IN 1838 Robert Schumann wrote in his Neue Zeitschrift fur Musik (Leipzig):
In order to judge the spirit and taste which predominates in our subscription concerts, we need only to observe the choice of pieces performed and the masters preferred here. And, as is but right, we find Mozart’s name oftenest (17 times), then Beethoven (15 times), 7 numbers by Weber, 5 by Haydn, from 3 to 5 by Cherubini, Spohr, Mendelssohn, and Rossini; Handel, Bach, Vogler, Cimarosa, Mehul, Onslow, Moscheles were each heard twice; Naumann, Salieri, Righini, Fesca, Hummel, Spontini, Marschner, and others played but once.1
Perhaps this is an oversimplified depiction of the taste of the Leipzig audience during the period of Mendelssohn’s conductorship of the Gewandhaus orchestra. Certainly it is only a tiny fragment dredged from the flow of musical history. But it is a pertinent reminder that, whatever may be the professed aesthetic ideologies of composers, or their pretensions to pure self-expression, it is, after all, public performance that constitutes the life of music and is the consummation devoutly wished by every creator of music.
Conventional music history, however, assigns greater emphasis to the chronology of compositions, their classification into schools and styles, the formative factors in their creation, and the biographies of their creators. It is upon these areas that most scholarly research has been bestowed. There has been some interest, to be sure, in the practical musical life of the past as it pertains to the social institution of the concert and the taste of its audience. Research into the concert life of the American colonies and of the various communities in our early national history, has revivified our past and has portrayed the embryonic beginnings from which our own concert practices have evolved. Similar historical services have been rendered by Hanslick, Schumann, Burney, and others2 in acquainting us with the concert life of Vienna, Leipzig, London, Berlin, and other European centers, while snatches of such materials are found in innumerable other works.
It is therefore apparent that there are several equally valid approaches to the study of the history of music. The first is the evolutionary or developmental approach, which considers musical forms in their historical continuity. By this conventional method we discover, for example, the traces of Gluck, Weber, and Berlioz in Wagner, certain of whose characteristics find later reincarnation in Richard Strauss. It delineates the features of Beethoven that were inherited from Haydn and Mozart, who, in turn, recognized their own indebtedness to the experimenter, Karl Philipp Emanuel Bach. In this sense every work of art is but a culmination, or end-product, of a long series of antecedents, plus the new and individual increment, just as a scientific invention, such as the electric light, is but the culmination of many successive inventive increments cumulated throughout the history of physical science.
But there is more than mere lineal continuity and descent, a kind of ancestral heredity, to a work of art. This historical dimension is supplemented by a lateral relation, a sociological background, which relates the composer and his work to his own environment. For no composition escapes the imprint of its contemporary surroundings. It reflects the currently available instruments and their technological characteristics, the contemporary organization of society, the source of its economic sustenance, its political and social standards, all vaguely lumped together by certain mystically-minded authors as the “spirit of the age.” A musical composition, therefore, not only contains many nonaesthetic ingredients, but is to a great extent molded by them.
The two foregoing broad approaches are primarily concerned with the analysis of the production of the work of art. But, as already implied, the history of music is incomplete and sterile without its fulfillment in the patronage of the audience. It is the consumer of the work of art who expresses his preferences and thereby determines the very survival of the created work. This aspect of music history is a third dimension that reflects the mutual relation between the composer and his audience, and their respective roles in the process of taste formation, together with the function of the smaller specialized groups of patrons, conductors, performers, critics, and connoisseurs who serve as mediators, without whom the inert printed notes would have no vital existence at all. The history of music from this point of view has been singularly neglected in spite of the fact that, because of the nature of its milieu, the very form and logic of music grows out of its performance history.
The mechanism of the consumption of music and of the other arts, such as dance and drama, that also require a personal interpreter, differs significantly from the consumption of the literary works on deposit in libraries and of the visual arts on display in the museums. The latter works of art are directly available to the consumer. But not even the most expert score reader can absorb in his own imagination, from the symbols on the printed page, the experience and pleasure of a performance, nor was it ever so intended. The absence of the performer, who recreates the work in the salon or on the concert stage, condemns the published work to eternal silence.
Although recorded music and radio broadcasts have greatly expanded the opportunity for such intermediary service, they have only modified, not eliminated the performance link between creator and consumer. For this technological centralization is a power that may cut both ways. A radio chain, for example, which had previously been hospitable to serious music may suddenly adopt a policy of restriction, and thereby raise an untraversable barrier where previously had existed a generous outlet.
Thus, the translation from inanimate symbols to aural performance has become a highly technical and elaborately institutionalized system, deeply immersed in our social and economic order. The act of performance is hedged about by a network of forces that constitute a complex filter through which must pass the musical repertoire.
There was a time when this gap between the fund of potential repertoire and the actually performed music was relatively negligible. In former times music-in-performance was essentially contemporary music. Such a situation is reduced to its lowest terms in nonliterate society, where all known music is performed at appropriate times, and is of such elementary and unspecialized character that nearly every man is a potential musical executant. Without a system of recorded notation, music could not repose unperformed and still survive, but had to be personally passed on from generation to generation. Even as late as two centuries ago, music was usually composed to order, or was written with good prospects for production, usually by, or under the direction of, the composer himself. If, at times, the public was indifferent to these offerings—as it was to a magnificent extent in the case of Sebastian Bach—it is still true that the composer intended that the audience be pleased at the first—and often the only—hearing of his work. Therefore, before the opening of the nineteenth century, a knowledge of available music of a given period would afford fairly reliable evidence of the taste of that period. Consequently, Percy Scholes could determine, with reasonable approximation, the character of British musical taste in the 1760^ simply by analyzing the musical catalogues of the time.3 Like the popular music of today, it was composed for the moment. The bold presumption of composing for posterity was an invention of nineteenth-century romanticism.
