Hidden history

“A Young and Lively Audience: The Hidden History of Classical Music.”

That was the title of a talk I gave last week at the Doctoral Forum, a lecture series at Juilliard. The talk is now online, and you can listen to it.

applaudingThe title was meant to be provocative, of course. I talked about two things: how young the classical music audience was in past generations, and how lively the audience was in past centuries, reacting audibly while they listened, and applauding the moment they heard anything they liked. (Go here for a page on my blog site about how young the audience used to be, and here and here for things I’ve assigned about the audience in past centuries, when I teach my Juilliard course on the future of classical music.)

So why is this a hidden history? These two thing aren’t secrets (though some people persist in thinking the audience was always old, and maybe scholars are more likely to know about the audience in past centuries than classical musicians or fans are). But even if they’re known, I think their meaning isn’t squarely faced — we haven’t fully pictured what classical music was like in the past, with lively younger people rising up to cheer (or howl disapproval) during the music. It’s night and day, compared to the formality and silence we expect now.

I started with two snapshots. One was a 1937 study of the orchestral audience in the US, reported in a 190 book I cite a lot, American’s Symphony Orchestras and How They Are Supported, by Margaret Grant and Herman S. Hettinger. Surveys were taken at two orchestras, and the median age of the audience found to be in Grand Rapids, MI, and 33 in Los Angeles. You can read that for yourself. I’ve scanned that part of the book, and put it online.

And the second snapshot was a letter Mozart wrote to his father on July 3, 1778, when he was in Paris, and among other things writing his Paris Symphony. Here’s the key passage, about the symphony’s premiere:

[I]n the midst of the first allegro came a passage I had known would please. The audience was quite carried away — there was a great outburst of applause. But, since I knew when I wrote it that it would make a sensation, I had brought it in again in the last—and then it came again, da capo! The andante also found favour, but particularly the last allegro because, having noticed that all last allegri here opened, like the first, with all instruments together and usually in unison, I began with two violins only, piano for eight bars only, then forte, so that at the piano (as I had expected) the audience said “Sh !” and when they heard the forte began at once to clap their hands.

So back to the hidden history. I think we can’t quite imagine what the Metropolitan Opera (just for instance) was like, when in 1923 teen fans came to the farewell performance of a favorite diva and strung banners from one side of the balcony to the other. Or when, as Grant and Hettinger report, Harvard students disrupted a performance by the Boston Pops, demanding to hear the Brahms Academic Festival Overture, because in it are university songs the students often sang.

And even if we know that Mozart’s audience clapped during the music, we may not fully grasp

  • that it was Mozart’s intention for the audience to applaud; that the sublime Mozart wanted his audience to interrupt his music with applause
  • that he wrote the Paris Symphony as entertainment
  • that the piece — certainly in Mozart’s eyes, once we understand his intentions — might be incomplete without applause during the music
  • that we should study the symphony as music structured to be entertaining, and not, more academically, only as music structured with sonata form
  • and that we should play the piece in a way designed to arouse our audience

I won’t say more here. You can listen to my talk. And hear everything I’ve written about here, and more, especially my conclusion: that the freedom and liveliness of classical music in the past can open possibilities for what we do with it now, as we transform it to adapt to our present culture, and guarantee its future.

The talk is 50 minutes long. The conclusion, if you want to jump to it, begins about 44 minutes from the start.

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  1. thad says

    As I’ve posted before here, the most amazing thing about the Mozart quotation above is that he knew himself capable of writing something that would evoke such a reaction: “I knew when I wrote it that it would make a sensation … “.

    Greg, can you think of a single composer alive today who could credibly say such a thing?

    • says

      Hmmm. John Williams, Stephen Sondheim, and Steve Reich and Philip Glass (in their younger days, anyway). I can imagine Philip writing the last piece in Satyagraha, and thinking, “I really hit that one out of the park.” Or John Williams writing the Star Wars music, and thinking, “I really nailed that one.” Or Sondheim writing “Send in the clowns,” and knowing it was going to be the hit song in A Little Night Music. When I was in graduate school, studying composition, we had a visit from Mitch Leigh, who wrote Man of La Mancha, and surprising the audience turned out to be his guiding compositional principle, in a curious corner of music that I hadn’t known existed. He mostly wrote music for advertising, and when he’d scored a big campaign for a big company, he’d write a symphonic piece based on his music for the commercials. This piece would be recorded, and given to the company’s salespeople to play in their cars while they drove to sales calls. To motivate them. Leigh said his guiding philosophy was what he called “the blind side hit.” Get the audience expecting one thing, and then do something they don’t expect, that really wows them.

      I think any successful composer working in a genre where audience reaction is important will know, much of the time, when something is going to connect. Hard to imagine Jerome Kern writing “Ol’ Man River,” or Irving Berlin writing “White Christmas,” and saying, “Oh, well, another song written.” Or the Rolling Stones recording “Satisfaction,’ without knowing they had a hit. Or Verdi not knowing (to use an example maybe closer to the Mozart letter) that the key change in the Triumphal March in Aida would wow people.

      Though of course there are times when a composer doesn’t have a clue. I read once that Ponchielli had enormous doubts about “Cielo e mar” when he wrote it, not understanding that he’d given “La gioconda” its one genuine hit.

  2. says

    The Mozart letter can also be read in another way – the audience knew enough to be surprised. They knew how to listen to instrumental music, and not in a conscious analytic way. No one knew what sonata form was before c. 1830, but clearly audiences felt sonata form in their bones and responded to it. What purely instrumental move would surprise an audience, classical or popular, today? Fairly abrupt mixtures of styles or genres, but those are rather obvious gestures. Today’s audiences might know more music than Mozart’s audience, but our knowledge is thin. I might enjoy listening to a raga performance, but would I recognize that the table player just executed a particularly adventurous, bold and witty rhythmic pattern against the tala? I am not sure we can go back to having a large audience that has a deep experience within a narrow language. (Please disagree and cheer me up!)

  3. ariel says

    It is what is left out that tells more … if one
    reads the exchange between son and father
    the story is a little different . First Mozart thought his Paris audience stupid boors if not
    worse – that the Paris audience of the day delighted in bombast and unison playing
    and applauded such work by lesser composers and Mozart looking for a job gave them what he noticed they applauded
    the most ,bombast and unison playing.That he knew what would get the applause
    and what would delight was already a given.
    And he did have the largest orchestra ever
    to impress the “idiots “It is his supreme craftsmanship that saves the work .That we
    no longer burst into applause good or bad is
    understandable -we know the work ,it is
    not “new “.that we should react with surprise
    to a 200 year + old work and applaud during
    its playing as if hearing it for the first time
    imitating the sensibilities of the then audience is pushing the envelope a little much .

    Is John Williams considered a composer ?

  4. says

    Regarding composers who knew how to create a specific reaction, Frank Zappa wrote in his autobiography that he could write a song right now that would make you cry. I think he was arguing for experimentation and pushing one’s boundaries in the passage, and criticizing simplistic pop songs. He clearly regarded emotional manipulation as being possible by a skilled composer or songwriter. I don’t have the book handy, but I think I’ve shared it accurately.