Most of the composers who explored new sonic worlds in the aftermath of World War II are still only occasional inserts–like speed bumps–into programming in the old sonic box of the concert hall (although many of them found their way into the music of popular bands, from the Beatles in the ’60s to Radiohead today). To rephrase: Selective history is bunk. More than half a century of music is rarely heard.
But as more than a few blog readers have mentioned during these recent posts–so you program more 20th and 21st century music. Who’s gonna come? Sure, the more contemporary repertoire of the Pulitzer Arts Foundation Chamber Series sells out, but that’s a little more than 100 seats–and usually it’s the same 100 music lovers. You don’t see orchestras programming around the theme of “Music of the 20th Century.” Rather, it’s “Music of Vienna” (the St. Louis Symphony did this too, but at least included Schoenberg, Berg and Zemlinsky–and no, these did not sell better than Beethoven).
Some orchestras choose to separate the new and kinda new music into a series separate from the “classical” series. David Robertson integrates the old and new, locating bridges between the music, just as there are human bridges between old and new. Audiences are encouraged to hear connections between Mozart and Lutoslawksi, Tchaikovsky and James MacMillan. History can be what history should be–a way of understanding ourselves in the now, and with the present reshaping the past.
No one ever breaks from history. Not Henry Ford, not Chuck Berry, not Beethoven. But it is possible to disenthrall ourselves from it, if we choose. It is often how great art is made, and known.
Amidst the catastrophes of the 20th century, a lot of composers went one way and a lot of audiences went another. For many composers, the music of the 19th century served as a perverse soundtrack to the horrors. Beethoven’s “Not these sounds!” included the sounds of Beethoven. Maybe the music was culpable, along with the people who insisted on its dominion. How to make music out of the wreckage and mayhem? Who are you making the music for? Is a mass audience even desirable?
Many composers began to explore new sonic worlds that weren’t all that comforting to hear. Many audiences turned to their transistor radios and listened to Chuck Berry sing “Roll Over Beethoven.”
You know the cliche, those who do not know the past are doomed to repeat it. In classical music, those who know nothing but the past are doomed to remain in it.
What happened? A golden age of classicism and romanticism became a party nobody wanted to leave. Beethoven was the measure of all things–even though Beethoven himself was making music that responded to changes in the world. Beethoven was the early 19th century shock of the new. When “O Friends! Not these sounds!” is sung in his final symphony, it is a call to a new music for a new time. Beethoven was not interested in becoming a monument. Just listen to his late music–he’s becoming the new Beethoven.
The Shock of the New
But people want to hear what they want to hear, or to what they’ve grown accustomed. The radical new music of the 19th century becomes fixed, a tradition, a barricade against change. Then other people want to revolt against that. Stravinsky happens. Schoenberg happens. And the world happens: world wars, revolutions, recordings, radio, cinema, television, jazz, rock & roll, the internet, mobile phones.
The concert hall, for some, becomes a sanctuary from all this–a place to hear Beethoven while the sirens blare outside. For others, it loses relevance–an art form out of time, out of mind.
So in terms of contemporary music, most American orchestras have barely caught up with the Beatles of A Hard Day’s Night, as if Sgt. Pepper, the White Album, Abbey Road, all the Fab Four post-Beatle work–All Things Must Pass, “Imagine,” Wings–never existed. But more critically, the changes in music and everything else over the last 50 years or so are barely reflected in what’s being heard on stage. Orchestras are still working in the age of manual typewriters and phone booths.
And that’s being generous. By and large, if the world outside the concert hall was the same as what’s being played inside, patrons would be arriving by carriage. At least we wouldn’t have to tell people to turn off their cell phones. History is more than bunk, it has transformed the concert hall into a bunker, a time capsule that barely lets in Copland and Bernstein. If classical music were literature, we would stop with Dickens, Hardy and the Russians.
When Henry Ford said “History is bunk,” it’s not too hard to figure out why he thought so. Ford was propelling the world into the future via the automobile and the assembly line. He could not afford the drag of history. As the song goes: “Everything today is thoroughly modern…. Everything today makes yesterday slow.” In the early part of the 20th century, people like Diaghilev and Stravinsky thought so too. “Make it new” is the modernist directive.
