Thoughts & news about the future of classical music.

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Classical Music 2.0 – Part 2: The music pyramid

Classical Music 2.0 is a 10-part blog series putting forward a possible vision for the future of the classical music industry – imagining a time where we might have larger audiences, more revenue, and play a bigger role in society. (Previously: Part 1)

In my last post, I suggested that rather than thinking of classical music organisations as separate entities, rising and falling on their own steam, we should instead think of them all as being part of an ecosystem. And then I suggested that we need to think of the ecosystem as being a lot bigger than just organisations playing classical music. It’s actually something like a pyramid.

The best way to illustrate this is to consider the ecosystem of orchestral music – by which I mean, all the places where you encounter the use of an orchestra (or orchestral instruments, if you prefer – I won’t quibble!). When we consider this definition, going back to the 60s or 70s, the ecosystem would have looked something like this:

At the top in the Classical Concerts layer are orchestras and elite chamber music groups, performing concerts of new and old classical music. This would be the kind of live classical music as we think of it today: orchestras performing concerts with three works – an overture, a concerto and a symphony (and most likely no clapping between movements). And it is still this level that most people in the classical music business think of as “real” classical music. This is the high art, the pinnacle, the reason the ensemble exists.

However, there were other layers.

There were Populist Concerts (or “pops” concerts), known for their, well, populist music. Nowadays this would probably be something more like a movie music or video game concert, but back 50 years ago, it might have been a concert that featured excerpts of famous classical works, rather than full works. It was still “classical” in the sense of that’s where the repertoire came from, but giving people excerpts of longer serious pieces and/or light works (often known as “lollipops”) meant that it was generally agreed that this was classical in a sense, but a bit dumbed-down for a less sophisticated audience. (Though then as now, you would never put that sort of line in the marketing copy!)

Meanwhile, classical instruments could be heard in many other places. Consider the next layers down:

  • Classical Radio. It’s well known that thousands more listen to classical music on radio than ever attend in the concert hall, so it was clear that this was a part of the ecosystem that created a large enough critical mass of fans that some of them would shell over cash to hear the music live in a concert hall.
  • Music Theory & History in Schools. There are many debates of how necessary music education is to enjoying classical music. I personally don’t think musical education necessarily guarantees someone will like classical music or become a future ticket buyer, but there are nonetheless connections between music education and being able to get deeper enjoyment out of classical music. For instance, if you get a music education that teaches you that a concerto is a piece of music for solo instrument and orchestra, often broken into three movements, etc. – that will allow you to listen to many different pieces that have the word “Concerto” in it. Ditto for symphonies. Basic music theory provides a road map for knowing how to explore classical music, in much the same way as knowing a little bit about wines or degustation can open up a world of exploring the culinary world. (I have a lot more to say on this topic, particularly when it comes to the idea of listener familiarity with repertoire, so I’ll revisit this in future posts.)
  • Classical Music in Pop Culture. We also need to recognise that below the surface of music education, classical radio and concerts, classical music was audibly everywhere. It featured in movies (e.g. David Lean’s Brief Encounter, which is scored exclusively with Rachmaninoff’s 2nd Piano Concerto, the soundtrack to 2001: A Space Odyssey with all its Strauss music – Johann and Richard). Not to mention the thousands of hours of original orchestral music composed for almost every soundtrack from movies and TV. (Much of it as rich and lush as anything being created for the concert hall.) You almost couldn’t consider using any other types of instruments to highlight the emotion on screen. Classical music also featured in commercials and, of course – perhaps more successfully than anywhere else – it featured in cartoons. Bugs Bunny cartoons regularly riffed on the great orchestral classics and I still say one of the funniest Disney cartoons is “The Band Concert”, the first colour Mickey Mouse short where the mouse tries to conduct the William Tell Overture while being traumatised by a flute-playing Donald Duck. In short, classical music was as prevalent as, say, the music of the Beatles or Elvis Presley or Taylor Swift is today. Yes, it might seem unusual that 100-year-old music was used everywhere, but society wasn’t yet at the stage where it felt a need to ditch music that had wowed audiences for decades.
  • As if all that wasn’t enough, it’s also important to understand that the sound of orchestras or classical instruments was present everywhere. There were whole ensembles set up to playing “Easy Listening” Orchestral Music – the Mantovani Orchestra being the most famous – often covers of popular old-time pop songs – performed in slow dreamy “cascading strings” arrangements. It’s somewhat schmaltzy stuff and nowadays you mainly find it for $2 on vinyl at op shops (because there is not really a thriving vinyl market for your great-grandma’s Mantovani records!). But up until the early 80s, it was everywhere. I still remember hearing that sort of string sound being used in shopping centres as piped-in music or played on easy-listening stations as a kid.
  • Finally, there was an awful lot of Orchestral Music in Pop Songs. From the Beatles to Neil Diamond to the regular addition of strings in disco (or even what sounds like an oboe in Sonny and Cher’s “I Got You Babe”), classical instruments were everywhere.

