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October 25, 2006

Book 2.0
Episode 13: Just Before Modernism

In recent episodes:

I've been talking about the origins of the classical music world as we know it today. In episodes seven, eight, and nine, I described the music world of the 18th century, when composers we now call classical were active -- Bach, Handel, Vivaldi, Haydn, Mozart -- were active, but the concept of classical music didn't exist. Music wasn't considered a deeply serious art, and musical performances were mostly entertainment. Almost all the pieces played were new. People talked while the music played, and reacted loudly, clapping and cheering when they heard something they liked. The musicians often improvised, to an extent we can barely imagine today. (All this -- though it's not often taught in music history courses -- is thoroughly documented by scholarly research. I've put many citations at the end of these episodes.)

But then, beginning at the start of the 19th century, things changed. In episode 10, I talk about how the change happened. Three things emerged, which hadn't been there before:

Modernism, which made new classical music seem difficult and obscure

Popular culture, and especially forms of popular music -- jazz and rock -- that in many ways weren't created on western models, and which developed into their own kind of art.

Now classical music was far removed from everyday life, and new classical music was even further removed from it than classical masterworks were. Classical music couldn't get close to contemporary life in any case, since now (in the era after World War II) the world expressed itself in music that wasn't even remotely classical.

How did these things happen? That's what I'm looking at right now. Also in episode 10, I took a look at the rise of classical music, starting with a vignette of Brahms, conducting his music in a new concert hall, and seeing a portrait of himself on the ceiling, next to paintings of Beethoven, Bach, and Mozart. In another vignette -- which shows how performances of old music got established as the norm -- I talked about Brahms taking a major conducting job in Vienna, and hardly ever programming new music, not even by himself.

Episode 11 moved on to something else -- ideas that had to change before classical music as we know it today could exist I talked about the 18th century idea of music as nothing much more than (to quote Kant (the most influential 18th century philosopher), a "play of pleasant sounds." I then described how this changed -- how the romantics thought music was the highest of the arts, because it somehow expressed the deepest truths. That, of course, made it possible to urge that music be listened to in reverent silence, and to make a distinction between artistic music and music that served only as entertainment

So then we came -- in episode 12 -- to something crucial in this history, the distinction people started to make between classical music and popular music. Classical music was Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven, plus a few earlier composers like Handel and Bach whom connoisseurs were aware of, and also living composers like Schumann and Mendelssohn, who consciously based their music on classical models. Popular music was Liszt and Rossini, or more generally opera, and anything played by the spectacular and newly fashionable virtuosi.

For a vignette of the contrast between these two worlds, look at the famous meeting between Rossini and Beethoven. Beethoven encouraged Rossini to keep on writing comic operas, but discouraged him from ever trying anything serious (even though Rossini had written many serious operas). To people living then, the gap was huge, and for Beethoven, Rossini was only good for light entertainment.

For a more global description of what was going on, nobody does it better than William Weber:

At one pole stood the virtuosi, those entrepreneurs who created a fire-storm of popular demand for music they advertised as "brilliant but not difficult"...At the opposite pole were the musicians and supporters of newly founded symphony orchestras who attempted to maintain the tradition of learned music-making and became fanatic devotees of the German classical school....For most bourgeois throughout Europe, Beethoven and Mozart were regarded as approachable only by esoteric minds. But in the meantime, the members of this musical world forged the concept of "The Masters." In so doing they fashioned the values for seriousness and learning which were eventually to become the basic tenets of European concert life.

Opera was also a central part of popular music back then, and in opera houses -- above all in Italy -- people might be roused to a frenzy, as in this description of a Rossini premiere, from the great French novelist Stendhal:

As the overture begins, you could hear a pin drop; as it bangs its way triumphantly to an end, the din bursts with unbelievable violence. It is extolled to high heaven; or alternately, it is whistled, nay rather howled into eternity with merciless shrieks and ululations....

Popular music performances were frequent, fun, jammed with people, and (with perhaps the exception of Italian opera orchestras) musically accomplished. But classical music presented a different picture. There weren't many classical performances, and for many years, almost all of them were amateur. The Vienna Philharmonic, a professional orchestra that played classical music, was established in 1842, but in its first years, it hardly ever played. By 1848, it had given only 14 concerts, while Johann Strauss, Sr., had played more than a thousand. In the 1845-46 season, there were 157 popular music concerts in London, and only 44 classical events. In Paris and Vienna, the numbers were similar -- 239 popular music concerts in Paris and only 25 classical, in Vienna 100 popular music events and only 18 classical.

