Examining how classical music began to separate itself from the mainstream cultural consciousness.
by Drew McManus
December 6, 2004
For decades now, cultural journalists have written about how classical music is no longer a part of the American cultural awareness. When groups of educated people get together they may talk about recent books they’re read, (historical biographies are all the rage these days), art, movies, and television; but discussion about classical music aren’t as common.
This article isn’t going to attempt to find out how classical music can work its way back into the American cultural consciousness so much as examine how it became removed.
In the first century of American development music was never a priority, American’s were cultural illiterates compared to their European cousins. It wasn’t until the latter half of the mid 19th century that large performing arts groups started to appear as purveyors of cultural entertainment.
And those ensembles weren’t orchestras; they were bands – brass bands in particular. There were numerous large band ensembles operating across the industrialized portion of the country. They performed a variety of music from popular opera selections to transcriptions of piano dance music to original compositions.
In a sense, they played everything from what is now considered as “traditional classical music” to pop tunes. This was also the time when the initial cracks of the “great divide” began to show on the surface of a burgeoning cultural consciousness.
A well-known Boston based music critic, John Sullivan Dwight, began a personal campaign to demonize brass bands in the minds of his readers. In his writings, he associates brass bands with “common people” and often refers to their repertoire as “street music”.
This attitude was adopted by many of his colleagues and by the late 19th century when ragtime and Vaudeville (later morphed into Broadway) music began to materialize as a venerable cultural force, the crack grew into a fracture. There was music for “them” and there was music for “us”, there was a legitimate and illegitimate world among the minds of cultural consumers.
But those that created culture were not a part of that train wreck - just yet.
European composers of the late romantic era were fascinated by some of the new “ethnic” sounds they were exposed to, provided by developments in technology and transpiration. After being exposed to ragtime music for the first time in 1900 (performed by the John Phillip Sousa band no less) Claude Debussy began to incorporate the same rhythmic elements into some of his piano compositions. When Antonin Dvorak traveled to America he was exposed to the harmonic tonality of Negro Spirituals which influenced his later work.
Individual events such as these began to conspire in a way that began to move traditional classical music into a new direction during the early part of the 20th century. However, those other forms of non traditional music began to evolve into something entirely different and altogether popular among the average American cultural consumer; jazz.
New ensembles began to specialize in the creation and performance of the multitude of jazz styles. Compared to their American brass band brass predecessors and the now established American symphonic orchestra industry, these new ensembles were much smaller; but (oddly enough) they were dubbed “big bands”.
Traditional classical music consumers and composers alike separated themselves from this popular new arts form. Many branded it as a simple music created for the common person regardless of the fact that it had undeniable roots in traditional classical music.
But the Euro-centric cultural mindset in America offered something the new art form desired; legitimacy. Most classical and jazz music enthusiasts are familiar with the landmark event in New York City where Benny Goodman performed on stage at Carnegie Hall in 1938 to an audience of traditional classical music enthusiasts to positive results, thus beginning the road to “legitimacy” (if you’re not, treat yourself and go get a copy of The Benny Goodman Story starring Steve Allen).
But it wasn’t long after that event when the very concept of legitimacy (whether or not the traditional Euro-based cultural constituency accepted a form of art) became illegitimate.
Traditional classical music continued to evolve at an exponential rate, much faster than the bulk of their traditional consumer group could keep up with. The emerging 12-tone compositional style was increasingly popular with composers even though listeners had difficulty accepting it. It was difficult to understand and required a great deal of additional study for an average educated listener to comprehend or appreciate.
As a result, the core of the classical music world – orchestras - began to program less of the new work composers were producing and instead relied on repertoire from the past. This event fractured the bulk of the constituents who comprised the center of the cultural consciousness.
Composers writing in traditional styles recoiled from 12-tone composers (and vice versa) and the same existed for music consumers. The only middle ground between the two was the growing number of educated musicians who went to work in the new motion picture based commercial music business. These talented artists, such as Carl Stallings, were capable of writing music in a variety of “legitimate” styles including traditional, jazz, 12-tone, and other forms of experimental music; but they found no legitimacy via acceptance from those now splintered camps of “legitimate” classical music.
And that’s basically where we are today, each of these segmented groups has continued to evolve (and create even more subsets such as rock music which has proven to be wildly popular among the average American) as a separate but related form of art; with none of them establishing any clear “leader” exerting control over legitimacy. As a result, a music based cultural consciousness, which has been coasting on historical momentum throughout the middle of the 20th century, ceased to exist by the 1980’s.
Where do we go from here? Is there a future for classical music? Good questions. I believe there is a bright future for all forms of classical music and they can regain a place at the “big table” of American cultural consciousness. But in order to do so, it is going to have to drop the illusion that they alone retain the right to bestow “legitimacy” on other forms of musical art.
It is going to have to fight side by side for a place in the minds and hearts of the American public. It won’t be an easy path to follow, but it isn’t impossible.
Postscript: As a conservatory trained musician in traditional Euro-centric classical music, I’ve made one distinct observation; the further any particular form of musical art evolves so as to become difficult enough to prevent being immediately comprehended, the more removed it becomes from the cultural consciousness.
Look at Jazz for example, it only took a few decades to evolve in complexity as to move from being the predominant form of popular music during the “big band” era to becoming a cultural niche. By comparison one of its offshoots, rock music, has remained readily accessible and at the forefront of cultural consumption (and therefore consciousness) for a much longer period of time.
Many rock music enthusiasts see jazz and traditional classical music in a nearly equal cultural position, whereas sixty years ago, jazz music was trying to legitimize itself to the classical music constituency. Funny how things work out, isn’t it?
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