I did an interview with a reporter from Minnesota Public Radio yesterday exploring the difficulties being faced by the Minnesota Orchestra and the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra. After a thorough dissection of the mistakes that led up to this current mess with both orchestras, and much of the classical music industry thereto, I have come to one undeniable conclusion – it’s Schoenberg’s fault.
Here’s the awful truth – from a layperson’s point of view the music of the Dodecaphonists is just plain ugly. Here’s the first corollary to that truth – that particular conclusion, on the part of the lay public, has not changed in the past 100 years!!!
No matter how you slice it when it comes to our paying public the vast majority of them simply do not like the music of the Second Viennese School. Frankly, I can’t blame them. Now before you all start baying at the moon about how I don’t understand this music I’d like to mention that I voluntarily took 3 graduate level classes in 20th Century music theory. I’m a nerd. Back in the day I could run tone rows into their retrograde-inversion faster than most people could do simple addition. I knocked off a basic structural analysis of the first of Berg’s 3 Pieces for Orchestra in under 2 hours. As I said, I’m a nerd. But I find this music to be completely soulless and, yes, ugly. And I’m someone who has an understanding of it. Imagine how Josephine Average feels.
From the perspective of Ms. Average this music does not seem to speak to most people’s souls. Whether that’s the fault of the people or the music I shall leave to a different discussion. But take Le Sacre du Printemps – it’s old hat now and people are excited to hear it. Bartok? Do a cycle of the 6 quartets, or program the Concerto for Orchestra, and the audience will jump to their feet. Ives? Despite still being a 100 years ahead of his time there’s something…….. enticing…. about his music that people can latch on to. There are dozens of composers from the last 100 years who started off being viewed as avant garde that today are part of the accepted canon. Not played as much as Beethoven, certainly, but played and appreciated to the point that their music won’t send audiences screaming to the car park. But announce that your next season will have a heavy focus on the 2nd Viennese School and watch your subscription renewals drop like a paralyzed falcon.
There is much room for argument here, but I posit that the concept of elitism in classical music really took hold in the late 1940s through 1970s, despite the best efforts of egalitarians like Bernstein. Prior to that time the middle class had firmly embraced classical music. A large portion of American households had a piano and it was considered de rigueur for everyone who aspired to be middle class (or higher) to have some music education.
Then the postwar era hit, and suddenly classical music was…… ugly. And very, very unhip, Bernstein & company excepted. Along came jazz, bebop, rock’n’roll, and the accessibility of these musical forms left classical music in the dust. Is it a coincidence that during this time the Dodecaphonists ruled the roost, and that if you were a composer going through a college degree program you couldn’t even try to sneak a melody past your doctoral thesis board without being ridiculed? In the width and breadth of this mighty land the universities and colleges during this era were the bastions of the Dodecaphonists. All other music, especially anything with a melody, was old fashioned and derivative. Goodness, as late as 1991 I heard a university professor at USC bemoan the fact that Leonard Bernstein wasted so much time writing music that had, godforbid, jazzy overtones. His rant was disparaging in the extreme, and to the end of my days it will be one of my greatest regrets that I didn’t immediately walk up to him and kick him squaw in the nuts, pardon my Swahili.
Every time there is a crisis involving an orchestra you can bet the local newspaper mentions something about how elitist classical music is. Unfortunately, some of that may be correct. But a lot of it isn’t. Indeed, amongst musicians I have found precious little racism, sexism, or outright bigotry. There have been particular instances (we are human), but in general musicians don’t care much. Personally, the only thing I care about is: can you play your axe?!?! Past that it wouldn’t bother me if you were some godless 3 eyed mutant from Mars. Just play in tune and in time, fergodsakes, and please at least pretend to look at me when I give a downbeat.
But our paying public is different. One of the main reasons why they perceive us as being elitist is that they don’t understand how in the world we do what we do. For them playing a violin is alchemy! Give them a violin and it would be a miracle on the level of the loaves and fishes if one in ten even held it the right way. Then, starting in 1945, for at least two full generations those few Joe and Josephine Averages who actually were interested in classical music were constantly subjected to music that they just …….. loathed. There is no other way to put it. Of course, whenever they objected to hearing it they were told “Well, you obviously just don’t understand! (Sniff!!!).” And we wonder why the public views classical music as elitist?
Full disclosure – I do on rare occassion run into people who claim to be huge fans of Schoenberg, Webern, Berg, and their proponents. I am always surprised and mystified when this happens, but it does happen. Obviously these people find something in the music that the rest of us fail to grasp a hold of. Either that or they are completely deluding themselves. Once again – discussion for another day. None-the-less, they are a very, very, very small (and vocal) minority of the audience I deal with regularly.
Second corollary to the truth mentioned at the beginning of this post – Mr. and Mrs. Joe and Josephine Average are the people who pay our bills, and if we are intent on alienating them by programming music that makes them want to look up and emulate the art of Seppuku, then sooner or later said alienation is going to come home to roost. Or, more likely, that time is right now, in the form of the continuing paralyzing disaster that seems to have encompased a good chunk of the orchestral industry, characterized by the distinct ambivalence of the middle class to the fate of orchestras throughout this country.
Me, I’m going to go listen to some King Crimson. Much more interesting than the 2nd Viennese school ….. and better lyrics.