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The Problem of Popularity

Cover page of program for 1885 premiere production of 'The Mikado'.

by James Koehne

When Donald Mitchell set out to write an appreciation of Malcolm Arnold in 1977, he felt compelled to rescue the composer from the ‘curse of popularity’. Even in his symphonies, Arnold’s music indulges in big, beautiful tunes, and this, Mitchell points out, ‘gives rise to suspicions that we’re being seduced by something vaguely improper, that we’re succumbing to the blandishments of the popular while the composer is somehow abandoning the pedestal of high art…’ Accordingly, ‘there is a real sense in which Arnold’s extraordinary melodic gift has, ironically, made things difficult for him rather than easy’.

The defence Mitchell built for Arnold was to say that the composer himself actually knew much better, and that he was being ironic with his big tunes – he was only presenting them as ‘illusions’. Mitchell couldn’t simply propose that Arnold’s popular appeal and gift with a good tune was cause for celebration – he had to show that Arnold was a ‘serious’ composer at heart.

Mitchell borrowed his concept of the ‘curse’ from his mentor, Hans Keller, who had used the term the ‘problem of popularity’ in a similar 1950 defence of Australian composer Arthur Benjamin, who was mostly associated, like Arnold, with ‘light music’, usually regarded as watered-down classical music with popular touches to it. In making his pitch for Benjamin, Keller took a much more well-judged line than Mitchell, pointing out that music like Benjamin’s, which had genuine popular appeal but did not forsake artistic quality, is a necessary thing for a healthy musical life. Observing that the advancement of music – under the influence at that time of Arnold Schoenberg – had ‘left the majority of listeners far behind’, Keller framed the ‘problem’ as a real quandary: namely, ‘how to be popular’.

In suggesting that it was a problem worth even considering, Keller was a rare voice in his time. While declaring his belief in the ideal of the eternal, absolute work of great music, Keller also proposed that we should never ‘underestimate the importance, even for great art itself, of art that was not great, but art nevertheless’. All around him, however, ideologues and musicologists were urgently sequestering popular music – or music tainted by the traces of popularity, like Light Music – away from and far below the musical mainstream.

The eminent musicologist Carl Dahlhaus, in compiling his history of 19th-century music, had to find some way to account for the likes of the Strauss family, Offenbach and Arthur Sullivan, from whose loins Light Music sprang. Dahlhaus labelled it all as Trivialmusik, ranging ‘from the salon piece to the hit tune, from the periphery of operetta to entertainment music’. This whole mass of music arose, Dahlhaus said, from the broadening of education to ‘all levels of the population’, resulting in a ‘mass acquisition of music and an emphasis on the emotional affects of acoustic phenomena, even those of minimal or dubious artistic qualities’. The extension of educational opportunity more widely in society unfortunately exposed music to two ‘new dangers’: ‘low’ taste and commercial exploitation. The ‘philanthropical’ good intentions of education were to become ‘perverted… by a process of commercialization or industrialization which took hold in virtually all areas of society as a compulsion to mass-produce and distribute commodities’. Dahlhaus assumed his mission to be to preserve the autonomy of great composers from the threat of popular trivialization.

The element of The Popular became classical music’s ‘Other’, the thing to be excluded so that proper attention could be lavished on the serious side. While people like Dahlhaus were making a philosophical argument for downgrading the popular, in a more practical way too, popular music was excised from our concert programs.

In his history of Classical Music in America, Joseph Horowitz recounts the story of how the Boston Symphony Orchestra changed its programming practice to separate its popular content from its serious. Under the orchestra’s original conductor, George Henschel, concert programs had routinely concluded with selections of light overtures and numbers, intended presumably to send the audience away with a smile on their face. But with the arrival of the much more earnest German conductor Wilhelm Gericke, that all changed, as he disciplined his audiences to follow his lead into more elevating musical realms. The popular content – at that time represented in the music of Gounod, Auber, Waldteufel, Rossini, Suppé and Zeller, etc. – was therefore hived off into a separate program of ‘promenade’ concerts, originating in 1885, under another conductor.

This division – in some ways a specialisation of labour – proved highly successful as both the Boston Symphony and Boston Pops flourished long thereafter. But for concert programs, the separation of these worlds meant that a Beethoven symphony would never again be heard in the company of, say, Gounod, Grétry, or Waldteufel. The Boston split symbolises how the separation of the galaxy of Great Symphonies and Eternal Masterpieces from a parallel universe of Popular Dances and Ephemeral Tunes, became firmly entrenched.

Today Hans Keller’s quandary – how to be popular – is more potent than ever. It is one we have to face, and find our own answers to – so that orchestras are not relegated to the periphery of social and cultural interest, quite regardless of the issue of economic sustainability. Having devoted so much effort to getting popularity out of our system, we now have to contend with finding ways to draw it back in… much to the chagrin of many involved in the orchestral enterprise!

It is now a regular practice for orchestras around the world to bring in ‘popular’ shows: sometimes it feels like gigs with rock bands, pop divas, film screens and the like are taking over. We try to sequester these events away from our ‘real’ product (the serious stuff), and gain some consolation from the fact that we can use the money earned by the pop shows to present Mahler and Bruckner… or pay salaries. But perhaps there is another, more creative way to deal with the problem. Instead of resenting the fact that we have to deal with this stuff, would it be possible to actually take ownership over popular content, and even to develop ways to integrate it as a core part of our concert offerings?

