THE BUSINESS OF MUSIC
Reflections of a Music Publisher
by ERNST ROTH
9. THE PUBLIC AND NEW MUSIC
As a rule the public feels instinctively the topical nature of any art, and
loves it. The artist formulates what is vaguely in people's minds and they
are grateful for being offered this expression of what they cannot express
themselves. Where then is the public of new music? In those highly intellectual
circles where it is bred and appreciated, it is said that in this age of
mass civilization true art must be reserved for an elite, and that the thinking
man or woman must choose between Boulez and Menotti (though I suspect they
meant Britten), between the all-too-difficult and the all-too-easy, the
forward-looking or the left-behind, the avant-garde or the straggler. Such
radicalism is no less dangerous in artistic matters than in politics. When
Mozart was writing Die Entfuhrung, his father reminded him, 'I advise you
to think not only of the musical but also of the unmusical public-you know
there are a hundred ignorant people for every ten true connoisseurs, therefore
do not forget the popular.' And his son replied, 'You need not worry about
the so-called popular, for in my opera there is music for people of every
In mass civilization (or should we say mass education?) too, ignorant people
are divided from connoisseurs. The proportion of ten to one may not have
changed since Mozart, but both classes have greatly increased in numbers
and the more numerous connoisseurs have a claim to new music, just as new
music has a claim to them.
These claims are unsatisfied today. It must be said quite brutally that the
new serial, electronic, improvised, determinate or indeterminate music has
no public-or at least no public which could keep both that music and its
composers alive. There is a fundamental difference between the new visual
arts and new music. Economically and artistically it is sufficient for a
new painting or sculpture if a single enthusiast or eccentric millionaire
or even speculator is found to pay a high price for a few blobs on a canvas
or an unidentifiable lump of stone. But music needs tens or hundreds of thousands
to understand and appreciate and pay for it. As a publisher I cannot be misled
by the fact that now and then a hall is filled with curious people and
perfunctory applause. Sales and performance figures speak a language which
cannot be silenced by even the most vociferous propaganda.
This is very strange. I must insist again and again that this new music is
what it must be, the legitimate child and the true expression of our time.
Therefore there ought to be a deep understanding between composers and public
and the urge which compels the composer to compose should encourage the listener
to listen. This is what has happened to music from its earliest days. More
decidedly and more violently than with any other art the public turned away
from old music to new. This is why music has not accumulated and why 'old'
music has been lost. Past music was never felt to be an adequate expression
of the present; it was not worth preserving for the future, it was discarded
and forgotten. There was never any permanent value or wisdom in any musical
work, however celebrated in its time, that was found to be acceptable to
a new generation.
One has to realize the magnitude of the change which has taken place in the
last half-century and to see it in its context of the importance that music
generally has acquired in our time. A hundred and fifty years ago an opera
season at Shrovetide without one or more new operas was unthinkable. Haydn
had to write innumerable new symphonies, masses, operas and chamber pieces
for his employers, who feted their guests with new music. He would not have
had the lucrative offers he did from London if it had not been for the new
symphonies he had to bring with him. There was an insatiable thirst for new
music and more new music, not only among a small number of patrons but from
an ever-growing public.
It is never easy to discover the first signs of a malaise. Was it the rediscovery
of Mozart in the early years of the last century, when music had already
changed profoundly? Or the even more startling rediscovery of J. S. Bach,
whose music was really 'old'? There had never been any need for rediscoveries,
and there was no obvious need then except perhaps a vague premonition. Italian
opera was at the summit of its success, Beethoven was new, Mendelssohn idolized,
Liszt, Paganini, Chopin-music had never been so colourful and exciting. Indeed,
music had an exciting quality. From a performance of Auber's Muette de Portici
the audience went straight to the barricades and started the revolution.
And the public could become very angry with music which did not please them.
It was almost like a personal offence.
This involvement of the public was still strong with Wagner and Brahms. 'Why
this may-beetle hurry?' wrote Brahms to his publisher when he was pressed
for new works. There were battles over Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, Schoenberg's
Pierrot lunaire and even after the First World War over Wozzeck. But the
more immodest and revolutionary the music became, the more modest became
the outbursts of pleasure or displeasure. One might have expected that, on
the watershed of the old and the new, passions would clash more violently
than at a time when only comparative opinions and no principles were at stake.
Instead passion spent itself until no passion was left. If the new music
cannot be received with frantic applause it should at least meet with violent
opposition; it should stir people one way or another. But when, on rare
occasions, a work of new music is performed, the audience usually listens
with dull indifference, dismisses the performers with a polite gesture and
walks away unmoved. It is indifference that kills.
This is a state of overwhelming absurdity, unprecedented in the whole history
of music. It cannot be argued that this new music is not the right or adequate
expression of the mood and temper of our time, that Tchaikovsky, because
of his persistent success with the general public, is more up to date. Nor
could one easily reconcile oneself to the idea that our new music is ahead
of the time, a 'music of the future' which may need another fifty years to
be understood. While Nietzsche's conception of the backwardness of music
has not applied for the past three hundred years, Wagner's 'music of the
future' was equally misconceived. He would indeed be greatly surprised if
he could see how music has travelled after him. Ideas may be ahead of their
time. Democritus's idea of the atom anticipated its scientific proof by more
than two thousand years. But art, every art, is chained to the time which
produces it, or can precede it only by the one step which distinguishes the
individual genius from the collective genius of mankind. There never has
been and never will be an art which can free itself from the present. There
has never been an example of an art which was not recognized in its own time
but only discovered and appreciated by posterity. In fact, I doubt whether
such an art would have any chance of survival. New music has been with us
now for half a century. If its pioneers had successfully turned over the
soil it would today be a stronger and healthier plant.
Both the nature of new music and the apathy of the public account for the
scarcity of performances. The larger public on which music invariably depends
has never come to grips with it and never become familiar with its works.
New music is difficult-difficult to grasp and difficult to perform. But
difficulty alone could not explain the gulf between it and the public. It
has always been difficult, but in every period of the art the efficiency
of the performer has increased with the demands made upon him. But formerly
it was the amateur who mattered, the amateur who learned to play Beethoven's
'Kreutzer Sonata' and Chopin's Scherzi, Schumann's 'Symphonic Studies' and
Brahms's Violin Concerto, Liszt's 'Annees de pelerinage' and Debussy's
'Cathedrale engloutie' and all the transcriptions of operas and symphonic
works, the disappearance of which I have deplored. In contrast there is no
room for the amateur in new music. It is strictly confined to the one and
only combination of instruments, voices or electronic devices for which it
has been conceived, for the actual sound has become an essential element
and must not be changed. Transcription would be technically impossible. In
an extreme case such as Iannis Xenakis's Metastasis, written for sixty-one
performers playing sixty-one different and equally important parts, there
can be no question of transferring it to any other medium than a gramophone
record or a magnetic tape. So the recreation of new music is left to the
professional. Music has, in fact, become highly professional, exclusively
professional. The one art where the amateur played a vital part now excludes
and eliminates him.
It is strange and striking to see how different things coincide to produce
a cumulative result, so much so that cause and effect can no longer be
determined. As music became more and more difficult and professional,
broadcasting and recording became more efficient, to absolve the amateur
from any active participation in musicmaking. At a time when music might
have required a more dedicated effort from the amateur his ambition was blunted
or paralysed by the fact of listening to music while leaving all the making
of it to the professional performer.
Reading music is largely irrelevant; making music is, for the public, out
of date. Listening is the last tenuous link between music and the multitude
who fill opera-houses and concert-halls and switch on their radios or turntables.
Music has become a subject for exhibition, like painting and sculpture. But
is new music exhibited often or persistently enough to become familiar, like
a statue in a public park or a picture in a public gallery?
It is almost common-place to say that our musical life in every part of the
western world is a museum of antiquities. We live on the musical diet of
our predecessors, on pre-classical, classical, romantic, neo-romantic and
neo-classical music. In the long history of the art it has never happened
that contemporary music was all but absent from the main stream of musical
activity. This is all the more remarkable at a time when music is ubiquitous
and has become an integral part of our daily life.
