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Why "classical" classical music will never die: the artistry and psychology of courtly music from Mozart and Haydnís time

Frank Manheim

In a previous article I wrote about the surprising transformation of programming by a commercial classical music radio station in Massachusetts in the later 1990s. That station, WCRB, went over largely to classical and baroque music, dropping the former eclectic playlists that were common at the time. Under the pressure of declining listenership, the manager had done market tests and found out that this music was preferred by a large potential market of newcomers to classical music. They sought it out for its relaxing quality. Recently, a young nephew of mine reported on a music appreciation course that he had taken in his first year of college in Tennessee. What were some of his big impressions, I asked. The most striking to him was the revolution in music in the early 20th Century. And what was his favorite music? He immediately responded "classical and baroque". It may not be a coincidence that 18-year old Tim Ė who presumably grew up influenced mainly by electronic rock, would respond in the same way adult commuters in the Boston Massachusetts suburbs did to the older classics.

Although the overall influence of classical performance in the U.S. has declined in recent decades, I have noticed an upswing in use of classical music as background for commercial firmsí telephone answering services, in dentistís offices, and the lobbies of office buildings. And itís not just any music. Itís often music deliberately selected from the classical era from about 1760 to 1810. What is it about this period of music development that attracts people in the 21st century, especially people who donít have special musical backgrounds?

My late father was an avocational student of the social role of music. He pointed out that the music of Haydn, Mozart, and other composers of their time has a gracious, relaxed quality. It was designed to have that effect. After terrible religious wars and conflicts of the 17th Century, stabilization of Europeís nations took place under monarchs who were influenced by "Enlightenment" philosophies. They cultivated the arts and especially music. The image that royalty wished to create was that of power, enlightenment, and stability. It was in the 18th Century that the address to royalty, "Your Serene Majesty" became widespread. As Ernest Manheim put it: "Classical music of Haydn and Mozart's time was entirely focused on melody, delivered in elegant and complex structures. It sounded very much alike in all the European countries because it was created for royalty whose culture was quite homogeneous. They often intermarried." According to musicologist Donald J. Groutís History of Western Music "Music of the Enlightenment was supposed to meet the listener on his own ground, and not compel him to make an effort to understand what was going onÖ.its language should be universal; it should be noble as well as entertaining Öexpressive within the bounds of decorum Ö and natural in the sense of being free of needless technical complications."

The image as well as the enjoyment of the aristocratic courts was enhanced by recruiting the best players and the most gifted composers. Lesser royalty and nobility vied with the big courts in sponsoring music. A country boy from Rohrau, Austria, Joseph Haydn, became Europeís most famous composer and made his patron, Nicholas Esterhazy, a wealthy Hungarian prince, well known throughout Europe. The small principality of Mannheim became famous for its orchestra, on which its patron, Elector Carl Theodor, spent most of his available resources. The English music writer Charles Burney (1726-1814) famously wrote about the Mannheim Orchestraís players and composers:" it is an army of generals, equally fit to plan a battle, as to fight it."

In this system not just Haydn and Mozart, but a host of composers from Germany, Italy, France, Spain, Belgium and as far away as Finland and Mexico composed music with the "classical sound". The courts had the money to recruit the best musical talent in their societies, bringing instrumental virtuosity to new levels. Famous concerti were written by Luigi Boccherini for cello; by Haydn for trumpet (Anton Weidinger), and cello (Franz Weigl); by Carl Stamitz for viola and double bass; by Mozart for flute (Ferdinand Dejean), horn (Joseph Leutgeb), oboe (Guiseppe Ferlendis), and clarinet (Anton Stadler); and by Beethoven for violin (Franz Clement). Along with Mozartís violin and piano concerti, some of the foregoing concerti are not only still mainstays in concert performance. They have not been replaced in popularity by later concerti. How can that be, in the light of the advances in technique, conservatories of music, and the large numbers of composers during the 19th and 20th centuries?

A key to the perennial popularity of classical compositions may lie in the classical emphasis on melody, simplicity (in principle) and clear musical structures. Technical virtuosity should serve and enhance, but not dominate the music. The above composers made demands on instrumentalistsí technical skills. But technical display for its own sake, to break through the known boundaries, or to achieve novel but not necessarily esthetic effects, as is often experienced in the 20th Century, would have been frowned upon. In other words, the composers deliberately used their skills to create music for others. Expressions of personal emotions and artistic creativity created tension within the accepted musical language, but didnít break out of or destroy that language.

People in each age want "new" music that speaks to their time. But the classical era had unique qualities that are sought after but canít be found in the diversity of todayís popular and classical styles. Iíve referred above to special conditions, unlikely to be repeated, that gave rise to the music of Haydn and Mozart and their contemporaries.

Could contemporary or future composers achieve the transcendent, timeless beauty created by the classical composers - if they worked at it? Weíve had composers like Tchaikovsky who adored Mozart and elaborated some of his compositions. Weíve had virtuoso pianists who could easily improvise in various compositional styles. But no one has yet brought to life new compositions that successfully emulated the classical masters. One reason may be that now or in the future, persons with musical gifts and inspiration wonít want to copy othersí styles once they learn their craft. Their internal genius will want to achieve expression in new ways and may not agree to discipline their creativity for the enjoyment of others. Those who might seek to emulate the masters would likely be lesser talents, who would do it mechanically, lifelessly, without the sense of newness and adventure of the originals. Finally, living in a rapidly paced, stress-filled world might make it hard for composers to achieve the same cultural and psychological frame of mind to give expression with the same sense of grace, simplicity, and nobility to which the original classical composers aspired. Sure, Mozart lived under deadlines and crammed incredible productivity into his 38 years of life. But in his artistic work he did not allow any of that to show.

Frank Manheim

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