Magazine article The Spectator

At the Mercy of the Public

Magazine article The Spectator

At the Mercy of the Public

Article excerpt

The steady advance in popularity of Mahler and Bruckner has been one of the features of the musical landscape in recent years. Indeed, compared with them the position of even such stalwarts as Strauss and Brahms has looked a little stodgy and that is really saying something. It seems that the all-encompassing life-anddeath symphony is at last able to speak clearly and powerfully to a significant cross-section of the concert-going public, more or less 100 years after the works were written.

Mahler and Bruckner have never been as popular as they are now. This is not in itself remarkable, since the same could be said of all manner of composers from Palestrina through Bach to Haydn; but there is a difference between those who wrote in the last 150 years and their predecessors. Palestrina, Bach and Haydn were heard in the first instance by their employers and a small circle of people around them. Any piece they chose to write was more or less guaranteed a performance, a polite hearing and the likelihood that it wouldn't be performed again. Before the Romantic period, there was little sense amongst those listeners of the development of musical styles over time, or speculation about future ones: the local composer composed and his latest work was by definition, if briefly, the most interesting piece of music around. Mahler and Bruckner, on the other hand, were treated much more like composers are today, their music at the mercy of the public who felt free to comment on it without restraint. The only real difference between the behaviour of audiences now and a century ago is that when a Mahler symphony was being given its premiere it was very big news, necessitating the expression of passionately held convictions for and against what Mahler represented.

Nowadays our judgments are so rooted in history that we feel uneasy with brand-new things, ignoring them, possibly waiting for them to acquire a little history themselves before tepidly considering them. …

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