Getting off the classical music merry-go-round

Walt Disney Concert Hall
Walt Disney Concert Hall

Walt Disney Concert Hall. How much of the music played inside as bold as the architecture?

Last month I examined arguments in the periodic obituaries for classical music and found most of them a bunch of bunk. One, however, rings true.

If classical music isn’t “circling the drain,” then it’s on some kind of merry-go-round, covering the same ground over and over. After a while, the charm wears off.

The greatest asset classical music possesses is its current audience, people who regularly attend concerts.

For all the disrespect heaped on them by people who would prefer that classical music go away, they attend concerts, purchase recordings, and listen to classical radio.

Performing organizations always seek to enlarge the audience by attracting new people to classical music. That’s a vital task, but let’s not forget an equally important way: induce the people who currently listen to classical music to consume 10% more of it.

In principle, the classical music audience would grow by that much if everyone who’s already part of it would go to 10% more concerts every year, buy 10% more recordings, and listen to classical radio 10% more. The repertoire stands in the way.

Expand the canon, expand the audience

Berlioz caricatuare

A well-known caricature of Berlioz by Andreas Geiger, when his music was new and controversially bold.

Over-reliance on the same classical canon of mostly 18th– and 19th-century music steps away from modern life.

When the term “classical music” first appeared, it referred specifically to the Viennese triumvirate of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven.

Two of them were already dead. Classical music has always played the music of dead composers and always will.

Younger composers who aspired to write music like the revered classicists emerged soon enough. As they grew old and died, their music enriched the repertoire, but the percentage of concert music by living composers has steadily decreased.

That’s not only because the younger composers (beginning with the generation of Berlioz and Mendelssohn and continuing through the generation of Gorecki and Schnittke) have also died.

The generation of composers who emerged after the Second World War, including Stockhausen, Boulez, Babbitt, and others developed a strong contempt for concert-goers and, in some cases, any music composed earlier than their own efforts.

New music therefore became poison at the box office. If it appeared on concerts at all, it came after the first beloved classic, just before intermission. The piece most of the audience probably most wanted to hear came after intermission. They had to suffer through the new piece in order to hear anything they really liked.

modern composer John Adams

How much music by Pulitzer Prize winner John Adams have concert audiences had much chance to hear?

Since about the 1980s, “classical” composers have once again wanted to appeal to an audience. Likely as not, their music owes as great stylistic debt to rock music.

Orchestras never play any of it often enough for audiences to become familiar with it. One year I constantly heard The Infernal Machine by Christopher Rowse. Never since. A Short Ride in a Fast Machine by John Adams was all the rage for a while, but a long time ago.

How many concert goers can even name more than one or two living composers?

Of course orchestras should play the music of Beethoven and other great masters. They shouldn’t play only the music of the great masters. People not already steeped in classical music don’t relate to it.

The classical music canon now consists largely of music written at a time when it was expected to be smooth, flowing, and sensuously beautiful. The music of our own time and most of the previous century, including not only modern “classical” music, but especially popular music, is not smooth, flowing, and sensuously beautiful.

Igor Stravinsky is a revered composer, but orchestras perform his music less and less. I can’t remember the last time I heard any of it on the radio. Has it ever occurred to our most prominent orchestras and choruses that audiences steeped in rock (and perhaps jazz) might find the music of composers who aren’t dead yet or died only within the past half century more accessible than Mozart?

Do audiences need permission?

Honneger on 1996 Swiss 20 franc note

Honneger on 1996 Swiss 20 franc note

Within living memory, orchestras expanded the repertoire by reviving the music of a composer who had been ignored for half a century. The concert going public at mid century did not hear much of Gustav Mahler’s music.

Then, famous conductors (Leopold Stokowski, Bruno Walter, Dmitri Mitropoulos, John Barbirolli, Leonard Bernstein, and more) began to perform and record Mahler’s symphonies.

That much star power gave audiences permission to like Mahler after decades of neglect. By the 1970s the Mahler revival had become an irresistible force. Today Mahler is one of the most frequently performed composers of all.

Is Mahler’s music really vastly superior to that of dozens of his contemporaries, whose music rarely appears on concert programs? Where is the chance to hear and learn to like composers like Malcolm Arnold, Wilhelm Stenhammar, André Jolivet, Alan Hovhannes?

