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The Demise of pre-1900s Music?

Dear esteemed colleagues,
This was orginally going to be a response to Scott Dorsey's Stick Time piece, but it seemed time for a broader conversation on this topic. What are we doing to keep pre-1900's music alive and well? Will it be consigned to being considered a museum archive? We laugh at this question, but I must register deep concern as I view what is happening with not only choral programming, but musical programming in general.
I attended three concerts this past weekend. Of 24 pieces selected in total for presentation to the public, only five were pre-1900!
Even if we completely ignore the Renaissance, which we shouldn't (but it was completely ignored this weekend), the years of the Baroque, the Classic, and the Romantic eras together add to more than 300 years of time. The music of the 20th and 21st Centuries add to only 113 years' time. However, 79% of the music selected by professional musicians to present to their audiences in this weekend's concerts was from the last 113 years! Doesn't this seem a little unbalanced to you? And yet, they presented this as though it were perfectly normal and acceptable.
I understand that our ears are drawn to the "fresh," rather than to the more predictable harmonic progressions and formulaic methods of earlier times. We enjoy the lush, complex harmonies and creative compositional devices of more recent music. However, what we program is instructional: it teaches the public what is important, what is relevant music worth preserving and performing. This topic has been touched upon in letters to the editor of the Choral Journal in recent years as conductors discussed the huge extent of contemporary music presented at ACDA conferences. I hope we can have a wider discussion about this subject! Are we realizing what we are doing in relegating this music to less than 20% of our programming, and likely less, going forward as more contemporary music is composed?
The music of J.S. Bach was lost for centuries. Will we one day need to "redisover" Bach again? Can we make a conscious decision to acknowledge to both ourselves and to the public that these works are great works which still deserve a hearing? It seems that, more and more, older music is becoming a specialty focus of specific choruses, such as Bach Societies, etc., and not sung very much in the standard choral ensemble, including school choruses. I know there are choruses which are old and possess a rich tradition of singing the classics which will not digress from this balance even if/when they do sing more contemporary pieces. But 79%? REALLY? Is the old music really this irrelevant? One can find more pre-1900s music in radio/TV commercials than in concert halls these days!
Orchestras and opera companies regularly grapple with this question, as the membership often wishes to perform newer music but the public seems (or seemed - this is changing) to want the "greatest hits" of older music...So, orchestras and opera companies walk a delicate balancing act between what the performers are interested in and what audiences are interested in. I wonder if as choir directors, we even grapple with what balance of music history to present, as I see it as a non-issue in many cases that isn't even considered. It would be good to at least consider this! And yes, I know that much Baroque/Classical/Romantic choral music is often written for orchestral accompaniment, which can be cost-prohibitive to program...But if lack of an orchestra will lead us to neglect the earlier music, perhaps we ought to begin a new tradition of saying it is acceptable to perform orchestral accompaniments in the piano reduction in a concert! In this economy, wouldn't it be better to loosen the constrictions of "authenticity" just to keep these works alive? We don't know if the economy will ever improve to a huge extent. If it doesn't, and if we continue to say "I can't program that Haydn mass because we can't hire an orchestra," what will happen to the Haydn mass? As we broaden our minds to accept and receive compositional rule-breaking in the modern music, perhaps we should have a parallel broadening of rules to accept earlier choral music with orchestral reduction, just to keep this glorious music before the public. It would be an important nod to history!
We don't want these fine pieces of music to become like spoken Latin - reserved for a few hobbyists in small clubs or for scholarly research purposes only. I know I sound extreme, but I just see a dismal future for older music if current programming trends continue! We're way out of proportion, and we need to change some rules of the performing game to be able to continue to present this fine music. Orchestras, particularly community orchestras, are struggling and many folding. Even the revered Philadelphia Orchestra declared bankruptcy in 2011 (although they've recovered, lighter and leaner). We will have less and less access to an orchestra. Can we agree to continue to program older works, anyway, and relax the acccompanimental standards for the sake of acknowledging the beautiful works in earlier eras?
I know this sounds subversive. I'm being pragmatic. We have a fight in which we need to engage, which is the preservation and continued enjoyment of 300+ years' worth of masterfully-composed music! Of what use is it for music majors to study the development of this music if they won't be performing it? If we, the repertoire selectors, won't defend this great legacy entrusted to us, who will? As music majors planning our recitals, most of us were taught to select music of varying eras, countries, and styles. This taught us to present a balanced program. What has happened that our programs are so unbalanced now? Yes, definitely we need to present new and "newer" music, but perhaps not so disproportionately!
Welcoming all thoughts, including disagreements!
