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It is now widely believed that audiences for serious concerts are in decline. Several concert-giving bodies are anxious that their patrons are no longer as numerous as once they were. Is this really true?

It could be worth pondering for a moment on the very nature of what we regard as "serious" music. Without going back into much earlier social history it is at least worth considering how so-called "serious" music came to have its place in the world. At one time it would appear that only the most privileged and wealthy classes either had the time and leisure to spend on the pursuit of this kind of music, and the money to pay for musicians to entertain them: all those princely courts, ducal palaces, and similar places. Musicians, in the main, were merely servants in the same way that a footman, coachman, cook, or housemaid would be; it seems that few musicians were truly appreciated for their unique gifts as performers or composers. However, with the rise of aspects of republicanism (for the want of a far more precise expression) – the age of revolution, Napoleon, Beethoven and others – music-making other than the most popular tavern music on the one hand and the church on the other, began in some way to make itself felt, so that in addition to the theatre (opera, which had always had a fairly popular appeal in some way) public concerts arose and seem to have appealed to a wider populace rather than the exclusively privileged few. When such truly "public" concerts came into their own might be difficult to say. However, in the late 18th century and certainly by the 19th century things were well established in most civilised parts of western society, most especially in Germany where the symphony orchestra as we now know it really got going . So now we have enjoyed concert-music of all kinds for around two hundred years at least. This does not only mean the large public orchestral or choral concert, but that kind of music which was once – indeed by its very name – primarily intended only for a small "chamber" or salon. Chamber music is now rarely a truly private affair, it is more frequently a public concert in the real sense of the word. This situation – the public concert, no matter whether it be a large symphony orchestra, a choral concert, a chamber music recital, or any other kind of performing group – flourished enormously.

So why have there now appeared signs of decay? The all-too-simple answer is that social conditions have inevitably changed.

To list such changes would be tedious, because they are all-too-well-known: the coming of radio eighty years ago or even more,

The improvements to recording technology from the days of wind-up gramophones which would only play for about four minutes on one side; scratchy sounds giving little impression of the real, live sound; the arrival of long-playing records in the early 1950’s; the coming of CDs, and not least that scourge of modern living, the television set, to say nothing of all of the very, very latest modern technology that permits the "downloading" of musical performance into one’s own lap as it were.

So where does the live concert now stand? Are audiences only made up of a very ageing community? I do not believe this to be the case. Audiences for serious musical pursuits were always – primarily – of the older generation. This is the generation that begins to have the leisure and the money to spend on it. It is also true, of course, that the younger generation are just as enthusiastic in their own way: the youth orchestra movement demonstrates that, but they do not necessarily want to be associated with an older generation; by and large the younger generation prefers to exhibit its interest in serious music in its own way.

There are many other reasons for the apparent change in concert-going habits, but they are far too complex to try to explain exhaustively in such a short commentary as this. The cost of paying musicians - no longer in the mere servant class of Mozart or Beethoven’s day. Today’s professional performers are indeed of the professional classes. The overall sophistication of concert organisation is very expensive indeed. Added to these factors are others of a more disturbing kind: the growing night-time violence of big centres of population, which inhibits many older persons from going out – why should they when they can listen to music far more safely in their own homes? The multifarious distractions nowadays which were not available eighty years ago or more.

However, there is something unique about being present at a live performance, and all concert-goers know this. It is perhaps reassuring to realise that it is not just in Britain where this applies; concert halls in Germany - where it all really began - and in the USA and other places all exhibit the same social change. But all is far from being lost: For the most part serious concert audiences were always primarily made up of grey-heads. The older people of fifty years ago are long since dead and gone, but they are replaced by a present-day older generation who, thirty years ago were themselves younger or at least middle-aged people who at that time were too busy making their way in the world to have the kind of leisure they now enjoy; so each succeeding generation seems, in its turn, to become more refined and appreciative of serious music as its experience of everything progresses.

The youth orchestra players of today, who will probably abandon music for a several years when they have to begin to earn a living will probably turn to music again once their own families have matured. They will provide the next generation of appreciative grey-heads. Audiences in most centres of orchestral music are indeed perhaps not quite what they were when other distractions did not exist, but they have by no means disappeared and are not likely to do so.

Arthur Butterworth

March 2006



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