Reviews and other accounts of classical music events from the past — I mean written in the past — don’t talk much about the audience. And why should they? Everybody reading them would know what the audience was like, so there wouldn’t be much need to comment on it.
That’s why a famous Virgil Thomson piece from 1950 is so interesting to read now. He’s describing one part of the classical music audience back then, and — at least if you ask me — he might as well be talking about 19th century Shanghai.
Now I don’t see anything like what he describes, which is another sign (or so I think) that times have rather dramatically changed. The classical music audience we see now isn’t the classical music audience that used to exist. From which it follows that the audience of the future doesn’t have to be like the audience we have now.
But back to Thomson. Here’s some of what he writes, in a piece called “The Intellectual Audience,” published in The New York Herald-Tribune on January 15, 1950.
Anyone who attends musical and other artistic events eclectically must notice that certain of these bring out an audience thickly sprinkled with what are called “intellectuals” and the others do not. It is managements and box offices that call these people intellectuals; persons belonging to that group rarely use the term. They are a numerous body in New York, however, and can be counted on to patronize certain entertainments [by which, in this piece, he largely means classical music performances]. Their word-of-mouth communication has an influence, moreover, on public opinion. Their favor does not necessarily provoke mass patronage, but it does bring to the box office a considerable number of their own kind, and it does give to any show or artist receiving it some free advertising. The intellectual audience in any large city is fairly numerous, well organized, and vocal.
This group, that grants or withholds its favor without respect to paid advertising and that launches its ukases with no apparent motivation, consists of people from many social conditions. Its binding force is the book. It is a reading audience. Its members may have a musical ear or an eye for visual art, and they may have neither. What they all have is some acquaintance with ideas. The intellectual world does not judge a work of art from the talent and skill embodied in it; only professionals judge that way. It seeks in art a clear connection with contemporary esthetic and philosophic trends, as these are known through books and magazines. The intellectual audience is not a professional body; it is not a professors’ club either, nor a publishers’ conspiracy. Neither is it quite a readers’ anarchy. Though it has no visible organization, it forms its own opinions and awards its own prizes in the form of free publicity. It is a very difficult group to maneuver or to push around.
And now read this part very carefully:
In New York it is a white-collar audience containing stenographers, saleswomen, union employees of all kinds, many persons from the comfortable city middle-aged middle class, and others from the suburban young parents. There are snappy dressers too, men and women of thirty who follow the mode, and artists’ wives from downtown who wear peasant blouses and do their own hair. Some are lawyers, doctors, novelists, painters, musicians, professors. Even the carriage trade is represented, and all the age levels above twenty-five. A great variety of costume is always present, of faces and figures with character in them. Many persons of known professional distinction give it seasoning and tone.
Try to imagine these people. How old are they? Probably not all that old. If Thomson says “all age levels above twenty-five,” I’ll take him at his word, which means that plenty of people in their 30s and 40s made up this audience. Especially when he talks about “snappy dressers…men and women of thirty who follow the mode.” If they’re worth mentioning, there must have been a lot of them. And how about those “artists’ wives from downtown who wear peasant blouses”? No way they’re in their sixties, or probably even in their fifties. I was out and about in New York City not too many years after Thomson wrote this, and the women I’d see in peasant blouses — an immediate sign that a woman was smart and artistic, or thought she was — weren’t old.
So Thomson was describing a slice of the classical music audience that simply doesn’t exist today. People looking for “a clear connection with contemporary esthetic and philosophic trends”? Nobody’s going to classical music events for that, or certainly not mainstream ones. Thomson’s intellectual audience wasn’t mainstream, either, and he notes that they didn’t normally go to the Met or the New York Philharmonic.
But they did (he says) go to hear Pierre Monteux and Ernest Ansermet conduct; they came out for recitals by Schnabel, Clifford Curzon, and Wanda Landowska; they even went to the Philharmonic when Dmitri Mitropoulos, then the music director, led a concert performance of Elektra, which at that time wasn’t a repertory piece. I’m sure they were there a couple of years after Thomson wrote all this, when Mitropoulos did Wozzeck in concert with the Philharmonic. And so look at the change. The audience we have is primarily what Thomson called a “musical audience,” by which he means merely musical, interested in music but not in any ideas that music might represent. It’s older than Thomson’s audience (as we know from all kinds of information, including, I’d think, his comments I’ve quoted here). And most crucially it doesn’t have this outer mass of critical, thoughtful people, who show up only if a concert has some larger cultural interest. Or, rather, we do have those people, but they’re not, generally speaking, going to mainstream classical concerts at all. They go to Steve Reich events, and the Next Wave festival at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.
