...worried that our program was not adventurous enough. If we program in a conservative way, with great conductors and soloists, we are confident we would sell out the concert hall. With new, edgier work, and younger artists, the risks are higher. Orchestras are very fragile organizations. It is always difficult to balance the commercial and creative aspects of the orchestra."

The article stresses that public funding gives them the freedom to find a reasonable balance between popular and innovative programming.

Helsinki also has five symphony orchestras even though its population is only 565,186. A per capita comparison would give New York City 80 full-time orchestras!!!

Here are some clips from a commentary in the Star Tribune of Minneapolis from April 23, 2004 entitled "Music Education Permeates Finnish Society" written by Kristin Tillotson:

"Helsinki alone is home to five symphony orchestras. Nationwide, there are 21 more, as well as 12 regional opera companies. At least eight world-class conductors, including the Minnesota Orchestra's Osmo Vanska and the Los Angeles Philharmonic's Esa-Pekka Salonen, were raised and trained in Finland. More than 30 full-time classical composers live and work there.
"How has a nation of 5.2 million people -- a population only slighter greater than the state of Minnesota's -- produced such a surplus of talent?
"Outstanding music education is the primary reason. But at its source is a national attitude that music is not dessert, but an essential food group for personal, cultural and civic sustenance, and as deserving of government subsidy as health care and schools."

The Star Tribune article continues with a quote of the director of advanced studies at the Sibelius Academy, Osmo Palonen:

"'[Music] is so ingrained in our culture; there is never a question about the government putting a lot of money into it. This also makes music very democratic here, not just something for the elite.'"

The Tribune adds:

"Direct comparisons between music education in Finland and Minnesota are unfair. The Finnish government subsidizes the arts and education to a much greater degree than here. Finnish schools are structured differently, and the country's entire education system is superior in general to most others around the world.

"But taking a look at how and why the Finnish system works can offer inspiration and ideas."

Indeed it could if we could just get off our high horses and take an honest look. (First, this means stop listening to nonsense about supposed reductions in European arts funding. And second, it means stop being so ethnocentrically arrogant.)

In an article in the Guardian on May 3, 2004, Louise Jury quotes Tessa Jowell, Britains's Secretary of State for Culture:

"'MPs are waking up to the fact that cities such as Birmingham and Liverpool are being brought to life by culture. Labour must lead from the front in advocating arts as a public good in itself', she said. 'There is a parody of culture which is prevalent, that these are issues of interest only to a disconnected elite. But it is the enthusiasm and hunger that people have for culture that is driving this.'

"The arts are not just 'a pleasurable hinterland' for the public to fall back on after the 'important things - work and paying tax' are done, [Jowell] argues in a 19-page pamphlet.

"'It is at the heart of what it means to be a fully developed human being. Government should be concerned that so few aspire to it, and has a responsibility to do what it reasonably can to raise the quantity and quality of that aspiration.'"

How different such ideals seem to be from the defeatist attitudes regarding public funding among the members of this panel.

The Guardian continues:

"While spending on the arts has doubled since 1997 [sorry Greg] and scrapping entrance charges to national museums has boosted attendance by millions, some MPs are still inclined to lob the elitism charge at expenditure on opera or orchestras. Arts leaders have felt despair that the Prime Minister has seemed so unwilling to be seen in their museums and theatres. But they will be encouraged that Ms. Jowell says 'intelligent public subsidy' is vital if the arts are to take their place at the heart of national life. Audiences will be developed only through 'determined policy initiatives,' she says."

"Determined policy iniatives" that create "intelligent public subsidy." Again, a big contrast to the wimpy leadership shown among the "luminaries" in this discussion. And these "determined initiatives" have had a profound effect. As noted, funding for the arts in Britain rose from £198m when Labour came to power in 1997 to £411m in 2004. (That latter sum is over 800 million dollars, and is, by the way, one of the lowest per capita rates of public funding for the arts in Western Europe.)

An article in the rather conservative Bloomberg News, dated February 2, 2004 mentions that the cultural budget in Italy was cut by 2.5% leaving a sum of 1.97 billion dollars. Ironically, that's still 1407 times larger than the NEA budget, and in a country with less than one quarter of America's population. The Italian government's per capita cultural spending is thus over 5600 times higher than in the US.

The Bloomberg article also notes that:

"Among European countries, museums fare best in France, where about 1 percent of the national budget is spent on culture each year, and this year's package is up 5.9 percent -- three times inflation -- at 2.79 billion euros."

(Again, an utter contradiction of Greg's bizarre confusion about reductions in European arts funding. 2.79 billion euros of over 3.8 billion dollars. Imagine what our country would be if the NEA had that much money.)

Arts funding in Italy was indeed attacked by the Berlusconi government. He was the sole owner of all of Italy's private television stations. He attempted to eliminate government involvement in almost all forms of media to increase his monopolistic control. He was finally driven from office because his underhanded financial dealing caused the populace to see him as a common crook.

Most Europeans remain deeply wary of corporate sponsorship of the arts. Bloomberg News has written some interesting articles about the problems, but I won't quote them because it is a little off topic. The Guardian also addresses this problem in an article by Peter Kennard entitled "Hung out to dry by the sponsors: Art's corporate backers decide what we can see in public spaces", published December 30, 2003.

This all isn't to say that the Europeans don't keep an eye on the American scene. They are more open to the world, and unlike Americans, aren't inclined to think their way is the only way. They are often ready to learn from their neighbors.

In an article from the Deutsche Welle website on February 2, 2005, Gerald Mertens, the director of the German Orchestra Union, noted that, "Orchestras in competitive markets such as Berlin, Munich or the Ruhrpott region in North Rhine-Westphalia will be particularly pressured to distinguish themselves. They have to become more active in documenting their societal value." [Munich, for example, has 7 full-time orchestras in a city of 1.2m. And Berlin has three opera houses in a city of about 4m.] Mertens said that while Germany remains the world's No. 1 market for classical music, it lags far behind Britain and especially the US in terms of innovation.

If only we had this modesty and open-mindedness in our relations with the world. In the meantime, don't listen to the rather widespread propaganda about Europe supposedly reducing its arts funding. The neo-con political agenda of such misinformation is relatively transparent. And even more subtly, beware the way artists sometimes become enamored with new technologies and aesthetic theories then project them as solutions for the world's ills whether they are or not. Just like the Europeans, with "determined policy initiatives" we can greatly increase our public support for the arts.

William Osborne

Posted by: William Osborne at June 16, 2007 6:01 PM

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