Thoughts & news about the future of classical music.

Author: Matthew Hodge (Page 1 of 6)

A Guy Named George – Part 3: The Engineer Who Brought Classical Music to the Masses?

Note: I originally wrote this blog post series about George Grove (my classical music hero) back in 2016 on an old blog. I’ve lightly updated these posts from their original form. This is Part Three of Five and I’ll post the rest of the story in coming weeks.

Read Part 1.

Read Part 2.

One of the great things about reading history is that, if a historian is a particularly good writer, a window can open on the past, and the people and situations start to rise off the page and you can picture them and understand them. But then there are other times, where the writer just doesn’t tell you what you’re burning to know. Or he or she might write about something that’s exciting to you in such a dry style that you just can’t grasp the excitement.

This is what I felt when I was reading the only biography of George Grove that I could get my hands on – George Grove by Percy Young.

Percy Young’s rather dry take on a most un-dry person …

While the book was certainly comprehensive in giving me an overview of George’s life (I slogged through it a few years ago), it never seemed to capture the feeling of Grove himself. From all accounts I’ve read of the man, he was simultaneously one of the most hard-working but also personable people that you could meet. And it’s that open generosity and enthusiasm that comes through in Grove’s writing, but not so much in Young’s prose.

In other words, I believe it was George’s love of music combined with his love of people that made him so determined to connect one with the other. This is what marked him out (and still marks him out, in many ways) from the other musicians and musicologists of his day. Other people were just in it for the music. But George wanted to get it to the people.

Don’t get me wrong –  Young talks about all this stuff in his book, but more with the understatement of an academic, rather than the enthusiasm of a story-teller.

As you might remember, I was heading to London in April of 2016 for a wedding but I had also contacted the Royal College of Music before I’d gone and been put in touch with a librarian there that was a specialist on Grove. So on the plane over, I started skimming over the Young book again so I could come across at least somewhat knowledgeable about Grove and his activities! Rereading it, I did find lots of useful information on why Grove explained music the way he did, and how his background shaped his approach to music. But one thing eluded me and wasn’t really covered in the book: what was the competitive landscape of the classical music industry in Grove’s day?

The Crystal Palace

It’s well documented that in the 1850s, the Crystal Palace opened and that by 1855, George Grove (who was on the committee that put on events in the Palace) had been part of organising a Crystal Palace Orchestra. Which then proceeded to play there every Saturday for seven months of the year for the next 50 years.

But what I wasn’t sure about was this: was this just one of many orchestras? After all, we know that London has many orchestras nowadays – London Symphony Orchestra, the London Philharmonic, the Philharmonia, the BBC Symphony, etc. Was the Crystal Palace all that special? Was classical music popular in general and Grove was just famous for his dictionary and program notes?

In the end, to get a better feel for the landscape, I started to make a timeline, trying to work out where all the other orchestras fit into the Grove landscape. What I discovered was jaw-dropping (at least to me).

I hadn’t realised this, but all the major orchestras that we think of today when we think of London – almost none of them were there in Grove’s day. London Symphony, BBC Symphony, London Philharmonic – none of them were in existence. They all cropped up in the first 50 years of the 20th century.

So who was presenting classical music in the 1800s? Well, not many places, actually. When Grove was a boy (he was born in 1820, son of a butcher, so he wasn’t from the upper class), it appears that the main place people went for live music was to concerts put on by a few choral societies that got together to perform choral music. A lot of this was Handel’s Messiah, which seemed to have hit the sweet spot of being very musical and very religious, thus ensuring its success in the England of that day.

The Royal Philharmonic Society

But with regards to orchestra music, there don’t appear to have been very much options for public concerts. The most famous organisation that was doing anything along these lines was The Royal Philharmonic Society (which, incredibly, is still in existence). The RPS was set up by a bunch of professional musicians, most of whom had trained in Europe and its aim was to perform serious classical music. The RPS website puts it like this:

The aims of the fledgling Philharmonic Society were ‘to promote the performance, in the most perfect manner possible, of the best and most approved instrumental music’ and to ‘encourage an appreciation by the public in the art of music’. This was at a time when most concerts consisted of a hotch potch of vocal tit-bits and virtuoso show pieces. The Philharmonic Society was determined to make a case for serious symphonic and chamber music, ‘that species of music which called forth the efforts and displayed the genius of the greatest masters.’ And these ‘masters’ were the living European composers of the time, BeethovenCherubini and Carl Maria von Weber.

