5 January 2009

Triumphal march

The Triumph of Music: Composers, musicians and their audiences, 1700 to the present, by Tim Blanning (Allen Lane)

What is the difference between Mozart and Sir Elton John? Of the many possible answers that might suggest themselves, the one that interests historian Tim Blanning is the gulf in their social status during their respective lifetimes. Mozart, a hired hand of the archbishop of Salzburg, was seated with the valets and cooks at dinner. Sir Elton, on the other hand, is massively rich and hobnobs with the royal family. The process by which musicians climbed the respectability ladder — from servants to superstars — is the subject of this fascinating book.

At first, patronage meant exclusivity, harshly enforced if necessary. Bach was slung in jail for trying to leave the employment of the duke of Weimar in 1717. Haydn’s contract with his master, Prince Esterházy, would make a modern lawyer choke on his blinis. Haydn, the contract determined, would

be under permanent obligation to compose such pieces of music as his Serene Princely Highness may command, and neither to communicate such new compositions to anyone, nor to allow them to be copied, […] nor shall he compose for any other person without the knowledge and gracious permission of his Highness.

When Esterházy died, Haydn moved to London, just as “a massive expansion of music printing and publishing” was under way. Handel was an encouraging model, having become what Blanning calls “the first composer and musical impresario who made a fortune from a paying public”. But Haydn’s new freedom also had artistic consequences, as Blanning shows. The financial drain of full-time salaries for the musicians in Prince Esterházy’s exclusive employ had meant that Haydn composed symphonies for only 14 players. In London, by contrast, there was a “much larger pool of professional musicians who could be hired by the season or even by the concert”, and so he began to write for orchestras of 50 or 60.

On the other hand, there was a new necessity to please a paying public, which contrasted in Haydn’s mind with his previous freedom to be “original”. Blanning comments:

One must wonder whether he could have created the extraordinarily original symphonies of his so-called Sturm und Drang period of the late 1760s and early 1770s if he had been writing for the public of London or Paris and not for the discerning and tolerant Prince Nicholas Esterházy.

Such ambivalence towards the new set of multiple and often fickle paymasters that the composer faced is a recurring theme. Once the musician has evolved from salaried artisan to expressive Romantic genius, thanks to the examples of Beethoven, Paganini, Rossini, and perhaps especially Liszt (who also benefited, as Blanning points out, from the new art of lithography that could disseminate his good looks far and wide), he is increasingly tempted to think of those who do not understand the latest extrusion of his genius as “Philistines”.

In the mean time, Blanning also traces the material developments that helped spread the influence of music and its practitioners. He observes the changes in musical architecture, from the first dedicated concert houses to the opulence of the Paris Opéra (designed mainly around the massive staircase where the rich could show off their jewels and furs), which is contrasted with the austerity of Wagner’s Bayreuth. (There is a beautiful interpolation here on Coltrane’s A Love Supreme, which Blanning relates persuasively to the apotheosis of Wagnerian Romanticism in Parsifal.) On we hurry, to London music halls in the 19th century and then cinemas, with their Wurlitzer organs on which snatches of Wagner could be played to accompany a cavalry charge in a Western. (One thinks here, too, of Apocalypse Now.)

Technology, of course, also has an important place in the story, evoked in Blanning’s euphonious chapter title “From Stradivarius to Stratocaster”. Before the advent of recording, the single most important technological innovation was probably the invention of the piano, which reproduced in middle-class homes like a virus. (The 19th-century piano teacher Antoine-Joseph Marmontel called the piano “ce grand vulgarisateur de la musique” — which was not, as Blanning thinks, to “condemn” the instrument for vulgarity. The correct translation is “this great populariser of music”.) Also important was the invention of valves for brass instruments, as Blanning amusingly notes: “As anyone who has had the misfortune to be drafted into a military band of bugles will know, although it is easy to extract a sound from a mouthpiece attached to a coil of brass ending in a bell shape, making that sound euphonious is a different matter.”

Acknowledging too Adolphe Sax’s saxophones, we move on to gramophones, jukeboxes, and Leo Fender’s solid-body electric guitar: the Broadcaster, quickly renamed the Telecaster. As Blanning comments aptly: “Anyone aspiring to emulate the popular music of the swing era needed a high degree of musical training and very expensive instruments. In the post-Fender era, a group could be assembled for little money and less expertise: three chords and they were in business.”

In a late chapter on “liberation”, Blanning explores music’s relationship with nationalism (“La Marseillaise”, “Rule Britannia”, Smetana’s musical Bohemia, the Eurovision song contest), its place in the US civil rights movement, and the well-known fact that famous musicians quite often have a lot of sex. In a way the theme of the book is now reversed: for most of the time it has been an argument about the external factors that helped music’s rise to dominance; here Blanning is instead discussing what music did for other realms. The claims here can also be rather ambitious: one may doubt that the faux-gay girls of Russian pop group t.A.T.u. really “advanced” “the acceptability of lesbianism” in any serious way.

When Blanning reaches his conclusion, his subtle cultural demonstration of how music triumphed modulates, slightly unnervingly, into a triumphalism about music, as he quixotically attempts to demonstrate that music now is superior to all other artforms, which are apparently in decline. Literature? Forget about it: “The gap between Charles Dickens and, say, Martin Amis is better described as a chasm.” (Don’t say Martin Amis, in that case.) Cinema? Well, “music can exist without the moving image, but the moving image cannot exist without music”. Tell it to the Coen brothers, who used no music in the soundtrack to No Country for Old Men.

This is an unnecessarily combative finale to a very fine book. Blanning says, after all, that he does not intend to defend the quality of all the vast quantities of music in which the modern world is soaked, but simply to explain the form’s cultural pre-eminence. In the same way, music as a whole does not need the sort of crabby defence offered it here, in which other media are casually denigrated by means of loaded historical comparisons. Prince is not engaged in a contest with Don DeLillo; JM Coetzee is not looking over his shoulder at John Tavener. Music is not in competition with other art forms. If it is true that the other arts constantly aspire to its condition, music need take no heed.