Friday, May 23, 2008

The 1750 Hit Parade

A nifty review in the Wall Street Journal of The Great Transformation of Musical Taste by William Weber points out that our taste for great classics in concert hall music is rather modern. Up until the mid-1800s, concert programs were primarily composed of recent works by living composers:
Until the early 19th century, Mr. Weber says, no body of European music was viewed as innately superior to any other. Concerts displayed a variety of tastes and styles and rarely featured esteemed composers or particular genres. Having studied hundreds of concert programs spanning several decades, Mr. Weber tells us that the typical 18th-century public performance featured a miscellany of opera overtures, arias, concertos and ensemble numbers – all by living composers. "Variety is the soul of a concert," one pundit pronounced. Mozart's father advised him that success lay in keeping his compositions "short, easy and popular."
What happened to music?
Over the course of the 19th century, Mr. Weber shows, thinkers and commentators came to regard music not so much as a mode of entertainment as a source of truth. Their idealism was of a piece with the views of Shelley, Ruskin and Coleridge, who argued for the higher social purpose of art and literature. The Italian political leader Giuseppe Mazzini demanded that opera serve "art and Christian principle," not base commercialism.

Berlioz and Schumann put forth their own ideas of music as a form of moral responsibility, even suggesting that the world would be a better place if it were run by musicians...
I can think of nothing that would kill the pleasure of music faster than making it moral responsibility. Of course, modernist composers didn't help themselves:
The list of canonical works grew during the late 19th century and early 20th. Naturally, new works entered the repertory, but less frequently. The audience preference for the old intensified into an outright dislike of the new when craggy modernist dissonance started competing for public attention with lush, late-romantic harmonies. Think only of the howls of rage that greeted the works by Schönberg and Stravinsky in the 1910s and 1920s.

Thus the canon became a form of resistance to a turn in concert programming that, with some exceptions, never captured the public's affection. In a sense, we inhabit this world today. Mr. Weber is not a moralist and does not claim that, by preferring Tchaikovsky to, say, the current-day atonalist Charles Wuorinen, we are philistines or reactionaries. But he does show that the dead did not always reign supreme over our conception of the great and the good. And he leaves us to conclude that they need not do so now...
So all that 1950s uproar over Rock 'n Roll being the unworthy music was a middle-brow echo of the musical shifts in the 1800s.

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