Friday, February 26, 2021

Music & Society Since 1815

In person live music making has suffered greatly during the pandemic. It's been especially hard on classical concert music which depends on musicians working closely together and reacting to each other. All the major concert institutions have shut down or have had to invent radically new ways of making and creating music together.

Henry Raynor's 1976 book, Music & Society Since 1815, is a telling of the ways that the traditional concert institutions came to be.  Almost all of the elements of classical music and the roles of classical musicians came arose in the 19th century.  Raynor chooses 1815 as a starting point because it represents an approximate year when concert music changed from being supported by rich and powerful royal families and nobility to being supported by a combination of government support and the marketplace (the public purchasing tickets and music).

The conductor as we know it only began to exist during the early to mid-1800s. Originally the first chair violinist or a piano soloist might start a work and try to hold it together, but an actual musician who rehearses and directs an ensemble only started to become a norm in the middle of the nineteenth century.

Piano recitals are a normal part of concert life, but the earliest such performances only began in the 1830s. A virtuoso like Franz Liszt popularized such concerts, but they were not the formal events we expect today; Liszt would take breaks from playing to mingle with his audience. String quartets -- a chamber ensemble consisting of two violinists, a violist and cellist -- had existed since the eighteenth century, but the first permanent professional string quartet only came into being in 1869.  

Raynor describes the difficulties of founding and maintaining symphony orchestras in Europe and the United States. The best instrumentalists were often engaged in the theater and opera orchestras and it was not economically advantageous for them to work on "serious" concert music.  The San Francisco Symphony Orchestra formed in 1911 at first depended on musicians who had several other gigs.

Choral societies became popular in Germany because they were democratically run organizations in an autocratic society. In Great Britain brass bands became widespread through the sponsorship of factory owners. Engagement with music, it was hopedm would help promote temperance among the factory hands.

Women do not play a big role in Raynor's account; almost all of the musical action in this history was contributed by men. Women are mentioned as the occasional diva, concert virtuoso, or as part of a "women's auxiliary" for an orchestra. This is a shortcoming.

In a chapter entitled "The Great Schism," Raynor also address he calls "light" music -- a category of music that he does not take lightly.  As concert music became more specialized and rarified there continued to be a strong audience for music that was easier on the ears. Waltzes by the Strauss family and operettas by the likes of Offenbach and Gilbert and Sullivan are given serious treatment.  While not given much space, American vernacular forms like ragtime and jazz are also shown respect in Raynor's account.  He has far less use for rock and roll which he finds rhythmically monotonous.

Music & Society Since 1815 is a very worthwhile read for those interested learning how the classical music tradition came to be.

Music And Society Since 1815 by Henry Raynor (Barrie and Jenkins, 1976). - also available to borrow from the Internet Archive.