Slowly, though, the genres started to blend. Each side found something to envy in the other. People who loved classical music (I'm using this term, of course, with its early 19th century meaning) envied the far more accomplished performances in popular music concerts. And as the prestige of classical music spread, popular musicians, like Liszt, began to be rebuked because they didn't play enough Beethoven. As the 19th century progressed, concerts concentrated more and more on the music of the past. Between 1815 and 1825, at concerts by one of Vienna's leading musical organizations, 77 percent of the music was by living composers and only 18 percent by dead ones (nobody knows the death dates of the composers who wrote the remaining five percent of the music). By 1849, the percentages had almost exactly reversed.

Here's a striking vignette that shows popular music merging with classical music. It comes from the chapter on 19th century listening that opens Peter Gay's book The Naked Heart :

[Berlioz] recalled that he had once heard Liszt ruining Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata with extraneous trills, tremolos, and embellishments. But in a later recital, Liszt showed himself more pious as he performed the same piece for a small group of friends. It was late in the afternoon, and the lamp was going out. Berlioz welcomed that; he thought the dim twilight would be right for the opening adagio movement of the C-sharp minor sonata. But Liszt went him one better: he asked that all the lights be extinguished and the fireplace covered. Then, in total darkness, Berlioz remembered, "after a moment's pause, rose in sublime simplicity the noble elegy he had once so strongly disfigured; not a note, not an accent was added to the notes and the accents of the author. When the last chord had sounded no one spoke -- we were in tears.

So where did this lead? Directly to the classical music world we know today, in which the old-time classical music rules have completely taken over. We listen in silence; we worship the great composers; we think concert music ought to be complex and lofty. There's just one thing, though. Somehow we've brought the popular music of the 19th century -- insanely silly Rossini operas, flashy Paganini concertos -- into the classical pantheon, and this doesn't make any sense. Our classical music world hasn't just lost touch with the culture around it; it's forgotten its own past.


And now for modernism. By the end of the 19th century -- just before modernism hit, and of course after the notion of classical music took over the concert music world -- most classical performances featured music by the great composers of the past. But new music wasn't marginalized, the way it is today. Most of the music played might have been old (and by the way, I'd love to have better statistics on how much was new and how much old than the fragmentary data I quoted toward the end of the last episode). And yet new music wasn't partly or maybe even largely segregated into its own little world, as it is today. Mainstream audiences didn't dread it, as they so often do now. In fact, they heard it just as easily as they heard the old works, and often fell in love with it.

Just look at the music that came into the classical repertoire in the 1890s -- Dvořák's New World Symphony, for instance, or Tchaikovsky's Pathetique Symphony, or Brahms's Fourth Symphony, or Verdi's opera Falstaff (a great sensation in 1893), or Puccini's La bohème. These are pieces we still love today, and people loved them back then, too. Not all of them were triumphs at their first performances; the Pathetique didn't do so well, and neither did La bohème, but that wasn't because they were new. Other pieces by Tchaikovsky and Puccini had already been successful, even wildly so, and if these new ones didn't soar at first, well, that was normal, just the luck of the draw, not much different from what happens now if a Scorcese film doesn't set the world on fire, or a new Sondheim show flops. Both might do better later on, and in fact the Pathetique and La bohème turned into raging hits just a few years after their premieres.

And the New World Symphony was a hit from the moment it was first performed, in New York's Carnegie Hall in 1893. Dvořák was living in New York, where he drank a lot of beer -- quite a lot -- and took the elevated train to a place near some railroad tracks, where he'd watch the locomotives. He was famous, which embarrassed him:

On Sunday the 9th [he wrote], there was a big Czech concert in my honor. There were 3000 people present, and there was no end to the cheering and clapping. There were speeches in Czech and English and I, poor creature, had to make a speech of thanks from the stage, holding a silver wreath in my hands. You can guess how embarrassed I felt! What the American papers write about me is simply terrible--they see in me, they say, the savior of music and I don't know what else besides!

The success of the symphony was equally embarrassing:

I was in a box; the hall was filled with the best New York audience, the people clapped so much that I had to thank them from the box like a king!? [Such expressive punctuation! I can almost see Dvořák rolling his eyes.] You know how glad I am if I can avoid such ovations, but there was no getting out of it, and I had to show myself over and over.

But the point, of course, isn't Dvořák's embarrassment; it's how overwhelmingly successful his symphony was, hailed as a deeply important milestone in music -- the first masterpiece to use American musical materials -- from the moment it first was heard.