In the field of opera there is an atmosphere of crisis. Not so much an economic
crisis, because at present the mounting deficit of opera-houses is still
met out of public money, as a duty to culture in general. The crisis is rather
an artistic one. Since Richard Strauss's Rosenkavalier-that is, since 26
January 1911 -only one opera, Berg's Wozzeck, has established itself in the
regular international repertoire. Before giving some statistics I must emphasize
that the 'old' repertoire has been much reduced or impoverished since the
beginning of this century. I remember all the operas which, before the First
World War, were regularly played: Bellini's Norma and Sonnambula; Donizetti's
Don Pasquale, Elisir d'amore, Lucia di Lammermoor, Lucrezia Borgia and La
Fille du regiment; Boieldieu's La Dame blanche and Jean de Paris; Auber's
Fra Diavolo and La Muette de Portici; Adam's Postillon de Lonjumeau and Si
j'etais roi; Meyerbeer's Les Huguenots, Le Prophète and L'Africaine;
Flotow's Martha; even Maillard's Les Dragons de Villars and Wagner's Rienzi.
Most have disappeared, and probably deservedly so, but they have not been
replaced. To this list Wagner himself has been added more recently; if not
Tristan, Meistersinger, The Ring and Parsifal, then certainly The Flying
Dutchman, Tannhauser and Lohengrin. All these operas were, after all, the
most successful masterpieces of their time and the comparatively few survivors
of an enormous output. It would be wrong to say that their disappearance
is due to the lack of the virtuoso singers who once were available in abundance.
Such singers, no doubt, would be available today if they were wanted. But
in order to repopulate the deserted land of opera it is not these old masterworks
which are revived but operas long since dead and buried: Rossini's Otello
or La gazza ladra or La pietra del paragone, Bellini's I Capuletti ed I Montechi
or Il pirata, Donizetti's Anna Bolena, none of which can have another lease
of life and disappear after a few performances.
How much the operatic repertoire has aged appears from statistics published
by the Zurich Opera House on the occasion of its 125th anniversary in 1959.
The average age of operas performed in the first season, 1834-5, was twenty-four
years. In 189I-2 it was fifty-six years and in the jubilee season 1958-9
it had already risen to ninety-one years. Now, ten years later, it must exceed
the century. One easily forgets that Rigoletto was first performed in 1851
and that even Tristan, which still sounds comparatively modern, is over a
hundred years old.
It is widely believed that Germany, which has more operahouses playing opera
all the year round than the rest of the world put together, is ahead of other
countries in the choice of its repertoire and in the catholic taste of its
public. But the statistics published by the Deutscher Buhnenverein, which
includes all the theatres in Germany, Austria and German-speaking Switzerland,
for the ten years 1955-65 presents the same picture. These statistics include
both operettas and ballets. Leaving out operettas (headed by Johann Strauss
with 15,555 performances in ten years) the first fifteen opera and ballet
composers and the number of performances
Richard Strauss 5,343
As can be seen, there are only three composers among those fifteen who could
be called contemporary. Their performances provide almost exactly 10 % of
the total performances. If one were to count Richard Strauss among the 'old'
composers the percentage would be only 4 1/2, and if one takes the
performing-time into consideration it would be no more than 2%, the Stravinsky
and Prokofiev performances being mainly ballets not exceeding thirty minutes
each, while all the operas listed are full-length works of not less than
two hours' duration.
Where, then, does 'modern' opera come into the picture? In those ten years,
41 operas, both German and foreign, had their first performances in the territory
of the Association, the foreign works having in a number of cases had their
world premieres elsewhere. This total would not be too bad for ten years,
but these 4 I together achieved only 1,619 performances or, on an average,
only 39 each, compared with 4,263 performances of the Magic Flute, 3,813
of Figaro, 3,447 of Madam Butterfly, 3,275 of Carmen, and 454 even of Strauss's
Elektra. As far as 'new' music goes, Wozzeck, now over forty years old, is
the only representative of the new generation, with 324 performances.
