From playing music to collecting records

I remember when I was little–this would have been the late 1950s when television sets were still novelties–my parents would have friends over for dinner.  Afterwards, the adults would all gather around the piano, with my mother playing, and they would all sing.  I recall going through the mountain of sheet music that my mother had bought over the years.   Lots of big band and what are now labeled “standards,” but also boogie-woogie, jazz, and blues.  I should have  realized how cool she was.

Readers of old books will notice how people way back then entertained themselves home-grown concerts in the parlor.  And Patrick O’Brian
got the period detail just right, as he usually did, when he has Captain Jack Aubrey playing the violin with Stephen Maturin on cello as a way to relax before a big sea battle.  In the 19th century, people would go to concerts, but they would often take a copy of the score with them.  Through the first half of the 20th century, songwriters made most of their money not from recording royalties but from sales of sheet music, such as my mother would buy.

Charles Rosen, in Freedom and the Arts: Essays on Music and Literature, points out that most classical music was written for people to play, not just to hear.   In a review, book critic Michael Dirda makes his point:

In several essays Rosen emphasizes how much of our older serious music was never meant to be presented in a concert hall. Most of the early keyboard repertoire was intended for private or semi-private delectation. “Only two of Beethoven’s thirty-two piano sonatas were played in Vienna in public during his lifetime.” Similarly, “Few members of the musical public today know that if we wish to experience Schubert’s song cycles as Schubert’s contemporaries would have heard them, we must imagine them as being sung to a few friends.” Certainly the deepest pleasure of music derives from an engagement with its making, by working through a printed score. One might argue that Bach’s “Art of Fugue” gives more satisfaction to those who play it than to those who hear it.

As Rosen stresses, up until the 20th century, many people in a concert audience would have learned a musical instrument, usually the piano, and thus might have already played the program on their own. Even symphonies were widely available in piano reductions for four hands. Such listeners were consequently grounded in an active understanding of the score. Alas, “learning to sing and learning to play the piano have been supplanted today by collecting records.” In short, a once-informed audience has gradually been displaced by those who fetishize virtuoso performances but don’t actually understand or fully appreciate the music.

via Charles Rosen, ever refining our approach to the arts of the past – The Washington Post.

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • http://www.caryschwarz.com saddler

    Not to mention that playing an instrument gives the participant (however well they play) creative and cognitive advantages in all areas of life as studies indicate.

  • http://www.caryschwarz.com saddler

    Not to mention that playing an instrument gives the participant (however well they play) creative and cognitive advantages in all areas of life as studies indicate.

  • Dr. Luther in the 21st Century

    @#1 You just proved modern pop artists aren’t musicians.

  • Dr. Luther in the 21st Century

    @#1 You just proved modern pop artists aren’t musicians.

  • SKPeterson

    On that note, I will go there. This directly parallels the advancement of performance as worship that is emblematic of Contemporary Worship methodology. Why sing in the congregation like you would often do at home? You can just have the professional praise band guys do it for you. I remember as a child, that there was never a concern that the organist might die or go on vacation; there were numerous people who could fill in in a pinch on either piano or organ.

  • SKPeterson

    On that note, I will go there. This directly parallels the advancement of performance as worship that is emblematic of Contemporary Worship methodology. Why sing in the congregation like you would often do at home? You can just have the professional praise band guys do it for you. I remember as a child, that there was never a concern that the organist might die or go on vacation; there were numerous people who could fill in in a pinch on either piano or organ.

  • rlewer

    This could also apply to another instrument – the voice. Do many people actually sing anymore except in church?
    Except for “country”, most modern pop music is not really that singable for the normal person and you probably wouldn’t want to speak the words in public anyway.

    Luther spoke of wives singing hymns as they went about their chores. Families not that long ago used to gather and sing around the piano.

