Have you ever heard of music’s three “B’s”? Bach, Beethoven and Brahms maintain a level of respect within the musical world that cannot be matched. They are often coined as the three greatest musical composers who have ever lived and countless other composers throughout time have modeled their music after them. Schubert and Wagner, to name a few, are two shining examples. Schubert, who attended the funeral of Beethoven, saw Beethoven’s death as a “passing of the torch.” He believed he was chosen to continue the lineage of great German music. Wagner, to a more extreme degree, thought he was Beethoven reincarnate. Nonetheless, the point remains that these three figures shine light on the fact that art music has been consistently dominated by Europe for many hundreds of years.
With great respect often comes great loyalty, and Edgard Varese knew this. Varese tried several times to form musical coalitions that supported new music along with outside thinking, such as not accepting musical imitation and denying the existence of musical schools of thought and practice. In 1928 he formed the Pan American Association of Composers with the intention of supporting composers who were citizens of North, Central and South America.
My objective with this blog is not necessarily to simply report on Edgard Varese’s coalition, but to discuss the reason for its existence in a modern-day setting.
If we think about what we see being performed in the concert hall today, one might imagine the “three B’s” along with other examples such as Mozart, Berlioz, Wagner, Mahler, Dvorak, Shostakovich, and many others. Obviously, there is a European trend here. It is not entirely uncommon to see orchestras program one or two non-European or modern works, but the evidence is clear in showing the domination of a certain trend within concert programing.
The underlying question here is: Why? Why has old European music held such a stranglehold on the art music scene? I spoke with a conductor some time ago in hopes to shed some light on this. In case you were not aware, the conductor is typically who decides what music the orchestra will play in a given season. The conductor I spoke with gave a rather simple response to my inquiry. He believed that the world of art music becomes more and more neglected as each year passes and it is becoming increasingly difficult to fill seats in concert halls. Those who do choose to be apart of an audience are expecting a certain “image” when they step into the hall. That “image” is what I have been discussing – old European music. The music of Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, etc. has become unanimously connected to the art music image and when a non-musician steps into a concert hall, that is what they expect to see and that is often what may draw them there in the first place. If someone were to check their local newspaper for that week’s program at the local symphony orchestra and see music by Revueltas or Chavez listed (two names they most likely will have never heard of) they may be turned away by the fear of something they don’t understand. Therefore, the “three B’s” and their numerous European counterparts offer security in the future of ticket sales.
For me, this conversation has been something I reflect on on a daily basis as I complete my time in music school. It is a shame that so many works around the world are neglected and unnoticed, but I believe it is crucially important to take a step back to see what the state of our profession is. It is a slowly diminishing flame that struggles to take in fuel season after season. How do we showcase new works and support new ways of thinking while still fueling the flame? That seems to be the problem everyone is trying to solve.
Meyer, Felix, and Heidy Zimmerman, eds. Edgard Varèse: composer: sound sculptor: visionary. Woodbridge, Suffolk: The Boydell Press, 2006.
Tawa, Nicholas E. The coming of age of American art music: New England’s classical Romanticists. New York, NY: Greenwood Press, 1991.
Titus, Barbara. Recognizing Music as an Art Form: Friedrich Th. Vischer and German Music Criticism, 1848-1887. Leuven, Belgium: Leuven University Press, 2016.
Weinstock, Herbert. Carlos Chávez. The Musical Quarterly 22, no. 4 (1936): 435-45. http://0-www.jstor.org.lib.utep.edu/stable/738952.