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May 29, 2006

Book 2.0
Episode 8: The Crazy Past

[Many people have asked me what I think about Allan Kozinn's piece in The New York Times this past Sunday, May 28. It said that classical music was in a golden age, and that talk of any crisis wasn't borne out by "the numbers." I disagree with all of that, of course. And I was surprised that Allan gave such sketchy evidence for his conclusions, given how large they are and how firmly he seems to believe in them. To give just one example: the only figures on ticket sales mentioned in the piece come mostly from a few small New York venues. There's nothing about the New York Philharmonic, nothing about the Metropolitan Opera, and, most importantly, nothing about anything outside New York. I'll have a full answer to what Allan wrote in my blog very soon.]

I began episode seven with more thoughts about the classical music crisis. Classical music had started to stagnate, I said. 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, and much more, including the rise (in the US) of orchestras and opera companies all over the country, along with attempts to make classical music more accessible, and attempts to bring classical music and popular culture together.

But at the same time, 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. The expansion of the repertoire brought with it an eruption of scholarship. Anyone willing to buy enough recordings could hear all of Haydn's 104 symphonies, all of Bach's nearly 200 cantatas, and all of Verdi's 26 operas, many of which had gotten obscure even during Verdi's lifetime. But you can't encounter this music without also encountering (in program notes, CD liner notes, and elsewhere) scholarly discussion of it. What then 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. And so the history of classical music 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.

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. So why should it be a surprise--as a consequence of everything I'm discussing here--that ticket sales have fallen off? 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 the crisis comes from. And in fact it's part of a longer history. To look at it, we have 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 active, even though the concept of classical music -- as we understand that now -- didn't exist. Almost all the music anyone performed was music of the present.

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:

[I]n 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.

Here are two things that don't fit our present notion of classical music. First, Mozart wrote this piece to get a reaction from his audience. And, second, the audience reacted right in the middle of the piece. The people in Mozart's audience didn't remotely understand our concept of musical etiquette. They clapped as soon as they heard something they liked.

What did this audience look like? In his book Musicking, Christopher Small talks about a Canaletto painting that dates from 1754, called "London: Interior of the Rotunda at Ranelagh." [Faithful readers may recognize what follows from episode two of the first version of this book.] It hangs in the National Gallery in London, and shows an orchestral performance:


The orchestra, amazingly for anybody used to modern concert halls, isn't in the middle of the space. It's off at the right, under the canopy. and not at all the center of attention. The performance, Small says, might have been

Mr. Handel directing one of his organ concertos or a concerto grosso; or that remarkable phenomenon, the eight-year-old Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, presenting a piano con­certo of his own composition; or the regular music director [at Ranlagh], Dr. Thomas Arne, directing his new symphony--they all performed there. Whatever it is they are playing, we can be sure it will be a piece that modern concert au­diences sit in stillness and silence to listen to.

But that is not what the people in this picture are doing. They are stand­ing or walking about, talking in pairs and in groups, or just coming and going, in much the same way as people do in the foyer of a modern concert hall. It appears that the building has not caused socializing and enjoying music to be divided into two separate activities as does a modern concert hall, and the members of the audience seem to be perfectly capable of doing both things at the same time. We have to assume that they were no whit less sophisticated or discerning in their musical judgment than mod­ern audiences, since this is the period, around 1760, that is generally re­garded as one of the high points in the history of the Western tradition.

Most of those present seem, at least to our eyes, to be treating the per­formance as background to their other social activities--there is even in the foreground a couple of small boys engaged in a bout of fisticuffs--but there is a knot of people gathered around the musicians' platform, as in a later day jazz enthusiasts would gather around the bandstand in a dance hall when one of the great bands was playing for the dancing. If the musi­cians are part of the social scene and do not dominate it, it is to large extent because of the circular shape of the building, which allows no direction to be me dominant one. Even the musicians' platform is unobtrusive; it looks like the afterthought that we are told it was, since the musicians were orig­inally placed at the center of the space. Another detail emphasizes what is to our eyes the informality of the scene: in the niches around the circum­ference can be seen diners seated at tables. In one niche I think I can even see a waiter bending over obsequiously, taking the order. It looks like a very agreeable scene.