  • rlewer

    This could also apply to another instrument – the voice. Do many people actually sing anymore except in church?
    Except for “country”, most modern pop music is not really that singable for the normal person and you probably wouldn’t want to speak the words in public anyway.

    Luther spoke of wives singing hymns as they went about their chores. Families not that long ago used to gather and sing around the piano.

  • Corno Di Bassetto

    No people in general don’t sing. When I am subbing in general music class I have a h— of a time getting the kids to sing and trying to get them to sing in the right octave is a treadmill to nowhere in a big hurry.

    With our churches one needs to look at the acoustics of them. Can you hear other people sing or no matter how full it is the only person you hear is yourself. Assuming reasonably decent acoustics (my church does not have those) most churches and congregations I have been to will sing traditional hymns ( however well or badly) and some of the newer songs. When you have a praise band or the song is what I refer to as a 7-11 song (seven words repeated over and over 11 times) the congregation doesn’t sing and a lot of the “contemporary Christian music” is not written for congregational singing. Look at how rhythmically complex it is, how rapidly the English language “text” (most seems to be at the level of doggerel) has to be spit out and how disjunct the melody is for so much of that literature. So I think some of the lack of singing in the church is self inflicted.

  • Corno Di Bassetto

    No people in general don’t sing. When I am subbing in general music class I have a h— of a time getting the kids to sing and trying to get them to sing in the right octave is a treadmill to nowhere in a big hurry.

    With our churches one needs to look at the acoustics of them. Can you hear other people sing or no matter how full it is the only person you hear is yourself. Assuming reasonably decent acoustics (my church does not have those) most churches and congregations I have been to will sing traditional hymns ( however well or badly) and some of the newer songs. When you have a praise band or the song is what I refer to as a 7-11 song (seven words repeated over and over 11 times) the congregation doesn’t sing and a lot of the “contemporary Christian music” is not written for congregational singing. Look at how rhythmically complex it is, how rapidly the English language “text” (most seems to be at the level of doggerel) has to be spit out and how disjunct the melody is for so much of that literature. So I think some of the lack of singing in the church is self inflicted.

  • rlewer

    Church acoustics: Organists, choir directors, and people who sing hate padded pews and carpet which have become the standard in most churches. Fortunately, we have brick walls and tile on the aisles and the people sing lustily.

    “Contempory” “worship”: Take away the mikes from the “praise band” and you notice the lack of singing.

    Organists: Up until about 1960 all students at the Concordias had to take piano or organ lessons. They were expected to be able to play for a worship service and in the classroom. They are now retired.

    VBS and Sunday school depend on canned loud music so the children don’t really have to know the music or the words as they do their “motions.”

  • rlewer

    Church acoustics: Organists, choir directors, and people who sing hate padded pews and carpet which have become the standard in most churches. Fortunately, we have brick walls and tile on the aisles and the people sing lustily.

    “Contempory” “worship”: Take away the mikes from the “praise band” and you notice the lack of singing.

    Organists: Up until about 1960 all students at the Concordias had to take piano or organ lessons. They were expected to be able to play for a worship service and in the classroom. They are now retired.

    VBS and Sunday school depend on canned loud music so the children don’t really have to know the music or the words as they do their “motions.”

  • helen

    rlewer @ 6
    Organists: Up until about 1960 all students at the Concordias had to take piano or organ lessons. They were expected to be able to play for a worship service and in the classroom. They are now retired.

    I inquired: my alma mater, [***a, now] which always was noted for music, still has no problem finding students who want to be organists. Concordia Seward said the same thing. [I was not a music major but the musical performances and the Lutheran church and chapel singing were the best things about my college years.]

    Concordia Texas has, in the last decade, discarded two music profs, one as he was finishing his doctorate in Lutheran music as an organist. (The choir he was beginning to develop went back to amateur level again.)

