But as the 20th century progressed and popular music took over the lion's share of revenues from recordings (classical music probably represents around 3% of sales nowadays), lovers of classical music more and more recoiled against commercialism and called for government and private subsidies for classical music. How's that working out? Alex Ross has a post up praising Alec Baldwin for his work supporting the New York Philharmonic. He quotes Mr. Baldwin as saying government support of the arts should foster "freedom from the commercial considerations that so often compromise and eventually suffocate real art." But commercial considerations didn't seem to compromise and suffocate "real" art in the 15th, 16th, 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. Why now? One extreme way of putting it would be to say that the cult of romanticism, with its emphasis on the individual vision as being the only authentic truth in art, metamorphosed into the 20th century modernist ideology that the individual artist's evolutionary progression to greater and greater technical complexity means that the interests and likes of the audience are no longer of any importance. Therefore, if society wants 'real' art, it has to pay for it by subsidizing the avant-garde, even if no-one wants to listen to it.
That is put a little baldly, but it is not far from the truth. But now that seems to have faded. Just what is it that government and private donors are subsidizing at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting these days? With a hat tip to Alex Ross for the link, here is what is on the menu:
PBS OFFERS MUSIC AND DANCE LOVERS
EXCITING NEW PERFORMANCE SPECIALS
THROUGHOUT MARCH AND APRIL
THE CLASH LIVE: REVOLUTION ROCK, PETER AND THE WOLF, JAMES TAYLOR,
MARTINA McBRIDE, SARAH BRIGHTMAN, ANDRE RIEU, JAMES LAST,
DANIEL O’DONNELL, HOLLYWOOD SINGING AND DANCING, THE HIGH KINGS,
MY MUSIC: MY GENERATION – THE 60S, SHANGRI-LA and More
James Last, for pete's sake? Something seems to have gone horribly wrong somewhere!
I suppose PBS has decided that this is what their demographic wants to hear. To put it baldly again, the recipients of public money for the arts seem to ultimately end up being those who know how to play the game. The professional grant-appliers, the experts at seeming, the fakers, the coldly ambitious. The public rarely seems to get their money's worth. The programming shown above features the popular music of one or two generations ago, which is still loved by the aging boomers. Why does this need to be subsidized?
The logical conclusion is that aesthetic worth and commercial worth are not on a see-saw and neither imply nor exclude one another. Neither giving money, nor withholding it will guarantee anything. Beethoven's music has been a commercial success for two hundred years, but that does not mean it is bad music. The music of the total serialists of the 1940s to 1960s has never been a commercial success, but that does not mean it is good music.
Here is a little example. Beethoven's last string quartet in F major, op 135 is justly admired as a musically great work. But the last movement is famous for its joke about a sometime patron named Ignaz Dembscher who failed to pay his dues for the premiere of the quartet op 130. When Dembscher wished to borrow the parts for that piece, Beethoven refused unless he paid up. Dembscher wailed “do I have to?” (“Muss es sein?!”). Beethoven responded by writing a canon on the phrase “yes, you must!” (“Es muss sein!”) and sending it to Dembscher. A falling and rising three note phrase standing for Dembscher's question is used as the theme for the slow introduction to the last movement of op 135. The quick section of the movement starts with the answer: "yes, you must!" That second theme, rising then falling, appears at the 1:18 mark in this performance:
For Beethoven, there was no contradiction between making money and making music. Commercialism need not affect the quality of his compositions. If it does affect the music of other musicians to the point that it seems they are merely pandering to the audience, then that would seem to be a problem with the musicians and not with commercialism as such.
I'm just waiting for Elliot Carter to send me a canon on the theme "stop writing about my music!"