Monday, September 14, 2015

A Brief Social History of Music

I wrote an answer to a comment the other day that got so out of hand that I think I would like to put it up as a post. This was in answer to a question about why so many people like things like EDM (electronic dance music). In trying to answer I had to review the recent history of the economics and reception of music:

I think that we can discern three stages of the reception of music since the 18th century. The first stage, up to the first quarter of the 19th century, is one where a very sophisticated aristocracy employed composers and musicians to provide music for their private enjoyment. The music-loving members of the aristocracy were very knowledgeable and provided patronage and employment for all the composers we know so well such as Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and all the lesser ones. The only other significant employer of composers in this period was the Church (who employed Bach for much of his career).

Then in the 19th and early 20th century the source of employment shifted from the aristocracy, who lost a great deal of their power and prestige following the French Revolution, to the middle class. They tended to synthesise the moral foundation of the lower class with aspirations to some of the refinements of the upper class, including the enjoyment of classical music. This period saw composers beginning to derive most of their income from publishing music, from public concerts and from teaching music. Chopin, for example, derived most of his income from giving private lessons in Paris. Most of the symphony orchestra concert series and the necessary concert halls were established in the 19th century. The newly prosperous middle class bought music and instruments (most middle class homes had a piano) in great quantity. The profession of the music critic also began as they also bought periodicals talking about music. At the very end of this period the gramophone was invented and people started purchasing recorded music.

In the 20th century much of this remained, such as the concert series, but other forces became important. Music in the 19th century was crafted to appeal to middle class tastes. A lot of it was considerably cruder than the more refined 18th century music. In the early 20th century a reaction to this occurred. I'm not sure if I can even give a complete explanation, certainly not in this brief note. But we start to see the artistic movement we call "modernism". Partly a reaction to the too-obvious tastes of the middle class and partly a reaction to the violence and inhumanity of the First World War, composers began to write much more acerbic and challenging music. They were, I suppose, composing for a new urban elite. In any case, as the century wore on, modern music became more and more difficult and had a smaller and smaller audience. Two other trends became important: popular music became a huge economic force and some of the classical music world "went retro" and began rediscovering older forms of music: Baroque and pre-Baroque.

I guess the conclusion I am leading to is that the function of music has changed radically. In the 18th century it was like a kind of conversation between people of considerable intellectual capacity. In the 19th century it became more sensationalistic and emotional. In the 20th century it fragmented into many different categories: some soothing, some challenging, some intellectually complex and some, like Calvin Harris and EDM, designed to function on a very basic level.

Shall we have examples of all three? Sure! First, 18th century refinement. This is the Piano Concerto no. 27 in B flat, K. 595 with Maria João Pires, piano and the Chamber Orchestra of Europe conducted by Trevor Pinnock:


Then some emotional and sensational 19th century music. This is the Symphony no. 7 in D minor, op. 70 by Dvořák. The Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra is conducted by John Eliot Gardiner:


Finally, hmm, well, there are so many different styles and genres in the 20th century... But let me pick one piece that at least draws on a few of those styles. This is Six Pianos by Steve Reich, which is a kind of be-bop minimalism:


22 comments:

Marc Puckett said...

So-- am adding this to my list of 'projects'-- am prompted by this to try to run down the 'history of record sales': in 1935 or 1940 (or whenever; there were sound recordings--45s or 78s or...-- then, right?) what proportion were of what we call 'classical music' and what proportion were 'other'-- jazz, I suppose, or 'Americana'-- the only person I can pull out of my memory is Stephen Foster--, perhaps but probably not Negro songs and spirituals.... Am thinking back to the country music, at the beginning of the 18th c, in Dickins: Mr N., a prosperous farmer in the context of the story so perhaps 'middle class' in a way, at Christmas and a wedding reception, had fiddlers, a 'bass', and some sort of horn- or flute- or recorder-player or players: they were playing 'country dances', carols etc, and not music of the court or Haydn etc. If there were sound recordings then, there'd be that genre, that of the Church, and of the courts. And one has read that in Appalachia you find surviving folk tunes from an even earlier period, which may have had some influence on... etc etc.

My guess is that a large proportion of the earlier sound recordings were of classical music, and then as the formerly poor became closer to 'the middle classes' and their parlor pianos-- although in 'the parlors', the music played was surely not Chopin all the time? and was as likely to be Oh Susanna--, the proportion of sound recordings devoted to classical music held high for a certain period of time: and then came the Second World War and at that point, due in part to those circumstances, the market for 'popular music' began to grow. But I'd like to see the historical record.

Bryan Townsend said...