    One of the best things I’ve heard at the University of Texas was Jon Eifert’s Doctoral Organ Recital. He essentially preached a sermon in Bates Concert Hall, by way of explaining the origin of his very Lutheran music and his reasons for choosing it. And alternately, he played his selections on that magnificent organ.
    We are throwing away our heritage with both hands!

  • helen

    rlewer @ 6
    Organists: Up until about 1960 all students at the Concordias had to take piano or organ lessons. They were expected to be able to play for a worship service and in the classroom. They are now retired.

    I inquired: my alma mater, [***a, now] which always was noted for music, still has no problem finding students who want to be organists. Concordia Seward said the same thing. [I was not a music major but the musical performances and the Lutheran church and chapel singing were the best things about my college years.]

    Concordia Texas has, in the last decade, discarded two music profs, one as he was finishing his doctorate in Lutheran music as an organist. (The choir he was beginning to develop went back to amateur level again.)

    One of the best things I’ve heard at the University of Texas was Jon Eifert’s Doctoral Organ Recital. He essentially preached a sermon in Bates Concert Hall, by way of explaining the origin of his very Lutheran music and his reasons for choosing it. And alternately, he played his selections on that magnificent organ.
    We are throwing away our heritage with both hands!

  • Leif

    This problem is the same across the board of all things creative, really. And, I think, that it’s just the fundamental nature of our shift from a participatory culture into an consumptive culture.

    I think that people no longer view creativity (or craft) as a viable calling (either pecuniary or spiritually) as it rarely pays the bills and because of that, they’d rather spend their precious free time elsewhere. (ie. why learn to play Chopin when I can listen to a recording of Arthur Rubinstein playing better than I will ever be able to?) but that gets to the heart of the matter. Active vs Passive knowledge of a subject and the last ‘graph of the article quote says it all: In short, a once-informed audience has gradually been displaced by those who fetishize virtuoso performances but don’t actually understand or fully appreciate the music.

    Just as it’s best to read a poem, story, etc. in it’s own language so that you can grasp the subtleties, you can’t fully grasp the nature of any art unless you have a working knowledge of the craft that you’re approaching.

    Can I enjoy a Mallarmé poem in English? Sure. But it’s far better in French. Can I enjoy a Jackson Pollock just by viewing it? Sure. But, again, it’s far better if I can bring some knowledge of his process involving abstraction and surrealism to the table. Do I need to be an expert draughtsman to enjoy Rembrandt? No, but a working knowledge of line would definitely up my appreciation level. Etc. etc. etc.

    All of this, however, is getting more and more moot as the culture shifts to having things easily accessible without much prior knowledge. I must listen, I must look but I don’t have to think. And heaven help you if you think I’m going to try to teach myself a skill such as drawing. Bring it to me because I don’t want to exert myself…ever.

    And on that note, just look at the sheer amount of visual language that we’ve already lost. Because it’s a rare day when someone can read a painting we’re easily taken by kooks who come up with an explanation about how Leonardo is actually hiding the secrets to the Jesus Conspiracy in his paintings. Is he? No. But since we no longer know how to read a painting, it sounds just as plausible as anything else, right?

  • Leif

    This problem is the same across the board of all things creative, really. And, I think, that it’s just the fundamental nature of our shift from a participatory culture into an consumptive culture.

    I think that people no longer view creativity (or craft) as a viable calling (either pecuniary or spiritually) as it rarely pays the bills and because of that, they’d rather spend their precious free time elsewhere. (ie. why learn to play Chopin when I can listen to a recording of Arthur Rubinstein playing better than I will ever be able to?) but that gets to the heart of the matter. Active vs Passive knowledge of a subject and the last ‘graph of the article quote says it all: In short, a once-informed audience has gradually been displaced by those who fetishize virtuoso performances but don’t actually understand or fully appreciate the music.

    Just as it’s best to read a poem, story, etc. in it’s own language so that you can grasp the subtleties, you can’t fully grasp the nature of any art unless you have a working knowledge of the craft that you’re approaching.

