Walk to the back of almost any used-book store, look for the section marked "Art" or "Art and Collectibles" (depending on the size of the store), and there, if you're lucky, you should find a dusty cardboard box filled with old guitar primers, theater programs, opera librettos and sheet music. If you can stand the musty smell, and if they don't come apart in your hands, there may be a few books of music from the turn of the century with titles like "Piano Pieces the Whole World Plays" and "Favorite Masterworks for the Whole Family." These are the tattered remnants of what we would today look for at Tower Records: music one can own and hear at home.
The variety of music published in the early years of this century is astounding, and it says a lot about what home musical life was like. The Whole World Music Series published dozens of collections, with titles like "Saxophone Pieces the Whole World Plays," "Songs the Whole World Sings" and my favorite, "Modern Piano Pieces the Whole World Plays," which includes such "modernists" as Rachmaninoff. Many are filled with music by composers like Cecile Chaminade, who dedicated themselves to churning out short character pieces like "The Scarf Dance" and "The Flatterer."
Other companies produced volumes of famous symphonies and operas rewritten for the piano. If you returned from a concert with a hankering to remember exactly how Schubert created such magic in his "Unfinished" Symphony, or if you wanted to remember just exactly what happened two hours into a five-hour Wagner opera, there were volumes of transcribed classics to jog the memory. And when you heard the piece the next time, you knew it through and through, page by page; audiences could be tough on performers in those days.
But if we look at the popular vocal music that was published at the time--even frat boys used to stand around the piano and sing in those days--something peculiar begins to happen. The music gets easier, the melodies are contained within a smaller range, the texts are more trite. The titles are unbearable, filled with a vacant nostalgia for Gypsies, Indians and old home towns in Virginny or Carolina.
In 1910, the Remick company published "Chinatown, My Chinatown" ("Hearts seem light and life seems bright, in dreamy Chinatown . . ."). But later songs move on to Oklahoma, Honolulu and places even more remote. That says more about who and what was seen as exotic at the time than it does about music. But you get the sense that amateur music was moving farther and farther away from the center of social life, growing more faint and feeble over the years.
One can see indications of that statistically. In 1910 about 370,000 pianos were produced in this country, by firms with names you may remember from old pianos that disappeared in an ancient relative's estate sale: Aeolian, Brown and Simpson, Chickering, Kohler and Campbell. Most of them are gone now, both the clattery old pianos and the companies that made them. By 1985, only 174,000 pianos were produced. That's still a lot of pianos, but compare that with the growth in population since 1910 and it's clear that demand for the instrument has shrunk dramatically.
When we examine the slow marginalization of Western art music in our society, it's easier to point fingers at individuals, especially at composers who drove audiences away. One bedtime story about the end of Western art music goes like this:
On May 29, 1913, a riot broke out at a performance in Paris's Theatre des Champs Elysees. Brutal music in unheard-of meters, with unheard-of dissonances, thundered out of the orchestra; dancers enacted the bloody sacrifice of a young virgin. Those who hated it started by laughing loudly, then whistling and yelling; counter-demonstrations ensued. To keep the dancers in rhythm, the choreographer had to shout out cues over the cacophony.
The work was Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring"; the choreographer was Vaslav Nijinsky. In most standard music history texts, the event is described as an explosion, a cataclysm for an old order that had been built on predictable melodic, harmonic and rhythmic patterns. The scandal did, of course, happen, and it was a benchmark in the growth of musical complexity and difficulty that would ultimately alienate many listeners from new composition. In its aftermath there may even have been composers who envied the spectacle and sought to re-create it with their own even more shocking scores.
Yet today, new compositions of even greater brutality are regularly, though begrudgingly, endured by audiences without much more than intermission grumbling. No one whistles or boos, though programs may get rustled a bit. The key to interpreting this supposedly cataclysmic event in Western music lies in the reasons why the Parisians were so passionate. To do that, we must give them credit for a great deal of musical sophistication. They may not have comprehended how Stravinsky's music was constructed. But they certainly knew the rules he was breaking.
Like most of the cultural capitals of Europe, Paris was a musical city. Pianos were a fixture in middle- and upper-class homes, and other, more portable instruments--strings and woodwinds especially--flourished as vehicles for amateur chamber music evenings. Fashionable remnants of the old (and not-so-old) nobility could still entice up-and-coming professional musicians to give what amounted to command performances in their homes. Public musical life was complemented by a vibrant private musical life. Indeed, even without phonographs, radios and elevator music, at the turn of the century music may have permeated society even more deeply than it does today. And for one simple reason: Many more people knew how to make it themselves.
Different things contributed to the decline of musicmaking in the home. The advent of recorded music may be the most fundamental cause, but social and economic factors contributed as well. The emancipation of women gave them more creative outlets than reading novels and practicing the harp. The growth of popular entertainment--moving pictures in particular--contributed to a culture that had more opportunity to find its entertainment outside the home (until television, of course). Perhaps we got busier and more pragmatic about the ways we spend our time. Later in the century, especially the 1980s, music became more marginal in the public schools; it became a luxury that, with tax-cutting all the rage, was considered less and less affordable. The full impact of that loss has yet to be seen.
But the simple fact of recorded sound has had an overwhelming impact on home musicmaking. It changed our musical culture from one in which listeners were also participants in music into one in which listeners were mostly consumers of pre-made music. Want to hear a Beethoven sonata? That'll be $16.99, please, which is a lot easier and cheaper than learning how to play the piano. Recorded music also established standards that are daunting to amateur players. Ask someone why he gave up the flute in college and the response is probably "I wasn't good enough." Good enough for what? And so the music world became divided into those who were good enough to make it as professionals, and those who merely listened.
The consequences of recorded sound affect every aspect of our musical culture, from the decline of attendance to the marginalization of composers and new music. Consider the standing ovation, now almost assured any performer who plays a difficult concerto with the National Symphony Orchestra. In part, it is the sense that performers are magicians that excites people. Performance is mysterious--just exactly how do they do that?--and it can seem almost occult to listeners who haven't struggled to learn a scale or practice an arpeggio. Consider chamber music, the string quartet or piano trio. The great fun of this music is being on the inside; if chamber music has become marginal compared with the symphony orchestra and opera, that is in part because much of it is written more to be played--a scripted conversation for musicians--than to be listened to passively.
Western art music flourishes in our society, but in a way very different from how it flourished a century ago. It has become sustainably irrelevant, a historical artifact that, while it will never disappear, is unlikely to be central to mainstream preoccupations. Music institutions across the country have flailed about for decades now to address the problem. There have been educational programs, outreach to new communities and concessions to vulgarity, including the coarsening of what passes as a concert program or radio format. The first two of these are vital and noble endeavors, the last perhaps an economic necessity.
But the root of the problem lies in the home, in the large corner space in the living room. The empty space where the piano used to be or where the guitars once stood against the wall. Until our musical culture is entwined again with amateur musicmaking, art music will remain a subculture.