Yes! This would be a great project--one for a doctoral candidate in musicology who likes archival research. Alas, most of them don't! To do it properly would involve a lot of digging around in dusty archives and records. But it might turn up some fascinating facts. I wonder if this hasn't been done because there is a suspicion that the facts might not support the Narrative? The Conventional Wisdom Narrative, that is!

Christine Lacroix said...

Hello Bryan

Once again I thank you for your efforts to answer my questions. This particular answer has raised even more questions:

You said:
"I think that we can discern three stages of the reception of music since the 18th century. The first stage, up to the first quarter of the 19th century, is one where a very sophisticated aristocracy employed composers and musicians to provide music for their private enjoyment. The music-loving members of the aristocracy were very knowledgeable and provided patronage and employment for all the composers we know so well such as Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and all the lesser ones. The only other significant employer of composers in this period was the Church (who employed Bach for much of his career)."

My questions are:
Didn't the music of this period reflect elements of the lifestyle of the patrons, the formality and restraint expressed in clothing, manners and emotional expression? And maybe it was designed to some extent to confound the uninitiated, thus contributing to the preservation of the class system?

You said:
Music in the 19th century was crafted to appeal to middle class tastes.

My questions are:
Are you sure that it was ‘crafted to appeal to middle class tastes’? Perhaps the composers were undergoing the exact same influences as society and the middle classes so their music resonated with more people, including the middle classes?

Then you said:
They were, I suppose, composing for a new urban elite.

My questions are:
Did composers in the early 20th century ‘compose for a new urban elite’ or was it the urban elite who liked their music? Do composers really do that? Compose with the audience in mind? I imagine if you were commissioned you would, but was that often the case after the first part of the 19th century? I’m not a composer but it seems musical composition must come from the heart. Can it really be calculated that way?

And finally, of all the music you could have chosen to reflect the 20th century why didn't you choose at least something that had achieved some popularity? Six Pianos by Steve Reich???!!!

Bryan Townsend said...

Taking your questions in order:

Very likely that elements of the music reflected elements of the human environment, i.e. the lifestyle of the patrons (and musicians). But formality and restraint were present alongside vehement emotional expression as well, both in the music (C. P. E. Bach) and the life. This was also the age of the duel to defend personal honor, which is a pretty extreme emotional expression. I think there were more effective elements in society to confound the uninitiated and preserve the class system than music. The music was really mostly for the private diversion of the nobility.

Yes, I'm pretty sure the music in the 19th century shifted focus from pleasing the nobility to pleasing the middle class. Who pays the piper calls the tune.

Composers live off commissions. Who pays the commissions? In the 20th century it was more and more an urban elite of people in government, academia and foundations. Music composition has many sources, including spiritual or transcendent vision, "heart" (not sure what that means, exactly), personal expression, other musical influences and so on. But the end of music, i.e. the purpose for which it was written, is usually a commission of some sort.

Steve Reich was the perfect choice, I thought! It is serious classical composition, but in a style that reflects both the influence of world music and jazz. Popularity rarely influences my choices very much.

Christine Lacroix said...

Hi Bryan

The example of the duel is exactly what I meant by restraint. They didn't just lose control and beat each other to death at the moment of the offense like most self respecting delinquents do today. The emotions may have been extreme but the expression was ritualized, controlled. I didn't mean to say that emotions weren't expressed. They were expressed in a more stylized manner, at least in the upper classes. Of course I'm basing this argument on my limited knowledge of the period coming mainly from Hollywood and novels !

I didn't like the choice of Steve Reich because if you're choosing someone representative it seems logical to choose something well-known. Also I suspected you of choosing that piece to prove your point that modern music is lousy! That's my way of saying I didn't like it.

Bryan Townsend said...

Good point about the duel. 18th century music is also composed using a whole panoply of "partimentoes" or formulaic harmonic structures--as long as you understand "formulaic" as having no negative connotations.

The idea of choosing one thing to represent all the various opposing varieties of music in the 20th century is Quixotic at best. I quite like the piece by Steve Reich. You have to listen to it five more times...

Heh.

Christine Lacroix said...

I didn't remember telling you about that rule of mine. Listening at least 7 times (the same goes for tasting) before deciding if something is palatable. But I don't have the stomach for the Steve Reich.

Bryan Townsend said...

Steve Reich has a very negative effect on some people, it is true.

Christine Lacroix said...

If I get up the courage I will listen again, but not first thing in the morning!

Marc Puckett said...

Finally listening to the Six Pianos. Hmm. It goes into the category, 'once every year or so', I think, but it grows on me as I listen to it. The resonances build, somehow, so that one experiences more than what sound is actually produced, were that possible.

