Musical predictions for the new year

No, I’m not going to try to make predictions for musical happenings in 2011. It’s much more fun to look at someone else’s predictions from years past and see how they turned out. I just got back from Christmas vacation, and I confess to hunting for something I could type out quickly. This gem of a prediction appears in the January 1, 1895 issue of The Musical Times.

One Arthur E. Grimshaw wrote a letter to the editor in response to a concert review the previous month. It seems that the critic had complained that the loud trombones spoiled an otherwise good concert–a particularly common complaint in the nineteenth century. He made three main points:

First, it is unreasonable to expect the trombones and other brasses simply to play more softly. The problem, he said, resulted from how the orchestra was arranged on stage–on risers with the trombones at the back and therefore elevated above the rest of the orchestra. Grimshaw noted that the trombones (and equally loud trumpets) could turn around and stand with their backs to the audience, but even with mirrors, they would have a hard time following the conductor. So he suggested putting them on the floor of the platform behind a screen of thick cloth. They could see the conductor well enough and play as loudly or softly as the music demanded without disturbing anyone in the audience.

Second, the percussion instruments also distract the audience. He complained not so much about playing too loudly, but the visual distraction. The timpanist often had to tune his drums in very little time, and would have to play them softly in order to accomplish the task. Players of cymbals and tambourines also had to display some rather athletic gestures in order to play their instruments. They, too, should be on the floor with the trombones, out of sight.

Grimshaw’s third point contains his prediction, so I will quote it in full

Just one word more. These two little reforms would be steps in the right direction–that is to say, in the direction of the hidden orchestra, a hint or two concerning which may interest some of your readers. The concert orchestra of the twentieth century will be completely hidden from the view of the audience [emphasis added] ; the chorus also when there is one. The conductor shall not be seen, neither shall the tenor and bass soloists. Yea, even soprano and contralto ditto shall be invisible to the mortal eye! All will be hidden by a large curtain, which will reach from ceiling to floor and from wall to wall. And lo! the musician will no longer be distracted by the spectacle of scraping fiddlers and thumping drummers; and in time the people will learn how to listen to music; some will have revealed to them something of the magic which Bayreuth pilgrims tell of–of a strange spell which seizes them when the lights to quietly low, and beautiful sounds creep into life out of space.

Ah, yes. We all know that Wagner heralded the music of the future, and all musical developments of the twentieth century came from him! I think Grimshaw would have liked recorded music. No visual distractions there. But what would he make of the entire music video phenomenon? I’d be downright afraid to predict any time when ” the people will learn how to listen to music.”


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