Mystery score

Mystery score

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Music is Hard 2

Elaborating just a bit on my last posting:

You don't need to read too far back in music history to find out that up until some time in 19th or 20th century, what we now called classical music was popular music. By that, I mean that you didn't have to be an educated musician or a member of a particular economic stratum to have an active interest in notational music. Middle-class people had pianos, played them, and looked forward to receiving the piano arrangement of a symphony or opera aria, because otherwise, especially if they lived far from a big city, they might never hear that work in its original form. (If you don't believe me, find any piece of early 20th century sheet music by Ricordi and look at the number of arrangements that were available of, say, arias from La boheme, for all sorts of unlikely combinations of instruments.) Amateur choruses thrived (and still do; perhaps this is the last outpost of what "classical" music once looked like). All those secular part songs, from madrigals to the Haydn part-songs to the Liebeslieder Waltzes, were written to be performed at home, not in a concert setting. Mozart was a popular composer, writing in popular genres such as the Singspiel. Up until comparatively recently in the history of the Roman Catholic Church, Catholics could hear a rather complicated repertory of liturgical music written for performance as part of services. Ordinary people went to the opera and considered it entertainment. Classical music was part of a continuum of just plain music.

How notational music became confined to big professional institutions and came to be viewed as an "elite art form" is a complicated story, affected by such diverse factors as social and musical developments in the U.S., the professionalization of musicology and theory the history of recorded music, music's change from something performed by all to something consumed by all (the shift from playing to buying recordings of others playing), the development of amplification and electric instruments of various kinds, changes in the school systems, etc., etc., etc.

But it's ahistorical to the point of ignorance to insist that classical music is inherently an "elite" form or that attempts to make classical music more accessible to more people (economically, socially, culturally) are in any way wrong-headed. They're just returning classical music to the social position it used to occupy.

Minor Update, 3/9/07: Corrected the posting title.

22 comments:

Steve Hicken said...

I commented too soon!

The "word" I had to type to post this comment, "dziwm", is too cool to lose.

A.C. Douglas said...

And I attached my comment to the wrong post. So let me repeat it here.

Never in the history of what we call classical music has it ever been popular.

Never. Not once. Ever.

That idiot canard has been voiced so many times I've lost count, but never have I seen it voiced by someone who supposedly knows something about classical music.

So, in a way, your assertion is different from the others. It's in fact a first of sorts.

ACD

A.C. Douglas said...

My, "That idiot canard" refers, of course, to the assertion that classical music used to be popular music.

ACD

Steve Hicken said...

I don't know whether or not "classical" music was ever popular--it really depends on what you mean by "popular".

And I don't think that that is the issue. The issue is how to get our music to be at the center of the intellectual, emotional, and aesthetic lives of educated people.

I can imagine that you, ACD, might say that that's definitional; that one is not educated if one is not conversent with western art music.

I would disagree, if for no other reason that I know of people who've created important works in other arts who are not (or may not) be conversant with our music.

Anonymous said...

It's not really about "classical" music; it's about art music. Art is often "hard" and marginal for people in comparison to entertainment, no matter the genre or medium.

A.C. Douglas said...

Steve wrote:

And I don't think that that is the issue.

I agree. It's the issue here only because of Lisa's assertion.

The issue is how to get our music to be at the center of the intellectual, emotional, and aesthetic lives of educated people.

If you modify your above to read, "The issue is how to get our music to be at the center of the intellectual, emotional, and aesthetic lives of otherwise educated people," I agree completely. That's indeed the problem, and while I don't know exactly how to go about solving that problem, I know for absolute certain that the way to NOT go about solving it is to attempt to hawk classical music as something other than what it is; viz., an elite enterprise by its very nature. And attempting to dumb down or jazz up either classical music or its presentation is another way NOT to go about it. Pandering to proles is NEVER the answer in matters such as this. Not in any way, shape, degree, or form.

ACD

JVM said...

I'd like to know what you (ACD and Steve) consider (otherwise) educated. Or elite.

"Popular" in this context is probably the wrong word. "Economically sustainable" is more pertinent in our current culture.

