THE BUSINESS OF MUSIC
Reflections of a Music Publisher
by ERNST ROTH
10. POPULAR MUSIC
There is one type of contemporary music which has a vast public. Popular
music today is much more popular than ever before-and more contemporary.
The change it has undergone is no less than the change that has taken place
in serious music. The road from Brahms to Boulez is no shorter than that
from Johann Strauss to the Beatles.
As popular music is not affected by theoretical and programmatic considerations
it has had a greater resistance or staying power than its more ambitious
serious counterpart. While, before the turn of the century, Debussy and Richard
Strauss were filling the musical skies with thunderclouds, the whole world
danced the waltzes and polkas of the Viennese operetta and sang the songs
of Piedigrotta: 'Funiculi', 'Mattinata', 'O sole mio'. It must have been
a wonderful world of illusion, even tending to forget the acid beneath the
frivolity of Offenbach's cancans and couplets. The illusion of popular music
before the First World War was quite serious. It took entertainment seriously
and was determined not to be unsettled by the disturbing events all around
it. One thinks with a kind of embittered nostalgia of this unreal reality
of sweet tunes, of this world of lax though not dissolute ladies and gentlemen
who had no other purpose in life than to flirt and to sing, to give and attend
parties, to pretend to be heartbroken at the end of the second act, knowing
full well that at the end of the third everybody would be happy again. Vienna
supplied most of the musical entertainment of the world, although in Vienna
the warning of imminent trouble must have been even clearer than elsewhere.
But if any uncertain fears penetrated into the sanctum of the Karlstheater
of the Theater an der Wien, where so many world successes first saw the light
of day, they only heightened the passion for the illusion of The Merry Widow,
The Count of Luxemburg or Waltz Dream. People spoke of the heroes of this
heroic time as children speak of fairy-tale princes and princesses, and princely
names they were.
I am no cultural snob. Although I am at home in serious music I have a deep
respect for music as a harbinger of joy. Let no one rob it of this precious
gift ! In the Viennese operetta, with its stupid libretti and its even more
stupid words, it rose to its full stature with no other purpose but to please.
It had no rival in this field. Neither the visual arts nor poetry, not even
the most riotous comedy, had anything similar to offer. While the other arts
were already troubled by an uncertain premonition of great upheavals this
carefree music still lavished its blessings on millions of people all over
the world. Perhaps no monuments will be erected to the memory of Franz Lehar,
Oscar Straus or Leo Fall because their art did not aim at eternity (which
aim is a mistaken attribute of immortality). But it would be grossly ungrateful
and ungenerous to exclude them from Apollo's grove.
But fate had to take its course: the beautiful illusion succumbed to the
war, though Lehar still wrote operettas afterwards and Emmerich Kalman and
Ralph Benatzky joined him. In Land of Smiles, Circus Princess and White Horse
Inn the old illusion took a grandiose farewell. But Piedigrotta no longer
had its festival of popular songs. In Italy they sang 'Giovinezza'. In the
midst of all the confusion of new frontiers, new currencies and common inflation
the source of enjoyment was all but buried and all the lightness of heart
was gone. In an uncomfortable Europe there was no corner left where it could
But on the other side of the ocean, in that huge and prosperous land which
had hardly been affected by the war, a new popular music was discovered.
In matters musical, the United States of America had only the reputation
of paying the highest fees to foreign artists; not so much to composers but
to conductors, singers and instrumentalists. Gatti-Casazza, the last worthy
successor of that famous Barbaja, and the older generation of millionaires
risen from newspaper vendors had made the Metropolitan Opera world famous.
For a few weeks each year all the celebrated singers and conductors congregated
in New York and presented grand opera on the grandest scale to the richest
audience in the world, rather as elephant trainers present their elephants.
Attempts had been made to make America the permanent home of great musicians.
All races, talents and temperaments had settled in the New World, and the
climate of liberty had achieved great things. There was no reason why music
should not feel at home in a world ruled by money. But it did not. Neither
Dvorak nor Mahler stayed. There seemed to be something in the atmosphere
which was favourable to the material and the profane but inimical to music.
But now came the historic hour of American music. New Orleans, previously
a rather obscure place in Louisiana which even legend could not beautify,
took the place of Vienna, where the impoverished gods of luxury, culture
and art were mourning the departure of their old glory. Jazz, the light music
of poverty, followed the gay music of opulence.
Music of poverty can be neither gay in the proper sense nor beautiful. It
is savagely hilarious or melancholy. Jazz and the Blues came with heavy
syncopation, 'breaks', 'swings', 'smears' and 'dirty notes', like swarms
of birds of prey or locusts, to devour all the charming European tunes. This
was not the music of the European settlers, like Stephen Foster's songs,
but a mixture of African freedom and American slavery, music of the poorest
of the poor in the richest country-music soon destined to make its best exponents
very rich indeed.
