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)

Trombone in the (old) news–part two

Here are some more gems from the Times of London:

Dec 25, 1863. In the midst of the American Civil War, the Christy Minstrels, among the most important American entertainers of the time, went on an international tour and presented ten concerts in London during the week following Christmas 1863. The advertisement lists all of the music to be played on the two concerts on Saturday, the 26th, including a trombone solo performed by J. Randall.

1866. Two different horses named Trombone appear in the “Sporting Intelligence” column. One owned by Mr. Machell is mentioned on Sept. 29, and Oct. 27, and one owned by Mr. Chaplin on Oct. 20 and Oct. 29. Both men owed several other horses named in the same columns. On Oct. 29, there was a match between two two-year-olds: Mr. Chaplin’s Trombone, by Trumpeter, and Admiral Rous’s Lady Bugle Eye [no parent named], with the betting 3 to 1 on Lady Bugle Eye. “They left the post in close company, and ran so to the bushes, where Trombone took a clear lead, which he retained to the end, and won in a canter by two lengths.”

Sept 28, 1870. From a classified advertisement: “Papeta, the largest and most wonderful Performing Indian Elephant, accompanied by her two Infant Prodigies. Plays the organ, harmonicon, and trombone; blows a horn, dances to music, picks up a coin and answers any question that may be put to her.”

July 7, 1885. The International Inventions Exhibition included a “Recital upon some of Rudall, Carte, and Co.’s instruments. . . Mr. Millar on the double-slide trombones.”

Feb 23, 1887. Throughout the nineteenth century various experts expressed doubt about genuineness of some of Mozart’s parts for trombone. And legitimately so. Many nineteenth-century conductors did not hesitate to reorchestrate the music of the masters in hopes of making a better effect! The 100th anniversary of the premiere of Don Giovanni called special attention to that work. In a long article in the Berlin journal Vossische Zeitung, Gustav Engle pointed out, among other things, that the autograph score did not include trombone parts in the finale from the appearance of the statue in the supper scene to the end of the opera. Mozart had written these parts on a separate page while in Prague making final preparations for the performance. The conductor Julius Rietz insisted that he had seen it, but no one knew where it was. The Times reported Engels misgivings and noted, “Professor Engel proposes that a mixed jury of musicians and accomplished amateurs should decide whether the trombones should be retained or discarded.”

April 15, 1887. The passenger liner Victoria Nyanza ran aground off the coast of France in foul weather, with high winds, heavy rain, and a dense fog, on April 4, 1874. The Times carried several articles about it. According to the April 15 article, the wreck happened because the foghorn was out of order and did not sound. Apparently the reporter either did not know what a foghorn was or thought that would be an unfamiliar term to his readers, so he wrote, “I have visited the station and inspected the horn. It is a huge trombone, blown by steam.”

August 1, 1895. “Eisteddfod” is the name of a Welsh competition in literature and music, erroneously thought in the nineteenth century to date back to the time of the ancient Druids. I wrote an article some years ago about one held at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893. That one was the largest and richest eisteddfod held in the entire nineteenth century. As the musical competition was limited to vocal music and harp music, I was surprised to learn that at least one other eisteddfod included a trombone competition, won by Mr. Hanney Morriston.

(Originally published in The All-Purpose Guru on August 25, 2009)

Trombone in the (old) news–part one

I am in the process of preparing a book on the history of the trombone for publication. Scarecrow Press will publish it some time before the end of next year. There are a lot of interesting details that wouldn’t fit into the book and probably aren’t much good for any other formal, scholarly writing. That’s the great thing about blogs. From time to time I’ll share my wealth of interesting but not necessarily useful or important information.

Every word of the Times of London from 1785 to 1985 is available in full text online (for anyone with access to a library that subscribes to it.) And it’s keyword searchable. So here are a selection of tidbits from the first half of the nineteenth century I found when I looked for all the references to “trombone.” The dates are the date of the newspaper.

October 23, 1827. Neither the trombone nor operatic composer Rossini got much respect from the partisans of “serious” music in the early part of the nineteenth century, as demonstrated by this excerpt from a preview of the coming operatic season at Covent Garden:

“The orchestra and the chorus singers are to be augmented–that is, noise and discord are to be increased. This puts one in mind of a remark by Rossini’s A friend of his, on the first rehearsal of the Gazza Ladra, told him that many passages were defective in point of composition. Rossini assented. Nevertheless he invited the critic to the first representation, saying, that the noise of the accompaniments would be so great, that he would not be able to hear the defects of the harmony. In order to give room for the additional musicians, the orchestra is to be enlarged, and the pit diminished. Thus will the trombones from the centre of the theatre be startling the audience, and all architectural proportions will be destroyed.”

In 1841, a French trombonist named Faivre was engaged to play solo trombone for a series of promenade concerts conducted by the very popular conductor Jullien. He also participated in a tour advertised on April 12. The agent that hired him chose not to pay him the full amount promised. Faivre had to sue in the Court of Exchequer, which, as reported on June 15, ruled in his favor.

Oct. 15, 1850. It is not at all unusual for the trombone and trombonists not to get respect. There is enough evidence of that over five centuries to fill more than one more blog post. So it’s nice to point out some exceptions, deliberate or not. An advertisement for a series of Grand National Concerts announced, “The prospectus issued by the managers of these entertainments, which are announced to begin on Tuesday evening, at Her Majesty’s Theatre, is full of promise. The avowed object is to provide an intellectual entertainment of the highest order, embracing the greatest works of the greatest masters, illustrated by the most eminent artistes in Europe. . .” The list of soloists included renowned trombonist William Winterbottom.

June 5, 1851. Normal practice in a review, when trombones are mentioned at all, is to complain that they were too loud. This review of a performance of Mozart’s Don Giovanni is a refreshing change: “The effect of the trombones behind the scenes, when the statue, in the churchyard, accepts the invitation to supper of Don Giovanni, is very solemn and appropriate; but last night these instruments were probably so far off, at the commencement, that they were inaudible, and the statue had to sing his first solo without accompaniments.”

(First published in The All-Purpose Guru on August 18, 2009)

What music is proper for church?

August is “Camp Meeting Month” at my church. People are urged to dress casually, and we sing old hymns. For the prelude, our keyboard player played a ragtime hymn arrangement on the piano. Back in the days when camp meetings were actually held in camps, a piano would never be heard in church and ragtime was probably considered sinful!

I remember reading an essay that attempted to prove, with multiple scriptural references, that any music with a back beat was inspired by the devil and out of place in church. I read all of those references about the role of music in worship. They contain not a syllable of instruction about what rhythms are or are not suitable.

Complaining about new musical trends is not new. The generation of Isaac Watts and Charles Wesley is considered the golden age of English hymnody. Now that many lament that praise choruses are being sung more and those glorious old hymns less, it helps to remember how controversial the hymns were when they were new.

Watts was a Dissenter, and thus separated from the established Church of England. Even the academically and religiously respectable Wesleys ministered to social outcasts. Most of the people who wrote or sang the hymns were on the margins of conventional religion. They were also much more emotional than “respectable” elements of society could tolerate. English aristocrats feared both the threat of mobs and the enthusiasm of this underclass.

In his A Fine Picture of Enthusiasm (1740), John Scot noted, “The Hymns they sing, i.e. all I have seen or heard of, are not rational Compositions, nor do they accord with the first Principles of all Religion. . . so that their singing is calculated to engage the Passions by nothing more than Words, and the Melody of the Sound or Voice.”

There was even a time, during the Middle Ages, when the thought of any instruments in church was highly offensive, whether anyone was playing them or not! It’s fascinating how they explained away all the trumpets and “guitars” and drums in the Psalms.

It is more than a thousand years since the invention of musical notation, and church music has been produced in every conceivable style. Everything new has met opposition, but eventually much of the old has been discarded, the excellent with the mediocre. Why not appreciate the very best of every style and use it all?
(First published on The All-Purpose Guru, August 4, 2009)