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September 11, 2006

Book 2.0
Episode 10: The Change

I'm going to skip the usual summary of past episodes. You can read them all, right here online (just click their titles in the box on the left). And the last one starts with a summary of all the others.

Instead of summarizing, I want to jump right into a discussion of how classical music got to be the way it is. Our present troubles are part of a long-term -- very long-term -- trend. How did this develop? At one time, as I wrote in episodes seven through nine (the last one), the concept (not to mention the practice) of classical music didn't even exist. People we now think of as great composers --Haydn, Mozart, Handel, Bach -- were composing music we now call classical, but nobody called it that then, and hardly anybody thought it should be listened to in sober, reverent silence. Music was a lively art. Almost all the pieces played were new. They often featured dance rhythms (think of Bach) and lusty, folk-like melodies (think Haydn). The audience talked during performances, and reacted loudly to the music, clapping and cheering when they heard something they liked. And the musicians often improvised, to an extent we can barely imagine today. I had many examples of that, including Beethoven keeping some fellow musicians waiting endlessly while he improvised a cadenza during a chamber piece, but my favorites go way beyond that. One section of the second-act finale was partly improvised at the premiere of no less a masterwork than Mozart's opera Don Giovanni. An on-stage band plays hit tunes from other operas of the time; the tunes were picked at the last moment, and the singers' reaction to them -- now written, supposedly in stone, in the opera's printed score -- was made up on the spot. And, wilder than that, the entire first violin sections of many orchestras would improvise, with each violinist playing his own variation on the melody, more or less heedless of everybody else. (See the last episode for more details, including citations of sources.)

I'm not going to claim that this was any kind of golden age -- although, come to think of it, we really do rank the age of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven as one of the magic moments of musical history, a time when genius, excitement, and innovation exploded much as they did in late-'60s rock. But performances, by our standards now, were hardly rehearsed at all; the orchestral improvisation might have sounded cacophonous (some people back then certainly thought it did); and the noise from the audience might have been hard for us to take, or at least for those of us who've gone to classical concerts for years, and have gotten used to hearing Mozart played in silence. It's hard -- despite all the information we have, in verbal accounts and in paintings -- to imagine what musical performances were really like in those days, and harder still to judge whether, God help us, we'd approve.

The hardest thing would be to understand how pieces that we now consider masterworks were written to be played for an audience that often didn't listen! William Weber, a historian I'll also be citing later in this episode, has written a stimulating paper on just this subject, concluding -- and quite sympathetically -- that the culture of music (and music listening) in the 18th century was very different from ours, so different that we can't use our present standards (which in any case were formed in the 19th century) to judge it. But yes, people did listen. And for me, the 18th century, the age of Bach, Handel, Haydn, Mozart, and even Beethoven, was the time when the music we now call classical hadn't yet begun to stiffen, when it was written directly for an audience, when the reaction of that audience deeply mattered, when the audience and the musicians, too, played a part in musical creativity -- and when even so, composers could write arresting, exciting, path-breaking music. In at least one way, I'd compare it to pop music in our time. Music wasn't held to the forbidding standard supposedly set by the pantheon of the greats. It functioned as part of the world it was written and performed in, and people embraced it -- even when they felt it transfigured them -- as part of their everyday lives.


So how did things change? Three things happened, I think. At the start of the 19th century, the idea of classical music began to emerge -- the idea that some of the music from the past had transcendent value, that this music stood apart from mere entertainment, and had to be heard with unbroken attention; that the composers who wrote it were all but godlike figures; that their music had to be played exactly as they wrote it; and that of course they set the standard for all the music that came after them. Classical music now stood apart from ordinary life, and as the 19th century progressed, more and more of the music that everyone performed came from the past.

And then, near the start of the 20th century, came the rise of modernism. Before modernism, new classical music wasn't so different from the old stuff. Of course new styles emerged, to reflect the changing world, and some of them (Wagner's, in particular) proved explosive. But still there were composers like Brahms, who wrote in something recognizable as the old way, and even a radical like Wagner could have moments in his music that were simple and melodic.

