The Monday post

symph hall blogFrom Janet Baker-Carr’s Evening at Symphony: A Portrait of the Boston Symphony Orchestra:

During the first [Boston] performance of Brahms’s Third Symphony the audience left the hall in hundreds.…During the last movement of the first performance of Bruckner’s Symphony No. 7 (1887) there were more people on the stage than in the audience.…[One critic] suggested that in case of fire Bruckner’s Seventh should be played so that the hall would empty instantly.

Do most of us know that new music could be greeted this way, decades before modernism? I didn’t. But I shouldn’t be surprised. We all know how controversial Wagner was. That might tell us that audiences, in the 19th century, were conservative.

But a fuller picture starts to emerge once we know how much of the music performed in those days was by dead composers. Once the concept of “classical music” developed, early in the 19th century, old music — rarely played in the 18th century — began to be valued.

And so more and more of it was played. In William Weber’s The Great Transformation of Musical Taste: Concert Programming from Haydn to Brahms, I read that as early as 1860, the number pieces by dead composers on concert programs ranged from 77% to 94%, depending on which European city you looked at.

One senses [Weber writes] that a tough set of discussions went on between composers and the directing boards of concerts, from which emerged the practice of keeping a slot open for a work by a living composer at some concerts in a series. [my emphasis]

Sounds like our own time!

And so I don’t think the problems we’ve had with new music in our era can be blamed on composers, for writing music that audiences wouldn’t like. Instead, given the history I’ve just described, I’d think it’s baked into the concept of classical music, as we’ve come to understand it. If most of our performances — in 1860 or 2013 — are old music, then of course that’s what audiences want to hear. It’s what they’re used to; it’s what brought them to our concerts in the first place.

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  1. Barney Sherman says

    Bruckner’s Third Symphony seems worth bringing up… At the 1877 premiere in Vienna, audience members left in droves after each movement, until at the end only a couple dozen people were left in audience (one of them was the young Gustav Mahler). Some of the Vienna Philharmonic members had left by the end, and some had deliberately played wrong notes. (Kind of reduces the VPO’s bragging rights to this symphony….)

  2. says

    The term “new” requires clarification. With regard to music, it had an entirely different meaning in 1860 than it does in 2013. In the 19th century it meant something like “having been made or come into being only a short time ago.” These days, it still means that but only as applied to avant-garde (or “contemporary”) music, not to that by composers such as David Arditti [].

    The same is true in the visual arts. New work by Classical Realist painters of today, for example, is never exhibited in the New Museum [], which is devoted exclusively to avant-garde work.

    Whether “new,” “contemporary,” or “avant-garde” work of any kind qualifies as “art” in objective terms is another matter. I happen to think not, as I have argued at length elsewhere. But that is a debate for another day.

    Louis Torres, Co-Editor, Aristos and Co-Author,’What Art Is: The Esthetic Theory of Ayn Rand’ (2000) [Ch. 5: “Music and Cognition; Ch. 12: “Avant-Garde Music and Dance”]

    • says

      Louis, you’re entitled to your opinion, but not to your own facts. Museums of contemporary art routinely exhibit realist work, because that’s now part of the contemporary art mainstream.

      • says

        Greg: My facts are as solid as can be. [5/21] I know full well that museums of so-called contemporary art exhibit “realist” work, but only of the postmodernist or avant-garde kind—not (to quote from my comment) that of “Classical Realist painters of today.” You might want to remedy your ignorance of this school of painting by checking out the article on it in Wikipedia: []. See also the related “School of Boston Painting” at []. I should add that not even the Metropolitan Museum of Art ever exhibits work by these contemporary American painters or their immediate predecessors.

        (My comment regarding the term “new” as related to music still stands.)

        • says

          I’ve seen work like the Boston School’s in serious art museums.

          Sometimes work fails to catch on because it doesn’t suit the tenor of its time. Doesn’t mean it’s worthless, just means it doesn’t speak very strongly to many people. It might later on, of course. You seem to be standing in the middle of an onrushing river — history — pointing to an island which you find more important than the flood. That’s your right, of course, but you shouldn’t be surprised if others don’t see it your way, or criticize them for violating whatever canons of art you think are important.