Reflectively yours,
Cherwyn Ambuter
Replies (10): Threaded | Chronological
on November 20, 2013 6:59am
"The music of J.S. Bach was lost for centuries."
While I agree with your basic premise, I would caution against hyperbole as quoted above. Bach died in 1750 and was "rediscovered" by Mendelssohn in 1829. The Bach Gesellschaft was formed in 1850. 80-100 years hardly constitute "centuries."
While I must admit a personal preference to music of previous centuries, how are we going to discover what music deserves "classic" status if we don't perform music from, say, the past 113 years? Do we need to wait for a Mendelssohn of the 22nd century to discover the great music of the 21st century?
I would advocate trying to strike a balance between the old and the new(er). Give your audience (some of) what they purportedly want, but introduce them to some more recent repertoire. There are many fine living composers waiting to have their music discovered. Let's not make them wait 100 years.
Robert Stoskopf
Applauded by an audience of 1
on November 22, 2013 6:09am
Robert, thank you for your correction! You're absolutely correct, and had I thought about these dates, I would have realized!
on November 20, 2013 3:42pm
Hi, Cherwyn,
I did not realize this was an ongoing problem, but am alarmed if what you say is true beyond your part of the country (not sure where you are). I do think the rise and strength of the authenticity movement may have caused many to curtail their programming of music earlier than 20th century for fear of performing it "wrong." So heaven forbid we should sing a Bach motet with 40 singers, none of whom are either little boys or can sound like them. Also, we dare not perform it a cappella for fear we will appear ingnorant of the fact that they were meant to be accompanied by an instrumental ensemble. It goes on and on. Surely part of the pressure we feel has to do with trying to gain the approval, or at least not incur the disdain, of any music department academics who just may be lurking in the audience (and are sure to be there if we perform in a music school or music department setting). If we are going to be reviewed, that's the final nail in the coffin. Some reviewers love to impress with their knowledge of the correct way to do this or that period or composer.
By the way, I understand your exaggeration when you say "lost for centuries." it's your way of saying a long, long time and your point is excellent. Let's all program all the good stuff, the music that makes us so thankful to be in this amazing profession. Study it, treasure it, perform it with sensitivity and intelligence, and include it without worrying about how "correct" you are being. The Renaissance-Baroque-Classical-Romantic repertoire needs to be sung and heard, the more the better. It does't mean ignoring 20th and 21st century music, just ballancing things out. 
Thanks for an interesting post!
Judy Gary
on November 22, 2013 6:45am
Judith, yes, you're exactly right! Many of my singers in an advanced ensemble wished to perform just a few movements of a Monteverdi sestina, but I wished to have our ensemble do the "correct" thing to continue to gain a reputation for scholarly performance, so we performed the entire sestina. And, in fact, what happened? Audience members who felt comfortable really sharing with me said, "It was a beautiful piece, but too long"! (Although I loved all of it and had enjoyed performing the entire piece.)

And some community choirs may shy away from certain masses, etc. because, say, one movement is too fugal for their ability to sing it...Instead of perhaps extracting just a couple of lovely movements within their reach.

Could we not acknowledge tradition and simply share with audiences, "We know the tradition for this piece is (" perform it with orchestra," or " perform it in its entirety," or " perform it with early instruments"), but we feel this piece of music is so tremendous that we would rather see it performed at all (or, "in part") than to shelve it when this isn't possible. It is important to keep this music alive in the concert hall. We see that this piece is not being performed as frequently as it ought to be. We hope you enjoy it." Or, for those directors who do not talk to their audiences, such a note might be written in the program notes or even, at the bottom of the title page with an asterisk so a critic might be sure to see it. The critic may in some cases even be led to discuss virtues of the director's decision in the review, if the critic is aware of what is occurring in the "macro" sense within classical music.

I am heartened to see that there are others who are concerned about this trend. For me, it's alarming! I, for one, am going to rethink my own approach. I know last year, when my community chorus performed just the "Dies irae" of the Mozart Requiem (and they could not have handled the requiem in its entirety, nor could they have afforded an orchestra or paid soloists), both the chorus and the audience loved it, and I felt that this "nod to Mozart" in our rural area was well-worth the musical compromises we made in order to bring it to the singers and audience. It was important. And, such flexibility and compromises to keep the music being performed may just inspire a chorus member, a student singer, or an audience member to go out and purchase a recording of the piece for private enjoyment...And then, purchase more Mozart.

I'm not at all suggesting we stop programming contemporary music! Just hoping for an appropriate balance.