I would need to do some more research on this (if I ever get a chance to go back to London, one thing I’m going to do is try to chase up some of the concert listings for the RPS and find out what their concerts were like). But what it sounds like, quite simply, is that it was music for serious classical music nerds. They were expensive, they were bringing out the biggest name composers and unlike these other concerts which were a “hotch potch of vocal tit-bits and virtuoso show pieces”, they were quite clearly designed to be serious.

One other quote from the RPS website bears quoting:

It represented a new spirit of egalitarianism, attracting an audience unified in ‘one great object: the love of their art.’ It was noted by the press that this commitment made them an impressive audience: ‘silence and attention are preserved during the whole performance’, an uncommon phenomenon at the time.

In short, if this report is to be believed, the RPS concerts were the forefather of our modern concert experience. The audience comes in, sits down in mostly perfect silence and attention, and listens to a concert experience that is deliberately devoid of any kind of crowd-pleasing tricks like “vocal tit-bits” and “virtuoso show pieces”. Well-behaved, familiar with the expectations of the concert environment. But the shows were expensive.

So in 1852, a new group popped up called the New Philharmonic Society – which are so obscure nowadays they don’t even have a Wikipedia page – who started doing cheaper concerts, bigger showpieces and – almost to be a bit spiteful – they brought out Berlioz as their chief conductor for their first season. This, too, is a common thing in the world of classical music. Your orchestra is is regarded as great … until another orchestra brings out a bigger-name conductor to boost their reputation.

A Spectacular Location For Concerts

But then, in the 1850s, George Grove arrives on the classical music scene. If you remember, the man had been an engineer up to this point, building lighthouses and bridges, etc. However, he does seem to have been a good networker. While working on the construction of a bridge in England, he’d met some men who were helping organise events to take place in one of the newest and most spectacular buildings in London – the Crystal Palace.

kristallpalast_sydenham_1851_aussen
The Crystal Palace -home of a classical music revolution.

Through that connection, Grove became secretary of the Crystal Palace Committee and, before too long, he was suggesting that the brass band that used to be the musical highlight of visiting the Crystal Palace should be expanded out and turned into a full orchestra. By 1855, the Crystal Palace had its own orchestra which you could hear live in rehearsal during the week and which would perform a concert every Saturday for about seven months of the year.

What The-?

At first glance, none of this sounds terribly unusual. You don’t have to go too far in many cities before you find a few amateur orchestras that get together to play music for people in the suburbs – at a cheaper ticket price. Was this what Grove was doing? Just giving people a cheaper ticket compared with the battling Philharmonic Societies back in the main part of London?

I’m not so sure. After reading Young’s book more closely, several peculiar features about the Crystal Palace concerts started to jump out.

A Working Class Audience. We know the concerts were aimed at amateurs. But Percy Young’s book says:

Thoughout its life … the Crystal Palace performed a singular service for music, and it is unlikely that any building ever did more to accustom working people to the enjoyment of music. (p. 59, emphasis mine)

Working people? When was the last time we saw working class people at a classical music concert?

An Unsophisticated Working-Class Audience. And by all accounts, the audience was pretty inexperienced in the ways of classical music. Listen to this quote:

An attempt was made politely to discipline the audience towards accepting a new-style concert behaviour. The programame contained this note: ‘Visitors are requested to keep their seats during the Performance of the Music. An interval will be allowed between the Pieces, and between the Movements of the Symphony, which can be taken advantage of by those who wish to move.’ (pp. 66-67)

I can tell you now, if you had people like that in our current concert setting, walking around and chatting during the music, the current audience would be up in freaking arms about it. We harrumph somebody just for clapping in the wrong spot – but the Crystal Palace audience was moving around between every movement? And how different does this sound from the rapt attention and silence of the RPS audiences?

