The intellectual audience

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.

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on RedditEmail this to someone


  1. says

    I totally disagree

    with your comment about

    singers from the past

    singing with more”gusto”

    than those of today.

    This is all too

    typical of the way opera

    fans and critics idealize

    the past,and to such an

    extent that they are

    unable to appreciate the many wonderful singers

    of the present day.

    I am getting tired of

    this knee-jerk idealization of the past.

    Hi, Robert. If you want to prove me wrong, just go to YouTube and find videos of current singers who are as relaxed, colloquial, and just plain entertaining as the singers in the videos I linked to. You’ve got a lot to choose from. Current singers are very well represented. You’ll find a lot more Placido Domingo on YouTube than Lauritz Melchior.

  2. says

    You’re saying that Thomson is describing a part of the audience that has disappeared, and then you describe a part of the current audience that it exactly like what Thomson described. (Interested in wider culture, music as philosophical ideas, avoids mainstream concerts, etc.) Maybe Reich and Adams and BAM festivals are just the modern versions of Landowska recitals and Strauss operas (which, after all, were still considered pretty modern when Thomson was writing.)

    Incidentally, all four of the operatic excerpts you link to are from movies; I don’t know enough about Bechi to identify that one–the other three are The Big Broadcast of 1938, Luxury Liner, and Metropolitan. A lot of that relaxed and colloquial nature you refer to is no doubt because they’re in close-up and lip-synching. (I recall hearing a Risé Stevens story that the practice in Hollywood was that, if you insisted on actually singing along to the playback track during shooting, you had to sing down an octave so you wouldn’t contort your facial muscles in an operatic way.)

    Matthew, I think the difference between what we see now and what Thomson described is simple enough. His intellectual audience was part of the mainstream classical scene. The audience at BAM and Steve Reich concerts isn’t. So, yes, we have our own kind of intellectual audience, which goes to some events we might describe as classical music, but they’re just about never seen at mainstream classical events Thomson, remember, said they’d go to hear Fritz Reiner conduct, but not Thomas Beecham. The Reich/BAM crowd isn’t making choices between James Levine and Colin Davis They’re not showing up for either.

    As for the movies, sure, of course the videos come from movies. That’s why they exist. But there are reasons why classical musicians were in so many movies back in those bygone years, and one of those reasons was that they were more informal, or more movie-like to begin with Because the entire classical world wasn’t as formal as it is now.

    Your point about lip-syncing is interesting, as is the quote from Risé. (I knew her, long ago, when I worked at the New York State Council on the Arts. Very sweet woman.) But you can see people singing with just as much abandon in concert videos. Go to YouTube and search for Mario del Monaco, for instance. You can also hear them sing with more gusto on audio recordings. It’s not just how their faces looked; it’s how their voices sounded That video clip of Bechi shows exactly how he sings just about anything. Listen to his Amonasro or his performance in Andrea Chenier, both on recordings with Gigli. He’s a little more out there in the Toreador Song, but then that’s the nature of that music. It’s _meant_ to be a performance.
    Or listen to Gigli, who made movies and presumably lip-synced, but sounds just the same in audio recordings as he did in his films Or for an especially delectable example, think of Martha Eggerth, who’s irresistible in the one 1930s film of her I’ve seen (“The Charm of La Bohème”), and equally irresistible — informal, alive, so much gusto — in the live performances she does now, in her ’90s. There’s a living example of someone doing what singers more routinely did in the past, and I’m not sure we’ll find anyone from the current classical generation doing the same thing.

    (For one thing, their teachers would never let them sing with the freedom singers used to take for granted. It would be considered outrageous, non-classical, musically improper. Just listen to Ivan Kozlovsky, the great Russian tenor of the Stalin years, singing the duet with Gilda on his recording of Rigoletto. It’s jaw-droppiing — honeyed, seductive, amazingly free — and there would be lines going twice around the block if anyone sang that way at the Met today. But nobody who sang that way would ever get through music school. This is a long story, nd I hope that people who start off disagreeing with me and haven’t heard many of these older performances will listen to some of them, and then see what they think.)

  3. gary panetta says

    You are right on target about the the divorce between music and ideas (or wider cultural concerns). The absence of a connection between what is heard in concert halls and the wider issues we face in the world is one reason why these events feel like museum events, not lively events.

  4. Craig Smith, The Santa Fe New Mexican says

    You make interesting points. The change in audience demographics and composition (and ideas!) isn’t confined to large metro areas, of course. Here in Santa Fe, which has a certain artistic reputation in many genres (only partially deserved), the classical music concert audience members are generally all over 40 and really closer to 60 plus. When I reviewed a chamber concert of flute, guitar, and oboe the other evening, I’lll lay odds there wasn’t a person under 45-50 in the house but two of the performers! The Santa Fe Opera draws a much more diverse crowd – lots of wild hair, piercings, youth, and attitude in the audience this past summer, and they were much more demonstrative and excited than many of the older, presumably richer crew who filled front-and-center.