          I went to the Wikipedia entry you cite, and found it labeled as follows by Wikipedia itself:

          This section appears to be written like an advertisement. Please help improve it by rewriting promotional content from a neutral point of view and removing any inappropriate external links. (March 2012)

          This section needs additional citations for verification. Please help improve this article by adding citations to reliable sources. Unsourced material may be challenged and removed. (February 2012)

          So perhaps you’re not citing a source that’s fully objective.

          • says

            Word [Fact] Checker: Interested readers who happen to see this may want to go back to the beginning of our discussion and carefully note in the initial substantive parts exactly what I wrote and exactly what you said in reply. They should keep the meaning of each key word in mind.

            Just one example from today’s exchange. Key words in my comment of May 22: ENTRY and ARTICLE [in Wikipedia]. Key word in your reply: SECTION. The critical Wikipedia statement you quote applies to just one small “section” in the “entry” I cite, yet you lead readers to believe that the entire entry (a full article) “appears to be written like an advertisement” in Wikipedia’s opinion. Not so. Unless readers go to the trouble to check for themselves, they will have no reason to doubt the veracity of what you say, of course. Most of them, after all, trust you and are not familiar with my work. Why should they bother checking? You count on this.

            End of discussion for my part. I leave it to readers to decide who deserves a few Pinocchios. .

        • says

          I think the idea that “new music” is only experimental, avant-garde or modernist stopped being true about 30 years ago at least Louis – this is not really an issue any more at all

          • says

            And the experimental/modern/avant-garde new music always had more prestige than performances. If you look, for instance, at what US opera companies performed earlier than 30 years ago, you’re not going to find much that’s atonal. Instead, you find Carlisle Floyd, Robert Ward, Douglas Moore (to name three composers whose works stuck in the repertoire), not to mention Menotti and Samuel Barber. Composers who wrote in traditional tonal style, though sometimes with an American folk overlay.

  3. Jeffrey Sultanof says


    Not only didn’t the audiences like new music, but the critics…..It is fascinating to read their reactions to now-classic works in the repertoire. It is also very interesting to read music magazines from the 1850s-1860s where the critics attack each other for their musical taste.

  4. says

    People have aligned into proponents and opponents early on: it’s what people do. I remember speaking with some very elderly relatives who had attended early performances of Brahms’s symphonies, and as each new one came out, they would say, ‘Oh, well, but I liked the Second better; you know, he’s headed downhill with this Third–he’s had it, he seems to be going nowhere!’
    When I was young and could attend Bernstein’s New York Philharmonic concerts, he was a ceaseless advocate of Bruckner and Mahler, and, slowly, these have become much revered parts of the canon. Advocates of his stature making impressive use of their podiums can move mountains and make us love these interminable, repetitive, mediocre works, making concert goers inheritors of Wagner’s inability to shut up and sit down. Time tumbles everything and takes off the rough edges–eventually we, too, lose our energy and subside into complacency and the acceptance of even the most appalling art.
    One can only wonder though what these last featureless 50 years in art and music will hand the future–a golden age of art interpretation, rehashing the classics but offering little of its own that is truly creative.

    • says

      Maybe two very young experiences of mine fit in here. When I was 10, I loved Don Giovanni and the Pastoral Symphony. Listened to them over and over, had a score of the Pastoral, played Don Giovanni on the piano from a vocal score. Then I was given a recording of the Brahms First Symphony, and it sounded like noise to me. Couldn’t comprehend it at all.

      Later, in high school, my parents got a subscription to the NY Philharmonic, just when Bernstein was exploding with Mahler. I heard the Second Symphony, and was transfixed. I’ll never forget my astonished delight when the timpani played a five-note scale in the last movement. I’d never dreamed such a thing was possible, and I loved it.

      You’ll get pushback, of course, about the “last featureless 50 years in art and music.” Seems a little strong for the age of Bob Dylan, Steve Reich, and any number of astonishing visual artists. You may or may not like what’s emerged, but to call an era with such exploding innovation “featureless” seems a little off. Just take David Del Tredici’s “Final Alice.” You might hate it, but featureless? Not likely, at least in my view.