This touched a facet of the European mind which the convulsions of serious
music had not reached. If it is true that music springs from the innermost
feelings then it remains a strange phenomenon that it could unite people
of such different origin as the Europeans on both sides of the Atlantic and
the American Negroes. But music is essentially anonymous. The lost paradise
mourned by the Blues and the present misery against which the wild outbursts
of Jazz seemed to revolt were very different from any similar European
experience, but the expression was welcome to Negroes and whites alike.
Serious music, which in better times had displayed a certain condescension
towards light music, felt more affected by this new musical entertainment,
with its serious-not to say sinister background. The justification of atonal
music was far less obvious than the atonality of jazz, and there were not
a few serious composers who discovered more in it than mere entertainment.
Indeed, jazz was formally invited to take a seat alongside serious music.
Stravinsky himself was one of the first to try his hand at Dixieland sounds.
There was a man named Zez Confrey (oh, these strange, monosyllabic Christian
names which came with all the new technical terms, just as Italian had once
provided the vocabulary of serious music ! Ernest Newman took exception to
such abbreviations and once suggested in one of his witty columns in the
Sunday Times that familiarity ought to be extended to the great masters of
the past by calling them in future Joe Haydn, Lou Beethoven and Heck Berlioz).
Zez Confrey wrote piano music in the 'novelty' style, at least one item of
which, 'Kitten on the Keys', became world famous, and eager prophets saluted
the new Chopin.
But the kitten never grew up to become a respectable cat.
Stravinsky did not repeat his early essays and the efforts of many minor
composers to discover the deeper meaning and the higher purpose in jazz did
not succeed. The stream of new entertainment music was too shallow to carry
heavier traffic and the product of misery defied all attempts at refinement
such as had raised Passepied, Gavotte, Minuet and Waltz to their high status
in music. George Gershwin with a piano concerto, a most impressive but-for
the ordinary repertoire-unsuitable opera, a 'Rhapsody in Blue', went as far
as was possible. He, at any rate, was the most gifted and successful in the
realm of this half-instinctive, half-improvised music. For a time 'symphonic
jazz-bands' toured the world. Paul Whiteman and Jack Hylton became very famous
indeed, and the public, irritated by evil sounding serious music, flocked
to their performances in their thousands. That sound which in serious music
shocked the listener was quite natural in this new entertainment music, which,
without much speculation and without any far-fetched theories seemed to have
achieved everything that serious music was trying so hard to achieve. Duke
Ellington was as 'modern' as Stravinsky, Bartok or Webern but he had a large
and enthusiastic public. But apart from syncopated rhythms, jazz proved
unfruitful ground for serious music, which had learned more from Stravinsky's
Rite of Spring than from the whole jazz movement.
After the Second World War a new change in light music became apparent. It
had lost much of its 'Africanism' and had found a purer Americanism which
also delighted in Latin American tunes and rhythms. Jazz, prematurely aged,
became 'classical', in the sense that the Capitol in Washington is classical
as compared with the United Nations building, and people began to talk about
it with great reverence as a heroic deed at a heroic time. New Orleans dynasties
were counted as one counts the dynasties of Egyptian kings of old. New popular
music could not measure up to such nobility. But American supremacy, now
without any serious rival, was finally confirmed. From America came the songs,
the musicals, the new sound of dance-bands and crooners of both sexes, everything
which was musical entertainment and diversion. Music in the fifteenth century
came from Burgundy and the Lowlands; the mother tongue of music in the
seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was Italian. The new entertainment music
was American, and hardly ever before had music been so dominated by one
well-defined type. Projected by broadcasting and gramophone records, it achieved
a popularity which far outstripped that of French and Viennese light music
in their heyday.
It may remain impossible ever to define exactly the qualities which produce
such universal enthusiasm. But whatever these qualities may be, they must
be important and not simply superficial. In some respects American 'light'
or popular music is the opposite of its European predecessors. It is not
illusionist in any way; it does not attempt to deceive itself or its listeners
but is entirely 'realistic'. If sentimental, it does not take itself seriously.
The leading lady in South Pacific, when about to lose her lover, does not
make a scene as the leading ladies of the Viennese operettas did in similar
circumstances but simply washes her hair: 'I'm gonna wash that man right
outa my hair'. And if this music sings of a 'baby', it does not go beyond
a finger-snapping parody of a love song. This is a new attitude which aims
at and finds the very kernel of the modern human mind.