    The really big literature and visual art fan base here doesn’t have the kind of mass crossover to music (in terms of ideas) that Thomson wrote about. When the Lannan Foundation brings in writers to lecture, such as Arundhati Roy, Denis Johnson, and Lawrence Wechsberg, they sell out the house in a literal hour, and could do it twice over. These peopel will go to Reich concerts, too, but not another Mozart or Mahler …

    Interesting, Craig. Thanks. I’m especially fascinated by what you say about the opera audience. Who are those people, what proportion of the audience are they, and do they seem to prefer any particular repertoire?

  5. sally says

    more joy and pure gusto than Netrebko, Villazon, Florez, Damrau, Bartoli or any of several others I could name?

    Yes! Exactly. Go to YouTube and see for yourself. Also listen to Gigli, Zinka Milanov, Corelli, Mario del Monaco, Fedora Barbieri, and so very many others. Back to back comparisons can be enormously revealing. Put Florez next to the video of Cesare Valetti singing in L’elisir d’amore, and you might see what I mean.
    The people you mention are very good, no problem with that. But there’s a certain patina of art that crept into opera singing in the postwar era, and made it a lot less colloquial than the opera singing of the past. You can even hear that in comparisons of two older singers, Milanov and Tebaldi. Listen to them singing the same aria, maybe “O patria mia” from Aida. They’re both terrific, in ways we don’t hear in that music now. But Tebaldi is, by comparison, a little more reserved, a little more the self-conscious artist. Milanov, who’s a little older, and started her career before World War II, is more informal.

    Similarly with Gigli and Corelli. Corelli was explosive in a way tenors just aren’t any more. And, to be fair, nobody else in his time was that explosive, either, though a decade earlier you could find Mario del Monaco also shaking the walls. But if you compare Gigli, a full generation earlier, with Corelli, in a Neapolitan song, you can really hear a difference. You don’t need video to do that. It’s plain from a mere audio recording. Corelli, explosive as he is, is still a capital A artist, whereas Gigli is a man of the people. And he sang opera the same way.

    This comparison can extend to entire performances. Try the Forza del Destino performance recorded live in New Orleans in the ’50s, with del Monaco, Milanov, and Leonard Warren. Or the Turandot recorded live at the Met in the ’60s, with Nilsson, Corelli, and Anna Moffo, with Stokowski conducting. Smoke just about comes out the CD player when you put that one on, and I’d challenge anyone to find an equivalent today. (IThat’s a challenge I’d be thrilled to lose, by the way!)

  6. Amy says

    I would think the reduction/elimination of fine arts appreciation in our schools and universities have something to do with this age gap in classical music audience. Students aren’t exposed to ‘liberal arts’ because education today is focused on standardized testing, not on nurturing the ability to link concepts together. Perhaps I’m being harsh and painting with a broad brush, but it’s hard to expect a young professional to all of a sudden attend a performance when he/she is completely unfamiliar with the form. Have the so-called ‘high arts’ become too intimidating for the younger generations because of a lack of exposure?

    This is a fairly popular point of view, in part, I sometimes think, because it absolves the high art world of any responsibility. (I’m not saying that Amy is doing this. I’ve just encountered it elsewhere.) But it’s also, in a way, a despairing point of view, because it’s not clear how things could change. We in the arts have very little leverage over school funding.

    But, quite honestly, I don’t think that this is the problem. People have often gotten interested in new forms of music, without any exposure or education. I saw that happen in the ’70s, with minimalism. It happened in the ’40s and ’50s, with bebop. It happened in the ’90s, when younger people started getting interested in ’50s lounge music.

    To me, the decline of the younger audience and the decline of education in classical music are symptoms of the same larger trend — a move away from classical music throughout our culture generally. And that, in turn, isn’t due to any dumbing down, but instead to cultural changes that are inevitable, as time passes. Movies from the 1940s look dated to us now, and in much the same way the normal kind of classical concert — mainly music of the past — is starting to seem dated, too. (That’s a long discussion!)

  7. says

    Greg, I seem to feel that Thomson’s “intellectual audience” does still show up at concerts, and not just at BAM. It comes out for Uchida or Brendel, it comes to John Adams with Dawn Upshaw, it certainly came out for Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, it comes to Osvaldo Golijov. The fashions have changed but I still recognize the profile. What it certainly does not do is go to the New York Philharmonic. And wasn’t that Thomson’s point at the time, that the “intellectuals” were ignoring the Philharmonic? Some things never change. But your larger point about the ageing audience holds.

