When “classical”; music was “popular”–Part 1

Everyone knows that Rossini’s operas are part of “classical music,” but it hasn’t always been that way. During Rossini’s lifetime, he was widely reviled by lovers of “classical” music, as were many other operatic composers. One writer in a French journal proclaimed that there were only two kinds of musicians: classicists and Rossinists. Like nearly everyone else who wrote for the major journals, he was a Rossini-disdaining classicist. I have put “classical” in quotation marks, but when that French critic used it, it meant something very specific.

For one brief, shining moment in music history (the late eighteenth century), everyone at all levels of the social ladder (or at least the nobility, their servants, and the rising middle class) enjoyed the same music. The major world capitals of the time were London, Paris, and Vienna, and while each had their own local favorite composers, the instrumental music of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven was played and loved everywhere. It was built on sonata form, rondos, themes with variations, and a few other standard forms. Audiences delighted in hearing how cleverly they could manipulate these few structures and build fresh melodies and harmonies from a few simple motives. (Italian composers continued to dominate opera internationally as they had for more than a century.)

According to William Weber (in Music and the Middle Class), the French Revolution put an end to concert life in Paris for about twenty years. At about the same time, concert life also ceased in London. It did not cease in Vienna, but the quality of orchestral performance declined dramatically. By the time concert life revived in these capitals, audiences no longer remembered how to listen for clever handling of these forms. Haydn and Mozart were dead. There was no logical successor to Beethoven. Social and economic conditions in these three capitals had not been conducive to the development of a new generation of composers capable of writing music comparable to this triumvirate, now recognized as “classical” composers. No other cities in Europe had sufficient influence to put their resident composers on the international stage.

Meanwhile, the concept of music as a business developed. According to Charles Hamm (Yesterdays: or, Popular Song in America), the English conceived the idea of song writing and publishing as a business in the late eighteenth century. When music became a commodity more than an art form, when it was intended to appeal to mass taste rather than to connoisseurs, popular music in the modern sense was born. Mass taste demands both familiarity and novelty.  Making a profit from it demands a product with a short shelf-life: new music enough like last year’s to be comfortable, but enough different to make what was songs more than a year or two old seem faintly old-fashioned.

Once France recovered from the Revolution, Paris became the center for virtuoso pianists like Henri Herz, Frédéric Kalkbrenner, and Johann Peter Pixis, as well as the very successful teacher Franz Hünten, who did not perform publicly. Karl Czerny of Vienna was also a notable teacher, who performed but some but did not travel. As much businessmen as musicians, these pianists composed music prolifically, counting on their fame as performers and teachers to sell the sheet music. Their playing and their compositions showed more care for flash and dazzle of performance technique than for cleverness of form, melody, or harmony. Like the English composers and publishers, they constantly sought to produce something new,  but not different enough to scare away their audience.

At about the same time, Paris became the operatic capital of the world, not only for opera in French, but opera in Italian. No Italian composer could be counted as truly successful even in Italian theaters without first having achieved recognition in Paris. Opera had been a business since the first commercial opera  house opened in 1637, but it had always appealed to the aristocracy. In Paris, composers like Rossini and Meyerbeer quickly learned how to appeal to a mass audience, leading more old-fashioned opera lovers to lament that these new composers were plagiarizing themselves, that each new opera was nothing but new flash and dazzle clothing the same old same old.

Meanwhile, Johann Strauss, Sr., and Joseph Lanner discovered that the orchestra could be a business. First as partners, then as rivals, they developed two distinct seasons: one for balls and other dances, and the other for relaxed concerts called promenades (the latter idea borrowed by Strauss from the French conductor/composerof light music Philippe Musard). Strauss was the first conductor to take an orchestra on an international tour. In order to appeal to a mass audience, Strauss and Lanner both composed hundreds of dances, marches, and other short and light pieces over their short lifetimes.

Is it any wonder that lovers of classical music hated this new music? It emphasized quantity over quality. It was superficial in its effects, as there was hardly any novelty in the handling of form, motive, or harmonic structure.  It was business, not art. And is it any wonder that lovers of the new music could not understand why the classicists could barely tolerate anything written by living composers? They seemed to be living in the past, not the present. They seemed to be snobbish and to consider themselves superior in taste to everyone else.

Eventually, Rossini’s overtures became acceptable on symphonic concerts. Most of his operas disappeared from the repertoire for generations. In the 1950s and 1960s, the joke was that a highbrow was anyone who could listen to his William Tell overture without thinking of The Lone Ranger. But before the 1850s, no self-respecting highbrow would have listened to it enough to recognize just which Rossini piece it was.

(First published in The All-Purpose Guru on September 10, 2009)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *