Skip to content

Saturday morning quotes 4.47: Class in session

April 4, 2015

Let’s not mince words: Early music bears NO ancestral relationship to what today’s historians and hype-merchants market as “classical” music. 

Early music was always functional music of some sort, whether composed for devotional or liturgical purposes, social dancing, entertainment for wealthy patrons, as a domestic pastime, as a theoretical exercise, or as the common indulgence in the craft of converting clever poetry into song.  Most music from as late as the mid-16th century survives only in handwritten manuscript form. Naturally, when the printing press and moveable type made published music available to a larger audience, the printed music was costly and only available to the very wealthy elite.  Astute composers and ambitious publishers began to take advantage of the potential for financial gain through sales to the nobility and the nouveau riche. But composers invariably sold their rights to the publishers for a pittance and made very little from the sale of the always relatively small print runs of their music.  And, when reading through the the prefaces and deferential dedicatory remarks, nearly all our composers mention that the music was written during idle hours and only meant for private consumption.

What we know as “Classical” music was always composed with marketing in mind. From the 18th century onward, church music became something quite grand, and both Protestant services and the Catholic Mass were celebrated with rather large orchestras and choruses, with obbligato instrumentation and including motets with highly ornamented vocal passaggi.  In the world of secular entertainment, large-scale theatrical productions and public concerts were produced on a regular basis in hopes of financial success in the form of ticket sales. Even in the realm of domestic chamber music, etudes, sonatas, and small-scale instrumental ensemble works were composed, published and blatantly distributed widely for financial remuneration.

Even though what we have come to call classical music was originally created by primarily young and mostly starving composers, at least in the US, today’s classical audiences are not exactly drawn from the ranks of what you might call the working class.  Audiences for classical music pride themselves on participating in an art form that caters to an elitist upper class.

“Why shouldn’t we be elitist…Classical musicians represent some of the finest talent on Earth. They spend a lifetime working tirelessly to perfect their craft. We should celebrate that phenomenon, making classical events a special, elite experience.”

– Norman Lebrecht, from Reframing the Classical Music Experience, keynote address at the Dutch Classical Music Meeting, Oct. 2011

Despite the fact that many early music performers, including Frans Brüggen, began their careers deliberately thumbing their noses at the entrenched world of classical music, today’s early music promoters have somehow morphed their PR materials to emulate their once maligned models, opting to target the same old white elite upper class audience, resulting in a depiction of early music as low-calorie classical music that is really something better than it sounds.

As for attracting young working-class audiences with less disposable income, generic classical music has become a weapon of class disruption, with recordings of Mozart’s greatest hits blasted loudly in public spaces in order to discourage loitering youth:

Classical music has thus been seized upon by Transport for London and a host of other business and government leaders, not as a positive moralising force, but rather as a marker of space: a kind of “aural fence” or sonic wall, signalling “inclusion to some and exclusion to others” through its culturally conditioned associations: white, old, rich, elite.

This amounts to an orchestrated campaign of what French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu termed “symbolic violence”: the use of cultural forms by the powerful to at once assert and legitimise their domination. As one commentator notes, the dangerous message this sends to young people is: “1: You are scum; 2: Classical music is not a wonder of the human world, it is a repellent against anti-social behaviour”.

from – Theo Kindynis, “Weaponising Classical Music: waging class-warfare beneath our cities’ streets,” Ceasefire, Saturday September 29, 2012

When early music experienced a 20th-century renaissance, it was revived by curious historians and creative composers who saw something of interest in older music, which was nearly always considered to be a mere precursor of the later monumental works, or perhaps a source of inspiration for something new and more elaborately developed.  Musicians who embraced the early music revival were, for instance, conservatory-trained violinists who did not possess the chops to play the Tchaikovsky concerto (see introductory remarks by Ernst Meyer, in Early English Chamber Music, 2nd rev. edn. ed. Diana Poulton), but they approached the music as a simpler, undeveloped subset of classical music.

The fact remains that, in functional terms, early music bears a closer ancestral lineage to 20th-century popular music by Gershwin, Kern, Straythorn – much of it conceived as either good musical settings of poetry or as functional dance music – than it does with Mendelssohn or Mahler.  Early music is more akin to the music of top singer-songwriters like Joni Mitchell, John Lennon, or instrumentalists like George Van Eps, than to the aural assaults composed by Wagner, or the dripping, vibrato-laden romantic music favored by some of our more famous violinists.  And how many of our more prominent lutenists who started on classical guitar play with a plodding technical precision, replete with Segovia-like gestures, rather than placing emphasis on shaping the lines like the vocal polyphony that inspired much of the best lute music?

Classical music seems to have annexed early music as a sub-category, or rather ingested the genre like a whale tucking into so much plankton; or the way Home Depot took over the local hardware shops where one might find something unique on the shelf rather than packaged in shrink-wrap.  Or the way Walmart displaced the local grocery where one could chat with the grocer and buy three slices of a different type of cheese.

Conservatories with early music programs are missing the point by teaching using the same format and structure as classical repertory.  Historically appropriate early music courses should teach improvisation, transposition and playing and singing by ear with a natural voice:

“For from a feigned Voice can come no noble manner of singing; which only proceeds from a natural Voice…”

– attributed to Nicholas Lanier, An Introduction to the Skill of Musick, by John Playford, London, 1674.

Early music courses should embrace the traditions from which the music originally evolved, not through the conventional coursework of the conservatory.  And if early music is to survive as a genre worth preserving, it will be because it has inspired musicians young and old who empathize with the oral-aural tradition.  It will be because of the music’s honesty, its intimacy and its directness, and not because it is marketed towards the deep pockets of ageing elitist classical music audiences indulging in a low-brow lark.

  1. dan Winheld permalink

    One of your best! Thank you for giving “Early Music, Inc.” a long overdue spanking.

    As to the class warfare aspect (complete with its abuse of Mozart, et al. to clear street corners of proletarian riff-raff); I am reminded of the French revolution, during which harpsichords were smashed & burned as a symbolic blow against the elite parasitical nobility & royalty.

  2. While in the US during the sixties folk music rediscovered its roots in both Appalachian and African-American genres, the same cultural moment in Europe found its roots in medieval and Renaissance music. Maybe for that reason, when I attend Early Music concerts in Italy, the audience is often rather young–there is a sense of adventure, even a frisson of rebellion, in listening to music not made for the grand concert halls. Often the performers are ponytailed and funky. In the US, Chicago for example, that is not so much true–the audience isn’t the same stodgy one dutifully listening to Mahler, but it is of the same generation. Early Music is edgy–why don’t more young people know about it?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: