Joshua Bell in the subway: what does it mean?

On January 12, 2007, Joshua Bell took his Stradivarius violin to the L’Enfant Plaza Metro station in Washington, D.C. and played great classical music for 43 minutes. According to the subsequent article in the Washington Post, more than one thousand people passed by. Only one person recognized him; only seven stopped to listen for even as much as a minute, but some people tossed money into his case as they hurried by. Bell collected just over $32.

The incident probably says a lot about American culture, but apparently no one agrees just what. Just the other day, it was retold on NPR’s “Morning Edition” as a story of how Americans are in too much of a hurry to stop and appreciate beauty.

I decided to look it up. Some folks at the time commented on how classical music is lost on the masses. Others claimed that the stunt simply showed that classical music is essentially irrelevant to modern society. Still others lamented that children wanted to stop and listen, but their parents wouldn’t let them.

The fact is that many people play music in public places and earn good money for it. It’s called busking. One successful New York busker noted that Bell is a great musician, but didn’t have any idea how to busk.

The story and its implications for classical music therefore are a bit more complicated than the Washington Post story implies. Surely the audience for classical music is small. It always has been in this country. On the other hand, it has always had an intense following. It still does. Joshua Bell is one of its big stars. Why then, did no one stop to hear him? Why did only one out of more than a thousand even recognize him?

As the busker said, a subway station is not a concert hall. No one has gone there deliberately to listen to music. A busker must work to attract an audience. Part of that work involves choosing spots to play where people are most likely to stop and listen. A subway platform, as noisy as it is, would have worked better. People standing and waiting for a train have no place to go. Once they get off the train and head for the street, they are in a hurry to get someplace.

Once in a suitable place, a busker must work to attract an audience. It’s not enough to put down a case and start playing without making some attempt to engage potential listeners. Bell, an excellent concert artist and inexperienced busker, did not do so.

That, and the fact that children wanted to stop and listen, sufficiently dismisses the argument classical music’s social irrelevance. Successful buskers can and do attract a paying audience playing classical music. Children, who have not yet learned to let someone else define their tastes for them, love to listen to it. There is nothing wrong with classical music.

As I have written in previous posts on the distinctions between popular and classical music, arguments about the relative merits of Beethoven and whomever else is more popular at the time (Henri Herz in the 1820s and 30s) have been going on since even before Beethoven died.

People all over the world pay good money to listen to Beethoven’s music. Who today but a scholar has ever heard of Herz? Where is a mass audience for any popular music more than fifty years old? Fifty years from now, who of today’s greatest stars will still be attracting an audience as big as Beethoven’s?

The Washington Post put Bell up to playing at the subway station more or less as a prank. The real lesson has nothing to do with how people are in a hurry to stop for beauty (although most Americans certainly seem to hurry past it all too routinely). Rather it has to do with what the busker pointed out about the difference between a concert hall and a subway platform.

Ever since Theodore Thomas took his orchestra on tour, classical musicians have worked hard to build an audience. One of his rivals invented music appreciation classes. The trouble with using either concert building or classroom experiences to “educate” the public is that it implies that the music is hard to understand and the people are somehow deficient in taste.

Neither message seems likely to produce more than sullen attention any more. And yet classical music, like Bell in the subway, sets up a concert venue and waits for people to show up. It gets the same small segment of society all the time. What can we do to attract an audience? To present music where they are in such a way they want to hear more of it? I’ll bet we can learn a lot from buskers.

Jeux by Claude Debussy

Debussy wrote his last ballet and last orchestral work, Jeux, (or Games for Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballet Russe, with Vaslav Nijinsky as choreographer and lead dancer. The first performance puzzled its audience, and as it took place only two weeks before the tumultuous premiere of Stravinsky’s Le sacre du printemps, it was nearly forgotten in the uproar.

On closer inspection, Jeux was every bit as revolutionary and forward-looking as Sacre and even more daring harmonically. Debussy’s most nearly atonal work, Jeux‘s formal structure depends to an unprecedented degree on orchestral color and texture rather than pitch relationships.

In this way, it points in the direction of Anton Webern’s pointillism, to the search for new sonorities from electronic instruments, and through the teaching of Olivier Messiaen, to the techniques developed by postwar composers like Karlheinz Stockhausen and Pierre Boulez.

The story and choreography also refused to conform to any previous expectations, and it remains unclear whether the audience found the music or the ballet the more problematical.

In Nijinsky’s simple plot, boy loses tennis ball, finds two girls, forgets about the ball, and eventually wins both girls. By the end of the ballet, the three of them are kissing passionately. He made no room for fantasies, tutus and coronets, ensembles, or anything the audience might have expected to see–nothing but three people in tennis outfits.

(And in 1913, men’s tennis outfits were baggy long-sleeved shirts and flannel slacks. Women wore long-sleeved ankle-length dresses with petticoats. It is difficult to imagine anyone successfully either dancing or playing tennis dressed that way.)

Some people found the ballet a refreshing change. Others, apparently including Debussy himself, found it disconcerting. Debussy was so annoyed with what he saw that he left the theater to smoke a cigarette.

Even without the ballet, the music bewildered audiences. To some extent, it continues to do so. Unlike anything else he ever wrote, listeners continue to find Jeux Debussy’s most difficult work. With its predominantly scherzando mood, it continues to play games with audience’s expectations and requires repeated hearing to understand.

Beethoven plays a new concerto

Nowadays, soloists in a concerto play from memory, especially pianists. Occasionally, players of other instruments will use written music, but I have only seen one pianist using music. He was on the faculty when I was in graduate school, and students discussed the oddity for days afterward.

Since the piano requires the use of both hands, memorizing music for performances has the obvious benefit of not requiring a third hand to turn pages. It may come as a surprise, then, to learn that pianists have not always performed from memory and audiences have not always expected them to.

For a performance of his C minor piano concerto, Beethoven asked his friend Ignaz Ritter von Seyfried to turn pages for him. Seyfried later reported that the pages contained mostly blank staves, with a few cryptic notes here and there that he compared to Egyptian hieroglyphics.

At the time of the performance, Beethoven had not yet had time to write out the solo part, so he played it from memory. He apparently didn’t want the audience to know that he had not prepared his own part, thus his request to Seyfried.

Beethoven gave a signal when to turn the pages. Poor nervous Seyfried stared at them as if the whole notation had been present but hard to read, much to Beethoven’s amusement.

The Fantasticks: book and lyrics by Tom Jones, music by Harvey Schmidt

Musicals, or at least so it seemed according to the example set by Irving Berlin or Rogers and Hammerstein, ought to be big, bold, impressive, with elaborate production numbers, fancy costumes, and lighting effects. Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt thought so when they became friends at the University of Texas and dreamed of conquering New York.

Even while serving is different army units, they managed to collaborate on songs by mail. Once in New York, they tried to make an elaborate musical out of a one-act spoof on Romeo and Juliette by Edmund Rostand, Les Romanesques. In hindsight, they attempted a Texas version of West Side Story, even including a character and song called “Maria,” but after a three-year struggle they couldn’t make it work.

When Jones decided simple staging on a platform could solve their problem, another Texas alum promised to produce their musical at Barnard College if they could reduce it to one act in three weeks. Discarding everything except the opening song (“Try to Remember”) and the basic idea of adapting Rostand’s play, the two almost effortlessly beat the deadline.

The performances at Barnard (the week beginning August 3, 1959) might have been the end of the story, but producer Lore Noto was in the audience and asked Jones and Schmidt if they could make it into a full-length musical. It opened off-Broadway nine months later. No one could guess that it would run for 42 years.

It must have seemed an oddity. It had no scenery. Actors retrieved props from a large chest at one side of the platform. In place of an orchestra, two pianos, a harp, some percussion and one person doubling on bass and cello provided the accompaniment.

Behind the comic hijinks lay a philosophic meditation on the necessity of winter (or death) for spring (rebirth). “Try to Remember” sets the stage for a story about both the innocence and folly of young lovers and the necessity of suffering to achieve maturity.