Or just to name composers who have been dead about as long as Mahler had been in the 1970s, Charles Koechlin, Arthur Honneger, John Alden Carpenter, Ernst Bloch, Bohuslav Martinu, George Antheil, and Hugo Alfvén?

If orchestras and other musical organizations would perform unfamiliar music (especially music by living composers, but also the more recently deceased) often enough and consistently enough to give the audience “permission” to like it, concerts would become more interesting and have a greater chance of getting people to attend more of them.

I play for a community orchestra that in recent years has played music like Stravinsky’s Firebird, Prokofiev’s Seventh Symphony, Márquez’ Danzon 2, and Copland’s Rodeo and Red Pony.

I keep reading and hearing complaints about too much of the same old merry-go-round in classical programming. I, too, get tired of hearing nothing on classical radio but music from Bach to Debussy,with the masters supplemented mostly by their second- and third-rate contemporaries.

If a community orchestra can go beyond the same old same old, why not our major concert organizations and classical music radio? And it’s not enough to play some token newish pieces once in a while. Today’s audience needs to hear the same newer music often enough to appreciate it, just as the audience 40 years ago needed opportunity to learn Mahler.

Perspective on yet another obituary for classical music

composers interesting facts about music history

classical music composersAnother obituary for classical music appeared recently at  It points out that classical music sales only amount to 1.4% of music consumption.

It says that audiences of classical music are not diverse. It quotes a pianist as being “kind of tired of making music for the same people all the time.”

The obituary in Slate by Mark Vanhoenacker that made the rounds last year said, “Classical music has been circling the drain for years.” Such pronouncements usually provoke a flurry of posts about how healthy classical music is.

By “for years,” Vanhoenacker means since some time in the mid-20th century. In fact, however, classical music has been in its death throes in one way or another since the whole concept emerged. I’d like to provide a wider historical view of some of the reasons classical music seems to be in a death spiral. Continue reading

The Civil War and Musical Institutions in the South

New Orleans falls to Farragut
New Orleans falls to Farragut

New Orleans falls to Admiral Farragut, 1862

Last week’s post examined how the Civil War affected performance of music in three Northern cities: Boston, New York, and Chicago.

This week’s is devoted to musical institutions in the South, looking at New Orleans, the state of Georgia, and Richmond, Virginia.

Disruptions to Northern musical institutions came as a result of citizens’ preoccupation with war news, the number of musicians called to military service, and in New York, the exodus of foreign opera stars. These same concerns also disrupted musical life in the South, but the South knew at least one major disruption that the North did not suffer. Nearly the entire war took place on Southern soil. Continue reading

The Civil War and Musical Institutions in the North

Boston Music Hall, 1852
Boston Music Hall, 1852

Boston Music Hall, 1852

As young men fought and died on Civil War battlefields, most of the population of both the Union and the Confederacy remained on farms or in towns and cities.

Life went on, and in some cities, life included attendance at concerts, the opera, or other musical theater. But life went on in wartime conditions, though not as normal.

How did the war affect the institutions that provided this entertainment? This post looks at some of the ones in Boston, New York, and Chicago as representative of Northern cities.


In his history of the Handel and Haydn Society, John S. Dwight mentioned the opening of the Civil War and noted that the 17th Massachusetts Regiment met with violence on its way through Baltimore.

And music, too, appalled, — music as Art, — must needs be silent. What is there now for oratorio, or symphony, or opera to do? Only the drum and fife, the bugle and the trumpet, the cannons and alarm-bells now can claim attention.

The Handel and Haydn Society found that serious music lovers had more serious matters on their mind than music. “The lighter and more superficial, even frivolous forms of melody, which answer the momentary ends of mere amusement, will naturally be most in vogue at such a time; the opera, perhaps, will have some chance.”

The Society soon announced a joint performance of “miscellaneous patriotic and national music” with the Philharmonic Orchestra, the Germania Band, and four soloists for the purpose of raising money for the war effort. They also sang some choruses by Handel. The concert took place on April 27, pleased the audience, and raised $378.50.

The annual business meeting took place a month later. The treasurer reported that the organizations finances were in about the same condition as the previous year. It had a debt of more than $1300, secured by railroad bonds. He said that, in wartime conditions, “no society could rely on public patronage for support.”

