Radical idea footnote

In my last post, I didn’t t mean to imply that old music — Beethoven, Verdi,  you name the composer — won’t be part of the new classical music world I’m dreaming of, when Steve Reich, Bang on a Can, and eighth blackbird are at the heart of the musical mainstream. Anyone who wants to play old music — aka the masterworks of western musical history (and I mean that very seriously) with conviction will surely do it, and no doubt find an audience. But we probably don’t know exactly how that will work, and exactly what place those masterworks — formerly the classical music mainstream — will have. They’ll have to find their place, an evolution that will be fascinating to watch.

Though once they find it, I’d imagine they’ll be loved, even if — or maybe especially if — they’re played less often than before.

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


  1. Yvonne says

    It’s a tricky one to contemplate. It’s tricky even when I attempt to set aside the feelings of anxiety that come with imagining not being able to hear orchestral repertoire in live concerts on a frequent basis in any major city I might care to live or visit.

    But let’s say I take a few deep breaths and do that: imagine a scenario in which the symphony orchestra is not a sustainable entity in Western countries but instead the core of “classical” music-making comprises small ensembles that play mostly quite recent music with perhaps a few revered works from the very recent past. (Sounds quite baroque, that.)

    I suspect what would happen (eventually) is that orchestral repertoire would be played very little. A whole bunch of things would conspire against its survival in live performance. These would include: the dearth of ensembles working together regularly (week to week), developing a sound, and mastering the repertoire sufficiently to give accomplished as well as exciting performances; the lack of opportunities for conductors to learn their craft, not to mention this “antique” repertoire; the lack of opportunities for soloists to gain experience playing the concerto repertoire; the lack of opportunities for choral groups (pro and am) to perform music for choir and orchestra to a high standard; the complete lack of incentive for any composer to write for large forces, since virtually no concert performance opportunities would exist (thereby truly forcing the “orchestra” and its existing repertoire into a museum status); and the death knell, the absence of frequent and varied opportunities to hear orchestral music as a living activity and therefore get excited about it (ultimately the way an audience for any repertoire or type of ensemble builds).

    The repertoire can’t exist without its ensemble and vice versa. Playing Beethoven or Verdi or Prokofiev would require the formation of a band that didn’t play regularly together, and which would be directed by a conductor who didn’t do this kind of thing very much (and we know how awful that can be!). If performances were far and few between then the scope of the repertoire would become radically smaller with the list of plausible masterworks greatly circumscribed. I can’t imagine the result would be particularly satisfying or exciting, and given the vast array of recordings from the (now) past, who among the potential audiences for this music wouldn’t be tempted simply to stay at home to hear it? The occasional performance of orchestral “masterworks” would be an oddity, freakish even. Images come to my mind of historical re-enactments (not a “HIP” period instrument analogy but more Civil War enthusiasts or Societies of Creative Anachronism).

    Orchestras might be something that you hear only when you go to the ballet or the opera – that’s assuming the interdependence between these areas of music-making don’t have some impact in the theatrical arts too. Would films use orchestral soundtracks if there wasn’t some prestigious (or not so prestigious) big-city orchestra ready to sell its spare calls for a recording session or two? A studio might be motivated to form its own salaried orchestra if there were none or few permanent bands to call on; then again wouldn’t it be more likely to opt for whatever was the new mainstream sound?

    So the postscript that old repertoire of the large-scale variety would remain a part of a new classical music world such as you describe and that anyone who wanted to “play it with conviction” would be able to do it (let alone find an audience) comes across as wishful thinking to me, a case of wanting cake…

    Because whereas you could argue that the presence of permanent orchestras creates an environment for musicians from which smaller, more specialised ensembles can emerge, I’m not convinced that small ensembles (even assuming that they are comfortably and regularly operating as the new mainstream and assuming that they are sufficiently numerous) are going to create an environment in which “scratch” symphony orchestras (and scratch is what they would be) can provide any particular satisfaction artistically (for the players or for the audience). Fascinating to watch? Or painful…

    Of course, to return to the HIP analogy that I dismissed earlier, it could be that with time (a long time, following the near or total disappearance of a living repertoire – and yes, I consider Beethoven et al a living repertoire at present because it’s part of a continuous tradition) enough people who cared enough about the “masterworks” or even just about the awesome sound of an orchestra would muster new, radical ensembles, striving to perform the music “as it would have been known”, mastering the old skills of orchestral playing and conducting and the lost techniques and tricks peculiar to the repertoire, studying old recordings and documents and seeking out aged practitioners in an attempt to bring their newly discovered music to life afresh for a new generation. Their efforts might be pretty scratchy at first; it’s hardly likely that conservatoria would be training people to be equipped for a non-mainstream activity, they never do. And these future musicians would have it harder than the HIP crowd of the 1950s, simply because their ensembles would be by definition larger and would take more finance and support to sustain, as orchestras do now. But with enough dedication and motivation and eccentric enthusiasm it could be done. (A revolution in the strictest sense.) And, if the performances and achievements and dedicated followings of some of the current HIP ensembles are anything to go by, then maybe that would be very, very exciting indeed.

    Conservatories actually are addressing these questions, or at least some of them are. “Entrepreneurship” is the buzzword in conservatories these days, and plans are brewing, at least in some places, to really stress the ways in which musicians can make careers in their own individual ways.

    But, Yvonne, I really have to thank you for this passionate and thoughtful comment. Understanding what this future might be like — even picturing it — is surely a new adventure for all of us. Certainly it is for me.