    HI, Alex. I think there’s an intellectual part of the classical music audience, which does go to the events you named. But I think that these people are intellectuals in a classical music context. That is, their interest is in something intellectual in classical music. Whereas Thomson’s intellectual audience, as he describes it, are people interested in ideas, to whom certain classical music events happen to appeal. I certainly know the segment of the classical audience you’re describing, and I’m not sure they’re the same people Thomson names. keep coming back to those women in peasant blouses, because I feel I know them, from my own teen years in the ’50s. They’d be reading Jack Kerouac, and listening to folk music and jazz. They’d have bullfight posters up on their walls. They’d be marching in peace demonstrations, or refusing to take shelter during the air raiid drills that were a feature of ’50s life in New York. They’d be going to Jack Gelber and Jean Genet plays at the Living Theater. (Well, OK, some of this is a little later in the ’50s.)

    Whatever the contemporary equivalent of this is, I don’t think I see it at classical concerts. Maybe Golijov — he might draw a kind of intellectual audience that otherwise doesn’t go to classical music events. But I’m not really sure the Brendel audience is marching against the war in Iraq, or listening to Feist.

    Or maybe I just don’t get out enough!

    Thomson’s point, by the way, wasn’t simply that these people didn’t go to the Philharmonic. It was that they were a notable force in classical music, and that people who booked and programmed classical music events were very much aware of them.

    Certainly when I went to classical concerts incessantly in the ’80s, and also went to Next Wave events at BAM, I never (really, categorically never) saw any recognizable chunk of the Next Wave crowd at any mainstream classical concert, even if Alfred Brendel was playing. Or, actually, maybe especially not when Brendel was playing, because he’d attract an especially high church version of the classical music crowd, who were even further from the BAM sensibility than the normal classical ticket-buyers were. But maybe times have changed, and I haven’t noticed.

  8. Larry Fried says

    It’s amazing how classical music has disappeared from the mainstream. As recently as the early 1980s, CBS was still broadcasting the New York Philharmonic “Young People’s Concerts.”

    (That’s not so long ago!)

    Up until the early 1950s, there was virtually no split between “classical” and “popular” music. The greatest jazz musicians of the day all knew and studied classical music. The term “crossover artist” would have been incomprehensible to, say, Bix Beiderbecke or Art Tatum. We all laugh today about Maria Callas singing on “The Ed Sullivan Show” but she did. (Ten points to anyone who can name the conductor who led the offstage orchestra.)

    I hope someone names the conductor. I’m very curious!

    And that’s very true, about the concept and practice of crossover. The concept didn’t exist, because the practice was so routine. Classical stars constantly took part in popular culture, whether it was Caruso recording pop songs in English in the early days of recording, or Lauritz Melchior making Hollywood films. In fact, it was when I was watching one of those — I found it by accident on TV, flipping channels, on AMC or some silmilar cable network — that I realized how much things had changed. Here was the world’s leading Tristan and Siegfried, happily playing the part of a tenor off at a spa to lose weight, counseling young lovers about their relationship, and once in a while getting up to sing with the hotel band, either a pop song or an opera aria. There was no fuss about this at all, no air of “now the great artist descends to us from on high.” And, as far as I know, no disapproval of Melchior for doing this. Times really have changed.

  9. richard says

    I think I mispoke when when I said that our culture has been “dumbed

    down”, I now think a better term would be “inhfantilized”. I was to young to really remember the ’50s, but never the less I feel a kind of vicarious nostalgia for them. This was a time when there was such a beast as the public intellectual, whose thoughts would have a place in the mass media along with the celebrities of the day. Now all we have are celebrities. Look at Time’s “Man of the Year”. “YOU”!!!! What brain-dead narcissitic bullshit!

    Lete’s go back to the Fifties together. We can visit my house, but I’m afraid you won’t find any of my father’s left-wing books on our bookshelves. He’d locked them all in a closet — literally with a lock on the door — for fear that the FBI would come to visit us. Which, of course, had happened to many of his friends.

    Then we could drive up to Connecticut, and try to buy a condom. Oops! Birth control was entirely illegal there. Maybe we could get corporate jobs, and try to wear a blue shirt to work, instead of a white one. As Lenny Bruce used to joke — but it was more than a joke — you’d get called a Communist for doing that.