on November 21, 2013 4:55am
I agree that we are "losing" this music in some ways. Because there is such an emphasis at the high school level on singing the newest, the hottest, the trendiest, the crunchiest, etc..., I have found that students are losing the ability to just sing nice open harmonies and voicings. On a recent program, there was a Sperry raga, a contemporary Spanish/Basque setting, a Gjeilo work, and the Howells Song for St. Cecilia. The students had the most difficulty with the Howells because they are spending so much time learning to sing contemporary harmony, they don't learn the art (and I do mean art!) of singing very open, sonorous romantic/20th century harmonies and voicings. This is reflected by the repertoire we are seeing from high school choirs at ACDA conferences. 
This is not the first time I have found that the Romantic period work was the most difficult on the program, and yet should have been the easiest. On my recent MM recital, I had to cut a Brahms piece because a fugue was just beyond some of my singers, yet, they could sing close harmony in mixed meter with very little work.
I find that my church choir, which is well rooted in the Romantic literature, can read most anything I put in front of them, including the more contemporary, but do not "fall apart" when presented with the open harmonies and voicings of the Romantic/Early 20th century. I think it really has to do with exposure. 
I was blessed by a director in my High School that firmly believed there were about 20 pieces of music that every one of her students should know, and programmed them in a 4 year cycle so that every student would be exposed to each of those pieces at some point. She then programmed different music around those 2-3 pieces each concert. We learned the greats. We learned Thompson, Mendelssohn, Brahms, Bach, Handel, Beethoven, as well as some lesser known works and composers (I still have an affinity for the Nygard Psalm 23, nearly 25 years after I learned it).
I hope that more choir directors at the High School and college level keep pushing to program the standard literature so that our students don't lose the ability to sing it. As much as I love performing works of living composers instead of just the "dead white guys," I also see the need to make sure that our students and singers in our ensembles are well-rounded singers and have the ability to sing the entire repertoire out there, not just what is pretty, hot, or trendy.
CJ Redden-Liotta
Applauded by an audience of 1
on November 21, 2013 6:39am
As an educator working in a small, K-12 school, I'm increasingly finding my repertoire choices to be the result of a combination of "what would help them learn musical fundamentals" and "what music should everyone know before graduating high school." Therefore, my spring rep choices include both Mozart and Bach. Both these pieces, however, are arranged for three-part mixed or SAB ensembles, as those are the groups I have.
I think it is more important for students to be exposed to these "classics" and learn to appreciate them than  know the detailed nuances of period performance (a concept that only became important during the twentieth century modernist movement). In most educational situations, the "constrictions of 'authenticity'" are completely unworkable. In a professional ensemble, the rules are slightly different. Often these groups have acccess to larger performing forces than a school would. In these cases, authenticity may be more important.
Overall, as someone who teaches music K-12 and MUS101 at a community college, I'm finding more and more that performances oriented towards music appreciation, rather than musical authenticity, are more successful. Does this mean that authenticity is unimportant? Of course not, but Classical music is dying a slow and painful death primarily because of people who emphasize this authenticity over sheer musical enjoyment. Both old and new music are important. Age is just a number, and this applies to music as well. Good music should be timeless, not seen as more or less valuable based on when it was composed.
on November 21, 2013 7:07am
Being equally pragmatic--as long as there are ensembles with shoestring budgets, and Kalmus editions continue to be available, and imslp continues to thrive, the body of Western music that does NOT require high purchase costs will not die. :-) Public domain is a helpful thing. 
Still, this is distressing to hear...I had not been aware of this loss of musical heritage in places other than ACDA conferences, where performing what's striking and new DOES seem to be the going trend, and somewhat understandably so. But the ensembles with whom I perform seem to enjoy the balance of old and new, if only because the classics are familiar and in our fingers/voices--comfortable, and requiring less rehearsal time. 
I'm curious to hear what others say--IS this trend toward the shiny and new happening in all our various musical circles? Where do we see it, and where do we still see/hear the staples of the heritage thriving? 
on November 21, 2013 2:14pm
Though as a composer I might be expected to lean in favor of a high percentage of new music in programming, I find I am in complete agreement with Cherwyn that this is an issue which deserves a good deal more serious discussion. Within the context of the choral world I found that I began noticing this shift in programming focus quite a few years ago. In recent years I have seen it in regular "home audience" programming as much as at ACDA functions, so I do not believe it can be explained solely by the influences which seem to take over conductors when they're invited to perform for a group of peers.
