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Charlotte de Rothschild (soprano);

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Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

Arthur Butterworth Writes

An Age of Anxiety by Arthur Butterworth

There is perceptible change in every aspect of the passing years; nothing of course, could possibly stay the same for ever. Everyone is aware that in his or her own lifetime even the climate appears to have changed (though so far, we are reassured to notice that the sun rises everyday at the predicted hour, although there might come a day when it will not). Musical history has seen many remarkable changes of fashion. Indeed, listening to the immense variety of music that has beguiled us over the centuries is one of its charms. We listen to early music - generally regarded as being loosely medieval — then came the flamboyant age of the baroque: Bach, Handel, and others. When that became passé the taste was for a much more easy-going, not quite so earnest a manner, the rococo—style of the early classics: Haydn, Mozart and early Beethoven. Changing social and political conditions then led to a more romantic outlook: Schubert. Schumann, Brahms, Berlioz and the generation of musicians and other creative artists who sought to express the temper and feel of the new age. The theatre and in particular, opera, was probably even more expressive of the spirit of the times than concert music.

It is this especially definitive kind of word ‘concert music’ that has a particular interest. Opera, was ever by its nature of course, a public kind of spectacle, but concert music is not quite the same thing. This commentary does not set out to be pedantically precise in its definition of the term ‘concert’, but it can be taken to mean a musical performance which is - generally - intended to be performed before a fairly large group of listeners. How large then? A group of listeners exceeding in size the number of those performing ? Or merely a group of cultured and well—informed listeners who may, or equally may not, be more numerous than those actually taking part in the performance ? What defines the notion of a concert ?

Probably before the turn of the nineteenth century there had been, apart from opera, comparatively little in the way of truly public concerts: meaning that anyone who chose to go and listen might pay for a seat and listen to largely abstract (i.e. non-vocal) music. The early instrumental music of the baroque, and even more so the early classical symphony, was not essentially addressed to an unknown public, but to a select circle of cultured people who would recognise and appreciate this refined art of music. However, about this time, and especially with Beethoven, there arose the beginnings of a fashion for instrumental performances that would attract a large crowd of listeners: many of whom might not have been cultured in the same way that the more aristocratic listeners of an earlier generation would have been. No attempt is made here, to go into the social reasons for the beginnings of what might well have been at that time, a new phenomenon. However, for whatever reason, the truly public concert seems to have arisen. Where exactly it first took place is hard to say; but it probably came about with a general flowering of high culture that descended on Europe: it has been called ‘The Age of Enlightenment’. This is perhaps surprising since the times were violent, politically insecure, there was much social upheaval. Slavery, injustice and exploitation was rampant; Western nations were conquering other parts of the world on an ever—more militarily aggressive scale.

Yet for all these iniquities, there flourished a more widespread awareness of culture in the arts. All races have their own culture, but what took place in Western culture, that of Germany, France, Italy and other European nations appears to have been in the ascendancy (like the missionary zeal of the Christian religion and its various conflicting dogmas).

To most Europeans, music meant ‘western-European’ music; there was no place for exotic oriental sounds, no Indian, African, Latin-American or other ‘foreign’ music. So, in the general sense, it has remained. Concert halls began to arise in every large centre of population; the public concert soon came to be regarded as a mark of a community having elevated itself to a desirable cultural level. How was all this paid for ? Now it is reasonable to assume that music on a small scale — the string quartet for example — was economically sustainable, and after all, in earlier times such chamber music was financed by the wealthy aristocratic patrons whose delight it was. Their guests would not be expected to pay for a seat. The economics hardly entered into it, performers were little more than servants anyway, paid miserably low wages. However, what of the first public concerts? How were they promoted ? Who paid for the larger groups of orchestral (as distinct from chamber) players ? The term itself: ‘chamber music’ — still in use — implies things on a small intimate scale, not for public use. Nowadays such chamber concerts are more often intended to be held in front of quite large, ticket-buying audiences, where the original notion of an intimate, and exclusive musical event is offered to all comers.

The orchestral concert, however, by its nature demnds a large und appreciative audience. Playing to a half-empty house is dispiriting in the extreme: such large-scale gestures as the symphony or piano concerto are not intimate artistic gestures intended only for the discriminating few; they are public happenings demanding an appreciative emotional response from a large mess of people.

The anxiety of the present time would seem to be with the threat of decline in such large-scale public events. There are no ready answers to this situation and none are attempted here. However, some considerations might be worth thinking about to those who are themselves anxiously concerned.

Chamber Concerts Societies: The complaint is often made that such concerts are now widely in decline. But is this really true ? The observation is often made that audiences seem to be getting older; however, to a large extent this is an illusion: audiences for the rarefied appreciation of the essential qualities of so intimate and deeply cultured an art form, come about mainly through a person’s lifetime experience of such music. The deeper meaning of chamber music has probably never primarily been attractive to young listeners (though this is not to confuse the involvement and insight displayed by young performers). Most concert societies have always addressed their concerts to older, mature listeners. To complain that their audiences now seem to be older, is an illusion: they always were. While the audiences of twenty years ago are now dead and gone, the present audiences, who have replaced them and are themselves no longer young, were, twenty years ago, the disinterested younger generation! This is observable not only in Britain but in other parts of Europe and the civilised world.