    Can I enjoy a Mallarmé poem in English? Sure. But it’s far better in French. Can I enjoy a Jackson Pollock just by viewing it? Sure. But, again, it’s far better if I can bring some knowledge of his process involving abstraction and surrealism to the table. Do I need to be an expert draughtsman to enjoy Rembrandt? No, but a working knowledge of line would definitely up my appreciation level. Etc. etc. etc.

    All of this, however, is getting more and more moot as the culture shifts to having things easily accessible without much prior knowledge. I must listen, I must look but I don’t have to think. And heaven help you if you think I’m going to try to teach myself a skill such as drawing. Bring it to me because I don’t want to exert myself…ever.

    And on that note, just look at the sheer amount of visual language that we’ve already lost. Because it’s a rare day when someone can read a painting we’re easily taken by kooks who come up with an explanation about how Leonardo is actually hiding the secrets to the Jesus Conspiracy in his paintings. Is he? No. But since we no longer know how to read a painting, it sounds just as plausible as anything else, right?

  • Marie

    The pop musician Beck has released, instead of a recording, a “Song Reader”

    http://www.beck.com/index.php/beck-mcsweeneys-present-beck-hansens-song-reader-coming-in-december-2012

    Sometime next year he will tour and perform, but in the mean time his fans are supposed to learn the songs and play them themselves. Fans’ renditions will later be available on McSweeney’s.

    That’s one way to get out of the record label “who owns the music?!” controversies.

  • Marie

    The pop musician Beck has released, instead of a recording, a “Song Reader”

    http://www.beck.com/index.php/beck-mcsweeneys-present-beck-hansens-song-reader-coming-in-december-2012

    Sometime next year he will tour and perform, but in the mean time his fans are supposed to learn the songs and play them themselves. Fans’ renditions will later be available on McSweeney’s.

    That’s one way to get out of the record label “who owns the music?!” controversies.

  • reg

    This is just poppycock. In the gilded, 19th century only a few in the elite would be studying and playing music as suggested here. The bulk of the population either had no music (all they did is work) or they were entertained by banjo, guitar and fiddle by people unschooled in the theory of music, etc. This article (from the excerpt) smacks of the rambling of an elitist who can’t understand rock and roll and other popular music and wishes more would listen to “superior” classical music. While not formally trained I suspect the average person today hears far more music daily than his forefathers.

  • reg

    This is just poppycock. In the gilded, 19th century only a few in the elite would be studying and playing music as suggested here. The bulk of the population either had no music (all they did is work) or they were entertained by banjo, guitar and fiddle by people unschooled in the theory of music, etc. This article (from the excerpt) smacks of the rambling of an elitist who can’t understand rock and roll and other popular music and wishes more would listen to “superior” classical music. While not formally trained I suspect the average person today hears far more music daily than his forefathers.

  • reg

    Leif,
    Since most people can now read, art is no longer a conveyer of truth, generally. Art is illustration and visual candy (even the classics), music is entertainment and aural candy, etc. Did you ever read or see the video version of the book “the Shock of the New” (It played on PBS a couple of decades ago). That is the point of it. Art no longer “matters.” It is simply visual entertainment.

  • reg

    Leif,
    Since most people can now read, art is no longer a conveyer of truth, generally. Art is illustration and visual candy (even the classics), music is entertainment and aural candy, etc. Did you ever read or see the video version of the book “the Shock of the New” (It played on PBS a couple of decades ago). That is the point of it. Art no longer “matters.” It is simply visual entertainment.

  • Leif

    reg, (i apologize for the tome in advance)
    @10

    I think the principle here isn’t that people listen to music more (or any art) so much as it’s a lack of participation in the art itself. You stated that where people weren’t playing the piano, they were playing the guitar or banjo or what have you–that’s still playing and participating–just in a different genre of music.