One Conductor. For the modern orchestra today, standard practice is to have a different conductor come along for every concert program. There will usually be a chief conductor, who sets the tone for the orchestra and conduct more concerts throughout the year than any other conductor, but for the most part, it’s a different guy (and it’s still nearly always a guy) every week.

But Grove only had one conductor at the Crystal Place, a fellow called August Manns. While the Royal Philharmonic Society made a huge ballyhoo about its latest guest conductors – “We’ve got Wagner this year!” – for nearly 50 years, the Crystal Palace got by with just the one man conducting.

And Grove Was More Famous Than Him. An unusual story appears about 15 years into Grove’s career at the Crystal Palace. He writes a letter to a friend in which he talks about the Crystal Palace conductor August Manns. Apparently, Manns was a bit upset. In Grove’s words: “Manns is in a terrible state of grief owing to various remarks in the Papers recently which seem to give me more credit than is due – or rather to give him less – in reference to the Saturday concerts”. (Young p.128). Grove then goes on to ask if his friend Bennett, who was a music critic of the time, could write some nice stuff about Manns in his next notice for the newspapers.

But let’s stop and think about this for a moment. In what symphony orchestra anywhere in the world would the manager of the organsation, much less the person who writes the program notes, be considered more important than the conductor? What’s going on here?

Now there is some indication that Manns may have been a bit second-rate. There’s a story told about the famous Wagnerian conductor Hans von Bülow who “on hearing what Manns was doing to the Coriolan Overture threw the score he was following to the ground and shouted, ‘What can you expect from a bandmaster?'” (Young p. 104) But still [when I wrote this in 2016] take a look at the typical cover of an orchestra marketing brochure and there’s a strong chance the front cover will be a photograph of the conductor. So for Grove to be seen as important to the success of the thing is almost unique in the history of classical music.

To Compete With The Crystal Palace …

But the story that almost made me fall off my chair was when I decided to research on Wikipedia where Grove fit into the eco-system of the other orchestras. As far as I could tell, in those days, the lay of the land was that you had your two Philharmonia Societies, both of them stocked up with the best musicians, the best international conductors of their day coming over from Europe and leading the charge – guys like Berlioz, Mendelssohn and Wagner. And then you’ve got Grove, with his bandmaster conductor, and his second-rate orchestra, playing concerts for – let’s be honest – 19th century cultural Philistines in a rather fancy exhibition building that’s outside the CBD.

Given that situation, you would expect therefore, that Grove and the Crystal Palace concerts would be a bit of a struggling operation. Somewhat like an amateur musical society nowadays – they might be able to put on some of the same shows with tackier sets and costumes, but if you want to see Wicked or Phantom of the Opera performed with a great cast and amazing set designs, you go to Broadway or the West End.

But then, almost casually, on the Wikipedia page for the Royal Philharmonic Society, it is mentioned that the RPS decided, in 1869 – so after the Crystal Palace had been going for nearly 15 years – to move from the 800-seat Hanover Square Rooms to St  James’ Hall, which was larger. And then “the Society remodelled its charges to obtain a wider audience and compete with the Crystal Palace and other large venues, and introduced annotated programmes”.

So larger venues, cheaper prices, and annotated programmes – to compete with the Crystal Palace.

The Most Awesome Classical Music Story I’ve Ever Heard

Maddeningly, there is no mention of this incident in Percy Young’s book. In fact, there is almost – in a rather mystifying way – not a lot of mention of the Royal Philharmonic Society and its competition with the Crystal Palace, full stop. This means that what I’m about to say is somewhat speculative, and perhaps someone can research it more fully.

But this is what it looks like to me:

Before Grove, classical music in London was, quite simply, only for a handful of elite people. If you were a musician, or you moved in those circles where you had the money to afford it and you knew a bit about European music, you might have come along to the Royal Philharmonic Society concerts. The fact that there were no annotated programmes for the first 50 years of its existence means that the RPS were pretty much assuming that you knew your music theory before you walked in the door, and thus were au fait with what went on at a classical music concert. (And probably dropped turns of phrase like “au fait“, for that matter.)