Steve Hicken said...

Well, I don't agree with the "otherwise" part, simply because we all have gaps in our knowledge/experience/education and people can make a case for us then being "otherwise" educated.

I mention getting our music to the center of our culture's intellectual/aesthetic lfe with reference to an "elite" because if it isn't there, it won't be anywhere.

Economic viability is certainly central to what we are talking about. Art music is infrastructure intensive.

your wiki guide said...

well... I must say that everyone stood at their own beliefs. I really feel that it's pretty hard to just force our thoughts to someone with different views.

As for me, everyone already stated their point. I define music as a great sound to my ear. It all lies to your judging taste and preference despite of your culture and minus your grown-up environment.

Lisa Hirsch said...

I'll respond and do the rest of the housekeeping tomorrow; for now, I'm just removing a spam comment.

Lisa Hirsch said...

(Comment moved from the previous posting, Music is Hard 1, as part of the housekeeping efforts. I deleted this and ACD's last comment, at his request, also, from the comments section.)

No thanks for the back-handed compliment. I'm happy to be in the company of the others who have investigated this area.

You mean that street music, like jacaras, or music for the home, like madrigals or part songs, now performed as "classical" weren't popular music in their time? You mean that all those working-class Italians who went to the opera houses of Italy and the US at various times were really members of an elite? You mean the people buying Ricordi arrangements of Puccini so they could play arias on the mandolin were elites?

A.C. Douglas said...

Lisa Hirsch wrote (in response to ACD):

You mean that street music, like jacaras, or music for the home, like madrigals or part songs, now performed as "classical" weren't popular music in their time?

No, of course not. Nor do we today perform such as "classical." The madrigals, for instance, that were popular in the sense you mean are very old (Medieval period), very simple ditties which are almost never performed today except as a novelty. The madrigals performed today as "classical" date from the Renaissance, are quite complex both melodically and harmonically, and were composed NOT for the masses, but for the court, and for aristocrats and connoisseurs.

You mean that all those working-class Italians who went to the opera houses of Italy and the US at various times were really members of an elite? You mean the people buying Ricordi arrangements of Puccini so they could play arias on the mandolin were elites?

Again, of course not. But those "working-class Italians" and those "buying Ricordi arrangements of Puccini so they could play arias on the mandolin" were but a small minority of the masses none of which of the latter gave a rat's ass about opera or Puccini, or even knew his name. Those masses were listening to or going around humming "Come Back To Sorrento" and "Volare" or their equivalent of the time. You know. Popular music.

As I've already asserted, at no time in music history was what we today call classical music ever popular music. That sort of music was, is, and will always be an elitist enterprise by its very nature, and can never hope to be otherwise, nor should it ever even entertain such a questionable aspiration.

ACD

A.C. Douglas said...

Oops.

My,

"The madrigals performed today as 'classical' date from the Renaissance...."

should have read:

"The madrigals performed today as 'classical' date from the Renaissance and later...."

ACD

Michael Walsh said...

I'm currently visiting Prague and last Sunday the State Opera mounted a production of Rusalka, which was the "Little Mermaid" of its time. What shocked and then thrilled me was the large number of children in attendance, many of them 8-12 year old girls, who were there enjoying the production as if it were that Disney cartoon. No one told them that opera is a "hard" or "elite" form.

We're going to have to start again with the kids. With the exception of the Nutcracker or Peter and the Wolf, I've never seen that many children at a classical concert in America. It might help if we didn't worry about whether they "get it", and just let them enjoy it.

Then maybe when those kids are in their teens we can turn them on to the "sturm und drang" stuff that spoke to me at the age of 14. Because no one had thought to tell me otherwise.

Henry Fitzgerald said...

A distinction needs to be drawn here, between:

(1) Classical music is inherently elitist

and

(2) Classical music is inherently unpopular

The former (which is true) does not entail the latter (which is false).

That is to say, in any given society, actual or possible, those who love and appreciate classical music will always be, in some sense, an "elite" - on average they will be better educated, more intelligent, more musical, etc. than those who do not.