But not a scene, of course, like anything we see when we play Handel or Mozart now. In the Louvre earlier this year I found another painting of a musical performance, Giovanni Paolo Pannini's "Fête musicale donné par le cardinal de La Rochefoucauld au théatre Argentina de Rome en 1747 a l'occasion du mariage du Dauphin, fils de LouisXV"(or, in English, "Musical celebration given by the Cardinal de la Rochefoucauld at the Theater Argentina in Rome in 1747 on the occasion of the marriage of the Dauphin, son of Louis XV"):


This was a resplendent occasion. There are more than 70 musicians in the orchestra, plus singers, and in the audience (or so I'd guess) was everyone important at the court of Louis XV, including many churchmen. In the front row of seats sit cardinals or bishops, in red skullcaps; behind them sit priests, whose skullcaps are black. And yet vendors (at the bottom of the painting) are moving through the crowd, selling drinks. In the space behind the seats, aristocrats are chatting. One of them has even wandered forward, and is standing in the middle of the seats, gabbing with the clerics. This was a formal occasion--more formal, in fact, than anything we'd see in concert halls today. Just look at the lavish theater, and the lavish clothes that everyone is wearing. But the music isn't being heard with formal concentration.


And things got crazier than that. When Handel ran opera companies in London in the early 18th century, he ran them as commercial enterprises. Opera, after all, was popular, maybe not with a mass audience (whatever we might imagine a mass audience to be, back then, in an age when most people were too poor to buy tickets for public entertainment), but with aristocrats. And also with their footmen and servants, who were admitted free to the upper gallery of the theater, and shouted comments at the singers: "Damn her! she has got a nest of nightingales in her belly!"

But then nothing about these performances was decorous. On stage there was spectacle, including flying, fire-breathing dragons. The singers seemed exotic--most were Italian (and therefore, to an English audience, exciting and theatrical). Some had scandalous lives. Some of the women wore scandalous, revealing costumes. Many of the stars were castrated men. That was the fashion in Italy, to castrate boys who had musical talent (or whose poverty-stricken parents were willing to sell them -- literally sell them -- to an opportunistic music school [this is a detail I'll have to check before I put it in the final version of the book]. These boys then were trained to be singers, and the best of them sang, by all accounts, with voices that were both shining and powerful, combining the brilliance of a woman's high vocal range with a man's virility. The castrati who made it big, becoming opera stars, were international sensations, wealthy, fawned over, and -- since their sexuality wasn't affected by the operation -- sexually pursued by both men and women.

And so the castrati were perpetual operatic scandals. Opera, at its peak in London, could be tremendously exciting. Here's what one 18th century writer said about the London premiere of a Handel opera called Radamisto:

If persons who are now living, and who were present at that performance may be credited, the applause it received was almost as extravagant as his AGRIPPINA had excited : the crowds and tumults of the house at Venice were hardly equal to those at LONDON. In so splendid and fashionable an assembly of ladies (to the excellence of their taste we must impute it) there was no shadow of form, or ceremony, scarce indeed any appearance of order or regularity, politeness or decency. Many, who had forc'd their way into the house with an impetuosity but ill suited to their rank and sex, actually fainted through the excessive heat and closeness of it. Several gentlemen were turned back, who had offered forty shillings for a seat in the gallery, after having despaired of getting any in the pit or boxes.

And when Handel made the mistake of engaging not just one, but two Italian prima donnas to perform opposite one of his castrato stars, all hell broke loose. One of these women, Francesca Cuzzoni, was "short and squat, with a doughy cross face" (according to Horace Walpole, one of London's leading citizens), but also "an expressive and pathetic singer" (or so said an 18th century writer on music history). The other prima donna, Faustina Bordoni, "had the art [or so the same music historian wrote] of sustaining a note longer, in the opinion of the public, than any other singer." She was also pretty, smart, a fine actress, and temptingly unmarried.

The two women didn't get along. And so one Tuesday night in June, when Handel was leading an opera by the Italian composer Bononcini,

a great Disturbance happened at the Opera, occasioned by the Partisans of the Two Celebrated Rival Ladies, Cuzzoni and Faustina. The Contention at first was only carried on by Hissing on one Side, and Clapping on the other; but proceeded at length to Catcalls, and other great Indecencies: And notwithstanding the Princess Caroline was present, no Regards were of Force to restrain the Rudenesses of the Opponents.

Or so wrote a London newspaper, four days later. But as the conductor Christopher Hogwood adds in his book on Handel,

Nor was the violence limited to the audience: 'who would have thought the Infection should reach the Haymarket, and inspire two Singing Ladies to pull each other's coiffs?' asked John Arbuthnot in his pamphlet, The Devil to Pay at St. James, published that year; '... it is certainly an apparent Shame that two such well bred Ladies should call Bitch and Whore, should scold and fight like any Billingates.'

The town satirists quickly capitalized on the scandal. A hastily published skit, called The Contre Temps; or, Rival Queans, gives a replay of the action set in the Temple of Discord, with Handel standing fatalistically by as the two ladies maul each other:

I think 'tis best - to let 'em fight it out:
Oil to the Flames you add, to stop their Rage;
When tir'd, of Course, their Fury will asswage.

