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Classical Disconnect

Examining how classical music began to separate itself from the mainstream cultural consciousness.

by Drew McManus
December 6, 2004

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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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Frank Manheim from Fairfax VA writes:
May 1, 2005
McManus's essay focuses on the tragic disconnect between audiences and the music establishment. Let me articulate some conclusions from a no compromise audience perspective, for which I've done considerable background study in the past ten years.

In the early 20th Century all the arts underwent a cataclysmic transformation. Professionals and leaders in the field of poetry abandoned rhyme (and often reason as well). Composers explored every possible way to avoid traditional tonality, harmony, and rhythm. Sculptors and painters abandoned representational art in favor of the abstract or distorted representation, writers began experimenting with stream-of-consciousness, disconnected prose, and filmmakers explored the bizarre, surreal, and shocking.

Why would artists in all these genres throw away the heritage of the past and with it their connections with the general public?

With respect to music, from the beginnings in the 20th Century and until the present day, general music audiences have never more than tolerated contemporary music - perhaps because of their desire to keep up with the times, not be be seen as philistines, or their hope that something genuinely enjoyable would emerge. Attempts to immerse large audiences in avante-garde music (like the ill-fated venture of Pierre Boulez with the N.Y. Phiharmonic) almost invariably triggered a mass exodus of audiences from concert halls.

Except possibly for Jacques Barzun's The Use and Abuse of Art, and his recent, very gloomy and excessively intellectual From Dawn to Decadence, I really don't know of any in-depth contemporary discussion of the reasons for and ramifications of the wholesale dumping of artistic principles that characterized human art from the pinnacles of achievement in the past four centuries, back to the Solutrean cave artists of 20,000 years ago.

It is well documented that for some early 20th Century composers atonal music symbolized a revolutionary break with the existing order - i.e. was a metaphor for political or social revolution. In fact, before the Comintern, the international coordinating organ for the Communist Party, formally changed its position and ennobled folk music in the 1930's, it had approved radical musical trends, such as the atonal workers' songs enthusiastically embraced by American composer and leftist, Charles Seeger and fellow intellectuals in New York City of the 20s. Folk music was then regarded as primitive and allied with outmoded social models by Marxist-oriented musicians and activists.

Many modern composers like Aaron Copland had strong leftist sympathies in the 1920s. However, an additional, perhaps even more important urge to demolish the old musical structures seems to be associated with futurist concepts, which became a philosophically important trend at the turn of the century. My father, Ernest Manheim, a composer himself, put it this way: The future is unknown to us. If we want to evoke the future, we obviously cannot use structures that are familiar and remind us of the past. We have to create sounds that are unfamiliar and will open us to new ideas, new developments.

The futurist influence had a dual bite. While it encouraged radical experimentation that diverged from past models, it also placed a stigma on musical composition that pleased audiences. Almost by definition, such music had to be “derivative”, could not be deep, have real substance, and be interesting.

Young conservatory students interested in composition were widely encouraged to pursue fashionable technical systems like serial (atonal) composition, which posed formidable challenges and thus provided a test of their technical qualifications in music composition. But whatever they did, music that communicated or appealed to general audiences was unacceptable.

Frederick Hand (later a film and crossover composer) started out in composition at the conservatory. When he realized that what he wanted to do would be completely unacceptable, he switched to guitar performance major. He only resumed composition interests after getting his degree.

The influence of futuristic influences opened up a huge and unbridgeable gulf between professional artistic classes (composers and artists, critics, and a restricted circle of aficionados) and the general public. Only a few bold music writers like Henry Pleasants, Nicolaus Harnoncourt, and Nicolas Tawa have dared spell out the realities in all their starkness. Namely, the new movements had very little to do with creating beauty, works that could be enjoyed esthetically, express emotions, inspire, console, bring joy or incite to the dance or any of the other attributes of earlier music production. Their role was more philosophical, political or self-actualizing in terms of the technical potential of the individual artist.

One school of composers, among whom I place Schoenberg and his pupils, Babbit, Messiaen, Stockhausen, early Aaron Copland, Sessions, Carter et al, placed great emphasis on technical knowledge and skill for the elaboration of composition. Another completely opposite school, led by John Cage, either abandoned any rules altogether (aleatoric or random noise production), or let musical sounds be created by abstract mathematical means.

What did these schools have in common? Rejection of anything that could possibly appeal to the general music lover, who had no philosophic or technical musical stake in these revolutionary developments.

The split was aggravated by the fact that the professional artistic class was accepted as the arbiter of taste and standards by European and American academic institutions and by governments (whose funding bodies were advised by the academic/artistic elites).

Now, let's fast forward to the last 20 years. By the 1980s the older aggressively avante garde music had fallen out of favor. Serialism was declared “dead” by New York times music critic Harold Schonberg. Although electronic music continued to attract a special following, “mainstream” composition now gravitated toward neoromanticism, minimalism, and other styles that were less openly cacophonic, and at times contained interesting sound combinations and instrumental devices, virtuosic passages, and crowd-pleasing closings. Minimalism sounded wholly conventional - the required irrational or odd element being its exaggerated pattern of repetition, plus an often highly-developed elaboration of the two-level principle of composition. There was a superficial, externally accessible musical level, and a deeper, highly technical level, that demonstrated the composer’s technical virtuosity to peers.

Where I differ from some my professional fellow enthusiasts for audience empowerment is that the futurist tabu on music whose prime object is to communicate remains intact. Thus, composers like Harbison, Corigliano, and Adams, who are widely regarded as “audience friendly” may embrace musical styles no more extreme than late Liszt, Janacek, or even Mahler. However, whereas their music continually builds conventional expectations and may contain creatively pleasing effects at times, they always veer away from any melodic, harmonic, l or rhythmic turns that would excite audiences and be immediately stigmatized by critics as pandering to popular taste.

When one peels away special conditions of performance, and other factors, the former composers hold no more appeal to average music lovers than did Schoenberg, Bartok, or Stravinsky at their most astringent.

In short, I conclude that to truly “reconnect”, it won’t work to just seek music that is more likable by audiences, for such composers as have interest in communication will continue to be penalized. The most talented will either move toward academe, or drop out of composition, until the fundamental intellectual and philosophical ideal of an abstract artistic integrity that is judgeable by professionals and independent of audiences is challenged and dethroned. Then we can enjoy a real renaissance in classical music and reconnection with young people.

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