This is a suggestion put forward by philosopher Richard Shusterman, whose book Pragmatist Aesthetics provides the classic antidote to Dahlhaus’s aesthetics of separation and alienation. Shusterman takes his inspiration from a branch of philosophy known as Pragmatism, in particular, the work of Thomas Dewey. From Dewey, Shusterman gained a transforming insight: art is not a thing, but an experience.

As musicians, of course, we know that keenly. But Shusterman (following Dewey) puts this notion at the centre of artistic judgment and value. Like a tree falling in the woods, art only has value when it is experienced, and it is the quality of this experiencing that determines the value of art. From this idea, Shusterman develops a series of observations about how we might think about art and music. We should not restrict our sense of artistic value to the lineage of masterpieces, judged by fixed criteria – instead we need to be flexible, adaptable, responding to changing social and individual values. We need to think of art again as a primarily sensual experience, not an intellectual or written-down one. We must not be content to sustain our musical life within the confines of the concert hall alone – we have to take it out there to the people, so that it becomes ‘a normal part of the processes of living’. And finally, we need to start thinking of all musical styles not as separate – even opposing – categories but as parts of a spectrum of continuity, each type of music feeding and inspiring the other. Shusterman even suggests that popular art will be the salvation of the high arts, by showing us how to make ourselves popular again, how to overcome our stagnating social and aesthetic inwardness.

If we treat the element of the popular as something more than a mere ‘cash cow’, we may find a new creative energy that will bring back to us the broader audience we have been losing in the last few decades. The great thing about the way Keller has phrased the quandary – how to be popular – is that it suggests there is more than one way to skin this cat. That is, popularity can be – in fact has to be – achieved by a variety of means.

The admonitions of Richard Shusterman do not provide us with a pat or simple set of answers to the popularity quandary, but they do contain the seeds of different ways of thinking and valuing that could take us to a better place. Instead of just seeking the quickest and easiest way to answer the quandary – picking up a cheap profitable Beatles Tribute concert here and there – we need to think seriously about popularity. ‘How to be popular’ is no longer a question only for the marketing department – even philosophers are thinking about it!

Programming for Popularity

Discovering new ways to achieve popularity deserves to be considered as our new quest, so that it actually becomes the focus of our efforts at experimentation and innovation. Like any quest, it involves a process of change and adaptation, which will be full of successes and failures, but here are a few ideas, some potential principles, to begin the journey:

1. Take a broader view of what constitutes the mainstream of our repertoire, embracing Malcolm Arnold and Arthur Benjamin and their ilk as part of the mainstream of concert life. Even more obviously, make space to include the classic repertoire of film music (Korngold, Elmer Bernstein, Maurice Jarre, etc.) as core repertoire. Deliberately set aside that gazillionth regurgitation of the Egmont Overture to make room for them!

2. Invent new formats for concert programs, beyond the meat-and-potatoes diet of Overture-Concerto-Symphony programs. William Weber’s history of 18th- and 19th-century concert programming, The Great Transformation of Musical Taste, offers an illuminating historical perspective on the art and science of concert programming. It deserves to be required reading for all concert professionals. Concerts before the 20th century strove constantly to achieve an integration of the popular and the serious, or at least engaged in the battle between them. Concepts like ‘miscellany’ and ‘promenade’ which Weber reveals in the history of concert-making, provide ways for us to think freshly about the construction and materials of concert programs.

3. In preference to focussing only on the enclosed demographic of our existing audience, think outwards to draw in additional audience groupings. The point is not to think of one big ‘mass’ audience, but to identify extra groupings, more or less on the fringe of our existing audience, progressively spreading wider to incorporate those we might seduce into our world of orchestral experiences. Such a strategy must become a continual pattern of mainstream concert-giving in order to effect a permanent change in concert culture.

4. Integrate ‘classical’ content with popular concert experiences. There are often, if not always, opportunities to add in orchestral works when programming popular presentations, and without any sense of didacticism or condescension. A favourite example from my own experience came in the context of a Led Zeppelin Tribute concert (the idea had been forced upon me, I admit), into which I incorporated Mosolov’s Iron Foundry and Matthew Hindson’s Headbanger – to the sheer delight of the audience! On the orchestra’s part, of course, it meant paying for additional music hire and adding in extra rehearsal time – but the investment is worthwhile if taken as a long-term direction.

These are just four actions that can help to deconstruct the Berlin Walls of concert programming: the divide that separates the kind of concert thinking that goes on among those within the world of orchestral music-making from the kinds of concert thinking of those who live outside of that world.

James Koehne, © 2013


Books and articles referred to (in order of appearance):

Donald Mitchell, ‘Malcolm Arnold: The Curse of Popularity’, in Cradles of the New: Writings on Music, 1951-1991, London: Faber, 1995

Hans Keller, ‘Arthur Benjamin and the Problem of Popularity: A Critical Appreciation’, in Tempo, No. 15 (Spring 1950), pp. 4-15

Carl Dahlhaus, Nineteenth-Century Music, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989

Joseph Horowitz, Classical Music in America: A History of its Rise and Fall, New York: Norton, 2005

Richard Shusterman, Pragmatist Aesthetics: Living Beauty, Rethinking Art, Second Edition, Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2000

William Weber, The Great Transformation of Musical Taste: Concert Programming from Haydn to Brahms, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

James Koehne is currently writing his PhD dissertation on the light music of Sven Libaek and Don Banks. He was Director of Artistic Planning for the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra, 1997-2010