Then Grove comes along. He’s not a musician. He’s not a conductor. He’s not from that set at all. He’s from a working class background. He’s a civil engineer who, through sheer force of his personality and connections, gets the chance to be involved with the running of a concert series at the Crystal Palace. His audience consists of ordinary people who are completely unfamiliar with the music (after all, there were no recordings) or even just general concert etiquette.

And yet, within 15 years, the big high-brow organisations back in the main part of town are copying him. An engineer layperson has run rings around organisations being conducted by the most famous composers of the 19th century. That’s freaking impressive and almost unimaginable in today’s day and age. If that’s what actually happened, it is, without doubt, the most awesome story about the classical music industry I’ve ever heard.

If I understand correctly the number of concerts that the RPS performed was about a modest eight concerts a year. Whereas Grove performed every Saturday for about seven months of the year. So assume around 28 concerts a year – almost triple the performances of the RPS.

I can’t state this strongly enough, but nearly every major orchestra playing today is competing on the grounds of who can attract the best conductors and soloists to come and perform, because it is assumed (even if it’s an unspoken assumption) that this is the way to boost attendance at orchestras. But if I’ve understood the story of Grove correctly, his calibre of conductor and soloists was a lot lower than that of his competitors. And yet Grove was the one that grew the audience. What does that say about the way we’re approaching things today?

And all this was just what I could glean from looking through the one biography of Grove and having a poke around the internet. But what I couldn’t tell – and it was going to take a trip to the Royal College of Music to shed more light on it – was what actually went on at these Crystal Palace concerts? Were they just like our classical concerts, but cheaper and in a cool venue? Were Grove’s programme notes as enthusiastic in tone as his Beethoven book?

Well, my trip to the RCM did shed light on that particular subject – and totally blew my mind – but now that I’m at the 3,000 word mark, I’ll leave that for another blog post.

A Guy Named George – Part 2: The Man That Changed My Life

Note: I originally wrote this blog post series about George Grove (my classical music hero) back in 2016 on an old blog. I’ve lightly updated these posts from their original form. This is Part Two of Five and I’ll post the rest of the story in coming weeks.

The genial mutton chops of Sir George Grove

In my last blog post on the Book That Changed My Life, I explained how I picked up a copy of George Grove’s Beethoven and His Nine Symphonies in a second-hand bookstore. It so fired my enthusiasm for Beethoven symphonies and then classical music in general, that I lay the blame for my subsequent entry into the classical music industry entirely on that book. (Well, that book and Mahler’s Second Symphony – but that’s another story.)

But I will confess that it wasn’t until several years into my classical music career before I really investigated the guy who wrote that Beethoven book. Which is surprising in hindsight, because if this was the book that changed my life, you could argue that George Grove himself (despite having long departed this earth) is the man who changed my life.

But you know what it’s like with old books from the 19th century – they all seem to be written by a bunch of guys with very English-sounding names who all have rather spectacular facial hair. So for one reason or another, I hadn’t looked into it. But somewhere along the line, I got curious about George Grove – especially as I grew interested in the art form of creating audience engagement with classical music. Clearly, this was a man who had a knack for getting people fired up about Beethoven symphonies. So who was he?

A quick look around Wikipedia told me a little bit, and that little bit was fascinating. Grove was born in 1820 and died in 1900, so he effectively spanned most of the 19th century, just disappearing off the horizon before the onset of the 20th century. Nowadays, outside of classical music circles no one has heard of him – and even now, I’m not sure how well known he is in classical music circles.

But back in the Victorian era, in the realm of classical music, he was a massive name. He was involved with regular concerts that occurred in a place called the Crystal Palace (I’ll do another post on those) where he was not only Secretary of the company that ran the concerts, he wrote the program notes week in and week out. (So the Beethoven book I read was actually a collection and expansion of his program notes on Beethoven symphonies. There are lots more housed in the library of the Royal College of Music in London.)