How do these figures compare with the spoken drama? The most frequently played
author is Shakespeare with 24,902 performances. But among the first fifteen
authors are six contemporaries, and among the first fifty are no less than
twenty-seven modern playwrights. Modern drama is an essential part of the
repertoire; theatres could not continue without it. Yet in the opera-house
contemporary works are non-existent and altogether dispensable. I once went
to the Scala in Milan for a performance of Ghedini's Bacchanti. Above the
box office there was the usual notice Esaurito, 'sold out', but the theatre
was almost empty. 'Oh, the subscribers just don't come,' said the
'sovrintendente' to me with a shrug of his shoulders. In the theatre subscribers
easily get bored with too many 'classics'. In the opera-house they want to
hear nothing else. Neither in Germany nor anywhere in the world could opera
be kept alive without Verdi and Mozart, Puccini and Rossini.
Now we have a new music which insists on being objective, on expressing nothing.
It still has a predilection for literary texts and vocalists. But it does
not set these texts to music, it uses them as pretexts. This is not the attitude
that can create an opera or any musico-dramatic work. It would have been
grotesque to see Webern working on an opera. The younger ones, Messiaen,
Boulez and Stockhausen, do not even consider it. They have probably buried
opera as an art form altogether. When one of them, Luigi Nono, tries to force
his structures onto the musical stage the failure is inevitable. Even the
comparatively successful younger opera-composers, Britten and Henze, have
been unable to provide the repertoire with new works which the public would
regularly want to hear and opera administrators therefore have to revive
regularly. One must therefore ask how long an art form can survive on a choice
of a shrinking stock of old works without receiving any new blood or new
spirit apart from those extravaganzas of producers and designers which in
themselves sound a warningbell. The question is all the more painful if one
considers the enormous treasury of music deposited in opera. Could anyone
honestly believe that new life can be injected into it from still remoter
times, that Monteverdi can do for opera what contemporary composers are unable
Concert life has not reached such a critical stage; or at least the crisis
is not so obvious. There is a much larger pool of works to choose from, covering
a period of nearly four hundred years of European music, roughly from Palestrina
to Stravinsky. For some time after, when successful new operas had become
very scarce, the concert repertoire still received considerable infusions
of new standard works. Broadcasting, too, plays a somewhat irregular part
in concert life, being independent of public taste. Reaching as it does a
much wider public than all the concert-halls put together it should be the
most effective and most audacious champion of new music.
Let me take as an example the British Broadcasting Corporation's Third Programme
(now Radio Three) in one week chosen at random. This is a programme for
connoisseurs. It can only be heard by about 5,000,000 out of a total of
15,000,000 licenceholders, and broadcasts a very high proportion of serious
music between 7 a.m. and 11 p.m. In the week from 18 to 24 December 1965
the number of works broadcast was 213; works of every type, instrumental
and chamber music, orchestral and choral. Of these 144, or nearly 68%, were
written before 1900; 46, or 21%, between 1900 and 1939; and 2.3, or 11 %,
after 1939. Of these 23 works only two, a late work by Dallapiccola and an
organ piece by Messiaen, could be termed new music. The rest were five works
by Britten, three by Poulenc, Stravinsky's Symphony in C, the Oboe Concerto
by Richard Strauss and so on.
Such statistics are not as informative as one would like them to be, as the
works broadcast are of very different duration-for example, Brahms's German
Requiem beside Messiaen's organ piece. If statistics are to give a proper
picture they should take into consideration the times allotted to old and
new music respectively. I have therefore taken another week, considering
not titles but only duration.
In the week from 2 to 8 September 1967 this same programme broadcast 5,398
minutes, or 89 hours and 58 minutes, of serious music of all types. Music
by composers who had been dead for fifty years or more ('non-copyright' music)
took up 3,571 minutes or 60 % of the total, and of this 2,711 minutes were
taken up by music written before 1867, or a hundred years or more ago. Then
987 minutes, or 18 % were devoted to music written since 1917 but which could
not be termed 'new' music (Ravel, Debussy, Prokofiev, Britten, de Falla,
Shostakovitch). As for new music, five composers (a late Stravinsky, Messiaen,
Schoenberg, Berg and Stockhausen) occupied 232 minutes, or 4 1/2 % of the
total broadcasting time.* Both Stockhausen with 90 minutes and Messiaen with
78 had an exceptionally good week, but I would be inclined to regard this
as a good average of broadcasting programmes showing how very small is the
share of new music in the available time.
