The Live and the Canned

In the spring of 1943, when I was twenty, I met Paul Hindemith for the first time. He was in a sour temper and almost immediately began complaining that the recording industry was ruining the musical art.

“Then why, I asked, do you make recordings and allow your music to be recorded?”

“Money,” he replied.

The truth is that I would not have even known Hindemith’s name, let alone his music, it it had not been for mechanical reproduction. We lived in small towns in northern Colorado, and most of the music we heard was either the homemade variety (my mother applying her old arthritic fingers to those Beethoven sonatas she had learned as a schoolgirl) or what we got via the radio and the phonograph. NBC and Texaco gave us the Metropolitan Opera, and we were able to pick up the Los Angeles Philharmonic, if we were lucky, from some radio station in Salt Lake City.

But the musical event of the week was the broadcast, by the Columbia network, of the Sunday concert of the New York Philharmonic, live from Carnegie Hall. In the Denvet area, this meant a performance at one o’clock, Mountain Standard Time, which was most inconvenient for a family of church-going WASP’s, If the sermon was long, and it very often was, it meant that we had to put off Sunday dinner until the concert was over. We had a loud clock on the mantel, and my brother made a ritual of removing it to the kitchen, leaving us free to bathe in the glories coming at us from the box. Most of what we got was, of course, standard repertory.

Not evervbody is hooked on music. I was, and when I was growing up, I formed about 80 percent of the attitudes and opinions of music that I now hold on the basis of scores and phonograph records in the collection of the University of Colorado Library. This included most of the standard orchestral repertory and some additions: Hindemith himself conducting (abominably, as always) the Berlin Philharmonic in a performance of the Symphony from Mathis der Maler; a symphony (quite good, I thought at the time) for four quarter-tone pianos by somebody named Vyshnegradsky; a wild piece, L’Envol d’Icare, by Igor Markevitch, the composer-conductor who was to the thirties what Pierre Boulez will undoubtedly be to the seventies.

The point I wish to make is that it was possible for a kid a thousand miles from nowhere, in the very heart of the sticks, to acquire a knowledge of music and some rather cranky tastes that, even a generation earlier, would have been possible only to persons of unlimited financial resources and a liking for travel. This was true thirty years ago; it’s infinitely truer now. Almost all big cities have radio stations that play “good music,” whatever that is, from morning till midnight or after midnight, and anybody who likes music can satisfy his taste for it without going far from home.

Hindemith was partly right, however, when he said that the recording industry was “ruining” the musical art: it has debased the currency, Hcaring a viola quintet of Mozart ought to be an event of some significance. I once went to a drink-in at which the hostess, as a compliment to the musicians who were her guests, put on the G-minor Quintet as a background to cocktail-party chitchat. Hephzibah Menuhin once remarked that music is inescapable in the United States. You turn a dial, and you get it—and whether it is “Tea for Two” or Opus 111 is as accidental as a throw of the dice.

The result is that concerts are often attended by people who are not deeply or vitally concerned with music. This does not mean that they don’t like it. On the contrary, the audience for the standard repertory has become a broad one, and the music itself has become a branch of pop art. But the overriding fact is that there are many audiences for music. Anybody who predicts an early demise for some particular repertory or its means of production is merely saying that there is something about it that he doesn’t much like. For years, composers said that God was going to put the orchestras out of business, thus punishing them for neglecting modern music. Well, they went right on neglecting modern music, and God, far from punishing them, has rewarded them by letting them proliferate, playing pretty much what they always played.

In 1952, the editor of Musical America, Cecil Smith, wrote:

Through constant repetition and in many cases absurd overuse, many of the one-time classics have become played out. . . . The Cesar Franck Symphony is dying rapidly. How much longer the Brahms and Tchaikovsky works will last is anybody’s guess.

When I first read that statement eighteen years ago, I thought it was temperate, clear, and correct. Now I would say that for people who want to listen to it, the Franck will never die, and that the Brahms and Tchaikovsky works will stay in repertory like the classical drama of China and be played over and over again to unborn generations of delighted audiences.

The state of atrophy that people are forever predicting for the symphony orchestra has already been reached by tHe string quartet. Last fall, at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore, I ran into a seventeen-

year-old lad who had written two movements of a quartet and was prepared to go the rest of the way. Why, oh, why, would anybody bother to write a string quartet now, when getting elected to the MozartHaydn-Beethoven club is so difficult that not even Brahms quite made it?

But quartet playing is the high hurdles. If there is one article of dogma that you challenge at your peril, it is that good writing for this medium is the most glorious product that art can produce from the marriage of technique and imagination. If a composer neglected to write a quartet (Palestrina, Handel, J. S. Bac h, the Scarlattis, Berlioz, Chopin, Wagner, and Mahler), the meaning is clear to the initiated eye: no Parnassus for them.

The listener to this music is usually someone who prides himself on his cultivated taste, the exhibition of which can take the form of (a) hysterical applause, (b) nit-picking about details in performance, and (c) ignoring the performance altogether and going on about those inner meanings lost to everyone but himself.

