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Saturday morning quotes 2.45: Audiences

March 30, 2013

AudienceAt the end of the 13th century, Johannes de Grocheo wrote that the motet was “not intended for the vulgar who do not understand its finer points and derive no pleasure from hearing it: it is meant for educated people and those who look for refinement in art.” Is this statement justification for the ‘snob appeal’ that early music (as a sub-category of classical music) enjoys even today?  Is it true that early music can only appeal to the ‘literati’ of today, who have cultivated an appreciation for the value of historical arts based on a disdain for modern pop culture?

We say NO, and we have gone far out of our way to reach non-traditional audiences.  But early music probably has substantially more dimension than the commercial interests would have us believe.  Mainstream record companies and concert-promoting organizations have consciously cultivated a distinctly unauthentic concept of early music that probably has nothing to do with its original function, reception and its actual sound.  While this argument may seem like stale news, it is worth revisiting in today’s aggressively competitive and commercial world of music.

From the article, “The Spin Doctors of Early Music”  published in the Arts section of the New York Times, July 29, 1990, Richard Taruskin writes that our perception of early music “says more about the values of the late 20th century than about those of any earlier era.”

“With the growing success of Early Music, we are increasingly surrounded by unhistorical sounds masquerading as historical – or ”authentic,” to use a word that more sophisticated performers now shun but that musical salesmen and spin doctors still spout to seduce the unwary consumer.”

“…What we call historical performance is the sound of now, not then. It derives its authenticity not from its historical verisimilitude, but from its being for better or worse a true mirror of late-20th-century taste.”

“If we truly wanted to perform historically, we would begin by imitating early-20th-century recordings of late-19th-century music and extrapolate back from there. Instead, as already implied, Early Music has been moving in the opposite direction. The pioneers extrapolated – from very soft evidence bolstered by very firm desiderata – a style of performing Renaissance and Baroque music, and from then on it has been a matter of speculative forward encroachment.”

“So forget history. What Early Music has been doing is busily remaking the music of the past in the image of the present (necessary because we unfortunately have so little use for the actual music of the present), only calling the present by some other name.”

“…Up to Mozart’s time, at least, musical values were generally closer to those of what we now call pop than to those of our classical culture. But to ask that of Early Music may be asking the impossible.”

But if we insist on detached performances, off-putting displays of vocal and instrumental technique, and stuffy concert halls as the standard for early music venues, we’ll never gain audiences who ‘get’ the idea that much early music was at one time pop music.  One reason for an apparent decline in audiences for early music is because, as performers, commercial interests tell us to cater to an audience who possesses the level of income that can support high-brow arts.  Unfortunately, that audience is rapidly growing older.

Blogger Ramiro Albino from Buenos Aires, Argentina expressed his concerns in a post from June 30, 2011

“Hace tiempo que me preocupa la inserción de los jóvenes en el mundo de la música clásica…Y como intérprete de Música Antigua, me asusta avizorar que en poco tiempo parte de mi público se va a morir (sic), porque siempre hay muchísimos ancianos en mis presentaciones.”

[I have long been preoccupied about the integration of young people into the world of classical music…And as a performer of early music, it scares me to envision that soon part of my audience is going to die (sic), because there are always so many elders in my presentations.]

Our answer to the question of ‘who is the audience and how do we cultivate them?’ is rather simple.  Early music performers and aficionados have to set an example by going beyond lip-service and actively reaching out to younger people, giving time, attention and opportunities to see, hear and participate.  And not just the students we wish to mentor in order to justify and continue our academic careers, which is really plain selfishness masquerading as benevolence. In the US, performers and academics tend to engage in childish antics on stage rather than engage young people.  Or expect students to be involved in productions of carelessly under-rehearsed pieces by Monteverdi to which the composer himself is known to have dedicated five months of intense rehearsal.

We appreciate the commendable efforts of the teachers in connection with Société Française de Luth and the Belgische Luitacademie for coordinating lessons for young people interested in the lute.

  1. I think Richard Taruskin’s suggestion that all music before Mozart was “pop” music is a sweeping generalization. I will run the risk of making a sweeping generalization myself and say that I think that most “early music” which survives in written form was intnded for a fairly small educated elite. Your average serf didn’t listen to music by Machaut, Josquin or Palestrina or even Gregorian chant. I don’t know what audiences are like in the US but in England even audiences for main stream classical music are mostly grey haired. None of my neices and nephews have ever attended a classical concert or opera and no attempt is made in schools now to give children an opportunity to hear any classical music. We can but try.

  2. Thank you for your comment, Monica. I know Taruskin’s remarks created something of a timely controversy that still lingers and perhaps rankles. But I think they are worth reconsidering in light of current issues in the presentation of early music, heavily influenced by distasteful marketing strategies.

    Despite my own opinions on the re-emerging issue of class, I have to concur with your sweeping generalization. It’s a slightly irritating fact that the most interesting bits of surviving history are merely the cultural detritus of the wealthiest one-percent of a bygone age. But I take inspiration in the generally understood idea that printed music books, like those produced by Dowland, were marketed to an emerging middle class and were purchased for domestic use. While we are witnessing the disintegration of that middle class, some of us cling to the idea in a similar manner that a working class stiff may have clung to an elaborately-carved piece of furniture from the Titanic in a vain attempt to remain afloat in deadly frigid seas.

    From what I read, audiences for early music are basically the same age group the world over. But we can at least attempt to influence a younger audience by reaching out to them. When we play for school children, we are amazed by their attentiveness and appreciation for our music – and so are their teachers. During a very busy time last month, we were contacted by a young man who was interested in the lute but had never seen one. We extended an invitation and he made a relatively long trip to our humble abode for a hands-on lesson that lasted several hours.

    I have to think it’s our responsibility to notice that spark of latent interest and kindle it with a gentle guiding breath now and then. At least we do what we can.


  3. Lautenist permalink

    I think, to a certain degree we suffer from today’s youth being the first generation which never has been in contact with music making. Even “Live Performances” now involve very much technics. That’s why they don’t understand what “making music” once meant.
    In the meantime the “educated middle class” considers Lady Gaga (and the likes) as artists. That’s not a good base to create audiences for refined performances.
    I agree, the way to go would be towards the possible audience. I had pretty good results when visiting school classes showing and demonstrating the lute and talking about the music.
    We also should think about the way of performance. The concerts with artist in front are an invention of the post baroque time. Small recitals – house concerts, dinner entertainment et. al. – could raise interest and are more natural to the instrument.
    The problem is to find people hosting such events …

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. Saturday morning quotes 3.42: Rewriting history | Unquiet Thoughts
  2. Saturday morning quotes 5.24: The Truth | Unquiet Thoughts

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