…about the dead-horse essay I’ve been beating. The writer of this airy document, Heather Mac Donald, offers this notion:
[Perceptions of a declining audience demand for classical music in our time], however valid, should be kept in historical perspective. Much of today’s standard repertoire was never intended for a mass audience–not even an 1820s Viennese “mass audience,” much less a 2010 American one.
I’ve seen many people make this point. The reasoning, I guess, would be something like this: Classical music has never had, and was never meant to have, a mass audience. So it can survive without one now.
The problems with this line of thought are staggering.
First, the reasoning, if it goes the way I suggested, is specious. Fine — classical music never had a mass audience. But it had enough support, given in whatever form, to survive. That doesn’t mean it can find support today. What’s missing here is data and analysis. How did classical music survive in the past? What supports it, or could support it, now? How secure is its current support?
Second, the argument is entirely a red herring. Nobody says — or certainly I don’t say — that classical music needs mass support. Maybe it’s a specialized, highly rarefied, highly artistic niche. The question, then, isn’t how large the audience in that niche might be, but whether the audience — of whatever size — is sustainable.
People these days who say classical music needs a new audience aren’t saying that it needs a mass audience. They’re saying that its niche audience might disappear, and needs — inside the niche — to be replaced.
Besides, Mac Donald has just quoted people — and cited statistics — suggesting that demand for classical music is diminishing. So how does it help us to insist that support was never all that strong in the past? We’re not living in the past. We’re facing that declining demand — if that’s an accurate picture of what’s going on — right now.
Finally, the notion of a mass market is meaningless historically. There wasn’t any such thing in the 18th century, or in much of the 19th. The largest part of the population — laborers and farmers — weren’t part of any organized music audience. Any kind of formal musical performance, anything staged for an audience in a theater or concert space, would have been for an audience of aristocrats, with more and more newly well-off, newly ambitious middle-class people showing up as the years progressed.
So why talk about a mass market? Let’s talk about the market that existed. In the 18th century and for much of the 19th, all formal musical performances — and all the informal ones, by amateurs — were of what we’d now call classical music, though that term didn’t come into use until the 19th century.
Which meant that classical music utterly dominated the musical market, however large it was, Or, more strongly, there wasn’t any other musical market.
True, a lot of the music in that market — showy piano pieces, written to describe and commemorate famous battles, sold for people to play in their homes — was trivial. But in its style it was what we’d now call classical.
In the 19th century, the rise of the term “classical music” signalled the emergence of the first formal musical distinctions ever made on any large scale within what we now would call classical music performance. People made critical distinctions in the past, as British musical connoisseurs did in the 18th century, when they worshiped Corelli and thought Vivaldi’s vulgar, theatrical verve meant the end of civilization. (See William Weber’s essential book, The Rise of Musical Classics in Eighteenth-Century England: A Study in Canon, Ritual, and Ideology.)
Early in the 19th century, when the term classical music emerged, it was used to label “serious” music by composers of the past, Haydn and Mozart, and music in that tradition written in the present, by Beethoven, and later Mendelssohn and Schumann. (Schubert wouldn’t have been well known enough to rate much mention, until after his death.) This “classical music” was a small niche in the musical world, while “popular music” — the term was actually used — was a hugely larger niche.
But what was this “popular music”? Performances by virtuosi, like Liszt and Paganini. Opera, above all operas by Rossini, by far the most popular performer in Europe.
So here we see the emergence of a mass market, as opposed to a smaller, more artistic “classical” one — except that the music in the mass market is still what we’d call classical! So some of the music in our present classical repertoire in fact did have the beginnings of a mass market in its time. And some composers, like Brahms, played both sides of the tracks. Brahms worried (see Jan Swafford’s biography) that his first symphony wouldn’t earn him enough money to pay for the time needed to write it, and made his large fortune writing what then were popular piano works.
Later in the 19th century, a true mass musical market emerged, as the working class grew prosperous enough to buy tickets for musical performances, and venues — along with new musical styles — like music halls in England rose up to serve them. (See Derek B. Scott’s fascinating book, Sounds of the Metropolis: The 19th Century Popular Music Revolution in London, New York, Paris and Vienna.) Now, for the first time, it was possible to talk of a mass musical market distinct from what we now accept as our classical music repertoire, though even then classical music dominated, culturally, in a way that it doesn’t today. You didn’t have critics taking British music halls seriously, as critics take rock and pop and jazz in our time.
This — and I apologize for its length — is a look at the notion that classical music never had a mass market, a notion that I think is just about wholly specious, especially if it’s used somehow to suggest that classical music isn’t losing support now. Whatever the musical market was in past centuries, what we now call classical music entirely ruled it, often with characteristics — sensation-seeking audiences, for instance — that in our time we’d associate with the mass market, and not with art.