We also have a sophisticated musical audience, made up of people who go to hear sophisticated concerts–something with unusual programming, or with an artist who’s thought to be exceptionally serious. I’ve heard their number in New York estimated at 2000, and also (but I think the programmer who said this was in a bad mood that day) at 150. But this isn’t Thomson’s intellectual audience. They’re not interested in any connection classical music might have with wider culture. They’re only looking for more sophisticated musical things (the sophistication being measured exclusively on musical grounds).
I’ve actually heard of one orchestra that does have an audience at least a little bit like Thomson’s intellectuals — a loose group of up to 300 younger people, who immediately stand out because of their age, dress, and hair, and who are attracted, I’m told, by John Adams and Carmina Burana. I wonder if other classical music institutions have seen anything like this.
And, you know, we could go further with this. The purely musical performances used to be quite a bit looser — more fun, more personal, more (there’s no other word for it) entertaining. Just watch a few YouTube videos:
Kirsten Flagstad, the great Wagnerian soprano whose career came to an end in the 1950s, singing Die Walküre
Lauritz Melchior, the great heldentenor of the prewar era, singing Walküre excerpt (well, lipsynching it, but still his enjoyment is unmistakable)
Gino Bechi, a star Italian baritone (and force of nature), singing the Toreador Song (in Italian, evidently from a movie)
Lawrence Tibbett, the lively American star of the 1920s and 1930s, singing the same piece (in French, more properly, though I don’t care what language anyone with Bechi’s or Tibbett’s power sings in; at the start of the video, you’ll have to wait out an introduction by Thomas Hampson)
Some people (but do they really enjoy life?) might find Tibbett and Bechi a little hokey (times and styles have changed). But you can’t deny that they — and Flagstad and Melchior — sang with more joy and pure gusto than anyone in opera has today.
robert berger says
I totally disagree
with your comment about
singers from the past
singing with more”gusto”
than those of today.
This is all too
typical of the way opera
fans and critics idealize
the past,and to such an
extent that they are
unable to appreciate the many wonderful singers
of the present day.
I am getting tired of
this knee-jerk idealization of the past.
You’re saying that Thomson is describing a part of the audience that has disappeared, and then you describe a part of the current audience that it exactly like what Thomson described. (Interested in wider culture, music as philosophical ideas, avoids mainstream concerts, etc.) Maybe Reich and Adams and BAM festivals are just the modern versions of Landowska recitals and Strauss operas (which, after all, were still considered pretty modern when Thomson was writing.)
Incidentally, all four of the operatic excerpts you link to are from movies; I don’t know enough about Bechi to identify that one–the other three are The Big Broadcast of 1938, Luxury Liner, and Metropolitan. A lot of that relaxed and colloquial nature you refer to is no doubt because they’re in close-up and lip-synching. (I recall hearing a Risé Stevens story that the practice in Hollywood was that, if you insisted on actually singing along to the playback track during shooting, you had to sing down an octave so you wouldn’t contort your facial muscles in an operatic way.)
gary panetta says
You are right on target about the the divorce between music and ideas (or wider cultural concerns). The absence of a connection between what is heard in concert halls and the wider issues we face in the world is one reason why these events feel like museum events, not lively events.
Craig Smith, The Santa Fe New Mexican says
You make interesting points. The change in audience demographics and composition (and ideas!) isn’t confined to large metro areas, of course. Here in Santa Fe, which has a certain artistic reputation in many genres (only partially deserved), the classical music concert audience members are generally all over 40 and really closer to 60 plus. When I reviewed a chamber concert of flute, guitar, and oboe the other evening, I’lll lay odds there wasn’t a person under 45-50 in the house but two of the performers! The Santa Fe Opera draws a much more diverse crowd – lots of wild hair, piercings, youth, and attitude in the audience this past summer, and they were much more demonstrative and excited than many of the older, presumably richer crew who filled front-and-center.
The really big literature and visual art fan base here doesn’t have the kind of mass crossover to music (in terms of ideas) that Thomson wrote about. When the Lannan Foundation brings in writers to lecture, such as Arundhati Roy, Denis Johnson, and Lawrence Wechsberg, they sell out the house in a literal hour, and could do it twice over. These peopel will go to Reich concerts, too, but not another Mozart or Mahler …
more joy and pure gusto than Netrebko, Villazon, Florez, Damrau, Bartoli or any of several others I could name?