Critics from the 1890s also show how easily new music was received. The one I've read most is George Bernard Shaw (yes, the playwright, who hadn't yet written any plays, and supported himself by writing music criticism while he tried his hand at novels, and went out in the streets as a mildly socialist agitator). When Shaw smiles indulgently at Brahms, whose music he never liked, he doesn't find him new or difficult, but instead sentimental and mindlessly voluptuous. Brahms, he wrote, is

a great baby, gifted enough to play with harmonies that would baffle most grown-up men, but still a baby, never more happy than when he has a crooning song to play with, always ready for the rocking-horse and the sugar-stick [a kind of candy, evidently], and rather tiresomely addicted to dressing himself up as Handel or Beethoven and making a prolonged and intolerable noise.

This seems wonderfully shocking, now that we've put Brahms on Mt. Olympus, but none of it is totally unreasonable, at least if we don't blame Shaw for understanding (as apparently he did) only the pretty things in Brahms, and none of the depth or inner strength. He does mention things in Brahms's music that might have seemed new or baffling in the 1890s, but he doesn't think they alienate anybody. In fact, he thinks that people are impressed by these complexities, precisely because they don't understand them, just as a very young college student might be wowed by a professor who uses a lot of big words:

[Brahms's] musical sense is so much more developed than that of the average audience that many of the harmonies and rhythms which are to him simply voluptuous and impetuous, sound puzzling and imposing to the public, and are therefore surmised to be profoundly intellectual.

Shaw (in one of his most famous reviews) can damn an oratorio by a now nearly forgotten composer named Hubert Parry:

I take Job to be the most utter failure ever achieved by a thoroughly respectworthy musician. There is not one bar in it that comes within fifty thousand miles of the tamest line in the poem....I hope that he will burn the score, and throw Judith [another Parry oratorio] in when the blaze begins to flag.

In passing (and with deceptive honesty, deceptive because he only uses his confession as a way to prepare even sharper attacks), Shaw admits that he's "violently prejudiced against the professorial school [of composers] of which Dr Parry is a distinguished member." But this doesn't mean what any similar statement would mean today. In our time, academic composers write in styles the audience can't bear, but in the 1890s, their music was soft and agreeable, though sometimes also faux majestic (think of academic painting in the 19th century), qualities that made an undemanding audience feel wonderfully comfortable.

Shaw did have what once had been a radical taste -- he loved Wagner, the first great avant-garde composer, whose music in decades before the 1890s had split the European music world. And so he twits a conservative musical analyst who calls a Wagner melody cacophonous:

Mr Statham, having thus squarely confronted you with the dilemma that either Wagner was a cacophonous humbug or he himself hopelessly out of the question as an authority on form and design or any other artistic element in music, takes it for granted that you will throw over Wagner at once...

But note that he writes this with no sense of fighting an injustice, or at least not an injustice that could do any harm to anybody. Wagner, who had died just a little more than 10 years earlier, was becoming popular. His operas were produced in London, where Shaw lived. Orchestras played excerpts from those operas, to rapturous applause. And Wagner's theater in Bayreuth, Germany -- ruled with an iron hand by his widow -- was a destination (people talked of making pilgrimages there) for anyone with any deep artistic taste who could afford to make the trip. Anyone who at this late date couldn't stand Wagner's music was simply a fogey, someone out of touch with contemporary life, a little bit -- though I'll admit this analogy is something of a stretch -- like someone today who can't understand hiphop. Though I do think the pop analogy is helpful. Classical music today is mostly old, with new music (as I've said) marginalized. Anyone who doesn't like new music could be labeled as an enemy of progress. But in Shaw's time, and in pop, with new music coming freely through the door, anyone who doesn't like the new stuff is comparatively harmless. They simply take a conservative place in the normal array of opinion. (Which isn't to say that in Shaw's time, and in the history of pop, there haven't been violent battles, about Wagner, for instance, in the decades before the 1890s, and about rock & roll in the 1950s.)

So what happened? How did new classical music get so marginalized, with the mainstream classical audience so painfully suspicious of it? Modernism was one big cause of this; modernist music was hard for the mainstream audience to take, and (as we'll see) it was forced on them. That was enough to spook anyone.

But I'm not going to blame modernist composers. They wrote their music out of burning necessity. Schoenberg, perhaps the leading musical modernist, famously said:

Personally I had the feeling as if I had fallen into an ocean of boiling water, and not knowing how to swim or to get out in another manner, I tried with my legs and arms as best as I could.

I do not know what saved me; why I was not drowned or cooked alive. I have perhaps only one merit: I never gave up!

