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 Thomson 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 Shanghai.
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 Thomson. 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 New York, 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 New York it is a white-collar audience 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? Probably not all that old. If Thomson 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. 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 Thomson wrote this, and the women I’d see in peasant blouses — an immediate sign that a woman was smart and artistic, or thought she was — weren’t old.
So Thomson was 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. Thomson’s 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 Thomson wrote all this, when Mitropoulos did Wozzeck in concert with the Philharmonic. And so look at the change. The audience we have is primarily what Thomson called a “musical audience,” by which he means merely musical, interested in music but not in any ideas that music might represent. It’s older than Thomson’s 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 Music.
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 New York 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 Thomson’s 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 grounds).
I’ve actually heard of one orchestra that does have an audience at least a little bit like Thomson’s 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 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 YouTube videos:
Kirsten Flagstad, the great Wagnerian soprano whose career came to an end in the 1950s, singing Die Walküre
Lauritz Melchior, the great heldentenor of the prewar era, singing Walküre excerpt (well, lipsynching it, but still his enjoyment is unmistakable)
Gino Bechi, a star Italian baritone (and force of nature), singing the Toreador Song (in Italian, evidently from a movie)
Lawrence Tibbett, the lively American star of the 1920s and 1930s, singing the same piece (in French, more properly, though I don’t care what language anyone with Bechi’s or Tibbett’s power sings in; at the start of the video, you’ll have to wait out an introduction by Thomas Hampson)
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.