The predominance of American popular music made the path of 'serious' American
composers outside the United States somewhat hard to tread. It took some
considerable persuasion to make conductors in the Old World examine the scores
of Aaron Copland or Samuel Barber, of Virgil Thomson or Roger Sessions, who
were the first of a steadily growing number to deserve attention and to achieve
recognition. But it was and to some extent still is-an uphill struggle against
a widespread prejudice that the competence of American composers begins and
ends with popular music, with the songs of Irving Berlin and the novelty
numbers of Leroy Anderson.
In the fifties yet another type of popular music travelled across the Atlantic
like rain clouds before a westerly wind, more sinister, more ominous, more
elemental than its predecessors: Rock 'n' Roll. Its howling, frightening
abandon was as far removed from any accepted meaning of music as Stockhausen's
noises, but it was perhaps more courageous and uninhibited. It had a shattering
effect on the young and sent them into paroxysms of destruction. There were
broken dance-halls and broken heads and police had to intervene, not only
in New York or San Francisco but in London, Rome, Paris and Berlin. Was this
still an echo of the primitive mysterious power of music?
Rock 'n' Roll passed and 'beat' music took its place. The Beatles with their
'Mersey sound' began to usurp the American 'pop' scene. 'Beat' music excited
teenagers no less and was no less excessive than its predecessor. It cannot
be glibly called 'light' or 'entertainment' music, for it is not simply popular.
It is pop music with a sinister undertone; it does not aim to please or to
entertain but to excite, to stir up. It is a temptation and a lure into an
inexplicable freedom, into an imaginary wilderness untouched by rule or order
such as cannot be found in cities or countryside, life or work.
Young and old presumably always had their problems in understanding each
other. But it was something respectable which divided them-outlook, temperament,
things which the wisdom of the old could understand. Now it is mainly music
which keeps the generations more widely apart than they were before.
With 'beat' music, as invented and practised by groups of longhaired youngsters
with hoarse voices, droning guitars and clattering percussion, the older
generation can have but little sympathy. It is the music of the teenagers,
the angry young men and women, an angry music for an angry mood. In former
times this age-group received no special consideration or treatment. Apart
from a few rare misfits we had to go to school or to work. We read edifying
books and suitable specimens of the arts-theatre, music, picture were carefully
selected for us by our elders. If my recollection is correct it was by no
means an unhappy time. But today the teenagers have gained a status in life
which runs like a crack through the whole fabric of our social order. True,
they too have to learn and go to work, but they grow tall like towers and
are, alas, so precocious that the constraint of order and regularity, natural
to us, becomes an unbearable burden to them. They are rebellious, revolutionary
and angry and insist on showing their rebellion and their anger in the slovenly
or extravagant way they dress. If they only knew more clearly against what
or whom they are rebelling and what they want to revolutionize! They cannot
explain it; and we can only assume that they are doubtful of a future which
tampers with the universe, delegates the powers of human inventiveness and
planning to electronic devices, promises aimless leisure. All this would
be enchanting for dreamers but for the disheartening fact that this noisy,
bustling, shrinking world of machines and fantastic enterprises will admit
no dreams. It is there that music comes to their rescue. In music they need
not spell out their rebellion and their anger. They can abandon themselves
to howling and raving without being obliged to say why. Our popular music
is not gay, not carefree, not entertaining. It has a serious, perhaps even
dangerous purpose: to free the young from constraint, from themselves.
Who would have thought that in the midst of advanced civilization music still
has such satanic power? It is all the more astonishing and frightening that
it happens at a time when 'serious' music aims at the very opposite effect
and is calculated to express nothing to excite nobody, to avoid any emotion,
to be nothing but intellectual. Are these two types of music not children
of the same goddess?
I cannot help feeling that serious and popular music react on each other.
The more serious serious music becomes, the lower popular music sinks, first
in accepting and then in exaggerating the role in which serious music has
failed: to excite its listeners, to transport them away from the drabness
of everyday routine.
It must be remembered that the antagonism between serious and popular music
is of fairly recent origin. They have separated almost before our eyes, and
the destinies of the art have been deeply affected by this separation, although
the historians have paid little attention to it.