I have to love a man who felt like that, and in many ways I love his uncomfortable music, full of itches and slithery uneasiness. (Sometimes rigid uneasiness.) I love other modernist music, too. But I had to learn that modernist music was (as I've said) forced on the classical audience, in a way that nobody would try in any other art (no one forces book groups to labor through Finnegans Wake; nobody puts art films in a multiplex). I also had to learn that modernist music is stiffer, more distant from ordinary life, and much more unforgiving than modernism in other arts.

And there, I think, the problem begins. That's what I'm going to write about in my next episode.

No citations this time. Forgive me. I'm fried.


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Posted by gsandow on October 25, 2006 12:07 AM


Greg: I am constantly fascinated by your book and your approach to it! I eagerly await each new chapter. Two queries (both of which you have probably already considered): first, where/when does some sacred music become part of the "classical music lexicon" to be performed on "regular" concerts? When did performances of Bach's B Minor Mass or the Mozart "Requiem" or Britten's "War Requiem" become "established" as regular concert fare, as they continue to be today? And, do some members of our modern audience associate the etiquette appropriate to listening to music in sacred buildings with "appropriate" concert behavior? Secondly, do you think the general demise of our language/writing skills has contributed to the lack of understanding/enhusiasm for modern music? Many of us don't think, speak, or write with the fluidity, the vocabulary, the interesting turn of phrase, or the dedication with which people wrote (even in their personal letters!)in the past several centuries...we've not only lost touch with how participating in "classical music" can affect us as human beings, it's difficult for most of us to express what we like or dislike about it or why! I know people who attend concerts because they think they should and they have little to say about what was enjoyable/impressive/expressive or why...How can the audience care if it doesn't grasp and/or enjoy listening to and using a more espressive language? Best with your upcoming chapers! - Anne Hodges

Hi, Anne. Thanks so much for those first things you said. Response like that continnues to mean a lot to me.

I tihnk church music was always in a separate category from secular music, though this is something I wish I knew more about. I can't imagine people even in the 18th century talking during a church service. So if music was part of that service, I'd assume they wouldn't talk during it.

But when did sacred works become part of the concert repertory? I imagine that happened in the 19th century, when music began to be viewed as an art. At that point, musical compositions began to be viewed as objects whose value was independent of their use (see Lydia Goehr's book "The Imaginary Museum of Musical Works" for quite a lot about this). That meant, I'd assume, that church music became something that could be performed in a concert hall.

Bach, of course, posed a separate problem, because his sacred music didn't really join the active concert repertory until the 20th century. In George Bernard Shaw's time as a music critic, in the 1890s, a performance of the B Minor Mass was still a novelty. (And Shaw got in lots of trouble for disliking one of these rare performances. A committee of musical academics actually wrote a letter to reprimand him for finding fault with the quality of performance; the writers of this letter felt that the existence of the performance was so important that the quality shouldn't be criticized.)

Certainly by the time Brahms conducted the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde in Vienna in the 1870s, sacred works were a normal event on its concerts.

That's the best I can do on that subject. About your second question -- certainly there are lots of changes in our culture, and they certainly have an effect of classical music. I wonder, though, whether there's really been a decline in literacy. Or maybe I should say that I wonder how we could actually measure that. I know -- and I've seen first hand, in various ways -- that college students often seem clueless about some very basic things about writing. And just yesterday I was telling my music criticism class at Juilliard that writing like Shaw's just wasn't possible in a newspaper today. Without whitespace or graphics, the newspapers of his time were almost nothing but text, and readers seemed happy to read long, literate disquisitions on many topics, even in very fine print.

But on the other hand, last night I went to an awards ceremony for writers picked for the latest volume in an annual anthology of the best music writing of the year. My wife was one of the honoreers. The people picked for the book all read excerpts from their winning selections (or from other things they'd written). And the quality of most of the pop music writing was just stunning. I don't mean this as any reflection on Anne. She won for her piece on the problems that exist in training large operatic voices, and that was -- though it's quite beautifully written -- really a piece of journalistic reportage, in which artistic writing of the fine literary sort wouldn't be allowed.

But here were many rock critics, some quite young, creating real works of art in their writing. It made me think about many things, not least about why classical music, which thinks of itself as art, doesn't have writing about it with even a tenth the scope and daring of the best rock writing. But also literacy -- literacy seemed emphatically NOT dead, just as it did in the book and lyrics of "The Drowsy Chaperone," a hit Broadway musical I wrote about in my blog. So maybe things aren't as bad as we sometimes think they are.

Posted by: Anne Hodges at October 26, 2006 9:50 AM


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