As if writing notes and promoting concerts weren’t enough, he also got the Royal College of Music up and running in the late 1800s, which became one of if not the major place for young musicians in the UK to study their craft. And he established his famous Dictionary of Music and Musicians, which became the most essential dictionary on musical matters from the late 19th century to this day.

Apart from the Crystal Palace (which sadly burned to the ground in 1936), all of the musical endeavours that George put his hand to are still with us. The Beethoven and His Nine Symphonies book is still readily available [sadly it looks like it’s gone out of print since I wrote this in 2016, but it’s easy to pick up a copy], the Royal College of Music is still running . And if you’ve got a small fortune and spare room on your shelves, you can get yourself the 29-volumes of The New Grove Dictionary of Music. If that’s not a lasting legacy, then I don’t know what is.

But what’s most fascinating to me about Grove is that – wait for it – he wasn’t a musician. He wasn’t a famous conductor or composer. He was an engineer. His studies and background prepared him for civil engineering (like this lighthouse he built in Jamaica, which is also still standing today).

He was a layperson. And yet somehow he managed to become the driving force behind British classical music, with a presence that still impacts on us today.

This I find extraordinary and also (as a layperson myself) incredibly inspiring. If the 19th century of classical music is largely dominated by the names of composers, the 20th century – especially once the record player became widely available – was defined by the names of famous musicians and conductors.  As a result of that, the structure of most classical music companies is that the top position, that of Artistic Director – the person who sets the tone for all the activities of the organisation – is nearly always an artist themselves.

I can understand the logic – you want an artist to help you shape the artistic direction of a company, right? But it can sometimes send a message that those of us who aren’t artists as such, are second tier. We can help with some of the admin side (after all, there is plenty of work to do selling tickets and raising money and organising logistics) but when it comes to the look and feel of what happens on stage, the industry often still looks to the new hot-property conductor to be the magic bullet.

So from that context, Grove fascinates me. Because what I can’t help wondering is – did he manage to build up the classical music scene precisely because he was a layman? Was it that feeling of being on the outside of something amazing (even though he was as heavily involved on the admin side as he could) that helped him know how these things should be run? Did it give him an empathy for the amateur, struggling to come to terms with the genius of Beethoven, Mozart and Co?

These were the questions I had on my mind as I looked forward to my fact-finding trip in London. What I ended up finding out was even more enlightening than I could have imagined. More on that in Part 3.

A Guy Named George – Part 1: The Book That Changed My Life

Archives Bookstore – my favourite second-hand bookstore and the place where I was to pick up The Book That Changed My Life. (Photo Copyright Google 2016, sourced from Google Maps.)

Note: I originally wrote this blog post series about George Grove (my classical music hero) back in 2016 on an old blog. Back then I had been in the industry a few years and was thinking about a lot of big questions like: How do we make people like classical music? How do we grow audiences? But it was theoretical back then, and not yet practical. But now after 5+ years of running an orchestra Marketing team, I have tested ideas and seen how they work. The years have reinforced the lessons I have learned from George Grove, not diminished them.

Also, there is a power to story. I have found when I’ve been trying to explain ideas (particularly to musicians and artistic types) that marketing speak and audience data can make people’s eyes glaze over – but this story seems to connect. Hope you enjoy it.

I’ve lightly updated these posts from their original form. This is Part One of Five and I’ll post the rest of the story in coming weeks.

In March 2016, when I first wrote this, I was just over a month away from making my first-ever (and still first-only) trip to London. While I was going for a wedding, I decided to seize this rare opportunity to go hunting for any information that I could find about a particular person – namely, a guy named George Grove.

I’ll get back to why I was interested in George. But let me start with a question: Have you ever had a life-changing moment? Something that, perhaps, you could look back and say, “Yep, that’s one of the major turning points in my life right there.” In some cases, you might have known right at that moment that this was a big thing (like births, deaths and marriages). But sometimes life changes in major ways and you didn’t realise it was happening until much, much later.

It was this kind of change that happened to me just after the turn of the century, and it all started in the building in the photo above – Archives Bookstore in Brisbane. And precisely because I didn’t realise that this particular visit to a bookstore was going to be so momentous, I actually can’t remember the year or even the time of year. I suspect it was 2000 or 2001, but I couldn’t be entirely sure.

