Reviews and other accounts of classical music events from
the past — I mean written in the past — don’t talk much about the audience. And
why should they? Everybody reading them would know what the audience was like,
so there wouldn’t be much need to comment on it.
That’s why a famous Virgil
piece from 1950 is so interesting to read now. He’s describing one part of the
classical music audience back then, and — at least if you ask me — he might as
well be talking about 19th century
Now I don’t see anything like what he describes, which is another sign (or so I
think) that times have rather dramatically changed. The classical music
audience we see now isn’t the classical music audience that used to exist. From
which it follows that the audience of the future doesn’t have to be like the
audience we have now.
But back to
Here’s some of what he writes, in a piece called “The Intellectual Audience,”
published in The New York Herald-Tribune on January 15, 1950.
Anyone who attends musical and
other artistic events eclectically must notice that certain of these bring out
an audience thickly sprinkled with what are called “intellectuals” and the
others do not. It is managements and box offices that call these people
intellectuals; persons belonging to that group rarely use the term. They are a
numerous body in
however, and can be counted on to patronize certain entertainments [by which,
in this piece, he largely means classical music performances]. Their
word-of-mouth communication has an influence, moreover, on public opinion.
Their favor does not necessarily provoke mass patronage, but it does bring to
the box office a considerable number of their own kind, and it does give to any
show or artist receiving it some free advertising. The intellectual audience in
any large city is fairly numerous, well organized, and vocal.
This group, that grants or
withholds its favor without respect to paid advertising and that launches its
ukases with no apparent motivation, consists of people from many social
conditions. Its binding force is the book. It is a reading audience. Its
members may have a musical ear or an eye for visual art, and they may have
neither. What they all have is some acquaintance with ideas. The intellectual
world does not judge a work of art from the talent and skill embodied in it;
only professionals judge that way. It seeks in art a clear connection with
contemporary esthetic and philosophic trends, as these are known through books
and magazines. The intellectual audience is not a professional body; it is not
a professors’ club either, nor a publishers’ conspiracy. Neither is it quite a
readers’ anarchy. Though it has no visible organization, it forms its own
opinions and awards its own prizes in the form of free publicity. It is a very
difficult group to maneuver or to push around.
And now read this part very carefully:
In w:st="on">New York
containing stenographers, saleswomen, union employees of all kinds, many
persons from the comfortable city middle-aged middle class, and others from the
suburban young parents. There are snappy dressers too, men and women of thirty
who follow the mode, and artists’ wives from downtown who wear peasant blouses
and do their own hair. Some are lawyers, doctors, novelists, painters,
musicians, professors. Even the carriage trade is represented, and all the age
levels above twenty-five. A great variety of costume is always present, of
faces and figures with character in them. Many persons of known professional
distinction give it seasoning and tone.
Try to imagine these people. How old are they?
class=GramE>Probably not all that old.
class=GramE>Probably not all that old.If
says “all age levels above twenty-five,” I’ll take him at his word, which means
that plenty of people in their 30s and 40s made up this audience.
class=GramE>Especially when he talks about “snappy dressers…men and women of thirty who follow the mode.”
class=GramE>Especially when he talks about “snappy dressers…men and women of
thirty who follow the mode.”If they’re worth mentioning, there must
have been a lot of them. And how about those “artists’ wives
from downtown who wear peasant blouses”? No way they’re in their
sixties, or probably even in their fifties. I was out and about in New York
City not too many years after w:st="on">Thom
blouses — an immediate sign that a woman was smart and artistic, or thought she
was — weren’t old.
describing a slice of the classical music audience that simply doesn’t exist
today. People looking for “a clear connection with contemporary esthetic and
philosophic trends”? Nobody’s going to classical music events for that, or
certainly not mainstream ones.
intellectual audience wasn’t mainstream, either, and
he notes that they didn’t normally go to the Met or the New York Philharmonic.
But they did (he says) go to hear Pierre Monteux and Ernest Ansermet
conduct; they came out for recitals by Schnabel, Clifford Curzon, and Wanda
Landowska; they even went to the Philharmonic when Dmitri Mitropoulos, then the
music director, led a concert performance of Elektra, which at that time wasn’t a repertory piece. I’m sure they
were there a couple of years after
wrote all this, when Mitropoulos did Wozzeck in concert
with the Philharmonic.
And so look at the change. The audience we have is primarily
audience,” by which he means merely musical, interested in music but not in any
ideas that music might represent. It’s older than
audience (as we know from all kinds of information, including, I’d think, his
comments I’ve quoted here). And most crucially it doesn’t have this outer mass of
critical, thoughtful people, who show up only if a concert has some larger
cultural interest. Or, rather, we do have those people, but they’re not,
generally speaking, going to mainstream classical concerts at all. They go to
Steve Reich events, and the Next Wave festival at the Brooklyn Academy of
We also have a sophisticated musical audience, made up of
people who go to hear sophisticated concerts–something with unusual
programming, or with an artist who’s thought to be exceptionally serious. I’ve
heard their number in
estimated at 2000, and also (but I think the programmer who said this was in a
bad mood that day) at 150. But this isn’t
intellectual audience. They’re not interested in any connection classical music
might have with wider culture. They’re only looking for more sophisticated
musical things (the sophistication being measured exclusively on musical
I’ve actually heard of one orchestra that does have an
audience at least a little bit like
intellectuals — a loose group of up to 300 younger people, who immediately
stand out because of their age, dress, and hair, and who are attracted, I’m
told, by John Adams and Carmina
style='mso-bidi-font-style:normal'> Burana. I
wonder if other classical music institutions have seen anything like this.
And, you know, we could go further with this. The purely
musical performances used to be quite a bit looser — more fun, more personal,
more (there’s no other word for it) entertaining. Just watch a few
Kirsten Flagstad, the great Wagnerian
soprano whose career came to an end in the 1950s, singing Die
Melchior, the great heldentenor of the prewar era, singing
still his enjoyment is unmistakable)
a star Italian baritone (and force of nature), singing the
href="http://youtube.com/watch?v=NGm4evzytmQ">Toreador Song(in Italian, evidently
from a movie)
Lawrence Tibbett, the lively
American star of the 1920s and 1930s, singing
href="http://youtube.com/watch?v=olOMrC9aF70">the same piece
href="http://youtube.com/watch?v=olOMrC9aF70">the same piece(in French,
more properly, though I don’t care what language anyone with
class=SpellE>Bechi’sor Tibbett’s power sings in; at the start of the
video, you’ll have to wait out an introduction by
Some people (but do they really enjoy life?) might find
Tibbett and Bechi a little hokey (times and styles
have changed). But you can’t deny that they — and Flagstad and Melchior — sang
with more joy and pure gusto than anyone in opera has today.