    So I’d offer two more thoughts. Of course the change I so blithely sketched would be a major one, with major consequences, some of them unsettling (to say the least). But if it really happens, it’ll happen gradually. We won’t wake up one day to find that the traditional classical music world has disappeared. More likely, it’ll slowly shrink, and the new things I’m excited about (if they really are the future, or a major part of it) will grow. So the disturbances will be gradual. And it may be that the performances of older works won’t disappear completely, or even disappear enough to cause the truly radical problems Yvonne so sensibly and thoughtfully talks about.

    I can also imagine a new kind of orchestra, that incorporates both old and new. I’d like to think of it as a collective of musicians, who do all kind of things — play full orchestral concerts, play chamber music, teach, play at community functions, play new music, play non-classical music, write their own music and play it. And the list could go on. We might find out that there’s more demand than Yvonne expects for older classical pieces, if they’re played in the context of all the newer works which will give classical music its renewed meaning. After all, we still read old books, look at old paintings, watch old movies, and produce old plays. It’s just that (as Lindemann says in his comment) the new books (and paintings, and movies, and plays) have much more currency than new classical pieces have.

  2. says

    It’s like books, right? Most books sold today are not the Masterpieces of the Western Canon, even in the literary realm. People want to keep up with the latest developments, so they buy the latest from Junot Diaz and Claire Messud and Zadie Smith and talk about them. And you mix in older masterpieces as you feel like it. (That’s how I read books, anyway.) What’s so foreign or scary about that?

    Yes, exactly!

    Theater, too. I went eagerly to see Tom Stoppard’s “Rock and Roll” on Broadway, a new play. And just as I’d expected, I found myself drawn into things that had to do with me, both musically and politically. If a production of “Hamlet” had been playing, i’d have asked, “Well, what do they do with the play?” I went to see “South Pacific” at Lincoln Center because I’d heard they really did do something with it, and I wasn’t disappointed.

    Classical music, sadly, doesn’t ask these questions — why some masterwork is being played yet again. Everybody seems to take for granted that those pieces should be played. And played. And played. When explanations are, at least implicitly, offered, they’re lame: “This all-Hungarian program featuring composer-conductor Peter Eötvös and pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard presents Bartók’s mesmerizing Second Piano Concerto and the brilliant Concerto for Orchestra. Don’t miss this concert with these internationally acclaimed guest artists.”

    Makes me wonder if they know why they’re doing these performances.

  3. Yvonne says

    @Lindemann: The big difference between literature and live music (and I touched on this with the idea of the repertoire and the ensemble being interdependent) is that old and new literature ultimately occupy the same physical formats and require much the same resources. In other words, a Tolstoy novel can be published as easily as the latest Allende novel and by the same publishing house, and can be sold and enjoyed in the same sorts of spaces.

    This is hasty and therefore flawed, but to make a closer analogy with classical music (and specifically orchestral music, since that’s what Greg does) you’d have to imagine a situation in which publishing a Tolstoy novel required 10 times more staff, a much bigger printery, and the result was a 20-volume behemoth that no one could afford to buy except for it being heavily subsidised by private donors/government/sponsors.

    A good point, Yvonne, and an important way to advance the discussion. There are certainly differences — huge ones — on what I might call the supply side of the question, the ways in which books and orchestral performances are actually delivered to their audiences, and the resources involved in the delivery.

    But from the demand side — from the audience’s point of view — the situations aren’t too different. That is, people who read serious novels want to read new ones. Not exclusively, but quite eagerly. And people who go to orchestral concerts generally don’t want to hear new music. Or at least they’re not generally excited by it, and it’s not why they’re buying their tickets. In your model, a 20-volume Zadie Smith behemoth would be just as practical as a Tolstoy one — assuming any of the behemoths were practical at all — because many people would want to read it.

    So, at least to me, it doesn’t matter in the end that the delivery systems are so different, the one for books relatively cheap and simple, the one for orchestras tremendously rigid and expensive. If people mostly wanted to read classic literature, that’s mostly what would be published. And if people wanted to hear new pieces, that’s what orchestras would play.

    My own reading certainly supports Lindemann’s point. In the past couple of years, I’ve gone on four novelist binges — I’ve read everything by Jose Saramago and Margaret Attwood, and many novels by Trollope. And now I’m making my way through everything by A. B. Yehoshua. That’s one classic writer and three living ones. A proportion I’d love to find at the orchestra concerts I go to!

    And I’d buy a new Zadie Smith novel the week it came out.

  4. says

    I’d be really, really happy to have more orchestral concerts that are mostly contemporary works, with maybe one 18th- or 19th-century piece on the program that reflects in some interesting way on the contemporary works. I’m not biased towards eighth blackbird concerts and chamber groups; I’m biased towards hearing contemporary music, or at the very least music with which I am not familiar.

    The orchestral concert in the D.C. area that I’ve been most excited to attend this season was the Baltimore Symphony concert with two pieces by Aaron Jay Kernis before intermission and the Beethoven 6th afterwards. In the event, the concert had a sense of occasion that sometimes you don’t get when you’re doing overture/concerto/symphony all from a minimum of 100 years ago. The concert was sold out, and the room was buzzing at intermission. And it was really good! Not as good in the Beethoven as in the Kernis, but a really stimulating evening overall. I don’t know why all concerts shouldn’t be like that, or at least most of them.