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May 15, 2006

Book 2.0
Episode 7: How It Used To Be

Another new beginning. I've finished the introduction, or rather a very rough draft of it; it's in episodes one through six. In it, I've tried to give an overview of the book. Classical music is in trouble; in my view, it had started to stagnate. This was a fascinating kind of stagnation, because in the midst of it there was lots of vitality. In the past 60 years, since World War II, we've seen the rise of the early music movement, the rise of musicology as a serious scholarly discipline, explosive new styles of new music, new ways of staging opera, a far better (clearer, less idealized) view of classical music history, an exploration of forgotten parts of the classical repertoire, the development of technical analysis as a serious discipline, the eruption of feminism and gender studies into musicology, the rise (in the US) of orchestras and opera companies all over the country, attempts to make classical music more accessible, attempts to bring classical music and popular culture together...and this is just a preliminary list. (Can anyone suggest things I've left out?) As many people have remarked, if you go into a classical record store--assuming, of course, that you can find one--you see an exciting variety of new and old recordings, covering more musical ground than we've ever had available before.

[When I revise this for the published version of the book, I'll have to make it more vivid--a narrative, not just a list--so that people who don't know classical music can see why all these things were so exciting. Where were we before all of this arose, and what made it all so different?]

So what was the stagnation? Classical music began to turn in on itself; it lost its popular touch. In some ways, this was the downside of some of the excitement I've talked about. Consider, for instance, the expansion of the repertoire. We began to see recordings and performances of all Haydn's 104 symphonies, not just the famous ones; of all of Bach's nearly 200 cantatas; of all of Verdi's 26 operas, most of which were at one time so obscure that George Bernard Shaw, writing during Verdi's lifetime, could make fun of music critics who pretended to know the entire Verdi canon, saying that in fact these people knew no more about that music than they knew about "the tunes Miriam timbreled on the shores of the Red Sea." [I'm quoting that from memory; I might not have it quite right.] And, making allowance for his spirited exaggeration, Shaw was right; the writers he made fun of could study the printed scores of Verdi's unknown operas, but they couldn't possibly have heard them.

But in our time, anyone who cares to, amateur or professional, can hear them all. You can download some of them from iTunes. All of which can be glorious fun--or else an absorbing study--for anyone who really cares, but the problem is that the scholarly understanding of all 26 Verdi operas taken as a whole (with variant versions existing of at least five some them) has now become the norm. There's scholarship in pop music, too, but you can avoid it if you want to; you can listen to the Beatles on CD or on the radio, and never know that people have catalogued every one of their recording sessions. Delve into classical music, though, and information like that hits you in the face. As I mentioned in an earlier episode, when the Metropolitan Opera last produced Rossini's wildly crazy comedy, L'Italiana in Algerì, the program book included a scholarly essay on variant editions of Rossini's score. Reviews will talk about such things. CD liner notes consider them.

And what gets lost is the direct appeal of the music. To talk about that, or at least to talk about it without reference to classical music scholarship, is somehow low-rent. Besides, as I've said earlier, what's most important about the music is now supposed to be its structure (a notion supported by the exponential growth, since World War II, of quantifiable musical analysis, in which the structural bare bones of music--the skeleton on which music's blood and flesh is draped--becomes deceptively tangible, and sometimes even mathematical, as if now, at last, we'd penetrated to the heart of music's mystery.

The history of music becomes important, too, and starts to take on an artificial life of its own. We're asked, for instance, to contemplate the popular appeal of Verdi's operas, at the time when they were written, when gigantic barrel organs trundled through Italian streets, playing Verdi tunes. But what does that mean? Does it mean these operas should still be vital now, because they were so popular when they were new? Does it mean that popular music now might turn out to be as great--and long-lasting--as Verdi's operas? It's hard to know, since neither possibility is ever mentioned. The popularity of Verdi, in his day, becomes what we might call an abstract fact, one that's savored by scholars--and thrust upon us in books and program notes--as if it meant something, though what it means is never quite explained. Like all the standard classical composers, Verdi now exists inside a classical-music bubble, where he never has to come in contact with real, contemporary life.

[And here, I think, I've circled back to the introduction, finding yet another way to get at classical music's problems. Some of that is helpful in a book, where--to stay grounded, to keep important ideas in play--you might want to restate things in different ways. But I think I'm also pawing at my subject, trying to find the way I most will want to make my case. There's one criticism, by the way, that I'll happily acknowledge, and that's that I need to quote examples of the classical music orthodoxy I get so busy criticizing. I could do this here with Verdi scholarship, or, alternatively--on another road I thought of taking here--with historical comments on composers' development, exegeses of how crucial (for instance) the Eroica Symphony was for Beethoven's emergence as a musical revolutionary. These analyses, so common in symphonic program notes, sit very oddly next to the untroubled, even comforting familiarity of the music. Which do we believe, the analysis or our experience? The answer, of course, is that we believe both. The historical analysis flatters us, while we listen to the Eroica, by telling us why the piece is so important, without ever asking us to disturb our unruffled enjoyment.]

