2010 September 16 Thursday
Heather Mac Donald: Classical Music's Modern Golden Age

Heather says great works got no respect in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Anyone inclined to lament the state of classical music today should read Hector Berlioz’s Memoires. As the maverick French composer tours mid-nineteenth-century Europe conducting his revolutionary works, he encounters orchestras unable to play in tune and conductors who can’t read scores. A Paris premiere of a Berlioz cantata fizzles when a missed cue sets off a chain reaction of paralyzed silence throughout the entire sorry band. Most infuriating to this champion of artistic integrity, publishers and conductors routinely bastardize the scores of Mozart, Beethoven, and other titans, conforming them to their own allegedly superior musical understanding or to the narrow taste of the public.

Much better stuff got written during a time when the composers were less heard and less respected.

A twenty-first-century music lover plunged into the concert world of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries would find himself in an alien land, surrounded by strange customs and parochial tastes. Works that we now regard as formally perfect were dismembered: only a single movement of a work’s full three or four might ever be performed, with the remaining movements regarded as inessential. Musical forms, such as the sonata, that are central to contemporary performance practice were kept out of the concert hall, considered too difficult for the public to absorb. And the universal loathing directed by today’s audiences at the hapless recipient of a mid-performance cell-phone call would have struck eighteenth-century audiences as provincial, given the widespread use of concerts and opera as pleasant backdrops for lively conversation.

Heather says that 19th century audiences were obsessed with what was new. So great pieces that were not brand new were ignored. On the bright side, great pieces were getting composed. That compares favorably to today.

Today the quality of performers is enormously improved.

he caliber of musicianship also marks our age as a golden one for classical music. “When I was young, you knew when you heard one of the top five American orchestras,” says Arnold Steinhardt, the first violinist of the recently disbanded Guarneri Quartet. “Now, you can’t tell. Every orchestra is filled with fantastic players.” Steinhardt is ruthless toward his students when they’re preparing for an orchestra audition. “I’ll tell them in advance: ‘You didn’t get the job. There are 250 violinists competing for that place. You have to play perfectly, and you sure didn’t play perfectly for me.’ ”

The ability to record performances has made a much bigger difference than the huge improvement in performance quality. Most music listening isn't done to live performances. With recordings many more people can hear the music and at very low cost. You can go online and hear great performances. Go to YouTube and type in the name of any great musical piece. Here's part of Antonin Dvorak's Symphony Number 9 "From the New World" (composed in Spillville Iowa of all places).

Share |      By Randall Parker at 2010 September 16 10:36 PM  Culture Appreciation

adam said at September 16, 2010 11:57 PM:

I went to see this show tonight. Márquez's Danzón No. 2 was incredible, and the rest of the program was quite good as well. Earlier this summer I got to see Mahler's Resurrection. Both free shows. I love that I can see one of the world's greatest orchestras so often, and for free.

And every Sunday I can hear incredible jazz over at the Hungry Brain for free. Last weekend I got a lovely dose of experimental electronic music at Sonar, including Ben Frost, also for free. This really is a golden age for music of all kinds.

Wolf-Dog said at September 17, 2010 6:52 PM:

In the future all textbooks and music will be available on the Internet at very affordable prices for even the poorest individuals. The next step, for the governments of the world, is to provide free housing and food and electricity for all citizens, and so that every human being can enjoy the culture and music available on the Internet. Remember, it takes at least $20,000 to keep an inmate in prison. Thus it should not be difficult in this modern century for governments to design robots to build very efficient studio apartments for all citizens, with minimum food and electricity included, with an Internet connection to access all culture and music.

sg said at September 18, 2010 1:14 PM:

Wolf Dog,

When it is all free, what will the status symbol be? A thin body? That will be the rarest thing of all!

Peter A said at September 19, 2010 10:03 AM:

Honestly, you probably have no idea whether or not great pieces are being composed. Where would you hear them? How would you find out? There may well be 15 modern Mozarts running around in Moscow, Madrid and Milwaukee. The issue is more that no one cares. For all complaining, Berlioz (and Beethoven and Mozart) had their dedicated fanboys to keep interest in their works alive. A genius modern composer, should he exist, would probably have a hard time playing the political games and currying to the academic tastes of the week. And outside academia there is almost no one willing to listen to new orchestral music - most hard core classical fans, as you note, prefer their recordings.

Randall Parker said at September 19, 2010 11:32 AM:

Peter A,

But YouTube and similar distribution channels make it easier to hear new stuff as well. I've gotten friends asking me to listen to some new composed piece. I sometimes listen to late 20th century compositions on a classical radio station that occasionally plays them. I'm struck by how bad they are.

Granted, there could be unknown geniuses. But I can find plenty of known living very non-geniuses who compose.

I'm willing to go listen to something promising if you want to share a link...

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