The spread of the techniques of music engraving in the eighteenth century, which facilitated the preservation of old scores, together with a multitude of other technological and social factors, permitted the injection of the now familiar discrepancy or “lag” between the audience taste of the day and the current style of composition that must compete with the past accumulations. Consequently, the volume of “latent” music on the library shelves is today much greater than can ever possibly be played. Not only the cumulated past repertoires, constantly augmented by musical archeologists, but also the currently composed works, constitute a reservoir from which only a very limited number can ever possibly see the light of production. This circumstance imposes upon the performers the necessity—or privilege—of choice from a wide latitude of musical forms and styles, extending over nearly three centuries, and disrupts the erstwhile more or less simple and direct relation between the composer and the consumer public that prevailed in the days of Bach, Haydn, and Mozart. This momentous shift, and the social forces that produced it, raise issues in public appreciation and suggest inquiries into the conditions that determine the resultant repertoire choices.
The history of the American symphony orchestra, which has been a central feature of American musical life for nearly a century, has not yet been written. There exist only a few accounts of specific symphony associations in several cities, usually characterized by ptilite anecdotal details rather than by a more fundamental and generalized perspective. Furthermore, valuable as are the cumulated repertoires published by several of these orchestras, their alphabetical array of composers is not a compilation from which trends can be discerned.
For practical reasons, this study of American symphony orchestras is limited to those major orchestras whose history is of sufficient length—arbitrarily set at a minimum of twenty-five years—to display a trend. Again, in the interest of homogeneity, the popular and other miscellaneous concerts have been segregated from the subscription series.
The orchestras, whose repertoires have been tabulated from the respective dates of their founding to 1950, are, in the order of age as follows:
On the basis of the classified repertoires of these orchestras, of the hundreds of composers—old and modern, eminent and obscure, native and foreign—and of the thousands of compositions, durable and ephemeral, trend lines can be plotted and fluctuations in taste can be measured which then yield a perspective of a social history of music.
To some critics and aestheticians the changing repertoire is no great enigma. It is to them essentially a weeding out process of the inferior compositions that seep into the repertoire through the fallibilities of human judgment—while the more inspired works, which are fit to survive, will inevitably be selected by the “judgment of time.” According to these critics, the intangibility of musical values and the poverty of our aesthetic vocabulary may render it impossible to describe those qualities which have survival value, but the fitness of certain works to survive is amply testified by the simple and obvious fact that they do survive. Even after a period of quiescence, it is alleged, the greatest music will rise again to claim its place in the hearts of those who are qualified to judge.
Now, such an “explanation” of the survival of the fit is as tautological in music as it would be in biology. The explanation is clearly a case of circular reasoning, in which survival is first explained by “fitness,” and fitness is then explained by the fact of survival. It is an ex post facto judgment that does not uncover the mechanism, nor the specific traits, which are involved in the durability of a piece of music.
It must therefore be observed that “survival” is not a simple absolute fact. It is attached to time and space, and its existence embraces a whole range of gradations from the infrequently performed Geminiani to the almost annual occurrence of a Beethoven symphony—both of which may be said to have survived. Examination will reveal that the same compositions do not survive with the same durability, nor to uniform degree in different areas, and that the intensity of their appreciation varies by time and place. Hence it is evident that the fluctuations in popularity would have been different under correspondingly different circumstances. The quality of music is, therefore, not an intrinsic trait that alone makes for survival, but it is rather to be defined in terms of the social environment to which it caters. The dictum that “good music survives” inverts the logical process and thereby begs the question. Instead of good music surviving, we must put the horse back again before the cart by assuming that the music that survives (by right of certain determining conditions) is then called “good.”
The general procedure of measurement consisted in reducing the repertoire of the individual composers and of the national groups to quantitative terms by calculating their respective percentages of the total repertoire; and tracing this volume for individual, or groups of, composers in the history of each orchestra alone, and in the composite of all orchestras considered here. The latter would yield a national trend, as a contemporary and continuous reflection of American taste.
Because of the tremendous range in playing time between the least of the preludes or overtures and the longest of the symphonies, mere frequency of appearance cannot fairly be taken as a measure of the composer’s representation. In view of the inflexible limits of program time, the volume of Beethoven, for example, is more appropriately measured in terms of the total playing time devoted to the composer, rather than mere frequency of performance.
Precision in playing time is, of course, difficult and, in a sense, impossible to determine because of the variations induced by a number of different factors.4 Various conceptions of the same work by conductors of differing temperaments will yield appreciable differences in timing. Different editions, or revisions, of the same work incur changes in playing time of some compositions. Cuts by individual conductors, diverse policies on observing “repeats,” especially in the classic symphonies, produce discrepancies with the standard timings recorded in reference works. Incomplete performances of suites and the elastic “excerpts” are always sources of confusion. But in the end, none of these variations, interesting and important as they are from the interpretive point of view, is of sufficient magnitude to make impossible the determination of an average length, or to invalidate the conclusions that may be drawn from the findings.
The ranks and weights here advanced are, of course, not designed to determine the presumable “quality” of these works of musical art. The concept of “quality,” in the commonly accepted connotation of the term, has here no meaning whatsoever. This is merely an objective story of the history of musical choices over a period of a century, with the view to adding to our knowledge of the subtle and evasive problems of musical taste.