    I’m sure we’d enjoy Lenny Bruce’s trials, when he was prosecuted for saying things that seem completely harmless now. I’m sure we’d enjoy white supremacy throughout the south, unchallenged by the Republicans, because they believed in it, and also unchallenged by the Democrats, because their control of Congress, and all their hopes to retake the presidency after Eisenhower’s second term, depended on their control of the south — or in other words on their uncritical acceptance of the white supremacist power structure there.

    We’d have enjoyed, I’m sure, seeing women demeaned, which is how the normal state of things back then would appear to anyone used to the way things are now. We’d enjoy seeing our gay friends hiding deep inside their closets. No, wait — we wouldn’t even know we had gay friends, because nobody ever talked about such things.

    And we’d be gagging on second-hand smoke I don’t mean to caricature the Fifties, which in many ways I’m nostalgic for. But my nostalgia is very partial, and in many ways irrational. Anyone used to things now would find a truly shocking level of ignorance and bigotry accepted as the norm back then — with far less criticism of it than you might expect. Today there was news about a Virginia congressman who thinks American values are in danger because there’s now a Muslim congressman. Things like that happened every other day in the Fifties, though of course not involving Muslims, because there was absolutely no Muslim presence in America back then. And precious little visible diversity of any kind (certainly very little publicly encouraged diversity). There weren’t even many ethnic restaurants.

    Public intellectuals? I think a comparison of then and now would be surprising. I think there are many more public intellectuals now. And they’re saying far more probing — and useful — things. We take it so much for granted that we hardly notice it. In the Fifties, celebrated books discovered things we’d now think are elementary. David Riesman, the Harvard sociologist, in his book “The Lonely Crowd” told us that our society had atomized us. His book stood, if I remember rightly, largely alone. How many books now debate that issue?

    Vance Packard, a journalist (I think), made the bestseller lists with “The Hidden Persuaders,” a book that shockingly suggested that advertising is manipulative. Another book — I think William Whyte was the author — called “The Organization Man” amazed America by saying that big corporations enforced conformity.

    I don’t remember a single book or article asking how the Democrats could have the ideals they claimed to have, when their support came so crucially from white southern sheriffs. Compare all the political books around now. Look at Daniel Goleman and Malcolm Gladwell, two people I’d think of as public intellectuals. Think of how much their books get around.

    Or look at the front page of the New York Times these days, with all the feature stories they’re now running, often probing into difficult things. I don’t think you would have seen anything like this back then in any newspaper. Public intellectuals, I’m thinking, stood out in the Fifties because there were so few of them, and because there was so little discussion — in the public arena most people had any contact with — of really deep issues. Except, of course, from a wholly orthodox point of view.

    As for Time’s cover, isn’t it what everyone is saying these days? That the Internet has cut the power of opinion-makers, and tilted the balance back to ordinary people? Isn’t that one of the great clichés these days? Participatory marketing, the great power of niches (see “The Long Tail Effect,” if I remember the title right, another one of our current public intellectual sensations). This stuff is all over the media. See the Wired magazine story about GM turning marketing over to its customers, and then running the ads the customers created that derided the public. Or Jon Pareles’s Arts and Leisure cover piece a couple of weeks ago in the Times, about the power of ordinary listeners in pop music now. Or the endless stories in the Times business section about participatory marketing. It’s the latest rage. Maybe it’s not as revolutionary as many people claim it is, but it’s a far cry from the “Me Generation” of the Seventies. The point of Time’s cover, I thought (especially after I read the text that goes with it, inside the magazine), isn’t that people are in love with themselves. It’s that we (allegedly) have more power than we used to have to make our own decisions.

    Of course, I in turn might be exaggerating when I say some of this. But I think we need to be cautious when we compare the present day with eras in the past. It’s easy to cherrypick the good things — from any era, past or present — and slide over the bad ones.

  10. richard says

    Ouch! I’m really not a nostalgic guy. For a long time I’ve thought of it as looking at the past through “rose colored glasses”, a sort of utopianism in reverse. I just saw that George Will is blasting the “you” man of the year. Boy, this is someone I almost never agree with, unless he’s talking about baseball. Please don’t think I’m some kind of right-wingnut, my forbears who helped start the Grange, and my Great-great grandfather who heard Wm Jennings Bryant’s “cross of gold” speech in person, and worked on all of “Fightin’ Bob” LaFollette’s campaigns would be spinning in their graves! I’m profoundly ambivalent about “participatory marketing” (Hey, it’s probably cheaper than hiring an ad agency. I, for one, don’t want to be a shill for big business.) Personally, I’d love to see all advertising banned! If not that, at least don’t let marketing costs be deducted as a business expense! No, the past was’nt some sort of Arcadia, I just think that some things were better then.