Modernism changed all that. I'm not saying that modernist music was bad, or that composers didn't have the deepest, most powerful necessity for writing it. But it sounded harsh; it avoided (or much of it did) steady rhythms and understandable melodies. So now the new music with the highest critical prestige stood apart both from everyday life and from the masterworks of the classical mainstream. Which of course focused classical music even more on the past (an uncomfortable paradox, since modernism saw itself as a leap toward the future).

And then came the final blow, the rise of popular culture, and still worse (worse, that is, for classical music), the rise of popular music -- jazz and rock -- that in many ways wasn't created on western models. Now it was even harder for classical music to reflect contemporary life, since now the world expressed itself in music that wasn't even remotely classical. Brahms, a high-art composer in the 19th century, could be friends with Johann Strauss, whose waltzes were, in their time, popular music of the most unabashed sort. But the two composers could, in many ways, be colleagues, since Brahms wrote popular waltzes, too, when he felt like it, and both men scored their music for the same orchestral instruments (violins, bassoons, flutes and oboes). Compare now John Corigliano and Bob Dylan, a top classical composer and a rock immortal. What do they have in common? At one time, Corigliano -- when he'd written a song cycle based on Dylan lyrics -- said he'd never even heard a Dylan song, and while that raised some eyebrows, it didn't seem outrageous, because the gap between classical music and rock really is that wide. And the result (not of Corigliano never hearing Dylan, but of the gap between classical music and rock and jazz)? Classical music gets even more boxed into its little corner. It can't claim to be contemporary art, since (as I've already said) it doesn't speak the musical language of contemporary life. And to make things worse, it finessed the problem, in effect, by evolving its own closed-in kind of new music (the modernist kind), which doesn't even want any contact with the outside world. Worse yet, jazz and rock evolved their own kinds of art music. So now people who want new musical art don't have to care about classical music at all. We shouldn't be surprised, then, that classical music is losing ground. First it insulates itself from the outside world (in all the ways that I've described), and then the outside world returns the compliment, and gets interested in other things.


Let's now look a little bit at each of these developments, the rise of the idea of classical music, the rise of modernism, and the rise of popular music that's decidedly unclassical. And we can begin with a vignette from musical history, defining a moment when classical music -- as we understand the words today -- had not just come into being, but had very clearly taken charge. "In October [of 1895]," writes Jan Swafford, in his deep, engaging biography of Brahms, "Brahms went to Z├╝rich to conduct [his] Triumphlied for the inauguration of the new Tonhalle [which still is Zurich's leading concert hall today]. Looking up at the paintings on the ceiling, he saw portraits of Beethoven, Bach, Mozart, and himself."

This isn't an experience that Beethoven, Bach, or Mozart could have had. Bach, coming of age as a musician in the early 18th century, would have had to find a job. Music was embedded in social life, and was written to be used, often as entertainment, or else in church. No one would have compared Bach to musicians of the past, because their music, by and large, wasn't ever played. In Mozart's time, the later 18th century, this was true as well, and even though Mozart (who couldn't hold a job, and who, despite his genius, wasn't a wild success at writing music for the public) had to earn his living by his wits, the only people anybody could compare him to were other composers making their careers in the same time and place. Beethoven (who lived into the 19th century) was even more independent, and in fact was the first composer to be defined more or less by everybody as a free-standing artist, writing music for the ages. But since he was the first to be seen this way -- and since music from the past still wasn't usually performed -- the pantheon of paintings on the ceiling didn't yet exist. It was coming into being (Beethoven could have named his greatest predecessors), but it hadn't taken root in many peoples' minds, and surely hadn't taken form in architecture.

But when Brahms began to study, in the early 1840s, the pantheon existed. "The overwhelming presence," Swafford writes, "of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven...would make the past increasingly present in the musical repertoire." Brahms's teacher Edward Marxsen revered those names, and also Bach, and Schubert (in whom, people thought, at least a little of Beethoven's glow had shone). Marxsen also revered the musical forms that these composers used, musical forms that (as Swafford quotes him) he said were "eternally incorruptible." This, too, could never have happened earlier. Composers studied certain old techniques (like species counterpoint, the art, codified for generations, of writing one melody against another, following highly formal rules), but they never would have worshipped the larger forms their predecessors used. Instead, each new generation evolved forms of its own.