Archives, if you ever find yourself in Brisbane, is a big old rambling bookshop where you can find everything from old rare editions through to shelves of pre-loved sci-fi and fantasy, and piles of odd stuff everywhere.

Somewhere up the back, if you wander far enough, is the music book section. Possibly, the reason I was interested in music books was because back then I’d been reading through Phil Goulding’s Ticket to the Opera, which is a fantastic friendly guide to learning about different operas and I wanted to read more like that. Whatever the reason, that day in Archives I stumbled across a little blue paperback that looked brand new amidst the piles of otherwise well-loved books.  (Maybe it was donated by some music student who was supposed to read it but had never bothered to crack the cover? I’ll never know.)

This was the book:

The book offered to take you through the music of Beethoven’s symphonies, almost note by note and – perhaps the most friendly aspect of it – in the preface, Grove said it was written for amateurs.

Of course, when Grove was writing his book (and this was in the late 1800s), the definition of an “amateur” was a bit different. An amateur was somebody who could read music (the book is filled with many musical score examples) and understood music theory – so stuff like sonata form, major and minor keys, movements in a symphony (all of which I feel would need to be explained to amateurs today), were all assumed to be understood by his readers.

So when I first started reading it, I had to work hard consulting music dictionaries and such-like stuff to try to understand what the heck he was talking about. (And I can only thank my father and his piano lessons for teaching me how to read music, otherwise I don’t think the book would have meant anything at all.)

But I persevered, and as I read, something jaw-dropping happened.

The book solved a problem I didn’t realise I had with Beethoven symphonies.

To explain: A few years earlier, I had seen and loved the famous Gary Oldman Beethoven film, Immortal BelovedAnd I’d enthusiastically bought the soundtrack awhich I still think, to this day, is the greatest single Beethoven album anyone can own.

Then, thinking that I should expand my horizons and get into all of the Beethoven symphonies, a bit later I bought – because it was always the cheapest set of Beethoven symphonies back in the late 90s – the recordings of Herbert von Karajan conducting Berlin Phil. In fact, this exact box set here:

But I seemed to run into difficulties listening to it. All the Beethoven symphonies have four very distinct movements (except for the “Pastoral” Symphony, No. 6, which has five movements). But instead of hearing 37 distinct movements, the CDs always seemed to sound like this:

Symphony 1 – Nice Orchestral Background Music (NOBM)

Symphony 2 – More NOBM

Symphony 3 – First five minutes I heard off Immortal Beloved followed by another 40 minutes of NOBM

Symphony 4 – NOBM

Symphony 5 – Opening famous bit; another 25 minutes of NOBM

Symphony 6 – Some NOBM with that bit with the storm and the country dance – this one was a little easier because the tunes were vaguely familiar from Fantasia

Symphony 7 – NOBM – that great second movement (the Allegretto) where Beethoven’s nephew tries to shoot himself – More NOBM, albeit a bit more up-tempo

Symphony 8 – NOBM leaning towards random

Symphony 9 – What, a whole hour of NOBM before I get to the famous part with the choir? Why can’t he just skip to the good bits? (That said, there are possibly still hugely educated music fans that ask the same thing about the Choral Symphony.)

But, after reading Grove, I discovered that the Beethoven symphonies came into sharp focus, and all of a sudden I felt like I understood a) what Beethoven was trying to do and b) why the music was the way it was. So now listening to the Beethoven Symphonies became like this:

Symphony 1 – Movement I: Energetic opening with the first chord that shocked listeners; Movement II: beautiful little movement with the heartbeat on the timpani; Movement III: Beethoven’s first symphonic scherzo, so fast and furious it could never be mistaken for a traditional minuet (even if that’s what Beethoven called it); Movement IV: The joke with the slow scale at the beginning, like a nervous rodent poking its head out of a hole, clearly Beethoven’s sense of humour.