This scholarly, detached, analytical view of classical music then gets translated into the formality of performances, the immobility and silence of the musicians and the audience, and the lack of communication, the lack of any explanation of what's really going on (which I've criticized so relentlessly in earlier episodes). All this turns many people off, especially since it runs directly against almost every trend in contemporary culture. How can people who (for example) listen to pop music that offers strong views about contemporary life, and about which listeners have really strong opinions--loving this band, hating that one--accept a classical music world in which they're told, repeatedly, in measured, unexcited tones, how great the great composers are?

Nor has the classical music world known (until very recently) how to reach out to anybody. So why should it be a surprise--as a consequence of everything I'm discussing here--that ticket sales have fallen off? Or that it's harder to raise money, or to generate other kinds of community support? And yes, new things are being done--classical music is being made more accessible, and classical music institutions are also doing business better, finally adopting the kind of marketing, financial analysis, and strategic planning that private industry knows how to use. But none of this is happening fast enough; the classical music world is only just beginning to address its problems.

And so we have a crisis--a serious one, if we look at the aging, shrinking audience. Classical music could become financially unsustainable. Which brings me to the first part of the book proper, after the introduction. In that first part, I'll look in detail at the dimensions of the crisis, giving as much data as possible on how bad it really is.

But before I do that, it's worthwhile--very valuable, in fact--to see where these problems came from. I've outlined one source, which was the growth (and spreading importance) of classical music scholarship in the decades after World War II. But where did that come from? In fact it's part of a longer history, which is worth expounding here, because it's not well known, and because it sheds a lot of light on our current situation, and even offers a new kind of hope. Besides, I've found that people are curious, once they start thinking about these things, to know how classical music got to be the way it is.

So now it's time to roll the clock back to an earlier time, when Bach and Handel, and then Haydn and Mozart, and of course many other fine composers, were all writing music, even though classical music didn't exist. Which of course sounds like a paradox. How can this be? As we see them now--to state the obvious--Bach, Handel, Haydn, and Mozart are central to classical music.

But what I'm saying is true. When Bach and Mozart were composing, the concept of classical music didn't exist. Almost all the music anyone performed was music of the present. Yes, music of the past was preserved in manuscript, and some people treasured it, but in the normal run of musical events, you'd never encounter it. There's a story about Mozart visiting Bach's church in Leipzig, and hearing the choir -- to honor him -- sing Bach's motet "Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied." Mozart, who often derided the music he heard when he traveled, loved the piece, and asked to see the handwritten manuscript, which arrived in separate piles of paper, one for each of the eight vocal parts the motet was written for. He spread these piles "all around him" (says an account quoted in Maynard Solomon's Mozart), "held in both of his hands, on his knees, and on the adjoining chairs." He studied the music, putting the eight parts together in his mind, learning the piece, which had been written by a man he'd barely even known about.

What was the music world like, without the burden of masterworks from the past? It was very lively. Music was written for an audience, and the audience reacted. Consider, for instance, the famous letter that Mozart wrote to his father after the premiere of his Paris symphony. He was just 22, and had left home without his father for the first time, living in Paris and starting his grownup musical career, with only his mother as chaperone. His father, worried that he wouldn't succeed, gave him advice: Find out what kind of music the Parisians like, and write it for them. But Mozart had bigger ideas; he thought he could write something more complex and more artistic, the kind of music he liked, but which still would be able to delight people who had simpler taste.

It's hard not to see a parallel with pop music here. Mozart, in a pop analogy, would be signed to a record label. The label would be like his father, wanting him to record songs that people will like. Many pop musicians hate that; they want to record their own kind of music. Mozart, though, would be a little different. He'd want to have it both ways. He'd think he could record his own kind of music, and still get his album on the charts. Which of course does happen, in the pop world. Or sometimes people have it both ways by recording a few tracks that the record company thinks might be hits, and then filling the rest of their album with music they're making for themselves.

So how did it work out for Mozart? Just wonderfully, he told his dad:

I was exceedingly anxious at rehearsal, for never in my life have I heard a worse performance. You can have no conception of how they bungled and scrambled through it the first time and the second. Really I was quite frightened and would have liked to rehearse it once more, but there was so much else to rehearse that there was no time left. Accordingly I went to bed, fear in my heart, discontent and anger in my mind. I had decided not to go to the concert at all next day; but it was a fine evening, and I finally resolved to go with the proviso that if things went as ill as at the rehearsal I would certainly make my way into the orchestra, snatch Herr Lahouse's instrument from his hand and conduct myself! [Lahouse was the principal violinist. In those days, nobody stood up in front of an orchestra to conduct. The principal violinist led the performance.]

