Tuesday, October 25, 2011

A Mass Audience for Classical Music — contra "The Rest Is Noise"

I've been reading The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century, by Alex Ross. It's a wonderful book, and if you're not already familiar with it, I highly recommend it. It sets the composers of the century in their historical and cultural context and is very readable. To me, 20th Century classical music had seemed to be pretty much of a piece — lots of cacophony with occasional listenable pieces added to the mix. Ross manages to distinguish the cacophonies of Stravinsky from those of Schoenberg in a way that makes sense, and he points out a lot of euphonious music from composers who didn't mind writing things that people would enjoy. That sentence is colored by my personal opinions. Ross has helped me to understand what lies behind much of the music I've only recently begun to find tolerable.

But recently I've found something that I consider questionable. In a Chapter titled "Music for All: Music in FDR's America," Ross begins by noting that radio and records made classical music widely available, well beyond the concert hall, and WPA projects brough live performances to small towns all across the country. He notes that listeners numbered "up to ten million for Arturo Toscanini's broadcasts with the NBC Symphony, and millions more for the Metropolitan Opera broadcasts." He says that "Americans of the period [roughly the 1930's, I think] avidly sought the cultural improvement that classical music was supposed to provide."

But, says Ross, "The trouble was that Toscanini could not make classical music American." The repertoire was almost entirely European composers of the past. Although Stokowski and Koussevitsky championed contemporary works in their concerts, "radio executives and corporate heads who bought advertising" were unwilling to broadcast it. "Yet the failure to support the new led inexorably to the decline of classical music as a popular pastime, for nothing bound it to contemporary life. A venerable art form was set to become one more fad in a ravenous consumer culture."

I think he's got it wrong. I think the audience that was there for Toscanini and the Met in the 1930's is still there for the music they performed. It was there in the 1950's when I was a boy and Bell Telephone and Firestone sponsored half-hour TV programs. The music of Handel and Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, Schubert and Mendelssohn has always been accessible to a mass audience. But many people who gladly listen to these composers, or to the sextet from "Lucia di Lamermoor," will not keep listening long to Roger Sessions or Milton Babbitt. It was not the lack of contemporary music that caused the audiences to melt away; it was an overabundance of it, in my opinion.


  1. I'm not able to make a sophisticated comment at the moment (as if), just wanted to say, it seems we agree about contemporary music.

  2. It's curious. I've never found Brahms enjoyable (except for the Serenade No. 2, which I only became aware of a few years ago); but since I told the principal bassist of the BSO about my dislike, I've begun to find his music more tolerable. I'm beginning to find R. Strauss tiresome. What is happening with 20th and 21st Century music is that the circle of pieces that I can enjoy hearing seems to be slowly expanding. For example, Bartók's Concerto for Orchestra has begun to sound like music. Sometimes I find a few good moments in an otherwise unappealing composition; occasionally a new or recent work will actually seem good. Still, if it were a question of hearing no more 20th Century music or no more 18th Century music, I'd instantly jettison the 20th Century works.