    And while the article does limit its set strictly to concert going bourgeois “many people in a concert audience would have learned a musical instrument, usually the piano, and thus might have already played the program on their own.” It shouldn’t be hard to extrapolate this across the board.

    For example, my dad can play the guitar quite well. As can most of his Uncles, Cousins, etc. No one taught him other than what he’s picked up along the way. His choice of music is country (old country mind you, none of that new junk) and because he can play the guitar (the country song staple) he can pick up songs quickly and play with the songs themselves, alter different aspects, etc. In short, his mastery of an instrument frees his mind to then have a dialog with the song itself.

    His enjoyment of a Johnny Cash song far outpaces mine simply because he can partake of the song at a greater level than I can. He knows the chords, the changes, the difficulties of jumping from one string to another or what have you. I don’t have that knowledge so I’m limited to a baser appreciation of the songs–words, overall tone, catchiness of beat, etc. However, I do know the piano and my hankerings are for Chopin so I can listen to a Chopin song and get far more enjoyment from it than my Dad due to the same argument as above.

    I do think it’s unfortunate that these arguments often get broken down to “the elitists vs the commoners” or what have you but it’s still a truth regardless– the person with the skill will be a lot more appreciative of the craft than the layman without it.

    now…#11

    I have not seen (or read) “The Shock of the New” although I am, secretly, a huge Robert Hughes (Nothing if Not Critical!) fan. I would contend, however, that art still matters but, as outlined in my previous post, we’ve already lost/are losing vast amounts of knowledge in terms of picture reading. Artists feel compelled to entertain dialogues with the latest artists who in turn had dialogues with the artists before them, unfortunately, it turned in on itself and has reached almost alchemical proportions in its esotericity. End result? Exclusion of the audience and thus the audience loses its visual language reading capabilities. But, that’s a far larger debate than this post needs.

  • Leif

    reg, (i apologize for the tome in advance)
    @10

    I think the principle here isn’t that people listen to music more (or any art) so much as it’s a lack of participation in the art itself. You stated that where people weren’t playing the piano, they were playing the guitar or banjo or what have you–that’s still playing and participating–just in a different genre of music.

    And while the article does limit its set strictly to concert going bourgeois “many people in a concert audience would have learned a musical instrument, usually the piano, and thus might have already played the program on their own.” It shouldn’t be hard to extrapolate this across the board.

    For example, my dad can play the guitar quite well. As can most of his Uncles, Cousins, etc. No one taught him other than what he’s picked up along the way. His choice of music is country (old country mind you, none of that new junk) and because he can play the guitar (the country song staple) he can pick up songs quickly and play with the songs themselves, alter different aspects, etc. In short, his mastery of an instrument frees his mind to then have a dialog with the song itself.

    His enjoyment of a Johnny Cash song far outpaces mine simply because he can partake of the song at a greater level than I can. He knows the chords, the changes, the difficulties of jumping from one string to another or what have you. I don’t have that knowledge so I’m limited to a baser appreciation of the songs–words, overall tone, catchiness of beat, etc. However, I do know the piano and my hankerings are for Chopin so I can listen to a Chopin song and get far more enjoyment from it than my Dad due to the same argument as above.

    I do think it’s unfortunate that these arguments often get broken down to “the elitists vs the commoners” or what have you but it’s still a truth regardless– the person with the skill will be a lot more appreciative of the craft than the layman without it.

    now…#11

    I have not seen (or read) “The Shock of the New” although I am, secretly, a huge Robert Hughes (Nothing if Not Critical!) fan. I would contend, however, that art still matters but, as outlined in my previous post, we’ve already lost/are losing vast amounts of knowledge in terms of picture reading. Artists feel compelled to entertain dialogues with the latest artists who in turn had dialogues with the artists before them, unfortunately, it turned in on itself and has reached almost alchemical proportions in its esotericity. End result? Exclusion of the audience and thus the audience loses its visual language reading capabilities. But, that’s a far larger debate than this post needs.


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