I prayed God it might go well, dedicating all to His greater honor and glory, and ecce!--the symphony began! Raff [a singer who was Mozart's friend] stood near me, and in the midst of the first allegro [the first movement, at a quick tempo] 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 [the second movement, at a slower tempo] also found favor, but particularly the last allegro [the last movement, which like the first was fast] 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 [softly] for eight bars only, then forte [loudly], 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. I was so happy that I went straight to the Palais Royale after the symphony, ate an ice, said the rosary I had vowed--and went home--for I always am and always will be happiest there, or else with some good honest German, who, if a bachelor, lives alone like a good Christian or, if married, loves his wife and brings up his children well!

I've always thought the last sentence really meant, "I didn't fool around with any women." But notice what happened--two things that don't fit common notions of classical music. First, Mozart wrote this piece to get a reaction from his audience. And, second, the audience reacted by applauding and crying "Sh!" right in the middle of the piece. Nowadays we think it's daring to applaud between movements, instead of waiting, as proper classical etiquette demands, for the end of the entire symphony. But Mozart's audience had no concept of musical etiquette at all. They clapped as soon as they heard something they liked.

The piece, as it happens, may not have been quite the success that Mozart describes. Notice that he says nothing about the second movement. After the performance, the man who asked him to write the symphony avoided him. When finally they talked, the impresario had a complaint. The second movement had been too complicated. And what did Mozart--in this pre-classical music era--do? Like an obedient servant (or like a pop musician in trouble because his album didn't sell so well), he wrote another second movement, with what success we don't know.

As we'll see in the next episode (which goes online May 29), this incident wasn't even remotely atypical. Audiences in the past applauded whenever they felt like it, interrupting the music on occasion even well into the 19th century. And it gets crazier. The audience, when it wasn't applauding, didn't listen to the music silently. People would talk, eat, and walk around. The musicians could be informal, too. They'd change the music the composers wrote. And on one stunning occasion, something happened that's just about inconceivable today. A key section of one of Mozart's greatest operas was actually improvised at its first performance.

If you'd like to become a subscriber--which above all means you'll be notified by e-mail when new episodes appear--just click here. Subscribers help me; I feel wonderfully encouraged each time somebody new asks to be put on my subscription list. And feel free to add a note to your e-mail. I'm always curious about who's subscribing, and why you're all interested. That often leads to an e-mail exchange, and often enough to some sharing of ideas (from which I learn a lot). Or let me put it this way: Even if you don't work in the classical music business, you become part of the network of people who've helped me with the book, which means (as I explained in episode six) that the book is partly dedicated to you. I'll also offer special goodies to subscribers--segments I haven't published online, revisions of online episodes, the book proposal I'll eventually send to a publisher, other things I can't quite imagine yet.

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Posted by gsandow on May 15, 2006 2:39 AM


What ho, Greg,
I haven't been following the score, so mea culpa if my comment is passe. In the passage you mention a historical "analysis or experience" dichotomy re performance. Aren't there the more fundamental issues of selection (conductor's choice or refusal) and historical serendipity (which library burns down, whose works are re-discovered), to consider?//

And on audience etiquette: I haven't been in a 'silent' audience for years. Less than 2 weeks ago I rapped the shoulder of the man in front of me because he was reading his back-lit text messages during an opera, and sharing them with his partner. I like those heavy programs.

Hi, Chrstine. So what would you have done if you were David Hamilton (the formidable musical scholar), the night I sat directly in front of him at a Metropolitan Opera performance of Moses und Aron? I had long hair then, and my hair hung down the back of my seat, covering David's Met Titles? You would have slugged me!

Re your first point: Sure, many things contribute to the repertoire and styles of performance, as we encounter them. But don't think that an overvaluation of analysis doesn't play a part in conductors' choices. I've heard stories of conductors being afraid to play new pieces that seemed too simple, for fear that they'd be thought musical lightweigihts.

Audience etiquette. My point exactly. When audiences transgress, they don't do it in musical ways. I thought I was talking about musical transgressions -- applauding a particularly ferocious passage, stamping their feet in rhythm, moving to the beat, singing along. Most of my Juillard students these days say they'd love to see (and hear) all that happen while they play. "At least," they often say, "we'd know they were listening."