He proposed amending the bylaws to charge society members a $5 annual membership fee. The alternative would have to be having the society’s president conduct rehearsals instead of the hired conductor. Nonetheless, the proposal failed.

The conductor and organist agreed to serve without fixed salary and split whatever money was left over after expenses were met. That amounted to only a little more than $40 apiece the following July 1 at the end of the concert season.

The society did not attempt a public concert the next season until its annual Messiah performance, which took place on December 29. The military draft took its toll on the orchestra, although Dwight noted that it was larger than could have been expected. He complained only that the one bassoonist available was not very good. A repeat performance took place on New Year’s afternoon. The receipts were just over half of those of the first performance.

Rehearsals of Mendelssohn’s Lobegesang and Handel’s Dettingen Te Deum began in February 1862, the latter its first complete performance in Boston. Both works end in victory, something the Army of the Potomoc began to experience only at the end of that month.

It was too late to schedule a performance to coincide with Washington’s birthday, but the society was able to book the Music Hall on March 1. The concert included a grand entrance of Massachusetts officers who had recently been released from captivity as prisoners of war, along with the governor and his staff.

No financial statement exists for that concert, but the year’s only other performance, Creation, failed to meet expenses.

Dwights account continues its recitation of ambitious programs given on an irregular schedule, complaints of members skipping rehearsals, and finances. The treasure reported a profit for the first time in May 1865. Dwight’s only references to the war up until that meeting conceal more about the society than they reveal.

President Lincoln issued his Emancipation Proclamation (January 1, 1863). Dwight wrote,

. . . and liberty-loving, loyal citizens of Boston, on the afternoon of that day, had taken worthy recognition of the great event by a memorable concert in the Music Hall – a “Grand Jubilee Concert” – a concert as remarkable for the artistic composition of its program, musically considered, as for the occasion that inspired it.

After mentioning some of the noteworthy performers and the fact that Ralph Waldo Emerson had written a poem especially for the occasion, Dwight adds cryptically,

Although the Handel and Haydn Society, owing to political division (or at least lack of unanimity) within its ranks, could not lend its aid officially, by name, yet it will be worth remembering with some satisfaction that, without a Handel and Haydn Society, the important choral features of that concert would have been impractical.

civil war concert program

Handel and Haydn Society program dated April 16, 1865. This concert was postponed because of Lincoln’s murder.

What Dwight did not say is that Lincoln had issued a preliminary proclamation the previous September 22 in the form of an ultimatum to the Confederacy: they could lay down their arms and end the rebellion, or he would declare freedom for all the slaves on January 1, 1863.

The preliminary proclamation gave Boston plenty of advance notice for a celebration.Not all who favored the Union cause, however, favored emancipation of all the slaves.

The proclamation outraged many people, mostly in places closer to where slavery actually existed. But apparently enough people in Boston objected that some members of the Handel and Haydn Society refused to participate in the jubilee concert.

There was no music at all that summer. Not even the Union victory at Gettysburg in July 1863 prompted a celebratory concert. Nothing of relevance to this article occurred until the end of the war in April 1865. The Society had planned a festival in April or May to celebrate the end of its 50th year.

Preparations were underway with the war ended. It seemed like the Festival would coincide with the general national rejoicing until Lincoln was gunned down a week later. Dwight reported,

We were just on the point of assembling in the Music Hall to find voice for our joy and gratitude in the great anthems of victory, and hear the Handel and Haydn chorus, with new inspiration, sing the Hymn of Praise and Handel Hallelujahs, when suddenly came flashed over the land the appalling news: Lincoln is dead! This second Father of his Country has fallen by the hand of the assassin.

As a result no scheduled concerts took place and all the theaters closed. After just over a month of mourning, though, Boston held a nine-concert festival that began on May 23 and lasted five days. Besides Boston’s own orchestra, leading members of the New York and Philadelphia orchestras combined to make an ensemble of 100 instrumentalists to accompany a 600-voice chorus.

A new organ that had been built in 1863 lent its power to the occasion. Organizers even tried to hire the best solo voices from England, but in the end had to settle for the best American singers. Musical selections included not only old favorites of the oratorio and symphonic literature, but new music by Wagner and Liszt.

