Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Introduction to the 19th Century

I'm avoiding calling the 19th century the age of Romanticism because it is so misleading. The term 'romantic' is a complex one that can refer to an immense span of things: everything from a particular kind of dinner to a variety of philosophical idealism, to a kind of musical harmony and orchestration, to various literary genres and so on. Romanticism in music is a term that has seen considerable re-evaluation. Richard Taruskin's monumental history of Western music avoids it as a title of a volume, using instead the neutral "Music in the Nineteenth Century". One reason is that there were a host of different currents in the 19th century including romanticism, realism, verismo, nationalism and on and on. The century saw the growth of an immense group of middle-class consumers of music that attended concerts, bought pianos and other instruments, purchased sheet music and in so doing caused the development of many of the musical institutions that still exist today. These include the development of the discipline of musicology, subscription concert series, large concert halls, concert tours, arts management, and professional orchestras in every city. The practice of classical music also spread into territories it had scarcely touched previously such as Russia, the United States, Canada and many other countries that had been on the periphery.

One of the most important and long-lasting consequences of the events of the 19th century was the very creation of that particular body of music we now call "classical" music. The 19th century was when what we now see as the 'standard repertoire' was assembled and, ironically, one of the causes was commercialism. Without the growth of a newly prosperous urban population the great concert halls and professional orchestral concert series would not have been built and developed. This may be hard to believe, but at the beginning of the 19th century there were only two public concert halls in Europe (as opposed to opera houses, which have a longer history): the Hanover Square Rooms in London and the Gewandhaus in Leipzig. Vienna, the residence of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert and later, Brahms, did not have a hall for orchestral concerts until the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde built one in 1831, after the death of Beethoven and Schubert! This was followed by the construction of concert halls in most European cities offering subscription concert series.

Thus, odd though it might seem, the 'standard repertoire' of orchestral works by Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven augmented by those of Bach, Schubert and others, was a response to demand from a public hungry for music. It was not the creation of a government bureaucracy or a group of elite taste-makers. Though let me hasten to add that the elite taste-makers, in the form of newspaper critics, conservatory professors and professional musicians and composers, were a guiding element in the formation of the repertoire. But they too were responding to a public hungry for music.

Here is another surprising fact: around 1800, approximately 80% of the music performed in Vienna, Leipzig, Paris and London, was by living composers. By the later part of the century, around 1870, 80% of the music performed was by dead composers! The standard repertoire had truly been formed and the concert hall become a kind of museum. Imagine the consequences for living composers! In order to guarantee the quality of music presented to the public, the promoters demanded music that had stood the test of time, that was 'finished', that was not experimental. And this is the world that we still live in today!

My thanks to Richard Taruskin for assembling and making so much sense of the reams of data we have from the 19th century. And now a piece from this standard orchestral repertoire to whet your appetite for the next post on 19th century music. Franz Schubert, Symphony No. 8 in B minor, the "Unfinished":


Nathan Shirley said...

80% live, then 70 years later 80% dead, fascinating. I didn't realize it had ever been quite that high, and then dropped off so quickly.

>>>And this is the world that we still live in today!

Except today it's more like 99.999% dead... and for a good reason!

Bryan Townsend said...

I think if you go back further into the 18th century the percentage is even higher of living composers. The 'museum' of masterworks was the creation of the 19th century.


I wrote a book on the subject (Sophie Anne Leterrier, Le Mélomane et l'historien, Paris, Colin, 1996) ! Unfortunately, it as not been translated in english yet !

Bryan Townsend said...

Please share your thoughts on the subject. It would be fascinating to hear from a French perspective.