The opera, ballet, popular concerts, light music, virtuosic recitals, and
sentimental songs embraced by the European bourgeoisie in the mid 19th century
did not please everyone. Clubs of amateur and student performers found this
music trivial and unfulfilling. Aristocratic organizers of house concerts and
other events resented the incursion of go-getting townsmen. Long-standing
homogeneous concert societies resisted the popular preferences of the more
diverse comparatively ignorant middle classes and maintained their traditional
repertoires and practices. Professional musicians and composers, once employees
of court, town, and church or objects of noble patronage, were often ambivalent
about the necessity of catering to the recent economic classes for their
support. Ancient music (that is, music over twenty years old) enthusiasts
continued to examine, favor, and champion previous styles. Journalists and
intellectuals disparaged and mocked the new mass culture.
At luncheons, board meetings, happy hours, at various social gatherings, in cafes, taverns, hotels, and clubs, over coffee, chocolate, beer, or wine, during woodland walks and mountain climbs, at concert intermissions, in newspapers and magazines, discussions ensued where views, feelings, dissatisfactions, and theories were aired, argued, analyzed, and assimilated, and more profound questions of far-reaching import were broached and bandied. What was the purpose of music? What was good and great in music? By what criteria was music to be judged? What was the nature of great music?
From these discussions, from study groups of kindred spirits, from sensitive connoisseurs of the arts, from learned authors and carping critics, there emerged a new aesthetic ideal. Its philosophic underpinnings lay in German religious liberalism and romanticism and the actual history of its formation, development, and acceptance is somewhat complex. As applied to music its principles might be summarized as follows:
Great music, like the accomplishments of great heroes, transcends time, place, and style.
Like great heroes, the composers of great music are divinely-inspired prophets.
Great music reveals something of God and the deeper meaning of human life as intended by God.
As such it is a force for spiritual and moral uplift, for the cultivation of the human being as intended by God.
Thus the purpose of great music is human culture.
Nevertheless, great music, like great art, is self-contained, is “its own excuse for being”, dependent neither on audience nor noble or popular patronage.
Hence the origin of great music is in the composer’s inspiration, not in its commercial function.
In these constructs we can discern the emergence of a cultural hierarchy based not on class, function, or popularity, but on certain subjective aesthetic considerations. Great music (what would come to be known as classical music) was high art, inspired by God, serious, permanent, profound, pure, abstract, absolute, complete, spiritual and refined. As culture its perfection appealed to the intellect and uplifted the soul, cultivating moral virtue and compassion in the listener. Popular music, on the other hand, was artifice, inspired by human desire, light, temporal (transitory), pleasing, adulterated, material, limited, conditional, worldly, and common. As entertainment its mediocrity appealed to the senses and inflamed the passions, promoting in the listener moral depravity and selfishness. While such a dichotomy, as a whole, undoubtedly overstates the case, each of its elements may be found in the work of cultural critics, philosophical essayists, taste-making journalists, and popular lecturers.
A pantheon of composers whose music best expressed this ideal was soon established to parallel that of the ancient Greek and Roman literary masters. Beethoven and Handel became the first “classical” composers, quickly followed by Mozart, Haydn, Bach, and Schubert. To them were added Mendelssohn and Schumann (both of whom actively promoted the new aesthetic), and later, after much discussion, Brahms and Bruckner. All were, of course, Germans. Most favored lengthier ‘abstract’ instrumental music – symphonies, concerti, chamber music – and oratorios rather than popular, occasional, programmatic, or stage works (Handel’s operas were ignored). All, it was said, wrote from ‘inspiration’ primarily for ‘posterity’ rather than for success. As this aesthetic spread through Europe composers of other nationalities – Palestrina, Corelli, Cherubini, Chopin, Liszt, Couperin, Berlioz, Tchaikovsky, Moussorgsky, Dvorak, etc. – were, through usage, enthusiasm, ‘discovery’, recommendation, and examination, installed in this august company.