In the next post, I’ll talk about what the music pyramid has become today, but the main point is that the bottom of the pyramid makes the top of the pyramid possible. In other words, if classical instruments and sounds are everywhere – in pop music, in pop culture, catering to easy listening audiences as well as highbrow – and most people are familiar with the basic composers, canon and musical structures, it is that ecosystem that allows the music at the top to thrive. It becomes a numbers game which benefits elite music-making.

But, sadly, over the years, the pyramid has started to crumble. More on that in the next part.

A Guy Named George – Part 4: Secrets Hidden in the Royal College of Music

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 Four of Five and I’ll post the rest of the story in coming weeks. If you’re just joining me, here are the other parts:

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

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

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

If you’ve been following along with the previous posts then you’ll know I’d ended up in London in April 2016 trying to work out the secret of George Grove’s success in the classical music field. In the last post, I described how looking at George’s biography and a bit of sleuthing around Wikipedia led to the astonishing conclusion that in the latter half of the 19th century, Grove – a non-musician, from a working class background, running a series of concerts with an (arguably) second-rate orchestra with the same conductor every week, performing for an audience so unsophisticated it didn’t even know to sit down while the music was playing – was able to out-perform his more sophisticated rivals, the Philharmonic Societies (the Royal and the New).

I was madly curious to know what actually happened at these concerts of his in the Crystal Palace to make them so successful. For that, the internet wasn’t helping so much. So there was only one place to go – the closest thing that you could call a “home” for George Grove in London – The Royal College of Music, still regarded as one of England’s best music schools.

The Royal College of Music, defying being photographed in the London midday sun.

I had lined up a chat a few weeks before with Dr Peter Horton, who worked in the RCM library. He was amazingly helpful, and a fount of knowledge on all things to do with concerts in the 19th century. I know musicologists and researchers are probably used to these sorts of things, but as a lay person completely new to any sort of historical sleuthing, being able to chat to people who are full of knowledge and stories about a past era is nothing short of astounding to me.

Down the library corridor …
The beautiful stained-glass windows of the RCM library.

After our discussion, I got to visit the Reading Room of the library. This itself, was a powerful experience. Because as well as being a charming old-school academic reading room right there, sitting on top of a bookshelf overlooking the reading tables – was Grove himself.

bust The Grove bust, just sitting there on top of a bookshelf in the reading room.

It’s a slightly larger-than-live carved wooden bust (there’s a matching one in the room next door for Elgar) with no name caption – but there is no mistaking those mutton-chops. It was George and it was like he was waiting for me.

George Grove.

I only had a few hours, so I decided to check out a couple of books on Grove and the Crystal Palace days, some of the old Crystal Palace programmes and a couple of examples of Grove’s  “commonplace books”.

The commonplace books took my breath away, because I’ve never been connected with someone from the past so intimately before. To look at, a commonplace book is just a small hardbound book with blank musical staves in them. But this was more than blank sheet music – this was the equivalent of George Grove’s iPod favourites playlist. (Substitute whatever personal device you listen to your music on nowadays.)

In the 19th century, when recorded music was still several decades away, what did you do if you really loved a piece of music, especially a symphony or something that required a large number of musicians? You might be lucky to hear it half a dozen times in your lifetime. And so, almost as a way of carrying the experience around, Grove had his commonplace books.

Any time Grove came across a musical idea that he particularly liked, he would make his own copy of the sheet music. Never the whole thing – you would have had to buy the sheet music for that – but maybe a theme that caught his ear. His favourites were clearly Beethoven, Mendelssohn and Schubert because they cropped up again and again. So here, for instance, is the majestic French horn opening of Schubert’s Symphony No. 9 (“The Great”). Which sounds like this for those who can’t read music.

I can just imagine Grove, flicking through his commonplace book, seeing that notation of the opening of the Schubert symphony and hearing the French horns firing up in his imagination. It made me wonder how many times he got to hear that symphony live in his lifetime. Did he listen extra closely every time he heard that theme, knowing that it would be several years before he’d get to ever hear it again. And, later in life, did he listen to it wondering if this would be the last time he would ever hear it?

The whole thing was utterly moving.

And there were little quirky things – on one of the blank pages inside the commonplace book, he had written out in full the words to a hymn “Lead Kindly Light”. Why did he do that? Did he like that particular hymn tune? As a man who dug into his faith intellectually (he was a huge enthusiast for Biblical archaeology when he wasn’t doing music) but struggled with doubts, were these words a comfort for him? We’ll never know 100%, but it was fascinating.

And then on to the programme notes:

I love the warning at the bottom – clearly this was an audience that was used to tromping in and out of things, regardless of what was happening on stage.

Very quickly I found out something amazing about these programme booklets. They weren’t just a random copy of the printed programs that had been kept for posterity. These were Grove’s own copies of the booklets. Flick through half a dozen of them and you’d find his familiar handwriting (and the ink of his fountain-pen or whatever pencil he had to hand, still just as dark and clear today as it was 150 years ago) scattered throughout. Holding it, you could just see him sitting in the Crystal Palace listening to the orchestra playing. He would think of a random idea, or perhaps something that he could have said differently in his notes, whip out his pen, and jot down his thoughts. That night, he’d add the program to his growing collection of the little booklets that were the trademark of that concert series.