Opening to mixed reviews, the play often had very sparse audiences in its early performances. Schmidt remembered, “We’d only have three people in the audience on some nights, but you’d look out and it’d be Tallulah Bankhead, Richard Rogers, and Vivien Leigh.”

Word got around, helped, no doubt, by Noto’s habit of carrying the original cast album around with him wherever he went. He also gambled by releasing stock company and amateur rights after only a few months. It paid off. No other musical ever had 17,162 performances in its original theater before closing.

An experimental brass band in 1832

At the beginning of the nineteenth century, the only possible all-brass ensemble was the cavalry band, which could only play military signals. Once keyed bugles and valved trumpets and horns became available, massed brass could play real music.

The movie Brassed Off provides a glimpse of the British brass band tradition. The band in that movie, where all the members worked for a coal mining company, reflects the working class origins of that institution. No one can identify the first British brass band with certainty, but several existed before the end of the 1830s.

I found an interesting article in the January 28, 1832 issue of the Times. Because it describes an ensemble of London’s leading brass players, it probably has no real connection with the development of the working-class brass band tradition. The article certainly takes no notice of it, but does show the quick response to new technology that transformed musical instruments and musical ensembles during the nineteenth century.


A novel combination of musical effect, at least in this country, was tried yesterday morning at the King’sTheatre, before a select audience of of professors and amateurs expressly invited to obtain their judgment on its results.

A complete band has been collected, consisting wholly of instruments of metallic formation. There are, for example, eight French horns, six trumpets, six keyed bugles, three trombones, and a double bass horn, of extraordinary compass in depth, being below the serpent and instruments of that class in military bands.

The pieces performed were the Overture to Spohr’s Jessonda ; the march of the Priests in the Zauberflote ; with some movements from Weber, Rossini, and Auber. The experiment, which, it should be observed, has been only six weeks in preparation, was decidedly a successful one. In passages of pure harmony is difficult to imagine any thing more perfect.

The movement seemed to have the same unity of design as if it proceeded from one stupendously grand and powerful instrument, and what is still more remarkable, was subdued when requisite to a degree of softness which might have been borne in the boudoir of a sick duchess.

The prevalent defect, in the judgment of the auditory, was, that the basses were inadequate, in strength, to sustaining so great a weight of harmony ; but this’ll admit of a very easy remedy. We think, however, that there was another defect, but perceptible only in those compositions written for a full orchestra, the violin parts of which have been transferred to the bugles and trumpets, instruments incapable of sustaining properly high and quick treble passages.

But it is very possible that instruments of the same genus may be invented, capable of continuing the scale up to the highest notes of the violin, and thus allowing the performance of the great symphonies of Mozart and Beethoven. In the mean time, up to a certain extent, the effect, of its kind, leaves nothing to be desired.

Bands of this structure have for some time, existed on the continent, but for their introduction here musicians have to thank Mr. Harper, the celebrated trumpet-player, who took a leading part in the performance, which was filled up throughout by professors of the first eminence.

The horns were most ably led by Mr. Platt, Mr. Rae, and others, who took the solo parts in succession. The trombones were also finely played, and with great discretion as to the strength of intonation.

All present appeared much gratified at the result of the experiment.

Trois gymnopédies by Erik Satie

Erik Satie, an eccentric composer of minor talent but great imagination, exercised enormous influence on twentieth-century musical thought. Above all a musical humorist, he issued his first published composition as op. 62. His longest work, Vexations, consists of just over a minute’s worth of music played 840 times without pause.

The Gymnopédies, composed in 1888 for piano solo, exhibit a different kind of humor, based on Satie’s conscious and deliberate antagonism to verifiable facts. In ancient Greece, the gymnopedia, or festival of naked youth, was celebrated every year in Sparta to honor Apollo, Pythaeus, Artemis, and Ledo. The days-long festival concluded with gymnastic exhibitions and frenzied dancing offered not to the four deities already named, but to Dionysius.

Satie composed slow, dignified, pieces utterly devoid of passion and chose to give them a title that conjured up images of a boisterous celebration. Having thus deliberately misrepresented the gymnopedia, perhaps he would be astounded to learn that the whole concept of serene classicism just as thoroughly misrepresents ancient Greek esthetics as a whole.