Orchestral concerts dedicated to this aesthetic and featuring longer symphonic works in their entirety were regular occurrences in Leipzig, Paris, Vienna, London, and other musical centers by the 1850s when these and similar views reached the United States in the pages of John Sullivan Dwight’s Journal of Music, to be taken up by critic Henry Finck in The Nation and the New York Evening Post, by culture-promoting periodical editors like George William Curtis of Harper’s Magazine, and given credence and substance by crusading conductors Theodore Thomas, Patrick Gilmore, Leopold and Walter Damrosch, assisted by the theories of English writer Matthew Arnold and visiting German musicians such as Hans Von Bulow. With the establishment of the major symphonic orchestras after 1880 its influence was felt in, and began to define, this country’s urban concert life. Of the newly wealthy Americans underwriting these ensembles some were genuine music lovers, some acted for the common good, out of civic pride, in emulation of continental models, or to provide a privileged focal point for others of their class. Staffed and led by musicians enticed from European cities, opera houses, and conservatories by superior salaries and substantial seasons, the new orchestras gradually won a significant public for ‘high-brow’ repertoire.
American audiences of course wanted their waltzes, polkas, and light opera favorites too, and they got them, but increasingly segregated into special features or Spring and Summer series designed to extend the orchestra season and ‘purify’ their regular concerts of such trivialities. This was the origin of the Boston Pops (1885) and other intra-symphony popular programs. Attempts were made to purify the orchestral musicians as well and focus their attention on the lofty purpose of their calling by contractually limiting their ability to accept dance jobs and theatre engagements during the performance season.
Now that concert halls were no longer places of entertainment and diversion but temples of fine art it was felt that a corresponding decorum should be required of their patrons. Eating, drinking, smoking, chatting with family and friends, loudly greeting one’s acquaintances, calling out requests to the conductor, and singing topical and comic songs while the orchestra was playing were to be excluded, as were late arrivals, early departures, and over-enthusiastic displays of appreciation or displeasure. The proper attitude of the concert-goer was now to be receptive awe and quiet, respectful enjoyment. Serious-minded listeners, influential journalists, social leaders, and orchestra boards soon agreed, so managers were obliged to encourage and enforce these new standards of behavior. Despite initial resistance – from all levels of society – by 1910 the classical music concert or recital had become synonymous with politeness and gentility.
The simultaneous rise and spread of vaudeville, Tin Pan Alley, and rhythmic styles (marches, ragtime, jazz, and syncopated dance music) only widened the gap between the ‘serious’ and the ‘popular’. Snobbery and reverse snobbery ran rampant. To the devotee of high culture popular music was cheap, vulgar, and annoying, a menace to society and ultimately a threat to civilization. It is fascinating to encounter books written between 1890 and 1940 purportedly about ‘American music’ that make no mention at all of popular music but concentrate instead on a small group of European-educated native composers, most of them somewhat obscure, working within received Germanic symphonic and chamber music traditions. Able, cultured, and successful musicians such as Victor Herbert and Fritz Kreisler who attempted to bridge the gap were often regarded with suspicion and publicly excoriated because they, it was said, had set aside lofty artistic ideals to ‘pander’ to popular tastes. An invitation to conduct a major symphonic orchestra was withdrawn from a well-known musician who agreed to direct a wartime benefit featuring a superstar crooner. On the other hand average listeners had little patience with lengthy and difficult works they could not sing or dance to written by composers who cared little about their likes and dislikes and not at all about their opinions. To them ‘high-brow’ music was exclusive, effete, boring, and possibly un-American. World War I became the pretext for a backlash against the concert works of German composers, and many foreign-born musicians were deported. By the 1920s the extreme cultural lines were clearly drawn.
Among Americans not committed to either extreme there arose at this time a middle perspective, one that ignored the existing hierarchies and ideologies and focused instead on the common admirable and desirable elements in all music: illuminating, ennobling, and unifying elements that at the same time provided the listener with pleasure and enjoyment. Concert music need not be abstract and obscure but might be, and often was, appealing, dramatic, sensuous, and affecting. Popular music was not seen as inherently base and degrading but could be uplifting, serious, and profound. We associate this outlook with the optimism of America’s rising professional middle class, but its historical sociology may be more involved. Persons consciously or unconsciously favoring this perspective claimed as their own the light classical repertoire, the better products of the musical theatre, and a number of tuneful and articulate standard concert works. Nurtured by radio, Hollywood, school and community music appreciation classes, and recordings, this audience would increase significantly and come to dominate the country’s musical taste in the twenty years following World War II, enthusiastically taking up original motion picture scores, orchestral popular arrangements, and, in part, modern jazz as well. The great age of ‘middle-brow’ music was at hand.
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