But the really jaw-dropping fact emerged soon after I started checking out the second page of the programmes – the list of works that were to be performed at each concert. Suddenly, the penny dropped for me; I realised how he had gotten the crowds and grown his audiences. Look at this program – it’s a typical Crystal Palace Saturday afternoon concert program:

Beginning and ending with exciting crowd-pleasing overtures, interspersed with lots of short songs and popular opera arias, and the only major work is the Beethoven Violin Concerto. A concert cleverly designed for newbies *and* classical music fans at the same time.

There were many, many concerts that had this sort of format – they would start with an overture (the opening music, if you like) from a ballet or operetta that was popular at the time. Then there would be a curious 5-minute interval. (Only 10 minutes into the concert!). Then after that a long classical work, like a piano concerto or symphony by Beethoven. Then a couple of singers would appear to do a number of popular arias from operas and others songs that are now long since out of popular rotation. There would be another 5 minute break and then one more final overture, followed by a bit of organ music for the next half hour while you got a chance to walk around (or “promenade” as they called it back then).

For those who aren’t used to classical concerts, let me say right now: this is completely different from how we do concerts today. This is the equivalent of starting a concert with 10 minutes of John Williams’ music from Star Wars VII, playing a major classical work, bringing out some singers to do a bit of popular musical theatre, and then finishing with some all-guns-blazing piece of crowd-pleasing orchestral action – like Thomas Bergersen, for instance. (If you’re sceptical, just listen to the last couple of minutes of that Sullivan “In Memoriam” overture that ends the concert. Totally designed to have the crowd roaring on their feet.)

But lest you think the Crystal Palace just sounds like a glorified 19th century André Rieu concert, flicking through the programme notes, we see that in the middle part, where they did the serious music, they were pretty determined to turn the audience into classical music nerds. They’d play the whole work, and Grove’s notes were thorough and methodical. He didn’t hold back from explaining key changes, sonata form structure and the other musicological stuff. His language was enthusiastic and he was aiming at the lay-person, but he was determined that the lay-person could learn to love this music at the same level as music aficionados.

George Grove having an enthusiastic gush (albeit a musically technical one) about how awesome he finds the Beethoven Violin Concerto. “An art which no one ever possesses, and perhaps no one ever will possess, as he did.”

In short, Grove was putting on a show that attempted to both please the crowds and yet make them more sophisticated at the same time. In short, the whole thing was built around the audience and it was designed to be fun. The dirty little secret of the Crystal Palace and their audience growth was finally out. The reason it took off was because they were giving the audience a good time. No wonder the poor old Royal Philharmonic Society couldn’t compete!

Now in the 1860s, Grove can get away with putting two major works in the concerts – Mendelssohn’s “Reformation” Symphony and Beethoven’s E Flat Major Piano Concerto (which, interestingly enough, is not nicknamed the “Emperor” Concerto, as we would do today). But the program is still padded out with lighter, crowd-pleasers.

And clearly it worked. I looked through programs from the 1850s and then some from the 1860s and in a decade, the noticeable change was that the concerts had moved from having one lengthy major work to having two a decade later. (So an 1860s Crystal Palace would still start with light fluff, end with light fluff and have light fluff in the middle, but it might contain a concerto and a symphony mixed in the middle somewhere.)

I can’t prove this without doing a lot more research, but the evidence points to Grove’s “audience-first” approach starting to pay off. It took time, but gradually, his audience was getting a longer attention span and growing in sophistication.

Next time in this series on George Grove, in my final post on him, I’ll cover off why I think his influence died out, and what we can learn from him in the 21st century.

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.

Coffee Reading: Cross-Purposes in Music When Stravinsky Hits a Washington D.C. Nightclub

A great story just appeared in the Washington Post a couple of days ago that is the most perfect example I’ve ever seen of the importance of Purpose in our musical experiences. In my earlier post on the topic, I suggested that there can be problems when musicians have one Purpose for performing their music – and the audience have a different Purpose in being there to listen to it.

So in this (I will admit) highly amusing tale, journalist Anne Midgette describes what happened when a ‘Stravinsky Rave’ was hosted in a Washington D.C. nightclub. The idea was that Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring would be performed by a live orchestra with dancers in a nightclub. But the night, at least as far as Midgette describes it, seemed to have been rather an awkward affair. The conductor, on several occasions, told the audience off for taking photos. Or for talking during the music.

That right there is a classic mismatch of Purpose. It seems pretty clear, from the way the conductor acted, that his chief Purpose was to present the Stravinsky Rite as a serious piece of music for the audience to appreciate. And certainly it sounds like there were people there for that purpose as well.

However, by the sounds of it, there were also a bunch of people at the club who assumed that if you put something on in a club, surely, the rules are a bit more relaxed? After all, why can’t you take photos and talk during the music at a nightclub? You would for any other band, right?

In short, there was a clash between the Purpose of ‘presenting serious music’ and the Purpose of ‘let’s have a fun night at a club’. None of which was probably thought out explicitly by either the performers or the audience, but it well and truly played out on the night.

 

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