* I have omitted broadcasts of contemporary but not avant-garde
music by young British composers of little consequence, which the BBC has
a duty to perform once and probably never again.
To prepare similar statistics for public concerts is more difficult. Commercial
considerations, the need to sell as many tickets as possible and to put available
performers to the best use, no doubt interferes with artistic considerations
much more heavily than on the radio. I can give only examples, again chosen
In the month of December 1964 there were in London 43 public concerts, song
and piano recitals, chamber, orchestral and choral concerts. Of the 162 works
performed, 111 (69%) were written before 1864; 39 (23%) between 1864 and
1939; and only 12 (8 %) after 1939. But of these 12 works, 7 were performed
at a special Arts Council concert of new music before an audience of about
300 and only 5 works could be heard at regular concerts.
Taking another example, the three halls in London's Festival Hall complex
during the week of 2 to 8 April 1967, the picture is as follows.
In the large Festival Hall 28 works were performed, 22 of which were written
before 1900 and only 6 in this century. There was no work of new music among
them. Contemporary music was represented by two works by Britten and one
each by Respighi, Stravinsky, Szymanowsky and Prokofiev.
In the same week 26 works were performed in the smaller Queen Elizabeth Hall,
of which 20 were written before 1900; but among the 6 twentieth-century works
there was one work by Webern, the rest being by Pfitzner, Kodaly, Britten,
Bartok and Malcolm Arnold.
In the still smaller Purcell Room 2I works were played in the same week,
13 of which, ranging from Dowland to Berlioz, were written before 1900. Among
the remaining 8 one work by Matyas Seiber represented new music, the rest
being by Debussy, Honegger, Hindemith, Poulenc, Tippett, and so on.
There were, however, three concerts of contemporary music at the British
Commonwealth Institute, with works by John Cage, Earle Brown and others,
but these were concerts for the 'elite' and not for the general public.
The picture would be only marginally different in any other country. The
London concert-going public is not inordinately conservative. On the contrary,
I have often found it more openminded than the German public, if perhaps
not as patient
It is not a convincing argument that new music needs time. More than forty
years have gone by since the Twelve-Note Manifesto, a time which, even with
less widespread mass civilization and slower means of communication and
dissemination, should have been sufficient to open the doors to new music.
With our modern facilities every decade should count as much as centuries
before. The 'elite' proclaims (and I personally agree) that Boulez's 'Marteau
sans maitre' is one of the most characteristic and, in its own right, most
accomplished works of new music. Should it not be as well known as Beethoven's
'Eroica' was in 1820? Or Chopin's piano music in 1840? Or Wagner's Ring in
1900? Of course, it is a difficult and highly professional work and the amateur
has no hope of ever trying to perform it himself or of identifying himself
with it, as he could with Beethoven, Chopin or Wagner. But he should hear
it again and again, he should want to hear a work which, though not expressing
anything specifically musical, eloquently and convincingly expresses the
mood and spirit of our time, which should be the mood and the spirit of the
listener as much as that of the composer. But this is not the case. Performances
are lamentably few and far between, and the desire of the listener is, to
say the least, not very strong. And remarkably few records of the work have
been bought by music-lovers. Only a few works written in the last fifty years
have found general public acceptance on a scale comparable to that enjoyed
by an enormous number of works of the preceding two hundred. We can take
any twenty-five year period between 1700 and 1900 and we will have both hands
full of works which the average music-lover today knows intimately and loves
dearly. Try the same after 1900 and you will see for yourself how the number
of such works has diminished.
So new music, the music of our time, recedes from the centre of our cultural
life and the ever-growing public for serious music enjoys instead the happy
products of a happier time. Decades of instruction and insult have passed
without any visible effect, without establishing any contact between the
public and the music of its time. It is a state of things which has no parallel
in the whole history of music. The reasons must lie deeper than in mere
conservatism, for conservatism has always existed and has always been overcome.