  5. ariel says

    One can play around with supposed facts to suit whatever outcome is desired. “All great composers died poor and unappreciated,and upon their death the world came to realize what it had lost , and so they drag out Schubert , Mozart, etc. to prove a point , however false .Most
    of what is called classical music to-day had an audience in its day (of course there are exceptions as in any art form )and to write that the audience didn’t like” new” music is
    to be misinformed. To bring up Bruckner proves nothing ,some people to-day can’t abide
    him .Most bring up Stravinsky and the famous night … but the work was played in concert
    a short time later to an appreciative house . It is always interesting to note how some state
    a premise then work the facts to suit the proposition . Wagner had a tough time not because of his music but to staging the works .


    • says

      “One can play around with supposed facts to suit whatever outcome is desired.”

      So there’s no such thing as truth?

      And it’s not worthwhile to learn that the vast bulk of music played in European concerts during the last half of the 19th century was by dead composers? Did you yourself know that?

      • Herbert Pauls says

        I wonder if this issue can be clarified a little by bearing in mind that music consumption stats sometimes seem to be weighted in favour of orchestral concerts and not opera houses – and certainly not choral societies or print music sales aimed at the home market.

        Orchestral concerts were far fewer in the nineteenth century than today. Not only were there very few ensembles, but even a major one like the Vienna Philharmonic only gave a small handful of concerts per year. On the other hand, a great many music lovers participated in choral activity and home music, for which they needed a constant supply of scores. And for them, publishers supplied new music in droves. For example, when we look on the back of all those old turn of the century Novello scores of Elgar, Stainer, etc. we find an astonishing amount of period music that was evidently being sold, tried out, and performed in its day but has now been forgotten (German historians sometimes like to lump much of this repertoire under the term “Trivialmusik”). Also, in addition to the ubiquitous salon-type new music by Moskowski, Chaminade and hundreds of others, most new orchestral, opera and even chamber music was arranged for piano solo or duet, which of course sold in much more plentiful quantities than the full scores. Someone was evidently buying this stuff, and a great many music publishers were indeed making a living off of this sort of activity (unlike in the later twentieth century). As for opera house programming, it was partly driven by new music until at least the 1920s in many countries. New works by Korngold, Schreker, Dohnanyi, and many others received long initial runs.

        When we begin to factor in examples like the above we begin to realize that the public appetite for new “classical” music was indeed far far greater that it was after the mid twentieth century. And since the example of Wagner was brought up by ariel, it is well to remember that the Ring, when it was finally finished in the 1870s, was an immediate success and opera houses throughout Germany were soon clamouring to produce it. Meanwhile, Bizet’s Carmen from the same decade was an initial flop. Such is the slippery nature of reception history. There is such a thing as truth, but it turns out to be very complicated sometimes.

        • ariel says

          Pauls is spot on – but one does find that most people writing on the arts , music or painting always find a” truth” that bolsters their premise and other “truths ” are
          conveniently ignored . The last observation Mr. Sandow presents us with is a case in
          point.” Sounds like our own time! etc. Mr. Sandow knows better .

          • says

            Ariel, have you studied all of this very much? See my reply to Pauls. It’s especially easy to cherry-pick your favorite truths if you haven’t learned very much about the matters at hand. So much discussion of classical music, past and present, takes place without much information. It would help, I think, if people who’d like to disagree with my conclusions at least skim the William Weber book I’ve cited, so that we all start with the same data.

          • says

            I’ll add, Ariel, that I still don’t know what your own point of view is on the important questions we discuss here. I can see that you enjoy taking me down (or trying to), but I’d love to know your views on questions that are more important than whether I’m right or wrong on any particular point. What’s your view on the current classical music crisis? What do you think people involved in classical music should be doing now? What do you think the future will be like?

        • says

          The William Weber book I cited takes into account most, if not all, of what you’re mentioning. For much of the 19th century (Weber also wrote about this in his first book, Music and the Middle Class), there was a strong distinction made in Europe between classical music and popular music. Popular music wasn’t what we’d say it was today, though. It meant opera and recitals by virtuosi. Much of the new music performed was in the popular music arena.