I think I feel obliged to quibble about the practice of the duel being an expression of 'extreme emotion'. Murdering your spouse in the heat of an argument is 'extreme emotion'. Discussing one's project of violence with the seconds and supporters and scheduling it for, perhaps, the next day, seems to me to be quite reasonable, if one accepts the premisses that one's personal honor must be vindicated following upon an insult etc. (I was acquainted with a man, now gone to his eternal reward, who had a duelling scar from his days as a young man at university in Germany.)

Bryan Townsend said...

Heidelberg no doubt?

I'm probably more right about music than dueling! I think it is very much the case that some 18th century music does express fairly extreme emotion: C. P. E. Bach, for one.

Christine Lacroix said...

Would you say C.P.E. Bach expressed extreme emotion differently than say rock music does today?

Bryan Townsend said...

Oh yes, most certainly. For one thing, he didn't have a wall of Marshall amps!! But these are muddy waters indeed. For one thing, my position is that music without text does not express garden-variety emotions at all. It creates moods, atmosphere, ambiance. Emotions, such as love, hate, envy, desire, all require objects: one loves someone or something, hates someone or something, envies someone.

Another question is what means are we actually considering? I mentioned the wall of Marshall amps. The fact that rock music can be very loud is often combined with a very rudimentary harmonic or melodic palette and a formulaic rhythmic pattern. Does this reduce its emotional or mood intensity? For me it certainly does. C. P. E. Bach used very abrupt and remote harmonic changes and rhythmic angularity to express quite extreme moods. He is very well known for it in music history.

Christine Lacroix said...

Hi Bryan

Could you recommend some YouTube clips of C.P.E Bach?

And would you consider Vivaldi concerto for 2 violins played on cellos to be some sort of crossover? Do cellists often resort to playing music originally composed for violin? Is the repertoire for cello limited compared to other instruments?
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LSFzw4qc8M8&list=PL4SjxMc080oimF2yNTLFhuG2-C8k8Ru5g&index=8

Bryan Townsend said...

Sure could. If you go to the search box on the right and type in C. P. E. Bach, you will see several posts come up, of which the first three should be very helpful. Two are on concertos (with clips) and one is on symphony (with clip). That should get you started.

There are around twelve cello concertos by Vivaldi, but they are not nearly as popular as the most popular violin concertos. Not surprising as he wrote around 300 violin concertos! Yes, the cello repertoire is limited compared to instruments like the violin or piano.

Bryan Townsend said...

No, the Vivaldi A minor concerto for two violins played on two cellos is not at all a kind of crossover. It is, rather, a transcription or arrangement with the cellos simply playing the original violin parts, though an octave lower.

Christine Lacroix said...

I had gone on YouTube and looked for a violin performance after asking you so I realized they hadn't changed it so much but it did certainly sound different. An octave lower is probably the explanation. The violin has a crisper sound. Cooler and more formal. To me anyway.

Bryan Townsend said...

Oh yes, but there are two factors: one is the arrangement or transcription with the solo parts an octave lower and the other is the way that 2Cellos are interpreting the piece: with their customary high enthusiasm levels.

Christine Lacroix said...

Bryan I love how tactful you are when you answer my questions about 2CELLOS! Are you being careful not to hurt my feelings?

Bryan Townsend said...

No, not at all! It is just that slightly sardonic doesn't come across easily. Just wait until you see the Friday Miscellanea, which has a 2Cellos item.

Christine Lacroix said...

Uh oh! I hope it's not my fault that you're having a go at 2CELLOS again! I shouldn't have drawn your attention to them. If you're feeling mean I would have preferred you had a go at Lang Lang! I just found this:

Lang Lang has announced that he will be joining Hublot and the family of prestigious ambassadors who represent the Swiss watch brand.

That's because he loves beautiful watches It's also because he and the Swiss watch brand are very similar. Hublot honours tradition, linking it with the future, and has made the Art of Fusion the essence of its DNA, in terms of creating its watches and in its innovation, its quest for new materials and its reinterpretation of grand complications, of the Arts and Crafts and more besides.

And even better his explanations about the connection between his music and LangLang perfume: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9KUYNF1OSxQ

and then there's this: Luxembourg, 09 September 2015 – Luxaviation-CMI Group, the second largest corporate aircraft operator in the world, has announced a special collaboration with Lang Lang, the virtuoso Chinese pianist.....

Don't get me wrong, I love the guy, I just think he's hilarious.

Bryan Townsend said...

Oh no, not at all. A violinist friend of mine sent me a clip. I never feel mean! I just respond to what I hear.

Yep. Lang Lang. Hilariously commercial. Because he loves beautiful things. Like Swiss francs.