Saturday, July 03, 2021

Jacques Barzun, Guest Blogger

Jacques Barzun, is no longer with us. Music in American Life, a book first published in 1956, reflects on musical life in America a few years before I was born. It concerns music in American life when my parents were starting out in music. Here is what Mr. Barzun has to say about the role of managers in the business of American concert music:
The Manager's Handiwork

The first thing an intrested concert-goer learns is that the great musical artists are the creations and also the sport of managers, on the one hand, and the regimented citizens of the union on the other. "How can I get a good manager?" asks the young violinist fresh from prize-winning at the conservatory or perhaps fresh from a European success. There are two agencies and only two that can insure a top-flight career in the United States. Both regard their work as Marcus Aurelius did the maintenance of the Roman Empire. What lies outside must be vanquished or absorbed. The managerial circuits handle a limited number of performing animals who must jump through pre-established hoops. Fees, schedules, territory are not only set but irrevocably imposed, so that anything like a natural rise in fame or fortune is well-nigh impossible. Artists are sold to local groups in packages--one high-priced and several thrift-shop items. As a $250 number, it is not even possible after paying one's expenses to make a living, which means that a piano tuner is better off than the pianist he serves. New talent, regardless of merit, must wait till the machine offers a "slot."

The last bitter dose for the enterprising wayward is the need to make the program conform to the supposed tastes of the audience. The violinist must have a large repertory of "little pieces" for both the main course and the encores. The vocalist must be lavish with coy numbers, for the lieder program has all but disappeared. And the pianist (as Debussy suggested) must be able to lift the piano with his teeth. It was ever thus and the serious artist, even when managed to the hilt and presumably fulfilling his destiny, complains that he cannot introduce those modern works that have usually been dedicated to him--in hopes. If he is a native or foreign-born nationaliist he also regrets that American music is slighted in favor of European.

Ultimately, all these grievances are chargeable to the public. The provinces mistrust themselves and one another, and all want the latest New York success; a reputation in Cleveland is of no use elsewhere: San Francisco won't listen. To obtain New York notices, the aspirant must give--at his own expense--a Town Hall recital. But even glowing notices will not open the doors of the managerial Kremlin and will not be read in the hinterland. The smaller New York managers and the local ones in the provincial cities can only compete on sufferance with the great circuits, because their constituents, the public, are ignorant, timid, and snobbish.
Jacques Barzun died in 2012 at the age of 104. Much of what he says is (sadly) still true, but I like to think that as a society, even in America (and particularly in the "provinces") we have made a little progress. It is interesting for me to reflect on "the old days," and understand the struggles that so many musicians faced during a time that many of us consider a kind of "golden age" of musicianship. Music in American Life is, unfortunately, not part of the rather extensive Jacques Barzun collection in the Internet Archive, but you can find a used paperback by way of Amazon. I borrowed my copy from a local university library.

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