          Brahms’s career gives a look at this. He made much of his living by publishing piano pieces that people could play at home. He hesitated (or so Jan Swafford says) to write his first symphony because he wouldn’t make much money from it. And when he was music director of an important Vienna performing group, he only rarely programmed new pieces, preferring to stick to the classics.

          About new opera: In Italy, new works were frequently done right up to the ’50s. So many Mascagni premieres, mostly now forgotten. And other pieces, too.

        • says

          I’d add, Herbert, that I’ve looked through many old Novello scores, including some older than Elgar. I found one once, for instance, of an absolutely stultifying oratorio, duller than dull, Michael Costa’s “Eli.” And we certainly know, from George Bernard Shaw’s reviews, and other sources, of the active oratorio scene in late 19th century Britain, with provincial festivals premiering new works, like those by Parry, which Shaw deplored.

          But to say this, and then talk somewhat vaguely about nuance, is to stop the discussion before it’s really gathered any speed. I’m sorry to be such a Johnny One-Note, but William Weber takes things further by offering statistics, which are hard to argue with. Another nuance is that things improved slightly toward the end of the 19th century, with the peak of old-music preference coming in 1860.

          And about Wagner. If you read Shaw, reviewing music in London in the 1890s, you can see that Wagner was very slow to arrive there, and remained highly controversial. And it’s also true that Wagner wrote operas, and that opera houses and audiences were more open to new music than concert audiences were. It’s also plain from reading Shaw that the bulk of the music he reviewed was by dead composers. As you read him reviewing London concerts week by week, you see a lot of people playing Beethoven, but very few playing Brahms. Very few reports of Brahms symphonies at orchestra concerts (actually I can’t remember reading even one such review by Shaw), or of pianists playing Brahms concertos. Or, for that matter, Tchaikovsky symphonies or concertos. Or Dvorak symphonies! They weren’t part of the London repertoire. Wagner orchestral excerpts did show up, but — again, reading Shaw week by week — they seem like the exception that proves the rule.

          So you have pockets of new music — those oratorios, opera (the British premiere of Cavalleria Rusticana was a sensation). And then you have a steady drumbeat of older work. One new concerto I remember him reviewing was by Paderewski, but then Paderewski was a popular virtuoso, and was himself playing the piece.

  6. Ariel says

    Mr . Sandow you misinterpret ! I believe you to be more erudite than you let on here and my responses to you may be not to your liking but believe me they are in no way to be thought
    of as an attempt “to take you down “they are responses to statements from one whom I believe
    knows more than he lets on .Just for the record Tschaikowsky was played and reviewed by Shaw as was also a Brahms piano concerto- and the Brahms symphony in D
    which he found delightful . I believe both composers were very much alive at the time .

    • says

      I know he reviewed them. My point was that if you read him week by week, as he wrote his reviews, you don’t find the orchestras he talks about playing these pieces at all often. Very, very, very rarely.

      As for me knowing more than I let on — why, Ariel! You’re a clairvoyant, on top of all your other skills.

  7. says

    So the term “new music” also applies to New-classical music? By Stefania de Kenessey, say [] (see Allan Kozinn quote), and by David Arditti [], whose music is in the “European Classical idiom”? Perhaps you should let all three know! — L.T.

  8. richard says

    Argento, while tonal, has used atonal material, and more “progressive” techniques than the composers you mentioned, and his operas have been performed a fair amount.

  9. ariel says

    Classical music crisis ! ? there is none – music is” evolving” to suit the sensibilities of the day and
    the age .The” crisis” is the reaction of the older generation in what mattered to them no longer
    matters to the new generation or if it does to any degree, it matters in a different way and
    probably not to the liking of the older generation . One can give lip service to what the “high
    art ” is or is not but if a generation feels it is not quite their cup of tea then there is the resulting
    half filled concert halls and the shutting down of orchestras . The symphony orchestra was
    a cultural status symbol at one time, now it is not . The tragedy in all this is how many music conservatories insidiously promulgate to the unsuspecting the hope of a career knowing how
    little are the chances of gainful orchestral employment never mind being a successful soloist .

  10. Ariel says

    I don’t believe the words ” evolve ” and ” crisis” mean quite the same thing .