The Second World War saw a quite staggering growth of interest in orchestral concerts. The reasons for this have often been put forward. After the war, this interest did not decline, but rather increased and promised to remain this way indefinitely. Throughout the 1950s and ‘60s audiences were more or less stable. Of course, one of the contributory factors was the way the concert-going public regarded celebrated performers — especially conductors. There were probably other, no less important, reasons: most of all the economics of concert promotion. Celebrated performing artists (especially singers) have always been well-paid; conductors hardly less so. Nowadays it is the conductors who are the absurdly over-paid prima donnas of the concert hall. A generation ago professional orchestral players were paid only a modest wage, while their forebears in the profession were even lower down the social and economic scale. (Hence the burgeoning of huge orchestral scores by such as Richard Strauss and Mahler; orchestral players came very cheap indeed) With the rise of modern industrial relations the situation is vastly different. Professional orchestral players (like workers in any other industry) will probably still claim that they are underpaid. But in common with the average earnings of the population, the professional orchestral musician is not unreasonably rewarded and enjoys a life style: home-ownership, cars, ‘all mod-cons’ and holidays, just as much as the next person. The working week of the orchestral player is probably not quite so demanding as it was fifty years ago.

Present-day economics, however, never appear equitable. Concert-promotion has become more razz-ma-tazz: programme printing, advertising, management costs, fees of all kinds. Whereas a generation ago, a provincial orchestra would give a regular weekly series in its home town, with a stable, supportive audience, this is not now always the case. Fewer regular weekly concerts, and consequently a decline in the performance of the hardcore classical repertoire. As with chamber concerts, audiences consist largely of grey heads. But for the same reason as suggested regarding the chamber concert (or more precisely ‘recital’ since chamber music is not primarily a concert sized event, but is a more intimate affair), this is not really so.

Much greater research needs to be done to discover the causes of an apparent decline in concert-going. Concert managements, orchestral administrators, musical-philosophers, historians, critics could all contribute.

However, perhaps one of the really ominous - and probably depressing - reasons might lie beyond music and its changing fashions, the growth of other entertainment media, modern travel,and so forth.

First of all the economics of concert promotion: the fees or wages of the orchestra, the fees of conductor and soloist, the management costs —hire of concert hall, ancillary staff, printing, promotion, advertising, insurances, public liability, marketing, etc. How does a centre-circle seat costing - say - £25 today, compare with the same seat in 1960, which might have cost 17/6d (75pence); are other costs relative ? How were concerts so successfuly promoted in 1960 with fewer administrative back-up staff: accountants, secretaries, marketing assistants, programme consultants, publicity directors, membership secretaries ? Are a lot of these present day job-titles really so necessary ? Like the chocolate bar, the duration of most concerts is now generally shorter than in former times, yet the cost is markedly higher.

In all cultures there has always been a popular kind of music. Even in devout religious countries where the music of ritual and the church was solemn and had to be taken seriously, the other side of humanity expressed itself through folk music, bawdy songs and dances in the tavern. It is no different in this century; we have a species of popular music, we simply call it 'pop’. But it has come to mean more than the bland, innocuous word itself. On the other hand we have no really good, accurate descriptive expression for the cultured kind of music most of us loosely call classical. Strictly speaking "classical" should only apply to a narrow period of musical fashion; the rest is very varied. If we use what seems the best alternative, we say "serious" music; but this can put people off: it sounds too solemn and forbidding. A better phrase might be "art music" to differentiate it from light, trivial, shallow or mere entertainment music. "Art-music" implies an elevated, cultured kind of music which is intended to appeal not only to one’s superficial emotions, but to the intellect as well; to arouse deeper personal reflection on what the music tries to communicate.

Other reasons for the apparent decline in public concert attendance could lie in the fact that, apart from all the other cultural distractions (that are so obvious) might be that the CD is now so good that people prefer to listen to music at home: it is cheaper, and it is SAFER! The violence of modern urban and city life is such that many people will not contemplate the hazards of evening and night time forays into a large town or city.

It was said earlier that there had been an "Age of Enlightenment", when, despite the wretchedness of much of humanity, the great cultures of European life blossomed: Italian art, French drama, German music, English literature. Other nations came into this circle of influence (and the odd thing is that Orientals are now so accomplished in the pursuit of western musical culture). But, as has so often been noted throughout history: empires rise and fall. Whether it be politically correct or not, there are indications that our particular European culture — especially the fastidious art of music: its exquisite beauty of melody, harmony, shape, form, quality of voice and tone colours of instruments, its lack of violence and aggression, its pursuit of the natural beauty of sound, is under threat of cruder, more barbaric and moronic modes of expression that began to insinuate themselves into our carefully-nurtured culture soon after the First World War. In place of intelligently-designed musical structures, as in the symphony, string quartet, piano sonata, opera, art-song, all seeking to capture beauty and elegance, music is threatened with aggressive violence of expression, a dumbing-down of human sensitivity; in place of subtle and varied rhythms arising out of melodic and harmonic interplay we are ever more increasingly beset by the moronic monotony of barbaric drumming and aggressive vocal assault.

At one time the symphony orchestra was regarded as one of the highest creations of the human artistic spirit. But, as they say, all empires fall. Is the present state of appreciation of our lofty European musical culture — its dumbing down — symbolic of the threat to our kind of civilisation ?

Other articles by Arthur Butterworth



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