New York

Academy of Music, New York, erected 1845

Academy of Music, New York, erected 1845

No one has written a history of the New York Philharmonic that matches either the detail or the emotion of Dwight’s history of the Handel and Haydn Society.

The war affected the Philharmonic only indirectly. It had suffered financial difficulties before the war started, so its directors decided to move concerts from the Academy of Music to the smaller Irving Hall around the corner for two seasons.

It turned out to be a mistake. Attendance at the concerts filled Irving Hall, with the consequence that not all members could get seats.

Filling the smaller hall past its capacity caused a drop in receipts. In the fall of 1863 the orchestra moved back to the Academy of Music, where it opened to a large and appreciative audience.

The orchestra’s income actually rose during the war years. Subscriptions declined sharply, but tickets sold to the general public for single concerts rose significantly. The changing audience demanded a new approach to programming. The orchestra began to hire more soloists and more frequently augmented the orchestra with extra personnel to play music that required a larger orchestra.

Diarist George Templeton Strong noted thoughts on the music in an important diary. Vera Brodsky Lawrence has edited the musical comments in his diaries and added valuable historical context. Unfortunately, she only completed volumes through 1862 before her death.

New York had a permanent orchestra, the only one in the country at the time, but it did not have a permanent or stable opera company. Instead, it had rival impresarios mounting seasons irregularly.

Emanuele Muzio founded a group called Associated Artists and leased the New York Academy of Music in January 1861. The group traveled to Boston for a successful engagement and returned to the Academy on April 8 to present a few performances on the way to engagements in Philadelphia.

The specter of war so distracted the population that the company could not meet expenses from ticket sales. When Lincoln proclaimed war on April 15, Muzio immediately canceled all remaining performances that season.

Most of the opera singers were foreign-born, and many immediately left the country. Many local musicians had left town to participate in the war effort, leaving a dozen churches without organists. Enough singers remained from Associated Artists that they could perform a concert with the opera orchestra conducted by Theodore Thomas on June 22.

Lawrence observes that besides quicksteps and patriotic songs, there was not much music to be heard in New York. Bernard Ullman rented the New York Music Academy and Brooklyn Music Academy in September 1861 as if he intended to attempt to mount another season of opera.

Instead, he brought a magician named Carl Herrmann, who had completed a series of very successful performances in Havana. Ullman proclaimed in print that he had engaged Herrmann because of his unique artistry, not simply to make a profit. Herrmann repeated his success in New York.

Theodore Thomas and the opera orchestra performed favorite operatic overtures and other pieces, including the “Herrmann Polka,” composed by Strauss of Vienna (probably Johann Strauss, Jr.) in tribute to him.

In the run-up to the war, the Germanic Arion Society presented patriotic tableaux at its annual ball on February 21, 1861. Two days later Harrison Millard presented a “Concert of National Songs and Anthems of All Nations,” with half a dozen singers, a men’s chorus and orchestra conducted by George F. Bristow, and the Dodworth Military and Cornet Bands.

Bristow organized a patriotic Music Festival to aid the Volunteer Defense Fund on May 25. A vast roster of eminent soloists performed 22 different pieces.

The June 1, 1861 issue of the Albion observed that every concert had to include at least one national song, and that concerts advertised without the word “patriotic” were poorly attended. I do notice that there were enough singers left from Associated Artists to put on a concert with Thomas and the opera orchestra on June 22.

The Dodworth Band’s summer concerts in Central Park, beginning August 3, 1861, provided welcome relief from the dismal news about Union losses. The Tribune reported that the audience at the third concert was not less than 25,000 people, and with so many men at war, consisted largely of women.

Planners provided a tent to protect the audience from the sun, but it was not nearly large enough. Unfortunately, the band also played its first three concerts from a tent, which greatly deadened the sound.

The concerts lasted regularly throughout August and September. Concert life continued to suffer from the war, and bad news from the front kept audiences away. Alcohol-serving concert saloons attracted the greatest crowds.

Because Lawrence is my chief source and completed work on Strong’s diary only through 1862, I have little information on concert life for the rest of the war. It stands to reason that the daily news continued to influence the public’s appetite for music, but New York’s remaining musicians would have to continue performing in order to make a living.