(Faustina lays flat Cuzzoni's nose with a sceptre, Cuzzoni breaks her head with a gilt leather crown: Handel, desirous to see the end of the battle, animates them with a kettledrum : a globe thrown at random hits the High Priest on the temples: he staggers off the stage.)

Another London publication ran a satirical poem, making fun of the two women with explicit (and in fact completely pornographic) comments on their sexual performance. One reason all this is worth recounting is that our ideas of opera in this period -- the Baroque period; Baroque opera -- don't allow for anything like what I'm describing. Until very recently, the conventional classical music wisdom (printed in books, taught in music schools) was that Baroque opera was stylized and restrained. Which can't be true! As we'll see, this notion came from a misunderstanding of the music in Baroque opera. But for the moment, we ought to let that go, and just agree on something very basic, and very human. Nothing performed in the carnival atmosphere of Baroque opera could possibly have been restrained, not musically, socially, theatrically, or sexually. Just look at how Richard Taruskin, in his five-volume Oxford History of Western Music, describes what things were like back home in Italy, where Baroque opera began:

The liberties singers were expected to take with the written music, and had to take or lose all respect, would be thought a virtually inconceivable desecration today. But that was the very least of it: the great Neapolitan castrato Gaetano Majorano, known as Caffarelli (1710-83)...was actually arrested and imprisoned, according to the police report, for "disturbing the other performers, acting in a manner bordering on lasciviousness (on stage) with one of the female singer, conversing with the spectators in the boxes from the stage, ironically echoing whichever member of the company was singing an aria, and finally refusing to sing in the ripieno [the concluding "chorus" of principals] with the others." He was released, however, by royal command and reinstated in the company, for he was the public's darling. They loved his monkeyshines.

Now what sort of public would tolerate such behavior, let alone delight in it? Nowadays only a circus audience, perhaps; surely not any sort of "serious" theatrical public. We, who expect (and are expected!) to sit still and pay attention when attending any theatrical performance, can only regard the behavior of the opera seria audience as something virtually other-planetary. That audience, a mixture of aristocracy and urban middle class (what we would now call "professionals"--doctors, lawyers, clergy, civil servants, and military officers), was famed throughout Europe for its sublime inattention. They "sat (or roamed) in a continuously well-lit auditorium," as one commentator remarked, having come to the theater "to see itself as much as to see the show." As Feldman reports (citing research by Kathleen Hansell), at San Bartolomeo in Naples, a particularly aristocratic house, "noise levels astonished diarists from abroad, nobility arrived with servants who cooked whole meals, talked, played [at cards), and relieved themselves in the antechambers that stood in back of each lavish box."

Next: what they did with the music, including what I promised for this episode, but didn't get to: how part of the final scene of one of Mozart's greatest operas, Don Giovanni, actually was improvised at the first performance. I'll also ask what all this means. I don't claim to be describing paradise. Performances before the dawn of what we now call classical music weren't any kind of ideal. They often were a mess. But that doesn't mean that we should throw out their spirit.

[I wrote the previous episode while listening to U2's first four albums. I wrote this one to the sound of frogs and crickets outside my study windows, joined for a short time by the rumble of a passing train. When I'd finished writing, and did the drudge work of putting what I wrote on the web, I put on headphones, and listened to Haydn's Symphony No. 28, a really sparkling piece in A Major.]

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Posted by gsandow on May 29, 2006 11:56 PM


This is the most fun act in the continuing "play" of music history. Christopher Small's Musicking is one of my favorite books on music -- and he my favorite Englishman in Spain.

I'm going to miss reading the chapters, Greg. The whole experience is great fun. Most of the observations you make are outside of what passes for scholarship today. But your observation "rings" with my experience.

The guys in charge of "classical" music aren't in it for the music, bud. There's other fish to fried, apparently.

I'm listening to my collection of Moondog as I write this. Right now: "My tiny butterfly butters my bread." Keep the faith, Greg.

Thanks, Randy. One interesting, maybe hopeful thing -- I owe a lot of my out-of-the-ballpark information to scholars. So they're starting (at least a few of them) to come around. You and I know what a force for good Susan McClary has been, for instance. And wait till you see the stuff about Don Giovanni, which comes from Michael Kelly, who's at Harvard.

Have a great summer, Randy. It's good to hear from you. (Randall Davidson is a fine composer from Minnesota, whom I've known since the '80s. When he and I knew Susan, she was teaching at the University of Minnesota, and had just started to make a name for herself. Randy asked me to edit a series of articles for the Minnesota Composers Forum newsletter; he was an official of that group. One of those articles turned into one of Susan's best-known essays...this all takes me back...)

