Here Lies the Orchestra, Part 2

In retrospect, my description of the orchestra industry in a prior post as “zombie-like” accords it undue credit. It hasn’t died to have achieved the miracle (or misfortune) of resurrection, even if it often resembles the walking dead. “Rasputin-like” doesn’t quite cover it either, since the wounds of the sector are almost entirely self-inflicted, contrary to what it might claim.

Really, the lie of “we serve the community” isn’t the most atrocious modern untruth of the classical orchestral industry. It’s simply a necessary product of two other deeply vested lies that continue to be told:

  • Classical Music used to be popular
  • Classical Music was at one point sustainable

When I expose these statements for the falsehoods they are at the beginning of semester in front of my “Music and Society” class at UNC Charlotte, it normally raises more than a few eyebrows. Here’s an orchestral conductor, apparently steeped in both the aisthētikos and ethos of classical music and all its industry trappings, publicly disavowing the genre. Not at all. I make no apologies for my affinity for this one particular art form, I’m also just ruthlessly honest about it.

That said, it’s easy to be deceived. When looking at the evidence, the lie of classical music’s past popularity becomes quite credible – precisely because until the advent of the LP, there’s precious little evidence of anything else. All the published sheet music that was retained, most of the recordings up until the 1950s, and even historical text accounts of music making activity focus almost solely on classical traditions. The near complete absence of any other genre would lead the casual observer to believe that it never happened, in a simple conflation of “not documented” with “not existing.”

But it did exist, and we know it did, because there is evidence within the classical tradition if you’re willing to look for it. Bach took time out of his elevated jobs in Leipzig to write the mini comic opera better known as the Coffee Cantata to be performed at Zimmerman’s café. In a scene from Don 23dootGiovanni, Mozart has the title character entertained by a little wind ensemble during his dinner. The musicians cheekily quote from some of the most famous operas of the day (including Marriage of Figaro.  The vignette would have made perfect sense to audiences familiar with these little itinerant wind groups on Viennese street corners. When the well of opera commissions from the aristocracy dried up in the late 1780’s, as the Austrian nobility were compelled to finance a pointless war with the Ottomans, Mozart accepted a commission from a hustler named Schikaneder to write a musical theatre piece for the very active middle to sub-middle class music scene. The result was the Magic Flute, which might be described as the Michael Bay opera of the late 1700s for its special effects, action sequences and sensationalist plot lines. The English Patient of Operas it is not. Long before Bartók and Vaughan Williams were conducting their musical ethnographies of their respective nations, the Czech composer Dvorák wrote two dance suites, a string quartet and a symphony inspired by, if not actively quoting, folk music drawn from his immediate environs.

But as I pointed out, even the folk music examples exist through the selective lens of the self-proclaimed highest degree of art of the day, which may be the only reason they were preserved. Perhaps not “preserved” but “fossilized”, given how there must have been 100 distinct variants of a single folk tune over 100 miles. A good example is the wax cylinder recording of the English folk song “The Banks of Green Willow” in the British Library. The singer alters rhythm and pitches (perhaps unintentionally) on every verse, a flexibility of expression in the tune that was captured by Butterworth in his Idyll, yet rendered immutable by Vaughan Williams in his English Folk Song Suite. 

The ugly truth is that before the end of the 19th Century, preservation of music was the prerogative of those who had the means, or the patrons, to publish in print. That meant either the nobility, or the clergy, with publications naturally reflecting the preferences of those classes. The examples of Bach and Mozart above were preserved precisely because they were by Bach and Mozart. There must have been thousands of works written for the popular theatres, street corners, cafés, parlor gatherings, music to be performed in village squares or pubs that was either written out once, then lost forever, or never written at all, living in the minds and traditions of the musicians who conceived it and played it.

The Epitaph of Seikilos

Consider: from the Epitaph of Seikilos, the physical object itself a work of art, to the sole surviving musical score of the Trobairitz, to the innumerable pages printed using some evolution of Petrucci’s moveable type for music, all these examples speak to the financial weight behind them. It was only late in the 1800s that print production became so cost effective that the sheet music industry swamped the market, devaluing their products to the point of crisis. (The MP3 of the 1890’s?)

Recorded sound was no different. If only the wealthy could afford audio technology, then the media produced would reflect their cultural aspirations or preferences. Until the advent of the LP, a technology that could be accessed by a much larger market, the focus was on classical music as the only genre “worth preserving.”

Through the simple affect of economics, the lie was constructed. The music of the 2% was documented as the only music, therefore the music to which 98% more of the population should aspire. Then as sound bypassed print, digital inevitably triumphed over analog, and the means of production fell into the hands of the working class (deliberate reference), the façade collapsed and symphonies started collapsing with it.

As to sustainability, I cannot recall a single orchestra or orchestra industry throughout history not propped up by public or private means. When the Royal Philharmonic Society was started in London in 1813, the specific intention of the founding musicians was that they would play for the elite only. This business plan didn’t even last to the end of the decade. Orchestras of the era existed as a cultural extension of noblesse oblige, or funded by the church to enhance worship.  With the disappearance of the aristocracy the burden has fallen on governments at all levels in Europe and Canada, and on the American rich. It is a mantle they are actively trying to shake off.