Not intendeding to further broaden an already expansive subject, I do think it interesting to acknowledge a parallel development which seems to have come along at about the same time. I am referring to the evident loss of ability to teach (or propensity to insist upon having) a vocally appropriate style for music from those earlier periods. Too many of the finest collegiate ensembles, in my view, cultivate only a single choral sound and then try to apply it to every piece in their folder. It gets them through most of the post-1900 stuff pretty well, but tends to sound forced, bland and limp when applied to the Baroque, Classic and Romantic periods (forget the Renaissance--we won't even go there). Don't get me wrong, this sound is often polished and exquisitely lovely and is a joy to hear...but it's not the ONLY way to approach a piece of music and it tends to obscure many of the stylistic details which separate a score from the 17th century from one written in the 18th, 19th or 20th century (or any of the other possible permutations). Sadly, this becomes a feedback loop--since the choirs don't sound all that compelling when applying this post-modern sound to historic music, their directors lean away from programming much of it. Before you know it, the students are left even LESS conversant with those other styles, audiences are left even LESS accepting of such music and eventually, when those singers grow up and start conducting groups of their own, they are neither inclined nor properly prepared to make use of the vast majority of pre-1900 they don't.
I'm not sure how this phenomenon relates to what Cerwyn describes, but I am fairly confident that there is a connection. Sadly, this problem seems to prevail in even some of the loftiest choir lofts of our profession. I cannot think that this will not be a source of great regret at some point...but will it be too late?
Dan Gawthrop
Applauded by an audience of 3
on November 22, 2013 11:38pm
Are we actually out of proportion, as Cherwyn suggests? Perhaps we are the ones who are in proportion, not the general musical establishment? I have been thinking about this quite a bit and feel fortunate that choral audiences are so open to new music.
That said, yes, there is a case for programming more pre-1900 music. I think there are several reasons for this not happening. Ironically, I think the HIP movement is one culprit: it is difficult to match the performances of Renaissance or Baroque music by the specialist groups that set the standard. Most of our excellent choral instruments are much larger and less agile than these paragons. I am afraid that early music is being handed over to the specialists. I think this is already the case with Renaissance music, and Baroque seems to be going the same way.
Another central reason is that the basic sound of a choir will always be moulded by the music it sings most. This is sort of a catch-22 for most premiere choirs - to be good at contemporary choral music, you have to sing a lot of it, but because of the emphasis, other styles of repertoire become less accessible (at least sound-wise). For me the necessary antidote is Romantic repertoire, which helps with qualities like legato and a broader sound. And as weird as it may sound, these help even with pre-1800 repertoire, perhaps by keeping the sound flexible.
And in the end, the choirs will sing a) what is popular, b) what the conductor enjoys most. If we want more pre-1900 music, the conductors need to become more interested in it. Role models, paragons, a slight change of emphasis in the training of conductors to start with. And perhaps even discussions like this.
Applauded by an audience of 1
on November 23, 2013 7:19am
Thanks for sharing your perspective. Ironically, I've always felt the music directors are programming often isn't contemporary enough! If you are seeing about 75-80% of concerts dedicated to living composers, I think that's about right and appropriate for any artistic medium. The majority of movie theaters, for instance, aren't showing films from 50+ years ago, with the exception of 'museum' pieces like the nutcracker, the majority of dance performances are of new work, and even art galleries exhibit the work of living artists. Museums are the exception, not the rule. But in the music world I find it's the opposite. Community chorus's are performing music from the Rennaisance, Bach, and the Fauré or Brahms requiem regularly. Every holiday hundreds of choirs do The Messiah, Easter season is filled with performances of the various Passions.
The issue I encounter is that when I do see more contemporary choral work it's rarely from the last 5-10 years. There are a handful of composers typically represented like Whitacre, Lauridsen, Pärt, all of whom write lovely music, but little of which I'd call cutting edge. There are literally thousands of young, exciting, eager choral composers out there who are having to compete with music we've already heard dozens of times. Where are the performances of music by Toby Twining, Jonathan David, Andrea Clearfield, or Martha Sullivan, or any of the other living genius level composers most have likely never heard of?  I'd love to see more of that, especailly outside the major coastal cities.
Preservation absolutely is important, and it's vital that as a society we are educated in the history of music, but I don't think it makes sense to spend the majority of our time living in the past. Singing wasn't invented in the medieval era afterall! There were hundreds of musical years before Bach, but the reason he is known now is because he wrote new music every day and got it performed. The purpose of a museum is preservation. There's nothing wrong with creating preservation organizations to keep this music known, but living ensembles should look forward, not backward.  Afterall, the centuries of masterful music will only grow as time progresses, and we can't put everything into the pre-1900 hundred and 'current' box, or we'll lose what's in between.
Thanks for bringing this up,
Fahad Siadat
Applauded by an audience of 2
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