But depending on how well educated, intelligent and musical the society as a whole is, the proportion of people capable of appreciating classical music could be quite high. As a matter of fact it has varied considerably from place to place and time to time. It may, in principle, rise above 50%. (Whether or not this has ever actually happened is another question.)

Yes, clasical music is an elite interest, but this doesn't mean it cannot be a majority interest.

A.C. Douglas said...

Henry Fitzgerald wrote:

Yes, clasical [sic] music is an elite interest, but this doesn't mean it cannot be a majority interest.

Being an "elite interest" means precisely that it's NOT "a majority interest."

And Mr. Fitzgerald's comment also revealed a glaring typo in one of my comments here that I somehow missed. In that comment I repeated my initial declaration that classical music is, "an elite enterprise by its very nature," but when repeated it came out as classical music is, "an elitist enterprise by its very nature," which is quite wrong. Classical music is unquestionably an elite enterprise by it very nature, but by no means "elitist."

And those of you reckless enough to declare a Freudian slip on my part would be well advised to think more than twice before making the charge.

ACD

Henry Fitzgerald said...

A.C. Douglas writes:

Being an "elite interest" means precisely that it's NOT "a majority interest".

It's possible we're not using the word "elite" in the same way (or "elitist" either - I was, and still am, unaware that there's any difference in meaning between the two words, apart from points of grammar, like the fact that one can be used as a noun and the other can't).

But I thought I was clear enough about explaining what I meant. The sense in which classical music is an elite interest is that, in any society, you can conduct a poll of the people interested in classical music and you'll find them to be better in some relevant sense: better educated, more musical, more intelligent, in possession of more free time; whatever. But this is perfectly consistent with classical music being a majority taste. All this would mean would be that the classical-loving majority would be superior (in some relevant sense) to the minority.

Mozart and Haydn are elite interest, all right. I can know without bothering to look at the facts that those 18th-Century Viennese who admired their music had special qualities which those who did not admire their music, lacked. If nothing else I know they were better judges of music. But I cannot know a priori, without sifting through the historical evidence, whether this proportion of Haydn-and-Mozart admirers was 5% of the adult population, or 10%, or 50%, or 90%, or what it was.

Maybe people of good taste are rare; but this is merely a contingent fact, not a necessary one.

A.C. Douglas said...

By my saying that classical music is "an elite enterprise by its very nature" is to say that classical music by its very nature will appeal only to a very small segment of the general populace; ergo, it's an elite enterprise. To say (as I do NOT) that classical music is "an elitist enterprise by its very nature" is to say that classical music by its very nature is actively exclusive of the general populace, which it most certainly is not.

ACD

Michael Walsh said...

Let's borrow a term from the marketing world and use the term niche instead of elite to refer to a "small, select group".

Linux users represent less than 2% of the computer population, and are considered a niche market. Any tendency to refer to them as an elite market pretty much comes from Linux users themselves...

There are many studies out there about how to thrive as a business serving a small, select market. It pushes too many wrong buttons and fuzzes the conversation to worry about whether those people are "better" than the complementary set (or not).

Music_Lover said...

Whether a classical music is popular or not, the big thing here is that classical and other types still contributes a lot to musical industry. It will just depend on the person who loves hearing this kind of music. If he loves classic then most probably, for him a classic style is popular.

DBratman said...

I'd agree with ACD's assertion that "dumbing down" or "jazzing up" classical music is not the way to spread interest in it, if I were sure I knew what counted as that.

But I'm a little puzzled by the assertion that classical music has never been popular. It seems to me this claim is operating on a definitional assumption that if it's popular, it can't be classical, because classical isn't popular.

Like an earlier poster, I wish to preserve my verification word: joopj.

Henry Fitzgerald said...

In response to Michael Walsh

I agree it's usually poor politics to actually SAY, too loudly and to the world at large, that some people are better than others, that some kinds of music are better than others, that anything is ever any better than anything else. It's considered poor form. It almost never goes down well. These days, some people even stare at you blankly as though they don't understand what language you're speaking.

Luckily, in this context we're NOT speaking too loudly or to the world at large, so we can say what we like on this topic without ill effect.