When Beethoven’s Fifth was new: thoughts on newer new music

During my lifetime, American audiences have stayed away in droves if they know their orchestra is playing a new piece. For much of the twentieth century, a lot of new music was indeed hard to appreciate at first hearing. For about two and a half decades after the Second World War, the most “respectable” composers had such contempt for the general public that they seemed not to care whether anyone liked their music or not. Guess what: in a way, finding modern music difficult is nothing new. Beethoven’s symphonies struck many of their first hearers the same way. Nineteenth-century New … Continue reading

Building an audience for symphony orchestra concerts — with video games?

According to stereotype, classical music in general and symphony orchestra concerts in particular appeal to an aging elite. That perception justifies cutting orchestras from schools, booking orchestras for school assemblies or college arts series much less frequently than in the recent past, and changing classical music radio stations to other formats. Orchestras must develop strategies for building an audience in order to survive. Here is a video about the kind of orchestral music used as the sound tracks to video games. Someone on an email list I follow sent it along. Several orchestras have presented entire concerts devoted to video … Continue reading

Jullien in America

Before the Civil War, at a time when the United States boasted only one financially stable concert orchestra and few native composers and solo performers of “classical” music, what taste there was for it had to be supplied by foreign visitors. In 1853 the conductor Jullien brought forty members of his London orchestra to the United States and hired sixty Americans to supplement them. Jullien had come at the invitation of P. T. Barnum, who had talents for promotion and marketing rivaling Jullien’s own. During the year, his orchestra gave 214 concerts. At least some of them were the “monster … Continue reading

Making sense of sonata form

People today with little or no musical training somehow “get” a 12-measure blues chorus or the standard song forms of various modern styles. Even music majors taking theory classes have a hard time with sonata form. How is anyone else to understand it? Sonata form did not always cause confusion or seem to set up a barrier to understanding music. It actual started off as an attempt to simplify music. I have written several posts about the rise of the middle class, the popularity of what we call “classical” music, and the aftermath of the French Revolution, which destroyed public … Continue reading

An unexpected crossover: a rock guitarist plays opera

I will confess that I have never liked very much of the popular music of my lifetime. Once I got out of college, I stopped paying attention entirely. As I have studied the history of popular music, I noticed that from its beginnings at the end of the eighteenth century through the heyday of Tin Pan Alley, it was marketed to adults. Beginning with the rock music, marketers have sought to appeal to teenagers or even younger children. It appears that the audiences age along with the performers. Many people in their thirties and forties consider the Rolling Stones to … Continue reading

Classical music for machines

The attempt to create music mechanically, without human performance, has a long history, dating back to ancient Egyptians and Asians. Leonardo da Vinci and others in the late Renaissance designed sophisticated instruments. Only in the late eighteenth century did composers–including Handel, C.P.E. Bach, Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven venture to compose music especially for mechanical clocks. Museums hold least some of the original clocks with their music, but to my knowledge no recordings have been made. Most of the time, therefore, the only way we get to hear this music is through a transcription for human performance. Here’s a modern clock … Continue reading

The what? of Seville: animated opera

Not so long ago, quite a number of classical tunes were well known in popular culture. It has not entirely vanished. I have heard an aria from Carmen in a pizza commercial (wondering if the producers realized they were using French music as a background for their very Italian visuals) and an aria from Gianni Schicchi in a commercial for I don’t recall offhand just what. All the same, it seems that classical music has become less visible (audible?) lately. It has been a long time since I have paid any attention to Saturday morning cartoons. They’re all new, now. … Continue reading

Children and classical music

My parents–my father especially–love classical music. When I was growing up, Dad always had a record on whenever he had a chance to relax. It wasn’t always classical music. He had lots of Broadway musicals and big band jazz in his collection, too. I’ve always figured that’s why I grew up loving that music, although I never shared his enthusiasm for opera. I have a much younger sister, and I can remember her first record player. Her record collection mostly consisted of the horrible songs intended for children. I can hear some of the horrible, sloppy performances of them even … Continue reading

A cruel abuse of classical music

Life has begun to imitate life in the worst way. In Anthony Burgess’ novel A Clockwork Orange (written in 1962), authorities subject an unruly but music-loving youngster to “the Ludovico technique.” They force him to take nausea-inducing drugs and watch violent movies while listening to Beethoven. In the end, he is no longer able to enjoy Beethoven’s music. They stole his former love with that treatment. Lately it has come to my attention that certain British authorities have reinvented “the Ludovico technique.” Apparently having eliminated exposure to classical music from the curriculum, they assume that young people will automatically find … Continue reading

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 … Continue reading