I would think the reduction/elimination of fine arts appreciation in our schools and universities have something to do with this age gap in classical music audience. Students aren’t exposed to ‘liberal arts’ because education today is focused on standardized testing, not on nurturing the ability to link concepts together. Perhaps I’m being harsh and painting with a broad brush, but it’s hard to expect a young professional to all of a sudden attend a performance when he/she is completely unfamiliar with the form. Have the so-called ‘high arts’ become too intimidating for the younger generations because of a lack of exposure?
Alex Ross says
Greg, I seem to feel that Thomson’s “intellectual audience” does still show up at concerts, and not just at BAM. It comes out for Uchida or Brendel, it comes to John Adams with Dawn Upshaw, it certainly came out for Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, it comes to Osvaldo Golijov. The fashions have changed but I still recognize the profile. What it certainly does not do is go to the New York Philharmonic. And wasn’t that Thomson’s point at the time, that the “intellectuals” were ignoring the Philharmonic? Some things never change. But your larger point about the ageing audience holds.
Larry Fried says
It’s amazing how classical music has disappeared from the mainstream. As recently as the early 1980s, CBS was still broadcasting the New York Philharmonic “Young People’s Concerts.”
(That’s not so long ago!)
Up until the early 1950s, there was virtually no split between “classical” and “popular” music. The greatest jazz musicians of the day all knew and studied classical music. The term “crossover artist” would have been incomprehensible to, say, Bix Beiderbecke or Art Tatum. We all laugh today about Maria Callas singing on “The Ed Sullivan Show” but she did. (Ten points to anyone who can name the conductor who led the offstage orchestra.)
I think I mispoke when when I said that our culture has been “dumbed
down”, I now think a better term would be “inhfantilized”. I was to young to really remember the ’50s, but never the less I feel a kind of vicarious nostalgia for them. This was a time when there was such a beast as the public intellectual, whose thoughts would have a place in the mass media along with the celebrities of the day. Now all we have are celebrities. Look at Time’s “Man of the Year”. “YOU”!!!! What brain-dead narcissitic bullshit!
Ouch! I’m really not a nostalgic guy. For a long time I’ve thought of it as looking at the past through “rose colored glasses”, a sort of utopianism in reverse. I just saw that George Will is blasting the “you” man of the year. Boy, this is someone I almost never agree with, unless he’s talking about baseball. Please don’t think I’m some kind of right-wingnut, my forbears who helped start the Grange, and my Great-great grandfather who heard Wm Jennings Bryant’s “cross of gold” speech in person, and worked on all of “Fightin’ Bob” LaFollette’s campaigns would be spinning in their graves! I’m profoundly ambivalent about “participatory marketing” (Hey, it’s probably cheaper than hiring an ad agency. I, for one, don’t want to be a shill for big business.) Personally, I’d love to see all advertising banned! If not that, at least don’t let marketing costs be deducted as a business expense! No, the past was’nt some sort of Arcadia, I just think that some things were better then.
Larry Fried says
The conductor was Mitropolous. There’s a wonderful vignette after Callas finishes singing. Sullivan mentions the conductor and, as the camera pans offstage to show him, Sullivan says: “Let’s have a really big hand for Dmitri.”
Larry Fried says
Mitropolous. There’s a wonderful moment after Callas finishes singing. Sullivan mentions the orchestra and off-stage conductor, then as the camera pans over he says: “Let’s have a really big hand for Dmitri.”
One of my all-time favorite show business moments!
Stefan Kac says
Before all the stuff about the 50’s came up, this discussion unearthed a supremely important question (or at least one that I think is important and will allow me to join the fray). I am referring to the connection between the music and contemporary intellectual issues that Thomson says (implies?) used to attract people to concerts. Greg even used the word “represent” in his original post! It seems to me that in some ways, the present situation belies the fact that within the classical music world, the 19th century bickering over program music has never entirely been put to bed. For me, it is not so much a question of WHAT is able to be communicated effectively and consistently, but WHY whatever extra-musical idea is intended to be communicated could possibly be considered more important than the music itself in the abstract. Obviously, this viewpoint is diametrically opposed to the one routinely expressed on this blog. Greg, there’s no nice way to say this: I question the ability of someone who believes that music can become “too formal” or “taken too seriously” to defend it in a time of crisis. That person would seem to me to be an agent of the destructive forces that have created the crisis in the first place rather than those forces which could supposedly navigate through it successfully. It’s this very issue of why people actually would show up to a concert that gets to the heart of the matter. Of course, I don’t want to see classical music evaporate either, but I also do not feel that it is honest sell the experience on literary or political undertones (that is, it would not be honest for ME to do that because that is not what I think is most significant about classical music; perhaps you DO feel that way, but that brings me back to what I already said).