For everyone who considers the poses of the string-quartet audience insufferable in one way or another, it is all too easy to make fun. Most of these people have some of the standards they claim. But the severest critics, the players themselves, should have, and normally do have, a most rigorously exacting taste.

A few years ago, there were not many really good quartets performing in the United States, and the reasons were economic. In the spring of 1952, Broadus Earle, at that time the first violinist of the New Music Quartet, told me that he was contented about the future of quartets in the United States, especially his own, because, as he explained, the subsidy the Budapest Quartet received through foundations allowed them to perform at a fee so low as to annihilate competition. And, in a year or two, the New Music Quartet was annihilated, though most of the original members are still active in chamber music.

Now, there are many superb quartets, and most of them have no financial worries because they are subsidized by being attached to institutions of learning. The Juilliard School and the New England Conservatory are, of course, privately endowed, and their quartets are among the best. But there are statesupported schools throughout the country which maintain not only quartets in residence but the most varied conceivable types of musical apparatus. There are orchestras, hands such as the famous one at the University of Michigan, electronic studios, mixed-media workshops.

This appears to be the American Way of subsidizing an art which has never nourished without some form of patronage. It is perfectly clear, of course, that the most expensive vehicles for large-scale music—symphony, opera, and ballet—are approaching a point where they cannot survive without government subsidy, probably federal subsidy. But those who are concerned about some form of federal aid for music in America frequently seem to be oblivious to the fact that many state and local governments, in the guise of supplying high-quality education, are doing lor a lot ol musicians what the church and the aristocracy used to do for a chosen few.

A New York firm, Composers Recordings, Inc., which specializes in new music , recently issued a list identifying more than seventy of the composers in its catalogue as artists associated with universities, colleges, and conservatories, it this list represents even a quarter of the composers who would qualify, it is doing very well indeed.

As for performing groups, many of the best in the country (including those who do not make phonograph records and do not tour) exist thanks to taxpayers’ money. Here are some off the top of my head: the University of Iowa String Quartet (one of the best in the world) : the Opera Workshop of Indiana University: the University of Maryland Trio. And there are literally hundreds of good pianists who do not tour (but appear locally in recital and in chamber music), whose basic income is in the form of checks from the state treasury. Add to this the trumpeters, fiddlers, cellists, and clarinetists who enjoy the same subsidy, and von come up with a couple of battalions of splendid musicians who, if they don’t enjoy the rewards of fame, nonetheless have a maximum of security and artistic freedom.

For these people, there is an audience. It may not he an audience after a concert manager’s heart, and frequently it does not contribute a proper share to the financial support of the artists. But since the artists are going to be paid anyway, who cares?

The trouble comes when you try to divert federal funds to the subside of big music. A few years ago, some do-gooder in the Missouri state legislature introduced a bill to give the state’s two big symphony orchestras some money for presenting short concerts of “good music” to schoolchildren in the state. The sum involved was not large, hut both orchestras could have used the money. Well, a legislator from the Ozarks asked what they meant by “good music” and was not satisfied with the answer. Another wanted to know how many people in the orchestras were foreigners—the question may have been put more delicately, but this is what it was—and the bill did not pass.

This looks bad in print, but there is a point here. Just what is this “good music” we are all supposed to like? If it’s Trovatore, count me in with Aaron Slick of Punkin Crick. Not only do I loathe early Verdi, but also what I know (which is not much) of Donizetti and Bellini and the fervent style of singing that goes along with them. Is this crankiness? Possibly. Whatever it is, it is a blind spot that will give federal agencies trouble with the press or segments of the public if they ever begin to subsidize music directly.

No doubt the aim will be to support the concerts, operas, and ballets that are least vulnerable to attack of any kind.

This will involve appealing to the widest possible segment of the public, and nobody seems to know just how to do this. In Washington, D.C., for instance, there are two organizations in residence that are in competition not only for the ticketbuyer’s dollar, which pays for part of the cost of production, but also for handouts of almost any size, from a couple of dollars up, to take care of the deficit. One of these, the Washington National Symphony, has pursued a grim and unyielding policy of Give’em What They Want: big-name soloists, lots of Beethoven, Handel’s Messiah once a year, and nothing to raise the hackles of the most conservative patron. Through the years, ticket sales have increased substantially. The orchestra plays to at least 7000 people a week during the season, and to a larger audience when it travels.

The Opera Society of Washington is a newer organization. It never engages famous soloists or conductors, and performs standard works rarely. This season, it has staged Rossini’s Le Comte Dry and Britten’s Turn of the Screw. In the past, the society has mounted both Ravel operas, three of Stravinsky’s, Ginastera’s Bomarzo (the world premiere), Schoenberg’s Erwartung, Strauss’s Ariadne, Massenet’s Werther, and, in the main, pieces so rare that the opera buff can expect to see them only once or twice in a lifetime. Three works are performed each season, and each production is given three times. It is hard to get tickets, which are expensive, and there is agitation to expand the season by three performances. So it goes.

