The Demise of pre-1900s Music?
Date: November 19, 2013
Dear esteemed colleagues,
This was orginally going to be a response to Scott Dorsey's Stick Time piece, but it seemed time for a broader conversation on this topic. What are we doing to keep pre-1900's music alive and well? Will it be consigned to being considered a museum archive? We laugh at this question, but I must register deep concern as I view what is happening with not only choral programming, but musical programming in general.
I attended three concerts this past weekend. Of 24 pieces selected in total for presentation to the public, only five were pre-1900!
Even if we completely ignore the Renaissance, which we shouldn't (but it was completely ignored this weekend), the years of the Baroque, the Classic, and the Romantic eras together add to more than 300 years of time. The music of the 20th and 21st Centuries add to only 113 years' time. However, 79% of the music selected by professional musicians to present to their audiences in this weekend's concerts was from the last 113 years! Doesn't this seem a little unbalanced to you? And yet, they presented this as though it were perfectly normal and acceptable.
I understand that our ears are drawn to the "fresh," rather than to the more predictable harmonic progressions and formulaic methods of earlier times. We enjoy the lush, complex harmonies and creative compositional devices of more recent music. However, what we program is instructional: it teaches the public what is important, what is relevant music worth preserving and performing. This topic has been touched upon in letters to the editor of the Choral Journal in recent years as conductors discussed the huge extent of contemporary music presented at ACDA conferences. I hope we can have a wider discussion about this subject! Are we realizing what we are doing in relegating this music to less than 20% of our programming, and likely less, going forward as more contemporary music is composed?
The music of J.S. Bach was lost for centuries. Will we one day need to "redisover" Bach again? Can we make a conscious decision to acknowledge to both ourselves and to the public that these works are great works which still deserve a hearing? It seems that, more and more, older music is becoming a specialty focus of specific choruses, such as Bach Societies, etc., and not sung very much in the standard choral ensemble, including school choruses. I know there are choruses which are old and possess a rich tradition of singing the classics which will not digress from this balance even if/when they do sing more contemporary pieces. But 79%? REALLY? Is the old music really this irrelevant? One can find more pre-1900s music in radio/TV commercials than in concert halls these days!
Orchestras and opera companies regularly grapple with this question, as the membership often wishes to perform newer music but the public seems (or seemed - this is changing) to want the "greatest hits" of older music...So, orchestras and opera companies walk a delicate balancing act between what the performers are interested in and what audiences are interested in. I wonder if as choir directors, we even grapple with what balance of music history to present, as I see it as a non-issue in many cases that isn't even considered. It would be good to at least consider this! And yes, I know that much Baroque/Classical/Romantic choral music is often written for orchestral accompaniment, which can be cost-prohibitive to program...But if lack of an orchestra will lead us to neglect the earlier music, perhaps we ought to begin a new tradition of saying it is acceptable to perform orchestral accompaniments in the piano reduction in a concert! In this economy, wouldn't it be better to loosen the constrictions of "authenticity" just to keep these works alive? We don't know if the economy will ever improve to a huge extent. If it doesn't, and if we continue to say "I can't program that Haydn mass because we can't hire an orchestra," what will happen to the Haydn mass? As we broaden our minds to accept and receive compositional rule-breaking in the modern music, perhaps we should have a parallel broadening of rules to accept earlier choral music with orchestral reduction, just to keep this glorious music before the public. It would be an important nod to history!
We don't want these fine pieces of music to become like spoken Latin - reserved for a few hobbyists in small clubs or for scholarly research purposes only. I know I sound extreme, but I just see a dismal future for older music if current programming trends continue! We're way out of proportion, and we need to change some rules of the performing game to be able to continue to present this fine music. Orchestras, particularly community orchestras, are struggling and many folding. Even the revered Philadelphia Orchestra declared bankruptcy in 2011 (although they've recovered, lighter and leaner). We will have less and less access to an orchestra. Can we agree to continue to program older works, anyway, and relax the acccompanimental standards for the sake of acknowledging the beautiful works in earlier eras?
I know this sounds subversive. I'm being pragmatic. We have a fight in which we need to engage, which is the preservation and continued enjoyment of 300+ years' worth of masterfully-composed music! Of what use is it for music majors to study the development of this music if they won't be performing it? If we, the repertoire selectors, won't defend this great legacy entrusted to us, who will? As music majors planning our recitals, most of us were taught to select music of varying eras, countries, and styles. This taught us to present a balanced program. What has happened that our programs are so unbalanced now? Yes, definitely we need to present new and "newer" music, but perhaps not so disproportionately!
Welcoming all thoughts, including disagreements!
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