ESSENTIALS of Classical Music
A Personal Perspective – Western Art Music
When we consider the tradition of so-called classical music, we should avoid making the mistake of thinking only in terms of our own time. Many books or teachers on the subject of classical music today try to sound hip and win young converts by comparing today’s popular culture with the art tradition of past centuries. It doesn’t work. Quite simply, classical music was not the popular music of a bygone era—not in the sense of the role popular music plays today.
This has nothing to do with valued judgments on the relative merit of today’s popular culture versus the culture of past centuries. It is simply a recognition of the fact that popular culture as it exists today, a commodity intended for mass consumption, did not exist in the past—it’s a matter of comparing apples and Volkswagons.
Similarly, many cultures outside of the European tradition don’t observe the same distinctions we do between art music, folk music and popular music. Marshall McLuhan, the cultural critic and communications theorist who made big waves in the 1960s and ’70s, was fond of quoting the Polynesian saying that goes, “We have no art; we do everything as well as we can.” This is not to say that the music of other cultures is not as edifying, enjoyable, creative and complex as Western art music, only that it does not hold an identical position within their culture.
It could be argued that the Western tradition is the poorer for having pigeonholed its music into such separate categories as “art music,” “folk music” and “popular music,” and it can be readily conceded that we have paid a very high price for cultivating a cultural tradition that demands full-time specialization on the part of its practitioners. When you observe such non-Western musical expressions as Japanese taiko drumming, Balinese chanting or Zulu dancing, you are witnessing incredibly intricate art forms whose mastery has been, nonetheless, within reach of most members of those cultures. To illustrate the relative poverty of our own system, consider that about the only things most guests at a Western wedding could do in unison would be the Chicken Dance, the Macarena or, more recently, the Cha Cha Slide (it is extremely unlikely that many people today remember anymore how to do the Hustle). It is probably a subconscious longing for that tribal feeling of belonging that fueled the craze years ago for Country line-dancing.
In the West, we have relegated most musical matters to specialists who have created a body of work that, throughout most of history, has not been aimed at the masses. Don’t kid yourself that Viennese chambermaids in 1760 were going to performances of Haydn symphonies in droves, or that Parisian chimneysweeps amused themselves at home in 1741 by performing Rameau’s Pièces de Clavecin en concerts. The success of music in those days was not based upon numbers of consumers; it was a matter of pleasing the royal or aristocratic patron who paid for it.
To be sure, music in some form was available to everyone; certainly anyone could attend a church service accompanied by music, and the first public opera house opened in Venice in 1637 (opera, being a hybrid of music and theater, has always had a more populist constituency than orchestras). As early as the mid-17th century (during the Commonwealth period while the monarchy was suspended, eliminating the possibility of royal patronage), concerts were given in England on a subscription basis, but patrons tended to be upper class for some time, and orchestral concerts only gradually filtered down to the upper-middle class. For the lower class, folk music was their main musical staple. Popular music as we know it was a still later development. Attitudes towards music began to change in the early 18th century, roughly corresponding to the time of Beethoven, after whom nothing was ever the same.
Beethoven is considered the first major composer who supported himself entirely on what his music earned in the marketplace—through sales of concert tickets or sheet music. Before him, composers depended upon private patronage. [The florid dedications to aristocrats that were included with printed scores of earlier times were blatant attempts to get financial remuneration from the dedicatee—a tactic that didn’t always work. In a bizarre way, you could think of them as the equivalents of the corporate logos that now adorn concert halls and program books across the country.]
Beethoven also brought about a new idea in music: the notion that a piece of music could be a success even if the audience or critics did not like it; that music existed for future audiences as well as those of the composer’s time. A Viennese critic who reviewed Beethoven’s Third Symphony (“Eroica”) in 1805, grasped the new attitude: “Some, Beethoven’s particular friends, assert that this symphony is his masterpiece, that his is the true style for high-class music, and that if it does not please now, it is because the public is not cultured enough, artistically, to grasp all these lofty beauties; after a few thousand years have passed it will not fail in its effect. Another faction . . . fears, however, that if Beethoven continues on his present path, both he and the public will be the sufferers. His music could soon reach the point where one would derive no pleasure from it, unless well trained in the rules and difficulties of the art, but rather would leave the concert hall with an unpleasant feeling of fatigue from having been crushed by a mass of unconnected and overloaded ideas and a continuing tumult by all the instruments.”
If the reviewer’s resistance to Beethoven’s innovations sound eerily similar to the reservations people in our own time have voiced concerning contemporary music, we should remember that it took less than “a few thousand years” for audiences to appreciate the “Eroica” (historian Paul Henry Lang has lionized it as “the greatest single step made by an individual composer in the history of the symphony and in the history of music in general”). The lesson was that music, which is thought to live only while it is being performed, can lie dormant, waiting to be discovered by future audiences just as the Sleeping Beauty in the fairy tale slept for a hundred years waiting for Prince Charming to kiss her back to consciousness. This meant composers—at least those who weren’t interested in money—were less obligated to court the favor of audiences. A work upon which the public turned its back previously would have been thought of as a failure; henceforth it would be considered merely misunderstood.
It was a radical notion; before that, patrons or public audiences expected, even demanded, something new. A special occasion called for a new symphony or new opera; composers would routinely reuse music from earlier compositions in newer ones, figuring that no one was going to hear the original version anymore, so they may as well make good use of it.
But at the same time that composers started thinking that their music might have to wait for future audiences to confer the appreciation their music deserved, audiences started realizing that music from previous eras was still beautiful and valid and worthy of being perpetuated. It was, perhaps, a fair exchange; if composers could compose for audiences of the future, audiences of the present felt justified in turning to composers of the past. While some works of Baroque composers—most notably Handel’s oratorios—were never completely forgotten, the music of Bach had become an obscure specialty of a small circle of devotees and students in the early decades of the 19th century. It was the 20-year-old Felix Mendelssohn’s 1829 revival of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion that ignited an interest in Bach’s music by the Romantics, as well as a new sense of historicism that has come to dominate Western musical thinking.
The result is a set of unique attitudes that have developed towards classical music: the creation of a basic repertoire chosen from music of the last 300 years that forms the bulk of concert programs today; the idea that the intrinsic value of a work is not determined entirely by the audiences who first hear it; that centuries-old music can be every bit as relevant to us as music composed last week; the notion that, even when composers did not intend it, there is value is recreating a work exactly as the composer might have heard it.
The implications of these attitudes reverberated strongly throughout the 20th century, much of which was dominated by an ongoing struggle to achieve a balance between what composers wanted to do and what people wanted to hear. Perhaps the most significant fallout was the creation of “lighter” music that filled the need for music for audiences who sometimes felt they were being left behind. Not everyone in late-19th-century Vienna was interested in the symphonies of Anton Bruckner, but darn near everyone could enjoy listening or dancing to a waltz by Johann Strauss, Jr. This current of music created for instant gratification ultimately resulted in what has become known as popular music, and the gulf between the two grew ever wider. Eventually popular music began fracturing in the 1950s and ’60s, when listeners first had to choose between easy listening and rock ’n’ roll, and again later when Top-40 pop music was distinguished from “underground” or more serious rock music.
Music is part of life, and life is change. It’s a pretty safe generalization that, when anything changes, something is lost and something is gained. Some—especially composers and those who make their living by marketing or presenting contemporary music—are exasperated by our fascination with music of the past to the relative exclusion of the new. Others, including people with limited musical background and even more limited time, applaud the opportunity to listen to music that has already “stood the test of time,” music that has, in essence, been pre-sorted for our convenience. Composers whose music was once forgotten or unappreciated, such as Mozart and Mahler, can come back into fashion while others, like Meyerbeer or Salieri, can slip from near universal admiration as supreme masters to being quietly ignored.
Ultimately the historical view of music—that it is something that transcends its own time, that later generations can re-evaluate it—can be taken as a positive development, demonstrating the near indestructibility of music in general. If musical currents have divided and fragmented to a remarkable degree in the last decades, the music-listening public has grown exponentially as well. There is room at the table for everyone: those who are drawn to music of earlier, different times and aesthetics as well as those for whom last year’s music is already passé; those for whom music is the source of the highest inspiration and those for whom it merely masks the sounds of their neighbor’s television; those interested in abstract sound structures as well as those who simply love a good toe-tapping tune.
Music is an inexhaustible resource, one that will repay you many times over for the time and effort you invest in it. By taking the time to explore this website, you’ve already begun making that investment. It’s time now to attend concerts and reap your rewards.