Friday, February 12, 2010

Take Me Back to Old Vienna: Putting the Class Back in Classical Music

Solo sonatas, nowadays such an important element in all piano programs, were not regarded as suitable for concert presentation until toward the end of the 1830s; they were looked upon as chamber music, to be enjoyed, if possible, at one of the "private academies." . . . . It may sound strange, but only one of Beethoven's piano sonatas was ever played in a Vienna concert during his lifetime. What that means is that in Vienna music in private homes still far overshadowed public concerts in importance and extent until the nineteenth century was fully one third gone.
from Arthur Loesser's Men, Women & Pianos

With my tongue sometimes implanted in my cheek, I thought of a politically incorrect (and politically impossible, since we live in a democracy) solution to the problem of increasing the audience for music, increasing the employment of musicians, and increasing the regular and consistent incorporation of new music into the repertoire.

Perhaps, if we want to improve the outlook for professional music making, we should cultivate the old-school social machine that made it possible for some of the greatest musicians in history to write music of exceptional quality and have it performed for people who could truly appreciate it.

1. Stop trying to look for audiences among the lower classes. Cultivate a love for chamber music among the super rich. Persuade them (or use social pressure on them) to buy and maintain excellent pianos in their homes, and invite guests to come to hear concerts (some with newly-composed music). Publicize the practice among the really rich, making it the "new thing" for people with money to do. Make a Medici-style fuss about how the musical environment of someone's home reflects their overall status in high society. A mansion can certainly be constructed to house a small concert hall. Think of Mrs. Gardner.

2. Stop equating "supporting the arts" with "giving to charity." Develop the mindset that surrounding yourself with great art is your privilege as a member of your class, and a privilege that you can afford (or, rather, can't afford not to have and keep your social standing). Having music in your home is a status symbol. What you serve as music in your home is equal to what you serve your guests at a dinner party. Everything you serve, after all, reflects on you. Even if you don't know anything about music (or art, or literature), surround yourself with people who do, and they will respect you. You might even get something out of it (even if it is only a cultured future spouse) after a certain amount of exposure.

3. Treat musicians like valued servants. Perhaps, along with the butler, maid, and chauffeur, you could add a "maestro" to your household staff, or better still, hire a servant who is also a musician.
Wanted, for a house of the gentry, a manservant who knows how to play the violin well and to accompany difficult clavier sonatas (an ad in the 1789 Wiener Zeitung found in Men, Women & Pianos)
4. Commission music that could not be be heard anywhere except in your home. Eliminate issues of copyright by making the employer the owner of all rights to music written in his or her employ (but certainly pay the composer and performing musicians for the performance). After a certain amount of time (to be agreed upon by the employer and employee) pay the employee a one-time fee for the music, and send it out into the public domain, as a gift to the world from the employer.

5. Ban recording devices from in-home concerts: what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas. Still, invite members of the press to write about the concerts, making it very clear that the quality of music heard there is something to be highly desired, and, perhaps, since it is inaccessible to people outside of the highest levels of the upper class, will be imitated by people who move in "lesser" circles, but with enough money to hold concerts in their homes.

6. Create a firm distinction between the professional musician and the amateur musician. An amateur does not play for money--only for pleasure. S/he doesn't have to act as a servant to anyone, and can be of any class. A professional rarely rises into the level of the employing upper class unless he or she marries into it (which can happen), or has some kind of economic windfall. If that happens s/he is duty-bound, like any other member of the upper class, to hire musicians to play in his or her home. The former professional then becomes an amateur, and if all goes well, other members of the upper class will aspire to play at his or her level, and perhaps with his or her hired professional musicians.

7. Hire professional musicians to teach your children and to write music for them to play. The musical aspirations of your upper-class children should be amateur and not professional (though it has been known to happen that a highly-trained member of the upper class might desire the lower social status of a professional). Your childrens' progress as musicians should be documented and remarked upon by members of the group of newly-resuscitated music critics who are allowed into private house concerts, and are employed by every on-line publication.

8. Use musical leverage to create alliances. Use musicians and musical occasions to celebrate peace. Hire composers to write operas for big family functions, like weddings. Let everyone in the world know about it.

As the upper class (our current class of multi-millionaires) demonstrates a new-found way to define, refine, and improve themselves through this new (old) form of musical activity and involvement, the middle class will want to have this kind of experience as well. (Trickle down economics, as it were.) The middle class would try their hand at house concerts, or they might think of attending public concerts. Eventually (it might take a generation or two) the demands of the middle class would increase the number of concerts. People would want to write about them.

(Now I take my tongue out of my cheek and throw the pie in the sky.)

With the rise of this more culturally-informed generation, colleges and universities would gear their curricula to help students engage knowingly in the new culture. Students eager to be involved in the "newest thing" might embrace courses aimed at teaching them to be active listeners or active performers (with, of course, the ultimate aspiration to become an amateur or a post-professional amateur). They might even find an interest in literature, and they might realize that the best way to get accepted into higher and higher echelons of society would be through their understanding and love of literature, and through their ability to communicate effectively (and even beautifully) through writing. They might find cultural value in all of the applied arts, sciences, and the humanities to complement the values that they find in music.

Recorded music would eventually be thought of as an impression of a musical event (even an engineered one) rather than as music itself. As the object status of the recording fades (into electronic downloads), so too will its ultimate value as a satisfying system for delivering music to people who want to hear it. Perhaps young people will tire of the isolation of i-pod-based listening, and they will crave the communal listening experience of the concert, recognizing that it is the best and most satisfying system of musical "delivery."


David Guion said...

You're right. If it weren't for the fact that your proposals are politically incorrect and economically infeasible, they could just work. Seems to have happened something like that once before.

Given current conditions, I wounder if it would be possible for someone to design a video game that, after players get hooked at lower levels, would require them to learn something about good music in order to continue.

Anonymous said...

This anonymous colleague thinks your ideas might well by correct. Music has been made by individuals, and much in smaller venues, or having found support from the rich and influential. Strauss' composer in Ariadne is at first aghast to find his musicians "at table," meaning playing as dinner entertainment. But haven't musicians always been entertainment of one sort or another? I think you need not throw the pie into the sky, and I imagine you with no tongue in cheek. The real world of classical music is done by the few, the creative, the disciplined and the inspired. So be it for tomorrow as it was yesterday.

Anonymous said...

Lovely thoughts from all. Your previous anonymous colleague finds a sympathetic ear in me.

Could it be that what we need is a good dose of feudalism? haha

Art will survive. Everything else ends up as rubble.