Clara Louise Kellogg

Clara Louise Kellogg

Soprano Clara Louise Kellogg, the first American-born operatic singer to perform successfully in Europe, made her New York debut with Muzio’s company on February 26, 1861. After Muzio left and Ullman declined to attempt an operatic season, Max Maretzek tried his hand. He had both succeeded and failed in previous attempt to present opera in New York.

Kellogg wrote in her memoir that Maretzek ,

so obstinate that he simply did not know how to give up a project merely because it was impossible, packed a few of us off to Philadelphia to produce the Ballo in Maschera. We hoped against hope that it would be light enough to divert the public, at even that tragic moment. But the public refused to be diverted . . . We could plainly see that opera was doomed for the time being in America.

Characteristically, Maretzek saw no such thing. Instead, he decided to try La figlia del regimento (The Daughter of the Regiment), a light-hearted military opera. Kellogg, playing the Daughter, learned to play drums, and the production incorporated as warlike an atmosphere as possible.

“For example,” Kellogg wrote, “we were barbarous enough to put in sundry American national airs, and we had the assistance of real Zouaves to lend colour.”

Success with the opera in New York led to successful performances in Baltimore and Washington. Unfortuately, I haven’t identified the year these performances took place, but the company survived the war, and Kellogg continued to sing for Maretzek until 1867, when she made her English debut.


Crosby Opera  House, opened 1865, burned 1871.

Crosby Opera House, opened 1865, burned 1871.

The first concert of any kind in Chicago occurred in 1836. During the Civil War it was not yet a major cultural center, and therefore serves as a representative of smaller cities.

Only one book, mainly a compilation of biographical sketches by Florence Ffrench, describes the city’s music that early.

Chicago’s first concert of any kind took place in 1836.

Its Philharmonic Society debuted in 1850 with Julius Dyhrenfurth conducting. It apparently fell on hard times until Hans Balatka took over in 1860.

Chicago’s first operatic performance likewise took place in 1850. Opera became a regular feature of musical life in 1858.

The Philharmonic Society’s sixth concert of its first season under Balatka took place on April 13, 1861, the day after Confederate forces began the Civil War by bombarding Fort Sumter. He finished the program with a work not on the program. The audience greeted “The Star Spangled Banner” (which would not become the official national anthem until decades later) with such loud enthusiasm that the noise completely drowned out the music.

Mrs. Carrie Matteson, apparently a local singer, sang the song, flag in hand, the following month for the season’s final concert, “with a result but little less striking than on the preceding occasion.”

The orchestra continued to draw overflowing audiences throughout the war years, but Ffrench mentions no other concerts with any significance for the war.

Chicago’s economy must have suffered some during the years. Although she tried have to picture everything in the Chicago art scene in glowing terms, Ffrench observed that art and music life “held its own” and that patrons kept it at least to previous standards “at much personal and pecuniary sacrifice.”

One important pecuniary sacrifice had nothing to do with the War. Businessman Uranus H. Crosby built a new Academy of Music at his own expense for performance of Italian Opera. It was intended to open its first season in April 1865, but the assassination of President Lincoln caused postponement for an entire year.

Charles C. Perkins and John S. Dwight. History of the Handel and Haydn Society, of Boston, Massachusetts. Vol. I. From the Foundation of the Society through Its Seventy-Fifth Season: 1815-1890. with a new table of contents prepared by Judith Tick. New York: Da Capo Press, 1977. (Perkins died after completing the first three chapters. Therefore Dwight wrote about the Civil War years.)

Vera Brodsky Lawrence. Strong on Music: The New York Music Scene in the Days of George Templeton Strong. Volume III: Repercussions. 1857-1862. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995.

Louise Kellogg, excerpts from Memoirs of an American Prima Donna (1913) in Music in the USA: a Documentary Companion, edited by Judith Tick. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.

Florence Ffrench, compiler. Music and Musicians in Chicago New York: Da Capo, 1979 – reprint of first edition, Chicago: Ffrench, 1899.

All images are public domain.

Music in the Civil War Letters of Seneca B. Thrall

Civil War era mailMusic played a key role in the American Civil War on the home front and on the battlefield. Letters home from Civil War soldiers record much of what we know of music in camps and on battlefields.

An officer of the 13th Iowa Infantry, Seneca B. Thrall, wrote 44 letters, mostly to his wife, that provide an officer’s-eye view of part of the Union army’s successful campaign in Mississippi.   It seems to be a fairly well-known collection. A Google search of Thrall’s name turns up several hits. Several of the letters describe music within the regiment. Continue reading

Sacred Choral Music from the Former Soviet Bloc

choral music concert
choral music concert

VocalEssence Chorus in concert

As an undergraduate composition student in the 1970s, I tried to like the music that my teachers thought important, including Webern, Stockhausen, Cage, et al. General audiences have never liked it, and I never did manage to like the music only an academic can love.

Inevitably a new generation of composers arose, but it was only after one of my graduate students invited me to a concert of mostly sacred choral music by Henryk Górecki in 1994 that I heard any European post-avant-garde music.

A surprising number of devoutly Christian composers lived and worked in countries of the former Soviet bloc, including Górecki and Krzysztof Penderecki of Poland, and Arvo Pärt of Estonia. They all have a strained relationship with the Western European post-war avant-garde. Continue reading

How Original Band Music Marginalized the Concert Band

concert band
concert band

An unidentified concert band, 2011.

When Patrick S. Gilmore took over leadership of the New York 22nd Regiment Band, he took it on a coast-to-coast tour. The age of the professional touring band had begun.

Like all bands before or contemporaneous with the Gilmore Band, as it soon became known, it performed a mix of music for popular entertainment and serious orchestral and operatic repertoire.

Music composed originally for concert band was limited to marches, music Gilmore’s soloists wrote for themselves, and other lighter fare by Gilmore himself. Gilmore’s great successor John Philip Sousa and all their notable contemporaries constructed comparable concert programs.

Not until the 1920s, after the heyday of the professional touring band had started its decline, did anyone think the concert band should have its own serious repertoire. Original band music did nothing to enhance critical opinions of the artistic merit of wind bands. In fact, the whole concept emerged at a time when audiences were starting to reject music of many well-known orchestral composers. Continue reading

How the Trombone Cheated Death

trombone with round stays
trombone with round stays

Copper engraving by Giovanni Volpato (Rome, 1774-77) of a painting by Giovanni da Udine (Vatican, 1517-19). His engravings are generally faithful to the original, but this trombone has 18th-century round stays.

At the beginning of the 1600s, courts, towns, churches, and individual members of the nobility all over Western Europe sponsored musical organizations that included trombone.

These ensembles participated in music making from dance music to public concerts to participation in Christian worship. By the end of the century, they had practically disappeared, and the trombone along with it.

If no one had used it anywhere, the trombone would have become like the krummhorn and other obsolete instruments that early music enthusiasts resurrected in the mid 20th century. No one else would know or care anything about it. Instead, it lay hidden in a few scattered locations. Continue reading

Beloved Christmas Carols: In the Bleak Midwinter

in the bleak midwinter

in the bleak midwinter“In the Bleak Midwinter,” text by Christina Rosetti, is just about the only well known Christmas carol that I can think of with a text by a woman. She also wrote “Love Came Down at Christmas.” No combination of keywords I could think of yielded any other titles.

Christina (1830-1894) Rosetti was part of an artistic family. One brother, poet and painter Dante Gabriel Rosetti, was among the founders of the Pre-Raphaelite movement; another William Michael Rosetti, soon joined the movement, but mostly as editor and critic. Their sister Maria Francesca Rosetti published at least one important essay. Their father, an Italian in exile, taught Italian at King’s College. Continue reading

Beloved Christmas carols: I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day

I heard the bells on Christmas day
I heard the bells on Christmas day

Church bells

The Christmas holidays are not a joyous occasion for everyone. Family tragedy can destroy enjoyment of festive occasions, as it did for Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. The story of “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” is perhaps the least joyous of any Christmas music I have ever studied.

His wife tragically died in 1861, the same year as the American Civil War started. He could not deal with Christmas at all until 1864, a year after his son was severely injured in battle. Longfellow wrote his poem “Christmas Bells” on Christmas Eve, 1864. He wrote it not so much because he had made peace with Christmas, but as a protest against slavery and the war. Continue reading