    Richard, you’re very patient with me. I feel like I came down on you like the proverbial ton of bricks. There’s a lot to be said on all sides of these questions. And one thing I think was better in the ’50s — for people who thought independently, there was hope for change. I remember that vividly. I felt lit.

    And then came the ’60s. Hope realized! And after that, a kind of tired darkness, in which the change didn’t amount to what we all hope, and nobody hoped for change any more. That’s one meaning of the irony that’s so dominant today. What else can anybody do except be ironic, when there’s not much optimism around?

  11. Larry Fried says

    The conductor was Mitropolous. There’s a wonderful vignette after Callas finishes singing. Sullivan mentions the conductor and, as the camera pans offstage to show him, Sullivan says: “Let’s have a really big hand for Dmitri.”

  12. Larry Fried says

    Mitropolous. There’s a wonderful moment after Callas finishes singing. Sullivan mentions the orchestra and off-stage conductor, then as the camera pans over he says: “Let’s have a really big hand for Dmitri.”

    One of my all-time favorite show business moments!

  13. says

    Before all the stuff about the 50’s came up, this discussion unearthed a supremely important question (or at least one that I think is important and will allow me to join the fray). I am referring to the connection between the music and contemporary intellectual issues that Thomson says (implies?) used to attract people to concerts. Greg even used the word “represent” in his original post! It seems to me that in some ways, the present situation belies the fact that within the classical music world, the 19th century bickering over program music has never entirely been put to bed. For me, it is not so much a question of WHAT is able to be communicated effectively and consistently, but WHY whatever extra-musical idea is intended to be communicated could possibly be considered more important than the music itself in the abstract. Obviously, this viewpoint is diametrically opposed to the one routinely expressed on this blog. Greg, there’s no nice way to say this: I question the ability of someone who believes that music can become “too formal” or “taken too seriously” to defend it in a time of crisis. That person would seem to me to be an agent of the destructive forces that have created the crisis in the first place rather than those forces which could supposedly navigate through it successfully. It’s this very issue of why people actually would show up to a concert that gets to the heart of the matter. Of course, I don’t want to see classical music evaporate either, but I also do not feel that it is honest sell the experience on literary or political undertones (that is, it would not be honest for ME to do that because that is not what I think is most significant about classical music; perhaps you DO feel that way, but that brings me back to what I already said).

    It would be vulgar and reductive to say that music only “means” what could be expressed in some program, or some explicit or otherwise obvious cultural reference. I hope I never do such a thing.

    But it’s also extreme, I think, to say that music (or any other art) has any existence “in the abstract,” completely divorced from any function the music might have in society. This is, as it happens, a much-discussed question among philosophers — the nature of music, and what the irreducible essence of a musical work might be. See Lydia Goehr’s book “The Imaginary Museum of Musical Works” for a thorough discussion of this subject, and a powerful exposition of the difficulties one gets into, when one maintains that there really is some abstract essence of a piece of music.

    Stepping away from philosphers, I might add that it seems obvious that any work of art has some kind of cultural meaning. That is, somebody created it in a particular cultural context, and some people react to it, again in a cultural context. This doesn’t mean that the meaning of a musical work can be precisely determined by any cultural factors, or that it becomes fixed for all time. Cultural meaning change constantly.

    But certainly the composers of all the classical masterpieces, at least in past centuries, thought their work had some cultural funciton. And in fact we usually think that all art has a cultural meaning (which won’t be its only meaning). The idea that a work of art consisted only of its text — in music, a notated score; in painting, the paint on the canvas; in literature, the words on the page — itself has a cultural context. It’s an idea very much of the 1950s (cf. the new criticism in literature, and Clement Greenberg’s criticism in art), and by now bears the musty smell of the past.

    Except, that is, in the classical music world, where many people still believe in it. And, more important, often advance it as an argument for why classical music matters. See, for instance, Julian Johnson’s book, “Who Needs Classical Music?” Johnson argues that it’s precisely because classical music exists in some abstract structural space that it’s more valuable than (for instance) pop. And thus more important in our culture.

    But consider the paradox of this! The fact that classical music has, in essence, no cultural context — or at least that its essence exists elsewhere — becomes its cultural meaning! So classical music does have cultural meaning after all.

    I’d say that the persistence of this belief itself has a cultural meaning. The belief functions as a last-ditch defense of classical music against claims that it’s become culturally irrelevant. If I come along and say that the classical music world is troubled in today’s culture because it offers too much music from the past, someone can say in response that I’m wrong and vulgar, because classical music has an abstract value that has nothing to do with when it was composed. This belief about classical music thus becomes a cultural weapon — which suggests once more that cultural meaning can’t be avoided, even by people who’d like to bypass it.