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 Giovanni, 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.
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.