When "classical" music was "popular"–Part 2

My first article on this topic explored how Rossini’s music was considered “popular” music in the sense of being somehow inferior to “classical” music, although it is now regarded as “classical” music. This one will explore the narrowing of gaps between social strata that resulted in a new style of music, which music history has come to regard as the Classical period. It was among the most truly popular music of all times, in the sense of appealing to audiences that crossed geographical and social boundaries (not to mention time!)

At least from the late Middle Ages through the end of the seventeenth century, the musical households of the European nobility produced music that was heard by the family and shared among other noble families, but never heard by most of the population. New music for the church was heard almost exclusively in churches attended by the nobility. Townspeople in the capital cities may have had opportunity to hear it, but the majority of the population, living in rural areas, did not.

By the Renaissance, nobles were expected to be knowledgeable about the arts. Regarding music, it was not enough for them to listen to music. Social pressure demanded that they be able to sing and or play musical instruments such as keyboard instruments or lute. Besides the nobility, the only other people who had time to study music at that level were the professionals. No one else had the leisure time for such pursuits.

The music intended for the nobility survives as the musical treasures of the great composers over that span of time. The music of the people survives, if at all, as folk music. There were some tunes that were known and loved by a wide cross-section of society, but the performance practice heard by the nobility and the rest of the people differed greatly.

During this entire time, there was a small but growing middle class–merchants, artisans, bankers, etc.–with a social status between the nobility and the peasantry. Sometimes they took over musical fashions after the nobility tired of them, much like younger siblings get hand-me-down clothes outgrown by older siblings. But this middle class aspired to the same status as the nobility. There were even sumptuary laws in many locations (forbidding commoners from wearing clothes made of the same fabric worn by the nobility or used for the livery of their servants, among other things) to keep them in their place.

This middle class gradually grew to a size and influence that a tipping point was reached by the middle of the eighteenth century. By the 1850s, the upper reaches of the middle class and the aristocracy had essentially merged in most of Western Europe.

The middle class at the opening of the eighteenth century, still aspiring to the social standing of the nobility, had enough leisure time to learn music, but not music as complex as that of the late Baroque. They wanted a music that was simpler in structure, easier to listen to and to perform. By the 1780s, this newer music became so well established that the nobility took to is as if it were their own. (In this and other ways about this time, the middle class stopped copying the nobility and the nobility began to copy the middle class!) The eighteenth century was also a very cosmopolitan time, which saw a blending of Italian, French,  and German styles.

Joseph Haydn’s career exemplifies these changes. He did not invent any aspect of the new style; he did not invent sonata form or the any of the genres (such as the symphony, keyboard sonata,  and string quartet) that rely on it, but they reached their first peak of perfection in his music. More remarkable than the greatness of his music is way he achieved worldwide fame.

When he signed his contract with Prince Paul Anton Esterházy, it specified among other things, that he was to compose whatever music the prince asked for, not allow any of his pieces to be copied for anything but the prince’s exclusive use, and not to compose for anyone else. Paul Anton died the following year, and his brother Nikolaus the Magnificent succeeded him as prince. Haydn’s contract remained unchanged until 1779, but the prohibition of composing for others or giving others copies of his music was honored more in breech than observance: Nikolaus knew the public relations advantages of having a well known composer on  his staff.

While Nikolaus still lived, Haydn accepted commissions for twelve symphonies from Paris and for the Seven Last Words from a Spanish cathedral. Although music circulated freely in manuscript, he arranged to have  his music published by Viennese publishers. Later, he traveled twice to England, where he was already famous.

Without his knowledge, publishers in Amsterdam, Berlin, Leipzig, London, Naples, and especially Paris issued his music–or music they said was his. In one notorious case, a publisher scraped the name Roman Hoffstetter off the title page of a set of string quartets and substituted Haydn’s name, expecting that he could sell more copies if people thought Haydn had written them. It was not until the late twentieth century that anyone learned that Haydn did not write the quartets known as his opus 3!

Perhaps more striking than the geographical extent of his fame is the way it crossed class lines. He was a servant in a nobleman’s household, but much of his output seems to have been intended for “export.” Its intended market was  not so much other  noble households as the burgeoning middle class. Besides attending concerts, the upper middle class bought chamber music and keyboard music to play in their  homes. The lower middle class and, at least in Austria and Bohemia, the servant classes had plenty of opportunity to hear Haydn’s dance music played in taverns or during Carnival.

There was as yet no distinction between “classical” music and “popular” music, yet Haydn’s music appealed to such a broad public, both geographically and socially, that we must recognize it as truly popular. Although Haydn was probably the most widely famous composer of his lifetime and, with Mozart, the best known of his generation today, he was hardly unique. Publishers in London and Paris printed music from all over Europe and sold it not only all over Europe, but also in the Americas.

Many composers forgotten today were also popular in the same sense Haydn was. And why not? Composers of this generation desired more than any before or since to delight and cater to the tastes of the broadest public they could reach. It was intended to be the most listener friendly music they could possibly compose. The music of most previous composers was forgotten within a generation of their death, no matter how famous and esteemed they were in their lifetimes. The generation following the Classical composers thought so highly of their music that they took active steps to make sure it would never die so their and future generations could continue to love it.

(First published on The All-Purpose Guru on September 24, 2009)

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