Symphony 2 – Movement I: unmistakable because of its fiery violin parts; Movement II: The slow movement with the intense climax at the end; Movement III: the scherzo where snippets of the tune get thrown between different groups of the orchestra like a football; Movement IV: The awesome one that sounds like a particularly crazy episode of Bugs Bunny or The Roadrunner.

Symphony 3  – Movement I: 15 minutes of epic grandness, with a huge sweep from the opening theme to the barricade-storming final minutes of the finale; Movement II: One of the greatest funeral marches ever written; Movement III: The scherzo with all the flash and fire of a cavalry charge; Movement IV: One of the most clever things Beethoven ever wrote, a theme and variations, with a theme at the beginning that sounds so light and fluffy, you wonder why he put it at the end of such a heroic symphony – until it spectacularly transforms into a thing of majesty and light at the end.

You get the idea.

But I found something had changed as well. Now having a knowledge of what the music was doing, combined with the enthusiasm of George Grove’s prose, all of a sudden, my enjoyment of the music – which up until then I had already thought was pretty high on the scale – increased tenfold. I now understood that previously when I had thought I was listening to classical music, I actually wasn’t. I was only hearing it. But now, for the first time, I understood what that sound world was that was inhabited by musicians and conductors and long-time fans of classical music. I understood why they went back to it time and time again.

As I pondered a bit longer, a theory began to crystallise in my mind: Perhaps people aren’t ignoring classical music because they’ve had a listen and it’s not for them. Instead, what if they don’t actually really know what it is they’re hearing. The music is like a foreign film with no subtitles or a spectator sport where you don’t know the rules and can’t follow the game. Classical music is just meaningless sounds.

So – what if you could turn the subtitles on? What if you could teach the rules of the game to the ordinary person on the street, in language they would understand? Would more people then have the epiphany that I got from reading Grove?

It took several years for this idea to emerge, but that idea so took hold of me that I left behind my career path in mathematics and statistics, which I had studied at university, and spent two years trying any which way I could to get into the classical music industry. When I eventually got in (and I’ve been in this business since is 2007), I still regard it was one of the best life decisions I ever made.

So looking back, you could definitely say it was that trip to the bookstore, and picking up that book, that changed my life.

But it wasn’t until I’d been in the business for several years that I got curious about the man who wrote the book. Who was George Grove? Clearly, he had a drive to share classical music with people as well, but where did that come from? How did he act that out?

I’ll talk about that in my next post about A Guy Named George.

How would you defend Beethoven?

I know it’s been a while between articles on this site, but I’ve come out of blogging semi-retirement because I’ve been fascinated by the various thought-provoking interactions between members of the classical music community as we try to process everything the year 2020 has thrown at us.

At this stage, the winner for summing up the year does appear to be David Taylor, who I suspect shall be regarded as the prophet of the industry after his insightful prediction for how the year would pan out.

Amongst other writers, some see hope for change, many see devastation, but one of the most well-written articles I read recently was this one by Peter Tregear entitled “In Defence of Lost Chords: Classical music’s struggle for relevance and survival.

First up, I’ll pay it just for the reference to “The Lost Chord”, one of my guilty pleasure favourite songs. (Which you can read about on my personal blog.) Tregear is on the money about many of the difficulties facing the Australian classical music industry and he is also upfront about the risk of the ageing audience, something I haven’t seen acknowledged for a while:

As the public conversation about classical music has faded, so have the audiences. There is a common notion (indeed, it is again doing the rounds on social media) that people generally grow into appreciating classical music; that house-music ravers in their twenties and thirties become connoisseurs of symphonies and string quartets in their fifties and sixties. The hard statistics tell us otherwise. People do not, by and large, ‘convert’ to classical music as they age; our children and grandchildren are only to feel further and further estranged from the sounds of an orchestra or an opera.

Tregear arrives at the insightful point that there has been a distinct lack of advocacy for the music itself. This year is the 250th anniversary year of Beethoven’s birth. If it had been a normal year, most classical music organisations would have played a lot of Beethoven. (In fact, it’s almost a distant memory when the worst thing that we were facing was that some people thought we were playing too much Beethoven. Oh, to only have that problem to worry about!)

Tregear uses Beethoven as an example to make his point:

Is it not possible to determine what musical performance cultures we wish to support at least partially in musical terms alone, that is with reference to the music’s actual, material, musical substance? Let us consider one example. This year, but for the pandemic, we would have been celebrating the 250th anniversary of the birth of Ludwig van Beethoven. In advancing programs of his music, there was an opportunity to draw wider public attention to the mesmerising intricacy of Beethoven’s musical constructions, his way of building large-scale sonic structures from the obsessive development of curt musical motifs. This is music, surely, that invites us to think musically, to partake of a heightened kind of listening.

He concludes by throwing out a challenge to the industry:

The answer, then, to the question (were we to ask it) ‘Who is the Beethoven of Australia?’ is, of course, ‘Beethoven’. Such music can, and should, be properly understood, as Edward Said once wrote, as ‘part of the possession of all … humankind’.

It is rare, however, to hear a director of one of our classical music institutions, let alone an arts minister (in those government arenas where such a portfolio still exists) stake out such a naked claim for this music’s value …

The case for classical music’s ongoing relevance to Australia, and thus the argument for ongoing support, must now be made, first and foremost, as a proposition of musical value. The Covid-19 crisis gives us both the opportunity, and necessity, to do so. The underlying argument we should all be pressing is that great music in all its forms, in all its genres, wherever it is found, and however it is ultimately labelled by us, should be understood as belonging to, speaking for, and challenging each and every one of us.

What I find interesting, though, is that if you read this by itself, you would think that no one is speaking up for classical music. Whereas, I actually think we have more voices speaking up for classical music than ever before, often quite successfully. But (and this is important) they are often not academic or industry voices and thus we perhaps discount them.

Let me list a few examples:

Exhibit A: InsideTheScore

A YouTube channel started up in December 2017 by the name of InsideThe Score. I’m not even sure of the name of the well-spoken young English gentleman who runs the channel but he (much like myself) got into classical music after understanding a bit more of the theory behind the music. He now makes video after video, explaining musical concepts to help fans of film music become fans of classical music.

For years, I’ve been hearing that nobody ever jumps from being a movie music concert attendee to being a classical music attendee, but did any classical music institution or organisation anywhere in the world attempt to explain things as clearly and simply as InsideTheScore does? He now has 177,000+ followers to prove that there is indeed an overlap between film and classical audiences and runs regular online music listening sessions with his fans.

Exhibit B: That Classical Podcast

The year before ITS took off, two young twenty-something Brits sat down to create a podcast called That Classical Podcast, a podcast aimed at introducing its listeners to new composers, instruments and styles of music. (But without the stuffiness.) Winningly informal, with many bad jokes along the way, it is surprisingly eclectic. The hosts of the show (and they have had one personnel change since beginning the podcast) often dive into spikier music by more diverse composers than can be found in many an orchestra subscription brochure. They simply love the music and their enthusiasm is infectious.

Exhibit C: TwoSet Violin

Several years ago, two young conservatory-trained violinists from Brisbane, the city I am living in, started posting a few video gags on Facebook. The humour immediately struck a chord with music students around the world and slowly but steadily, the popularity of TwoSet Violin has grown to be an immense juggernaut. At a staggering 2.73 million followers on YouTube, they have overtaken even André Rieu, as the classical music internet phenomenon.

And while many might in the industry might regard some of their humour as a bit on-the-nose, there are many heavyweights of the classical music world who are happy to be associated with them, including superstar violinists Ray Chen and Hilary Hahn. Also, lest you think the only brand they are building is themselves, I was recently watching a YouTube video of Richard Strauss’ Death and Transfiguration. In the comment ssection, somebody had asked, “Who’s here because of TwoSet Violin?” No less than 22 people responded with a yes. Who else in the world is encouraging Richard Strauss listening on that scale?

***

So what do these three have in common? Quite simply, these young people have been unafraid to experiment with how they talk about classical music. The reason I bring them up is because Peter Tregear asks a good question about who in the industry is prepared to talk up the music on its own terms. But my challenge to myself as a marketer and everyone else in my field, is that there is also a question of how we talk about the music as well.

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