Scholars have since determined that the gleaming whiteness of the marble, which we admire so greatly, does not reflect the original intent of the artists. They did not consider their works complete without application of flamboyant colors, which the passage of centuries has stripped away.

That Satie became so well known and influential can be traced in part to his friendship with Claude Debussy. In 1911 Debussy orchestrated the third and first of the Gymnopédies, in that order. Many critics have complained that the orchestration obscured Satie’s clear outlines. Be that as it may, the pieces gained more in prestige than they lost in clarity. It is in Debussy’s version that they, and Satie himself, first became well known.

A historical perspective on orchestra concerts: programing and ritual

Today, American orchestra concerts usually have three or four pieces. In one very typical formula, they have some kind of overture, a concerto, and a symphony.

If the program should happen to include music by a living composer–or even by one who died some time after, say, 1945–it typically comes right before intermission, sandwiched between two popular standards. That way the audience will come on time to hear the opening piece and be forced to stay in their seats through the new piece in order to hear whatever delight awaits after the intermission.

Certain unwritten laws dictate concert ritual, including applause for the concert master and entrance of the conductor, but no applause between movements of a concerto or symphony.

There are both good and bad reasons for our current practices, but they are not sustainable very long into the future. Concerts have become museums for music that, for a number of reasons, seems less and less relevant to our society. As audiences grow older, demographics threaten orchestras’ long-term viability unless changes in programing and ritual can attract a wider following.

Most of Americas orchestras were founded some time in the twentieth century. The New York Philharmonic, founded in 1842, is the oldest of them, but not by any means the first. Even colonial America had many orchestras, but no one at the time conceived of a concert orchestra as a permanent institution. An orchestra might have been assembled for a single performance, or as a social institution for the sake of reading though symphonic music and occasionally giving public performances.

Typical eighteenth-century concerts, both in America and Europe, featured a very mixed repertoire. Orchestral works like symphonies and concertos shared the stage with chamber music, songs, operatic excerpts, and choruses. An entire program without any singers, let alone an entire program by the orchestra alone, was simply unthinkable. In fact, this approach to programing lasted well into the nineteenth century.

For a while in the nineteenth century, brass bands (and later, mixed wind bands)seemed a more viable and truly American ensemble than orchestras. There were more of them, but no particular ideological rivalry. Harvey Dodworth, leader of one of New York’s successful brass bands, helped found the New York Philharmonic and played violin there.

Like all other nineteenth-century American orchestras, the Philharmonic did not have a long enough season that any of its members could make a living from it. Many musicians besides Dodworth played for both orchestras and bands, and both kinds of ensembles programed similar music.

When Viennese ballerina Fanny Elssler toured America in 1840-42, she performed not only classical ballet, but various folk dances. Her programs appealed to all segments of American society and established a model for later foreign stars. Swedish operatic soprano Jenny Lind combined popular British and American songs with operatic standards. Their audiences, and American audiences in general, behaved more like rock audiences than modern symphony audiences.

In the latter half of the nineteenth century, Theodore Thomas and others struggled mightily to purify orchestral concerts by purging light music and enforcing a quiet reverence among the audience.

I would not advocate returning to the days when musicians could not make a living from playing in an orchestra, or when concerts included trivial music but often not full performances of multi-movement works, or when audiences came and went as they pleased and held loud conversations during the performance.

On the other hand, it seems that some lightening of concert programing and concert etiquette would help dissipate the aura of stuffiness that shrouds modern orchestra concerts. Perhaps a look back at what worked well in earlier concerts would provide some useful ideas.

Earlier orchestra concerts included not only music by revered masters, but new music–both new symphonic works and popular tunes. Somehow, rock tunes or rap do not seem good partners on orchestra concerts, but plenty of new composers, who have a great desire to connect with a broad audience, write music partly under the influence of contemporary popular music.

Instead of using Beethoven as a draw to force people to listen to Webern or other musical brussels sprouts, perhaps at least some orchestra concerts could be devoted to music by living composers who already have a following, and then sprinkle some Beethoven.