Posted by: CL Hansen at May 20, 2006 12:51 AM

I have realized that there are no comments to Episode 7 as of now, which is a pity, since I think it's one of your best yet. Therefore, I decided to say something.
I love music, though my special field is literature, and in both, as I see it, similar problems occur.
My point, however, is quite a different one. I have been planning an essay on form in music for quite a while now, and of course the question why form in classical music is regarded as so much more important than in pop music (which it is really not, when one thinks of the importance of verse-chorus-verse tunes): my theory is, that there is a lot of pseudo-scholarship going on:
The best art, as I see it, does not need any formalistic explanations at first. What really matters must be (and is) conveyed in the thing itself. Only afterwards does a scholarly approach matter (if you care), as it will/can make clear WHY things happen, which is the next step from grasping WHAT is happening.(Possible only through various forms of analysis, and work with the score)
Now, with the mentioned pseudo-scholarship (as opposed to serious amateur scholarship, which is the music lover's equivalent to professional scholarship) a curious business is being practiced:
The most abstract notions of form, like "fugue" or "sonata form" - names that do not say much except give a rough overview of the possible ways material is arranged in a piece of music (much like "blues form") is given an undue weight. The common denominator, the thing that eventually matters least, is promoted to the forefront of music. The real stuff, the flesh to the bones, are almost regarded as sterile stuffing. This, to be clear, is often done when talking about music. I am not sure, but I sincerely hope that nobody would seriously listen to a Mozart symphony and wait for this or that generality to happen, when all you really have to do is to follow the current of musical thought, whether it is smoothly taking you through the tonalities or suddenly - and then: _really_ surprisingly - casts you down some ravine or hands you over to unsettling undertows. What is even more, this method of listening - I am tempted to say: the REAL sort of listening - will also work for modernist, or contemporary classical music. Only if you expect things from the music that the music isn't even thinking of doing [and importantly: not _refusing_ to give] can you have - and this only works of art can do - any serious problems with a masterpiece of any sort, genre, period. [Period.]

Very interesting, Daniel. I agree. With maybe one exception, or group of exceptions. It's true that the great classical composers didn't worry about the technical aspects of form nearly as much as later scholars did. But they did think about sonata form, for instance, and could play very conscious games with how they used it. Haydn is especially fond of doing that. So if you hung out in Prince Esterhazy's summer palace when Haydn was employed there, and you really knew your music, you might well listen with absorbing interest, precisely to hear how he'd handle the transition to the recapitulation in the first movement.

But it's also true that you'd be listening for that with much less conscious thought than people -- intimidated by scholarship -- bring to all that today.You'd swim in sonata form, like a duck in water, just as people who like old Broadway showtunes swim in the standard verse-chorus form (with the chorus arranged first eight-second eight-bridge-last eight).

I also was just reading a study by Philip Gossett of Donizetti's opera Anna Bolena. By tracking changes in Donizetti's manuscript, Gossett pretty clearly shows that Donizetti went through a thought process in several places that goes like this: "Well, a piece like this is supposed to have THIS kind of form, but I'm going to find another way to write it."

But I don't know why I'm qualifying all this. From the point of view of most peoples' listening, everything you say is absolutely right. And there's a lot going on in sonata form movements that isn't governed by sonata form.

Posted by: daniel at May 20, 2006 6:26 AM

I have to acknowledge a mistake in this episode, very helpfully pointed out by my e-mail friend Barney Sherman, to whom I'm grateful. I said that Mozart visited Bach's church in Leipzig (and heard a Bach motet) when he was a teenager touring Europe as a prodigy. Not so. This happened when Mozart was 33. I've corrected the text. Subscribers got an e-mail notification of the mistake, along with the complete text of a passage from Maynard Solomon's Mozart, detailing what really happened. Subscribers will also get weekly notes about comments that appear here, and other things. Yet another reason (I hope) to subscribe…

Posted by: Greg Sandow at May 21, 2006 1:59 PM

Dear Greg,
of course you are right about the sonata form elements, and I only left that point out because I tried to make my post rather short.
My very peculiar views on the individuality of art still make me hesitate to attribute a general notion of form to a piece of music (or literature, for that matter) when what actually matters is how it differs from that abstract notion. Since music to me is more about appearance than about hard facts, I would go as far as to say that there exists no form, except the one that is being used. From that point of view, I would say that what Haydn, as you mention, or Beethoven, or others did, was not as much a variation on the form, but an allusion to it, a conscious playing around with audience expectations, if you will.
I am aware that what we say is rather the same thing, but I still maintain that abstract notions of form, separated from any actual piece are - by and large - meaningless.

I like the distinction you're making here. It's a fine point, but a very good one. Thanks for elaborating your point of view!

Posted by: Daniel Syrovy at May 22, 2006 8:49 AM


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