Two diametrically opposed policies producing identical results. Does this mean anything? I would like to say, because I believe it, that it proves that in any settlement of a million or more souls, there are separate but equal audiences for different kinds of music. In Washington, however, many people, particularly those in black ties, are conspicuously present at both series. Some highbrows boycott the symphony but attend the opera. Other highbrows boycott them both. But both organizations are flourishing.

Without overstressing the point, it seems safe to say that most listeners are neither discriminating nor demanding. The fact is, however, that in this country right now, the standards of excellence in performance are almost unbelievably high, and anybody can have a good time listening to music if he doesn’t much care what he is hearing. People who, like myself, are interested mostly in repertory, are out of luck more often than not. But many good and careful listeners—call them the Society of Friends of B. H. Haggin—enjoy hearing the same music over and over again, and compare notes on who did what how. They tend to enjoy the bad news as much as the good, and will be happy to tell you how Lotte Lehmann, as the Marschallin, fell on her ass in an unforgettable performance of Rosenkavalier, or Schnabel blew the Schubert D-major Sonata in Town Hall. (He said he was in a draft.)

For these listeners, the present is a silver age, rather than the golden age it will appear to future historians, but a good time nonetheless.

The trouble is that so many of them, hunting with the pack, will support, only famous artists, which means that many good young performers play to empty seats instead of people.

I can think of no reason at all that perfectly satisfactory performances could not be put on much more cheaply than they are now. There are, of course, many people who think of the symphony orchestra as a sort of obese combo, with 110 boys—or, as they say, “pieces”— in the band. Well, for most music, they don’t need that many boys. The big works of Stravinsky, Ravel, Debussy, Strauss, Mahler, and other twentieth-century figures do require a very large orchestra indeed, but to play the Fifth Symphony ot Tchaikovsky—I mention it because it is standard—demands something larger than a Beethoven orchestra but nothing as grand as what they need for Debussy. You have to have a piccolo, two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, tuba, kettledrums (one player) , and strings. Suppose you have ten first violins, eight seconds, six violas, six cellos, five double basses: you are in business. You have fifty-five players, including a respectable string section, and you can play the Tchaikovsky Fifth. I’m not suggesting that they fire the second harpist or anybody else, but it’s perfectly obvious that the man-hours wasted in a professional symphony orchestra would be inconceivable in most other lines of work.

All the plans I know of to preserve the large orchestras are visionary and still full of bugs. When the country is ready for it, and surely not before, we can think seriously of subsidy European-style. Meantime, the very real possibility that some of the orchestras will be forced to dissolve before the government rescues them means that some plans should be developed with a view to cutting costs, increasing revenues, or otherwise shrinking the deficit to reasonable proportions.

A simple way to cut expenditures is to stop paying scalpers’ prices to soloists and their agents. A soloist who gets between $4500 and S7000 an engagement has to sell a lot of tickets to earn his keep. And after he has paid his agent’s fee, his traveling expenses, and his income taxes, the artist himself often enjoys a very small profit. The Boston and Philadelphia orchestras have, for years, got by, and very nicely, without paying these enormous fees.

Another suggestion is to maintain the orchestra (whatever the local one is) as it is constituted, but to divide it when it is not needed at full strength—which is most of the time—into quartets, quintets, brass choirs, chamber ensembles, and even, possibly, a couple of chamber orchestras, leaving parts of the orchestra to tour while the rest are in residence.

If the revenues realized in such a scheme were sufficient to cut the deficit, then the scheme itself would be worth some attention. In cities where the deficit itself is the problem, there would be no advantage to maintaining it at its present level.

This will sound extreme, I know, but since state-supported education systems seem to have unlimited funds, why not let them take over the job of supporting these big, expensive machines intact? How do you like “The Metropolitan Opera Company of the State University of New York” as a title? Or “The Symphony Orchestra of the University of Missouri at (a) Kansas City or (b) St. Louis”?

If you are not willing to leap into a science-fiction world in which there is no more New York Philharmonic, there is a way station—put it fifty or a hundred years in the future or, in any case, out of harm’s way in which there are only four or five full-scale American symphony orchestras left, recording orchestras in which every player makes at least as much as a skilled surgeon.

If smaller orchestras are to continue, it may well be that the Orchestra of the National Gallery of Art will be their prototype. The curious thing about this small orchestra is that it is made up of professional musicians who do not make orchestra-playing their profession. Some of them are well-known teachers, some of them are splendid virtuosi who travel and have concert careers, others are Presbyterian choir average and shouldn’t be with the orchestra at all. The concerts are subsidized, not by the government, but by foundations, and they are free to the public. There is never enough money for adequate rehearsal. with the result that sometimes the performances are pedestrian and routine, but sometimes they are even great. If they had more money and more rehearsal time, they would give great performances more frequently.

This much is clear: American performers insist on being paid adequately and treated properly. If these two conditions are to be met, they can he met much more easily with a small orchestra than a large one, and it may very well be that the outsized chamber orchestra will be the immediate successor to the old-fashioned symphony.