Later, when Brahms encountered Robert Schumann (a composer who embodied, though in his own poetic way, reverence for the pantheon), and both Schumann and his wife (a famous pianist) hailed him as...well, as what rock critics a dozen years ago would have called "the new Dylan," what they meant, of course, and quite explicitly, is that he was the new Beethoven. This didn't only bring encouragement. It brought responsibility; the pantheon was weighty, and composers who aspired to it had to write the kind of weighty music Beethoven had written, which above all meant symphonies. Thus Brahms, who up to then had written largely for the piano, was told he had to write for orchestra. Eventually he did, and wonderfully, but the expectation may have hurt him; it was years before he dared to try a symphony. And when much later in his life, in 1872, he became conductor of the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde (The Society of Friends of Music), one of Vienna's leading musical performing groups, he mostly played old music, works from that weighty pantheon. That might have been surprising; Brahms was one of the world's leading composers, after all, and clearly had an interest in seeing new music played. But playing music of the past seemed much more urgent, and because of this, the classical music world had much the shape it has today.

In the next episode: classical music vs. popular music, 19th century style. And a look at modernism and at popular culture.


William Weber, "Did People Listen in the 18th Century?" Early Music, Vol. 25, No. 4, 25th Anniversary Issue: Listening Practice. (Nov., 1997), pp. 678-691.

Jan Swafford, Johannes Brahms. New York: Vintage Books, 1999. Brahms sees the painting of himself, p. 602; Edward Marxsen, pp. 25, 52; Brahms and Schumann, pp. 75ff (though much of the writing about the weight of Brahms's musical heritage comes elsewhere, passim); Brahms conducted very little new music, p. 371.

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Posted by gsandow on September 11, 2006 12:09 AM


Very interesting for a person (me) who has only a nodding acquaintance with Western Classical Music but likes to hear it with a liking just below that of listening to Indian Classical music.

Thanks. I'd be very interested to know how Indian classical music is doing in India. Is its audience growing older? How many younger people want to learn to play it?

Posted by: R.Y.Tambe at September 11, 2006 10:28 AM

This is terrific! This is the kind of thing I want from the Internet. Stuff I don't know. Stuff I haven't read. Writing that informs me and changes my perspective. This tells me where something important to my life (music) really comes from and why it exists in a (usually problematic) context today. Thank you for this.

Posted by: Tim Barrus at September 12, 2006 8:26 AM

I've always thought about how the composer felt about a piece as I played it (as an amateur cellist, flautist, saxophone player). I fell in love with Haydn after reading about how he got kicked out of music school at one point for chopping off the pony tail of the boy in front of him in choir. I always think of it as I play any Haydn, and maybe it's not true, but it makes him so human in my mind. Mischievous and giggling.

Whenever I play with other people, and we get into interpretation discussions I often bring up the concept that some of these pieces from Mozart, Beethoven and Haydn, and maybe more so with composers farther back into history, this string quartet was probably bread money. Or money for coal. Not necessarily something they laboured over, nor was it note perfect. I usually get stares and sharply indrawn breath at this point.

I can't help but imagine the dirty, disease-ridden and dangerous world these people lived in. So many of our major classical composers lived with chronic pain of some sort, with malnutrition, with freezing cold, with gossip rags saying horrible things about them (thinking of Schumann in particular).

And that they doubted themselves, and their own talent. That they weren't yet on the ceiling fresco, as it were. Your recent post made me articulate all of this a little bit more in my own head. I had never thought about when that switch happened, from popular music figures to marble busts of perfection - so thanks for that.

I make the effort to remind myself of these composers as the dirty, messy, emotional and sometimes cranky individuals -and it makes playing their music so enjoyable to me. Marble busts are boring.

Posted by: erin at September 15, 2006 8:26 AM

Great to see the direction this is going. I am greatly looking forward to the day when the book is done and I can use it as a textbook.

You may be getting to this later, but just in case you aren't planning to explore it, I'll mention it, since you are exploring so many other socio-economic factors.

One important factor in the rise of modernisim was the parallel growth in conservatories and university-level music schools and departments. These institutions became, in the twentieth century, the new patrons for composers.