Posted by: Randall Davidson at May 30, 2006 2:09 AM

Greg - I'm joining late as you know. You may have dealt with this already, but for me there are two important larger contexts for whatever we can say about "classical music."

First, humanity is far advanced now in being disconnected from Nature, both by human "overwriting" of nature itself (environment change) and by mediation of all our sense experiences. After years running classical public radio stations and being saturated with recorded sound (which I loved), I found myself for two years in a context without recorded sounds of any kind. A non-virtuoso performances I heard toward the end of that time of Schubert songs was astonishingly moving. Reminds me of how Whitman describes the experience of an opera in NYC mid-19th century - it was as if everyone had taken hallucinogens. Indeed, they had - by ear.

Second big context, while composers around the world work from the classical tradition, it did originate as an expression of European experience. And in the Great War European sense of self hit an iceberg, and by 1945 was sunk. Composers have had a very hard time dealing with this.

I don't know what the discussion is about correcting the idealist viewpoint relative to classical music, but idealism as an important world-view was part of CM's heritage; and that was finished by 1919.

Posted by: John Beck at May 30, 2006 12:16 PM

You idealize the past so much that you are
unable to appreciate the present.Just because
audiences may have behaved differently at per-
formances does not mean that there is something wrong with classical music today.And there is
absolutely nothing "stagnant" about classical
music today,not with all the numerous new works
that have been premiered in recent years are are
being performed now.To say that most music was new
in the past doews not mean that musical life was
in any way"better" than it is today.In the time
of Mozart and Haydn,the symphony orchestra as
we know it was a new thing.They did not have a
vast repertoire of music from the past to draw on.
Today,our classical musical lifew is infinitely
richer and more diverse because of the enormous
variety of music we can hear today.Why should
we limit ourselves to new music?Of course,it's
vital to give new works a chance to be heard,
but it would be terrible not to hear the great
music of the past,too.No one complains that we
read the great novels of the past;we can can
still read new ones,and see the visual are of the
present,as well as that of the past.

Posted by: robert berger at May 31, 2006 10:33 AM

Hi! I am enjoying your text.

It is just to point out a little mistake: the Argentina theatre is in Rome -- as you said -- not in Paris, and the feast was a typical 18th-century embassy celebration, where "everyone important at the court of" Benedict XIV [not Louis XV] was present. The reason for your "including many churchmen" becomes clearer.

Thanks! I'd imagined that this was in France because the impressive French cardinal had arranged the event. I'm happy to learn the correct location. Better to make the mistake now, than in the published book.

Posted by: Mauricio Dottori at June 1, 2006 11:21 AM

I too read the NY Times piece with interest. Falling somewhere between your view and that of Allan Kozinn, I think there are simply too many organizations presenting classical music in much of the country. Every city of any size has a major symphony along with several suburban orchestras, an opera company or three, and probably several choral groups competing for audiences and donation dollars that mostly overlap.

The Dallas area, where I live, has seen a surge of new choral groups recently. This seems driven not by public demand or artistic niches being unfilled, but by musicians wanting their own groups to lead and perform in. In a recent piece by the San Francisco Classical Voice newsletter, a tally of bay area opera companies put the number at somewhere over 20! And the number is rising as groups they were not aware of write in... Sadly, it is sometimes the largest and most prestigious groups that are presenting the least interesting performances.

Do you think that a culling of some of these groups would improve the overall fiscal and artistic health of those left, with the best talent (administratively as well as artistically) left to present the best product?

Hard to say. My first question might be where these groups come from. In New York (not trying to speak for San Francisco), the multitude of small opera companies exists in large part because of the multitude of singers, conductors, and directors who are looking for work. It's not hard to get an opera production of some sort together. And then some of them might even be interesting. (And some just embarrassing.) One problem, I'd think, in considering the effect of culling, would be trying to imagine what gets culled. Who could decide that? In the end, I guess it's the market. The groups that manage to survive will be the ones that stick around. That's probably not as efficient as having me (just for the sake of argument) decide what dies and what survives, but if I made that decision, I could easily miss some vital group whose importance I didn't understand.

Of course, vital groups die all the time. But there's something vital in the present system, which lets everyone find whatever support they can. Anyone halfway competent whose work strikes an artistic nerve may well find some way to keep existing. And that seems more important to me than worrying about a drain on resources caused by having too many groups.

One last thought -- just because there are many groups doesn't necessarily mean that the death of one frees all its resources for the others. To some extent, fundraising depends on individual choices, and there are always people who'll give to something they feel connected to, and not to something else, no matter how superficially similar it might seem.

Posted by: Terry Metzger at June 3, 2006 11:14 AM


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