Friday, January 27, 2017

The Social Class of Musicians

I read an odd post on a blog the other day that asserted that performing artists like musicians and actors were inherently in a low social class--that the 18th century was correct in putting them in the same social class as servants. The poster went on to say that acting, in general performing in public, was essentially demeaning. I often find arguments that are fundamentally discordant with what I believe to be stimulating, or interesting at least.

Just to recapitulate the history a bit, artists of all kinds up to the late 18th/early 19th century were a service industry. They provided splendour and gilding to the nobility and the church. There were exceptions, of course, such as Carlo Gesualdo who was himself a member of the nobility, but this is generally true. When we get to the late 18th century composers like Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven chart a fundamental shift. Haydn was a servant, though a highly-prized one who, by the end of his life was the most famous musician in Europe. Mozart was perhaps the first composer to make a living without taking a position in a noble household. And Beethoven transcended the "servant" category entirely and created a new identity for musicians: as revealers of transcendent truth. This shaped the whole social role of musicians in the 19th century when music became revered as the highest artform.

In the 20th century music fractured into a number of competing categories: "classical" music, now more or less a museum of great works of the past, "contemporary" music, an ideological category asserting music as a higher truth and not to be crafted to suit popular taste, "popular" music which grew and grew in importance until now it is nearly the only category of music of any social importance, "folk" music, which is now whatever is left over after pop musicians have looted it for ideas (bluegrass, traditional blues, "old-time" music) and finally, "world" music, which is whatever artists in the rest of the world manage to catch the attention of audiences in the developed world.

It seems that what has happened is that the most popular popular musicians have come to be members of a new noble class: celebrities (Beyoncé, Taylor Swift, Lady Gaga, etc.). A very few contemporary composers and musical scholars have managed to hammer out a small niche in academia. The rest of musicians seem to be reverting to the servant category as they play more and more weddings, funerals and bar mitzvas and fewer and fewer serious recitals.

My encounter with music was always rather at odds with the overall trends. First of all, I came from a very low and beaten-down social class: Canadian prairie farmers. Think of them as being like Appalachian hillbillies without the glamour! Even the discovery of pop music was something of a step up and when I stumbled across classical music in my late teens, it seemed a portal to the great world of history and aesthetics. That was a life-changer. All the usual kinds of careers, like banking, medicine, the law, teaching, seemed like so much cold porridge compared to the sheer, stunning aesthetic power of Beethoven, Bach and Stravinsky. Right?

Of course, to have these kinds of reactions you pretty much have to be oblivious to the lure of money and prosperity. But so I was. I spent most of my career actively avoiding monetary success because it seemed, frankly, beside the point. Would anyone with a brain sit down and rank classical composers by how much money they made? Rossini would be number one and Schubert dead last. Does that seem right?

So from that angle, the reason I retired from being a performer was that I could not get my career to the point where I did not have to accept demeaning engagements. So I preferred to not perform. Nowadays I think of myself as a composer and the only recent performances have been of my own music. But as a composer, I have no real professional standing. This is as much a plus as anything. If I were a university composer I would be part of the academic scene that I have a lot of problems with. If I were an established composer of some kind then I suppose I would have to be chasing after insulting commissions like the one the Canadian government is offering to compose a two-minute fanfare in celebration of Canada's 150th anniversary. Thanks, but no thanks. So instead of low social status as a composer I can enjoy no social status, neither high now low. Somehow I prefer that.

I'm sure that some of my readers will have some comments to offer, so go to it!

Here is something to listen to while you are commenting: this is the Piano Sonata No. 8 in C minor, op. 13 by Beethoven, nicknamed the "Pathétique" played by Krystian Zimerman:


Anonymous said...

Much food for thought in this interesting post. Quick comments: In the olden days, working for a prince came in two forms, both of which Bach experienced: first as kapellmeister at the court of a prince; then as cantor for a church. In the latter position, Bach was essentially a government employee, quite similar to municipalities that hire architects on a permanent basis. Except that... and this is my second point. Music then was much more important than it is now. Because of the lack of "playback" technology, the only way to hear music more than once a week was to play it. In Haydn's Vienna, it has been said that any educated family was able to put together its own chamber ensemble. No such thing today (except perhaps among Asian immmigrants). Music today is by and large no longer participatory. People consume it but no longer produce it. Every child who learns the piano quickly forgets everything once they move into adulthood. Likewise, most teenagers who pick up the electric guitar never get past basic chords and pentatonic scales. As a result, the overall level of musicianship is very low. Music has become a consumer item, much like film. It was not always so.

Bryan Townsend said...

Excellent point, Anonymous! Yes, music today is much less important and just thinking about those very long and serious Passions that Bach wrote for the Leipzig congregation gives us an idea of how much more important music was then. Now it is, what, a mere soundtrack to our fairly uninteresting lives?

Anonymous said...

When we go to a concert to listen to the St Matthew Passion, we go in there with the prior knowledge that what we're about to hear is one of the crowning achievements of Western culture. But let's try to imagine what it must have been like for that Leipzig congregation. First they didn't go to a concert but to a mass. They knew there would be some music by some grumpy dude named Bach but he was not very popular among the locals so they probably hoped that the music would be inoffensive and not get in the way of their praying.

I imagine an angel descending into the church and informing the congregation that they were about to witness a historical event of stupendous importance, one that in thousands of years from now people would still be talking about.

Instead we probably had: "Hey Daddy, how was the service? Oh it was OK. Well, the music dragged on too long. Herr Bach seems quite full of himself if you ask me. His music is pompous and kind of noisy. I much preferred the old hymns your grandmother used to sing for us."

Marc Puckett said...

Food for thought indeed. Not to address this at all seriously but I did just see in the Guardian or the Daily Mail that Debrett's publisher (I believe it was Debrett's-- didn't actually read the article) is wanting to 'update' by some expedient to include the Madonnas, Adeles, and Kanyes of the pop world amongst the sons and daughters of the aristocracy. Quelle horreur!

Bryan Townsend said...

Bach was in charge of the music at not just one, but all the churches in Leipzig (I think there were three?) and held that position for a long time so he must have had more supporters than detractors. But at the same time one has to admire the sheer endurance of the congregations who had to, on special occasions, sit through very lengthy services of four or five hours!

Oh yes, the sons and daughters of famous actors and musicians are members of the new nobility, sliding effortlessly into prominent and highly paid professions.