The heyday of American orchestra sustainability was that period between WWII and the late 1970 when most ensembles in the nation were amateur. The process of professionalism was the process of exclusion, when music engagement moved from the participatory to the transactional. Music was no longer something to be made, it was something to be bought, and it then priced itself out of its own market.

The lies are shifting now. The newest is “We can become sustainable with your help,” which almost always refers to endowments rather than innovation. The plea is made to governments and citizens alike accompanied with the threat of collapse for non-compliance, and sadly, both are often willing victims of the blackmail, and thus the music of the 2% is funded over many other traditions.

I’m a conductor of an orchestra. My orchestra is state funded, and I’m employed by a state institution, so I view myself as a civil servant. I consider it is my duty and obligation to serve the citizens of this state, which is why I give extensively of my time to the public schools, pro-bono, and I encourage a culture of active service in the ensemble.  If orchestras demand public support, then the condition should be that their musicians be public servants, catalysts for a wider community of music making, not acolytes of a deified institution conducting ceremonies at the central temple on weekends.

2 thoughts on “Here Lies the Orchestra, Part 2

  1. I didn’t know Fortworth, TX had a symphony. Thought it was all happening in Dallas.

    In Orange County, CA it is not exactly classical that is happening on the weekends when the larger crowds are available. Maybe they squeeze some in between what people are paying for.

    Most Weekend performances are filled with the special guest performers which draw a following from Popular Entertainment TV personalities and top 40 musicians. If you want classical or chamber music you need to come on a workday night or school night. Not the most ideal time to bring children, youth or working parents for that matter. My main beef with the sustainability of keeping a Symphony working is that classical music gets the short end of the stick when it comes to scheduling.

    If you don’t have children or youth in the audience you are in trouble. Weekday nights for Classical keeps the audience filled with Senior citizens and single people. Even as a private music teacher who is required to teach evenings 5 days a week this is not the most workable scheduling for the chamber music which I could afford.

    Some of the profits from weekend concerts are combined with grants to provide for educational activities in the schools using smaller ensembles from the orchestra. Yet I feel they barely scratch the surface when it comes to educational and community outreach. I have been able to get free seats for underserved children from our Arts non-profit to go to their children’s programs on Saturday mornings which is aimed at elementary school age children and is not very accommodating for preschoolers and special needs children. The flashy new state of the art performing arts center is more accommodating to those with disabilities. It is located near the upscale regional mall in an arts complex next to the freeway and far from the underserved community that needs it most even though the Symphony’s rehearsal location is in the old courthouse located in the Center of this underserved community. ???

    The Arts High school got an enormous gift from a well-known patron for a huge state of the art dance complex on their campus. Most of the funding for this school goes into commercial arts and arts business. Can only hope that someone takes note of our need to have more functional classroom space for young musicians from the surrounding community. It would be nice to have adequate facilities for a central location for a community youth orchestra, so we wouldn’t need to send our students to other cities and organizations to get that experience. Doesn’t have to be as flashy as the dance center but it needs to be in an accessible location with good parking, multi-purpose functional community room, with soundproofing and secure for instrument storage and inventory.

    This week I had a flamenco dance class next to my PreTwinkle Violin class with Preschoolers who are distractable under the best conditions. Love our dance teacher to bits and hope to collaborate in the future. But I was dying for some soundproofing between me and our dance studio. logistics logistics. How to get more out of every inch of affordable classroom space on weekends for Classical Music in an underserved community. On Sat. mornings our String ensembles are elbow to elbow sharing space with 3 baby grands in the piano room. Some of our closets and the kitchen are all we have left for private lessons.

    Adequate, flexible facilities is a tiny twinkle in the eyes of our City Arts Commision but the vision from the prestigious county-wide Symphony is much narrower. We are not perceived as a viable future audience to invest in. We also drink coffee. But I think “Ballet of the Tamales” would be a hit.

  2. I have served as an orchestra director in public, private, and parochial schools there is much to overcome before even getting an instrument into the hands of students. Of the musical disciplines, it is the most expensive and least visible.

    Chorus – uses the voice that all children are given it is fiscally efficient and easily portable.

    Band – Starts students out on one instrument and they play that instrument throughout their career unless they decide to upgrade the quality of the instrument. Band also gets exposure on the football fields weekly, and where there is a football team, there is a band. The bigger the football team, the bigger the band. The more exposure and portability with an ensemble the more funding will be guaranteed in the future on the field and off.

    Orchestra – When starting on string instruments a student could possibly play a variety of sizes of the violin before growing into a full-size instrument. So, it would be possible in the course of a violinists career from 3rd grade to 12th they would need to play three possible sizes of violins. That would be three instruments to one student. Over time the inventory would turn over, but that would take up to 6 years for a full turn around to occur at great expense to a school system. String instruments are made of wood. Wood does not react well to changes in weather conditions; they do not travel as efficiently as brass instruments would.

    I believe these difficulties prove to be problematic when trying to produce and excite the volume of audience members needed for sustainability of the professional orchestras. We the directors are negotiating battles closest to our classrooms. If we cannot be afforded the same ease with which to gain the instruments, time and space for the running of our ensembles, then how precious few students will make it into the seats of the next level of the orchestra- let alone the seats of the audience?

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