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).
Virtuoso violinist Joshua Bell (did you see the movie Red Violin? that was him playing) played classical violin pieces in a Washington DC Metro subway station during morning rush for three quarters of an hour. He played some of the most difficult and greatest violin pieces ever composed. Over 1000 people walked past him. How many stopped? How much did he get paid? Guess. Read the piece. I don't want to tell you.