I know that Milton Babbit objected to the title an editor gave his now-infamous article, "Who Cares If You Listen?" But the title resonated with so many performing musicians and members of the musical public becuase it summed up the perceived attitude of many composers projected.

"Who Needs You to Listen?" has been the situation of most of the composers I've known, when "You" is understood as the musical public. I don't deny that much of modernist music was the result of artistic integrity and inner need on the part of composers. But contributing to it was the very real phenomenon that most professional composers didn't need large audiences--they had full-time teaching jobs with comfortable salaries.

Success for a composer was no longer reaching an audience so much as pleasing the musicalintellectual elite within the culture of university and conservatory composition departments. That world became increasingly hostile to tonal music. If a really gifted young composer wanted to write something other than serialist music, there wasn't much encouragement within the system. In fact, it would be hard, if not entirely impossible, to survive.

I don't believe there could have been such a paradigm shift in the relationship between composers and the musical public without the university/conservatory patronage system. Had more composers needed to connect with broad audiences over the course of the twentieth century, many would have written different music (for better or worse). And the phrases "new music" and "contemporary music" would not have become such an anathema.

Don't get me wrong--I like atonal music, loved playing aleatoric music in its heyday, and have improvised and composed a lot of very non-tonal music. But I've never been paid less than when playing new-music concerts, most of which had only handfuls of people in the audience. And none of us involved in those concerts needed to make any serious money from them.

Exactly right, Eric. I was there, studying composition in the mid-70s, just after the height of modernism. Tonal music wasn't allowed. Copland, Britten, and Shostakovich were embarrassments. But some prominent composers broke with atonality -- George Rochberg, and later David Del Tredici. Rochberg was an inspiration for me, and later on David was, too. Joan Tower is another composer who escaped the modernist web (she talks about that), and created a completely individual style. So it was possible. But difficult. The real break came, I think, through minimalism, which was big and powerful and popular enough to challenge the modernist orthodoxy.

Posted by: Eric Edberg at September 16, 2006 4:29 PM

I would agree with your general point you make in this chapter. The thing I'd like to know more about (and maybe William Weber discusses this in the paper you cite) is who made up the audiences of the 18th and early 19th centuries in Europe. We are talking a lot about trying to bring classical music to a wider audience today, but just as it's hard to compare 18th-century "listening culture" with that of today, so it is equally problematic to compare the socio-economic-cultural makeup of the 18th-century audience with our target audience today.

Eric's points about composition and academia are also mostly right-on (hi Eric!) But I would also hasten to add that universities are not just the patrons for composers---they have become the patrons of classical performers to a large degree, at least those who do not wish to play in orchestra, or who do not have that option (pianists). There are very few who can make a career without an academic position for sustenance.

That has had its positives and negatives. A lot depends on the institution and its degree of engagement with its host community and the "outside world" in general. Speaking as a pianist, I can attest that a number of high-level graduate programs have as their primary goal getting their DMA grads to attain university jobs. Their training is completely geared for that. Unfortunately, the single-minded focus of that training often precludes giving those DMA's some idea about musical entrepreneurship, or any meaningful discussion about what their role should be as a classical musician in 21st-century America, or any ideas about how to enhance musical life in the community to which they will be moving.

In other words, the role of academia in classical music has been in large part to train musicians to become teachers at universities so that they can teach other music students to become teachers at universities so that they can teach other...you see my point. And so the disconnect with the outside world increases with each successive generation.

But again, much of this has to do with a particular institution's degree of engagement with its community. University music programs also can serve as the catalyst for a vibrant musical culture in a given city. I'm thinking of North Carolina, where the largest and wealthiest city, Charlotte, has a much less interesting musical scene overall than Raleigh, Durham/Chapel Hill, or Winston-Salem simply because those latter three have strong academic-musical anchors within their city limits, and Charlotte does not really. I'm sure other examples exist in other states.

Posted by: Phillip at September 20, 2006 1:29 PM

Researching the music of the 19th century for a novel I'm writing. The characters live in London sometime around 1815 - 1825, before they go to India and discover the music there. they are musicians: flute, harp, voice and I have no idea what music would have been played, in what venues, etc. just doing some research and fascinated with your site. Thanks!

Posted by: layne redmond at December 10, 2006 2:46 PM


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