Monday, July 19, 2010

TT Quote

Here's a snip from Terry Teachout's latest post:

Neville Cardus, the English music critic, spent World War II in Australia. Most Aussies then were well behind the cultural curve, and Cardus learned to his dismay that the centerpiece of the first concert he was to review for the Sydney Morning Herald was Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, the "Mona Lisa" of classical music. What could he possibly say about a warhorse he'd heard at least a hundred times?

That night, though, he glanced around the concert hall and realized that at least half ot the audience had never before heard a performance of Beethoven's Fifth. "To those Australians, in the Sydney Town Hall, the Fifth Symphony was a revelation," he later recalled. "I found this a tremendous inspiration....the concert was for me an illumination and living proof that there are no hackneyed masterpieces, only hackneyed critics."

Want to save it because it gets at the issue of specialists losing view of what I've started calling the "common touch" elements of music. There's more to it than just this, but part of it is that specialists have rewired their brains in so well that they perceive music and its effects differently than the hoi polloi, and often seem unaware of the unintended consequences of that situation.


  1. My father, listening on the radio in about 1941 to another hackneyed classic, Beethoven's 7th Symphony, was so bowled over by the Allegretto movement, starting with the basses, and gradually building up layer upon layer on top of almost nothing, that he decided on the spot that he wanted to learn a musical instrument in order to play music like that.

    He took up the clarinet and played it for the next 75 years until illness finally forced him to stop.

    Almost every performance involves somebody in the audience hearing a piece for the first time. I once took a girlfriend out to one of the BBC Promenade concerts in the Albert hall. She was Chinese, and was skilled in Chinese classical music, but knew little about western music. I deliberately chose a concert including an old warhorse of a piece (Tchaikovsky 5) and bought seats in the gallery where she would see the whole orchestra laid out below her. She was absolutely enthralled by it!

    Audiences for amateur concerts are often less musically informed than for concerts by professional orchestras. The audiences usually consist largely of the friends and families of the players, who are often turning up largely out of a sense of solidarity. It's part of the duty and the joy of amateur groups often to provide the first introduction (certainly the first live introduction) of some great pieces of music to their audiences.

  2. That story about your father is great. As to your last paragraph, for now I'm setting my sights on simply trying to get people out to hear live music of any kind. Those "great pieces of music" usually require specific instrumentation and a high level of technique. Places like London and university towns have the personnel to pull that off, but out in the countryside that's much more of a challenge. What I'm trying to do might be a stepping stone for some to move on to that higher level, but the main idea is to get more people making music at whatever level of technique they have.

  3. I wouldn't want to discourage you from trying to get more people making music at whatever level of technique they have. But don't think that sharing "great works" with your audience is beyond you just because you have a small and amateur group.

    Before the days of recordings, composers would re-arrange their works for all kinds of groups. Beethoven and Brahms for instance both did transcriptions of their symphonies for piano with 4 hands. Two of Mozart's great Wind Serenades were also arranged by the composer for other groups, one for string quintet and the other for a quartet of flute and strings. And the Beethoven Septet, one of the most famous chamber works of them all, has a version for trio of piano, violin and cello, and another version for string quintet.

    So don't feel shy about arranging any pieces you want for your group, including just individual movements or even fragments. This kind of reworking has a long and honorable history. And it helps to get people hearing live music!

  4. I've done some of that and am getting better at it - small pieces from Handel's Fireworks and Water Music, Purcell piano pieces, medieval and Renaissance tunes. Part of it is, though, audiences much prefer things like folk tunes, spirituals, Hank Williams and traditional jazz. Long term goal is to be able to slip some of the classical into the program once we've connected with the audience. We also need to play the classical with as much verve as we do the non-classical.

    It's my sense that the audience for what you're talking about has withered away some due to recorded music, and that the first priority needs to be reminding people of the difference between live and recorded music. Once that's done, it seems it'll be easier to encourage audiences to appreciate a broader range of genres.