Friday, May 13, 2011

Why We Don't Have More Beethovens

"I dreamt that I was composing a symphony … I had gone to my table to begin writing it down when I suddenly reflected, “If I write this part, I shall let myself be carried on to write the rest. The natural tendency of my mind to expand the material is sure to make it very long. When the symphony is completed I shall be weak enough to allow my copyist to copy it out and thus incur a debt of 1,000 or 1,200 francs. Once the parts are copied I shall be harassed by the temptation to have the work performed; I shall give a concert in which, as is sure to be the case in these days, the receipts will cover barely half the expenses; I shall lose what I have not got; I shall want the necessaries of life for my poor invalid wife and shall have no money either for myself or my son's keep on board ship.” … I throw down my pen saying, “Bah! I shall have forgotten the symphony tomorrow.” But the following night the obstinate symphony again presented itself …"

Hector Berlioz Memoirs c. 1850's

It used to be more often said than was even kind, when confronting abortion, that we might be denied another Beethoven. I always found the comment in considerably less than good taste on many levels, chief among them that humanity had not fully realized who and what the original Beethoven was and what he had accomplished under really incredible circumstances.

People are always far too often interested only when there is some “overcoming tragedy” element in a story. Otherwise I guess, anything that gets accomplished must have been done easily because less effort or intelligence was required. Under all circumstances in the modern world, we probably wouldn't be able to recognize another Beethoven were one to fall into our laps.

It's appropriate to mention that Beethoven regarded some trees with more truly fond regard than he ever considered more than a few men. And why wouldn't he? The real Beethoven was an abused child who later suffered from it through profound deafness. No one explains it that way, but that's exactly what it was. Meanwhile, these days the culture destroyers have already made the name Beethoven synonymous with a dog in a motion picture comedy series that soon nobody will remember because that's what commercialization does; it produces a steady stream of worthless trash for a fickle public attention span that itself is manipulated. The real Beethoven wanted more for his listeners and players than that. Those who stood in his shadow and a few who came before him (in whose shadows he stood) certainly wanted more for their audiences, for humanity itself.

An interesting book, Quarter-notes and Banknotes by F. M. Scherer tries to answer the meaty questions concerning how composers managed to earn their livelihood and focuses on a statistical analysis of fewer than 1,000 composers who were born between 1650 and 1850. I bet you thought there must be millions of composers. Well there weren't and still aren't. The bulk of the standard “classical” music repertoire came from perhaps less than 50 people working over the last 300 years. This book is a real eye-opener. We can put the pieces together and get an idea of how small the real “classical” music scene was (and still is). We can see how conspicuous consumption among nobles and a few clergy kept a lot of this musical scene going through the 18th century, how the industrial revolution and wars altered this music scene through the 19th century. We can extrapolate from this work what happened to this same musical tradition through the mid 20th century too. (Did it go underground after about the time I was born?  Or was it for the most point destroyed after two world wars?)

And now we're in the 21st century and those who are impressed enough by this music and its traditions to take it up and care for it are coming from places largely outside Europe where it all began. We expect great things from these newcomers, not only as performers, but as composers. But what does it take to become a composer?

"No one can become a capable musician without arduous self-teaching, and most undergo on the job training."     Quarter-notes and Banknotes, page 82

It takes work that may not be rewarded in one's lifetime. To take up the craft of making music in this way, by writing it down so others can perform it long after you're gone, takes a considerable act of faith. Once again, I am reminding all those who read this of the parallels between serious music study and religious experience. There's nothing quite like it in this life.

Certainly composition was more than enough for Ludwig van Beethoven and the less than 1,000 others, many whose names are long forgotten or whose music many not have been played often or at all. It's astounding to me that for instance the six Brandenburg Concerti were written by J. S. Bach sometime before 1721 FOR NOTHING but the hope of a sponsorship from a local noble and that these incredible works were left on a dusty shelf in some palace library until they were discovered in 1849! We have a lot of great music that came about this way.

There's ample evidence in Scherer's book to support Andrew Violette's contention that musicians have always been regarded as of lower class than their audiences and the same was true of composers. Those who were employed to play music, or compose it, in private homes were on a par with the rest of the household servants and required to behave in a subservient manner with very little regard for who they were. The composers themselves more often than not came from the emerging middle class or trades backgrounds, a few from wealth too, very few from the ranks of the vast majority of agricultural workers or peasants. There has always been social friction between those who would be leaders of the world (nobles or aristocrats or those who would be those people) and those who worked hard to aspire to a place between the world leaders and the peasantry, long before anyone wrote about it (Karl Marx). 

These days a worship of celebrity, including those with vast riches and national or international power prestige positions, permeates everything that is broadcast over what's called the mainstream media. The magnetism of power and wealth has always attracted musicians and still does. As I said in a previous post, it is almost expected that one looks up to get rewards and the amount of grovelling and boot licking becomes more obscene the higher up one goes. Composers have always faced this problem in order to survive.

Meanwhile if one is a member of an audience, one is expecting to be “entertained” by those who might have tremendous musical talent (as if they were trained moneys or idiot savants) but are nevertheless of lower social rank than themselves. I can even remember when I was young that all everyone wanted to hear me play was something played as fast and as loud as possible. Why? Did they want the musical experience to be over more quickly? And why so loud?  They weren't really listening, but I didn't know that back then. What then happens when the social class to which the audience belongs is forced down in social rank through economic manipulation by those who are socially on top? It's simple; the musicians and the music must be of even lower social class and artistic content or it doesn't satisfy. Real music doesn't satisfy too many and it never did.  Idealistic attempts to make serious or "classical" music into a mass draw are doomed to fail.

What are most people interested in musically? Not very much actually. They never were either. Back in the Vienna of the 1780's, at the same time Mozart was trying to become on a social level with the nobles he was trying to entertain, the lot of common people were more inclined to hear the … even lower class than themselves, bawdy and ridiculous antics of wandering minstrels and acrobats, jugglers and … inevitable pickpockets. People's ears have never been that good. People's musical taste has often been low and continues to be so. These days we even have many with academic backgrounds who willingly spout such drivel as that the greatest art these days comes from prisons where the convicted felons are featured “folk” artists. This is merely another aspect of Andrew's argument concerning the relationship between audience and musician that has existed in one way or another for a long time.

What were the composers themselves interested in? In most cases, just earning a living through their genuine interest in music. A few of them, including the maybe 50 major luminaries, spoke of something else, of higher aspirations, daring to place themselves above the nobles of their day or of future days, they longed to bring the level of the average man's awareness up and to do it through music . But this was a dream carried by their acts of faith. When one seriously considers how much was delivered to the world, often without remuneration of any kind at all, by these very few people, one almost automatically feels something akin to … a great distaste for the vast numbers of people who just don't get it.

I don't recommend this book to everyone, but along with such master works as Arthur Loesser's Men Women and Pianos, this work should be read and referenced by many of the really interested. You should be able to get it through your local library as it is out of print and relatively rare.


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