“Everything today is thoroughly modern.” Sutton Foster in “Thoroughly Modern Millie”
Classical music programming is guided by the directive “keep it old.” Most people agree that history isn’t bunk–history supplies us with perspectives and lessons of great value as we hurtle into the future. But when history becomes the primary determinant for what is done in the present, the results are the Model T ain’t gonna run, the plane ain’t gonna fly, Nijinsky ain’t gonna dance.
Even the most “adventurous” American orchestras today, the St. Louis Symphony among them, program only a smattering of works that have been composed in the last 50 years. American orchestras have barely caught up with the early Beatles.
Tuesday morning radio featured a discussion of the Future of Classical Music on the Diane Rehm Show. Tuesday evening radio features a live broadcast of the National Youth Orchestra of the USA from Carnegie Hall. David Robertson conducts. Gil Shaham plays Britten’s Violin Concerto. Also on the program: Bernstein’s Symphonic Dances from West Side Story, Samuel Adams’ Radial Play (a Carnegie commission) and Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. Robertson and Shaham will be touring with the National YO across the U.S. this summer, with St. Louis Symphony Youth Orchestra alumnus Sean Byrne in the viola section. You can tune at at 7pm Central Time via http://bit.ly/1u7RIb0.
David Robertson and Gil Shaham in rehearsal with the NYO-USA.
Tuesday morning on the Diane Rehm Show you can hear a discussion on The Future of Classical Music with guests Alex Ross, Greg Sandow, Orli Shaham and Fred Bronstein, former prez of the St. Louis Symphony and current dean of the Peabody Institute. Tune in at 10am Central Time on St. Louis Public Radio.
Orli Shaham plays Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1 with the St. Louis Symphony in November. Photo credit Christian Steiner
I will delay my anti-history screed to wish David Robertson a happy birthday. Saturday is the actual day. Thanks for making history with the St. Louis Symphony since your first concert with the orchestra in 1999.
David Robertson when he was brand new. Photo credit: Michael Tammaro
With the storming of the Bastille recently celebrated, I thought this to be a good time for some provocation. Mid-July, as the French established, calls for mind and manners to be stirred up, rebelled against, or at the very least confronted.
Proposition: Classical music is mired in history. Even the name, “classical music” comes from a brief sliver of the music’s history, and yet it continues to burden our understanding, appreciation and recognition of that music in the present. Moreover, one cannot enjoy a “classical” music performance without a past performance intruding on the present—even when, especially when, that performance was heard by someone a few chairs over. “Oh, yes, this was good, but back in the ’70s Maestro Magnifico did it better.” The present experience is thus diminished by the rude interruption of the past.
I can’t think of an art form more burdened by history. Visual art, movies, literature, pop music—the question is always “What’s new?” In classical music, “Why aren’t you playing Schubert this season?” We are stuck on the oldies station.
Henry Ford, ca. 1919
So for mid-summer provocation, “La Marseillaise” in our heads, let’s consider an idea of history and how it might apply to classical music. It comes from Henry Ford: “History is bunk.”
Returning to the office after a lengthy vacation, I first went at the e-mail, making use of the delete button enthusiastically–except for those messages from Symphony musicians who left me their lists of Hot Picks for 1415.
It has become an annual summer ritual, in which I ask the musicians to tell me which concerts they are most eagerly anticipating. I try to catch them before they go to festivals in Aspen and Sun Valley and other magical summer places. Their responses are always illuminating.
Here are the top 5 picks of the 1415 season according to the musicians who are playing the music:
St. Louis Symphony musicians look forward to opening the 1415 season with Yefim Bronfman. Photo credit: Oded Antman
1) Rite of Spring – Feb 27-Mar 1
2) Opening Weekend – Sep 12-13
3) Mozart Sinfonia concertante/Shostakovich 8 – Apr 10-11
4) Prokofiev 5 – Sep 27-28 & Symphonie fantastique – Oct 17 & 19 (tie)
5) Schumann Cello/Mahler Das Lied von der Erde – Nov 22-23