I suppose anyone who goes to a concert to hear music by, say, John Adams, Libby Larsen, Michael Torke, Jennifer Higdon, Michael Daugherty, any one of a number of living American composers would enjoy the great classics, even if hearing some of them for the first time.

As classical audiences develop a taste for new American music, maybe they’d all enjoy Arvo Pärt, Giya Kanchelli, or any number of European composers who have turned their back on audience-repelling avant gardists of the post-war era.

Maybe there is a way to allow audiences to participate more interactively, not just sit in silence in the dark, yet still listen intently to the music. Orchestra concerts have so much to offer to society. Good art is such a welcome antidote to the tawdry industrialization and commercial manipulation behind so much popular music.

Art overcame manipulative marketing of cheap tricks in the 1840s. It has the power to triumph over empty commercialism again. All it requires is imagination and willingness to jettison unsustainable programing and ritual.

Concert bands and big bands

I used to play summers with the Wheaton Municipal Band in Wheaton, Illinois. The last concert of the season is always “big band” music, which means that most of the 90 members are finished and only 17 people play that concert. It has always struck me as funny that after a season of full band concerts, the one called the big band concert involves only about a fifth as many players.

The difference in names turns out to be a matter of history and tradition. During the French Revolution, Bernard Sarrette took charge of training military musicians and assembled a the largest band in history. The standard military band in the eighteenth century had been pairs of oboes, clarinets, oboes, and bassoons–eight players. Sarrette assembled a band of 45 musicians who played all those instruments and more. By the end of the year, it had grown to 78.

When Napoleon came to power, he had no interest in infantry bands and allowed Sarrette’s band to shrivel away. He wanted a good cavalry band, though. His band master David Buhl worked with a group of 16 trumpets, 6 horns, and 3 trombones, a group that influenced military bands all over Europe.

By the middle of the nineteenth century the French, Prussian, and Austrian governments had all established standards for both cavalry bands (all brass) and infantry bands (mixed brass and woodwinds). European civilian bands modeled on infantry bands could have as many as 100 members.

American military bands, run by the states and not the federal government, had no standard instrumentation at all. In 1859 Patrick Gilmore agreed to become conductor of the Boston Brigade Band, but only on condition that it be renamed Gilmore’s Band and that he have complete control not only of the music, but also bookings and finances. His financial success in touring the whole nation enabled him to indulge his taste for large and impressive ensembles.

Gilmore’s band soon became the model for both professional and amateur bands. Today’s Wheaton Municipal Band, as well as countless school bands, university bands, and professional and amateur community bands, stands very much in the Gilmore tradition, which in turn traces its ancestry back to Sarrette.

Jazz, on the other hand, traces its ancestry to the rural South, especially but not exclusively New Orleans. Many black people in southern cities played in bands in every way comparable to white bands. Rural blacks, who lacked the educational opportunities of the cities, acquired instruments, taught themselves to play them, and improvised in small groups. Several musical streams joined together to make jazz, including how bandsmen from the written and aural traditions influenced each other.

The first New Orleans jazz band to take its music on a nationwide tour, the Creole Band, had seven members. Plenty of other bands were smaller. Louis Armstrong’s first band was called the Hot Five. When Fletcher Henderson started out with a ten-piece band in 1925, it seemed very large, but it still played in the standard New Orleans style of group improvisation, along with Henderson’s own written arrangements.

Several things set New Orleans style bands apart from the later Swing bands. The latter relies much more heavily on written arrangements. Written arrangements, in turn, allow the arranger to plan different instrumental effects. In some cases, the arrangers needed additional instruments to create those effects. Henderson and others began to feature a trio of clarinets, or in other words, a clarinet section.

In other cases, when a band leader hired additional players, it could force arrangers to think differently. From 1923 to 1929, Duke Ellington’s band had one trombone (Joe “Tricky Sam” Nanton after1926). When Ellington hired Juan Tizol in 1929 not to replace Nanton but join him in the band, he had to change his whole approach to scoring for brass. He no longer had a trumpet and a trombone. He had a brass section.

The replacement of single instruments with sections drove the growth of jazz bands. The minimum size band with sections would seem to be ten: three reeds, two trumpets, two trombones, and three rhythm (bass, drums, and one chordal instrument). Four reeds, three of each brass, and using both piano and guitar in the rhythm section (14 players in all–twice the size of the Creole Band) offered more resources for the arranger.

In the heyday of the Swing bands, most of them had more than 14 players. Stan Kenton’s Progressive Jazz Orchestra had 20. With the addition of strings and horns, his Innovations in Modern Music Orchestra numbered 39.

These larger groups never completely supplanted bands representing the older tradition of improvisation by a group of half a dozen or so players. Even before the Swing bands started to decline in numbers and importance, bebop combos usually consisting of one solo player and rhythm became common. That explains why a 17-piece jazz band is a big band, while a 90-piece concert band is just a band.

Rapsodie espagnole by Maurice Ravel

Ironically, in view of Maurice Ravel’s reputation as a brilliant orchestrator, he conceived only Rapsodie espagnole as a purely orchestral display piece from the beginning, and that only in part. He either wrote his other orchestral works for the stage or transcribed them from piano pieces. In fact, the “Habanera” in Rapsodie espagnole was written originally for two pianos.

Ravel shared the enthusiasm of many French composers for Spanish music. In his case, he absorbed an understanding of both French and Spanish culture as a child. Son of a Swiss father and Basque mother, he grew up in the Basque region. In a review of Rapsodie espagnole, Spanish composer Manuel de Falla wrote:

“It surprises me by its genuinely Spanish character. In absolute agreement with my own intentions this “Hispanization” is not achieved merely by drawing upon popular or “folk” sources (except the Jota in “Feria”), but rather through the free use of modal rhythms and melodies and ornamental figures of our “popular” music, none of which has altered in any way the natural style of the composer.”

The first movement, “Prélude à la nuit” (Prelude to the night), never gets louder than mezzo-forte. Ravel achieved the veiled sound in part by spacing muted violins and violas two octaves apart. Two dance movements follow, “Malagueña” and “Habanera.” In the final movement, “Feria” (The fair), several instruments exchange the solo lines. The opening dancelike material gives way to a quiet middle section before returning to bring the piece to a rousing close.

Five things you probably didn’t know about Gustav Mahler

When he was a little boy, someone asked Mahler what he wanted to be when he grew up; he said, “a martyr.”

One day, a friend noticed that Mahler looked sad; Mahler said he had just learned that his father was ill. The next day, the same friend saw a man running through the street sobbing. It was Mahler. Had something happened to his father? It was much worse than that; he learned that Richard Wagner had died.

Conducting his first Ring Cycle, Mahler was furious when the timpanist missed an important cue in the final scene of Das Rheingold; he wasn’t there at all, having left before the performance ended to catch the last train home to a distant suburb. When Mahler called him on the carpet the next day, the timpanist said he could not afford to live in the city and support a wife and child on his salary. Mahler immediately decided to raise the salaries of every musician in the orchestra and economize on scenery and costumes, if necessary.

When eating out, Mahler always wiped every piece of table service before using it. One day he and his sister sat on the upper terrace of an elegant restaurant in Budapest. His back to the balcony, he rinsed his out his glass and tossed the water over his shoulder. Of course, it landed on some shocked, well-dressed ladies below. He apologized profusely, and they, recognizing the famously absent-minded opera conductor, quickie forgave him. Five minutes later, his sister asked for a glass of water. He rinsed out her glass, too, again tossing the water over his shoulder and showering the ladies before. The waiter almost dropped his tray, laughing so hard. Mahler did not go anywhere near that restaurant again for a long time.

Mahler thought his music never achieved everything he intended. Passages inspired by his deepest emotions always seemed to be spoiled by commonplace melodies. Late in life, he remembered that he had fled the house to avoid watching a painful argument between his parents, and outside, a hurdy gurdy was playing a popular tune. He concluded that with high tragedy and light amusement coexisting in that one moment, one mood forever after invoked the other.