In Mozart's time there was no great difference between entertainment and
serious music, and Mozart himself did not find it beneath his dignity to
write variations on popular songs such as 'Ah, vous dirai je, maman', 'La
belle Francoise' or 'Lison dormait dans un bocage' by one Dezede, or 'Helas,
j'ai perdu mon amant' by Albanese, or 'Ein Weib ist das herrlichste Ding
auf der Welt' by Benedict Schack. One of the most successful and lasting
'hits' was a minuet from a rather difficult violin sonata written in 1751
by Andre-Joseph Exaudet, which was soon provided with words and was still
sung as a 'bergerette'-'Cet etang qui s'etend dans la plaine'-at the beginning
of this century. But most came from operas, both comic and serious. Mozart,
among others, wrote variations on tunes from operas by Gretry, Gluck and
Salieri, a fashion which lasted far into the nineteenth century when Liszt
wrote his monumental fantasias on tunes by Rossini, Bellini, Meyerbeer, Wagner
and Verdi; and in 1786 Mozart reported from Prague that the urchins in the
streets were whistling 'Non piu andrai'. Forty years later street musicians
played 'Durch die Walder, durch die Auen' from Weber's Freischutz, and I
can still hear the plaintive 'Mira, o Norma' which an organ-grinder used
to play at the street corner opposite the house where I lived as a boy. And
a funny little man in a black coat, with a large black tie and broad-rimmed
hat, nicknamed 'Fra Diavolo', used to walk from table to table in the better
restaurants in Prague singing to the accompaniment of a mandolin the ballad
from that opera. There was no clearly defined dividing line between serious
and popular music.
But as early as the 1820s the first signs of a rift had appeared, and
there were soon complaints that the musical world was being inundated with
cheap waltzes and marches. A certain resentment which had been unknown before
seemed to grow up among serious composers. The two types of music began to
drift apart, and with them the public divided.
In 1856 entertainment music must have been ripe for reform. On the occasion
of his famous competition Offenbach promised to revitalize the 'art primitif
et gai'. And he did. In such musically fertile times popular music too was
capable of its own perfection. The new Parisian 'opera-bouffe' of Offenbach
himself, Lecocq, Audran and Herve, the Viennese operetta of Johann Strauss,
Suppe and Millocker, the 'operas' of Gilbert and Sullivan, far surpassed
the comedies, vaudevilles and musical farces which had sullied the name of
musical entertainment. In those days serious and popular music supplemented
each other and the respective composers felt some mutual respect. Offenbach
longed to write a real opera but died before he could finish it. And when,
in an interval of Der Zigeunerbaron, the Emperor Franz Josef told Johann
Strauss that he liked the 'opera', Strauss wrote delightedly, 'Opera, he
said, opera!' Indeed Die Fledermaus was admitted to the Vienna Court Opera
with full honours.
But it was the last. The level of the 'art primitif et gai' declined once
more, while revolution and anarchy threatened serious music. Paris faded,
Messager's operettas did not achieve the fame of their predecessors and it
was left to Vienna to become the capital of musical entertainment, with Lehar,
Oscar Straus and Leo Fall. Brahms and Johann Strauss had been friends, but
between Richard Strauss and Lehar no friendship seemed possible. People began
to talk about the 'classical' operetta, the 'classical' waltz. The popular
music of the preceding generation acquired a touch of the aristocratic in
the face of a further decline. This time there was nobody to revitalize light
music. After the First World War a Berlin-type of operetta appeared with
Jean Gilbert and others which, by comparison even with the last of the Viennese
genre, was brash and vulgar. Reconciliation through jazz failed and the two
types of music became still more estranged. Now they are as far apart as
day and night. There is certainly a marked difference in artistic level and
intention between a Brahms symphony and a Strauss waltz, but Boulez and the
Beatles represent different worlds which can have no conceivable contact
with one another. Nor have the composers of new popular music any desire
to share the less lucrative but more respectable laurels of the serious art.
Respectability has vanished altogether from the vocabulary of popular music
and today it is stripped to its most elemental function. Nor do the pop fans
wish to understand the lovers and connoisseurs of serious music.
The two types of music have now arrived at their extremes: new serious music
is complicated, new popular music is primitive to the point of absurdity;
the one is totally ineffective, the other effective beyond measure. A few
thousand people in the whole world may listen to the strange, unemotional
sounds of new serious music, but many millions are enraptured by the harsh
and sinister voices of new popular music. There is only one feature that
both have in common: popular music, like serious music, has become highly
professional, excluding the amateur almost as rigorously. If the amateur
is incapable of coping with the complexities of new serious music it is likewise
beyond his power to generate the frenzy at which new popular music aims.
Yet here is contemporary, new music, music without a precedent, which commands
all the passion music could ever command. All the new means of communication,
of preservation and transportation are at its disposal. Pop music, in fact,
is the music which is ubiquitous at all times of day or night. If we try
to assess the comparative quantities of popular and serious music in circulation
today, and think of the equivalent situation two hundred years ago, we realize
at once the savage change which has occurred. Who or what is to blame if
any blame attaches? The time and its temper? Serious music? The public?