Monday, September 12, 2011

Highbrow/Lowbrow, Cultured/Uneducated??

In order to maintain many of the phenomena of our culture's past, particularly the arts, historians and the like have taken those arts and essentially put them in a glass box on a shelf. Metaphorically, that is. The arts have become so expensive, elite, and exclusive that the common man is no longer regularly exposed to them. It's like taking an antique lamp and putting it away to preserve it rather than maintaining its upkeep and using it for its purpose: light. Perhaps historians have unintentionally done the same to the arts, particularly music. In order to preserve it and keep it in its original "pure" state, the music has been taken out of the hands of the common majority of society and placed in a glass box on a shelf. So what if someone wants to play a Bach sonata in a nontraditional manner? Wouldn't Bach have wanted today's musicians to be as innovative as he? By closing the door to non-approved ideas, in order to maintain art in its original state, historians have in turn closed the door to just about everyone but themselves, cutting off society from the arts themselves! This concept came up in a Music Business course I took during my undergraduate studies: why is classical music so removed from common society? The subject fascinated me, but until reading Highbrow/Lowbrow, I had no idea the road down which classical music had traveled, specifically in America.

Classical music and opera were not always so exclusive. During Walt Whitman's time, opera was readily available and well attended by audiences that loved the music. Everyone went whether poor, filthy rich, or somewhere in between. Though foreign-language operas were not necessarily well received initially, upon translation into English, their popularity skyrocketed. One did not have to be well-educated and fluent in French, Italian, and German to enjoy opera. English-language opera became part of popular culture because the audience understood what was going on! Henry Rowley Bishop helped to expand the English opera repertory by translating about 25 operas into English often inserting music of his own making in between. No wonder English operas became known as "operas for the people."

By the end of the 19th century, "high society" had removed themselves from the "popular" opera scene (English-language operas) and focused instead on foreign language operas, particularly Italian operas. Operas became a thing that was again controlled by the wealthy and therefore exclusive of the common people. Opera houses no longer were for the average Joe, but for the wealthy and elite. Attending an opera became more of a way to show off and prove one's societal status rather than for the love of music. Less than wealthy people who dared attend such operas were critiqued mercilessly even of their clothing. Imagine saving up your money to attend a concert you've been dying to see and when you walk in the door, someone scoffs at you for daring to wear a suit that cost less than $2,000. I would be fuming.

Opera houses gradually came under the control of patrons (there are less attendees when you don't allow the little guy to come!) and the English-language operas began to fade into the background. This step away from regular society elevated opera to a "higher" art which could only truly be appreciated by "cultured" peoples. What a ludicrous idea! Why do people so desire to be "better" than one another to such a detrimental degree? Even Italian opera was pushed aside for German giants like Richard Wagner.

This elitist attitude was contagious. W.J. Henderson of the New York Times judged attendees of the Metropolitan Opera's concluding show in 1900 which included four acts from four different operas in one show. He had the audacity to say that concert-goers only went to the concert because they could see several famous singers at the same time and price. What a pompous cad. What gave him the right to pass such harsh judgment on his fellow attendees? Alas, his enlarged view of self had become quite contagious amongst opera-goers half-way through the century. He even went so far as to say the audience members were not good enough for the music they came to hear. It was essentially wasted on them. Alas, orchestral and band music suffered a similar fate in America.

As Ronald Davis said, opera became a symbol of American culture rather than a real cultural force. Alas, this mindset has continued for most of the past century regarding both opera and orchestral music. But there is hope! The LA Opera Company and LA Philharmonic both host functions with children and offer rush seating (though still expensive). It is time for the us, the musicians of today, to seize the opportunity before us to reignite the fiery love of classical music amongst Americans, particularly those without $2,000 suits!

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