Troubled times have come to the classical-music world. Since the middle of the 1960s its exponents in both Europe and the United States have voiced increasing worry—sometimes virtual panic—that its public is dying, that its institutions are near collapse, and that it will soon cease to be the pinnacle of Western musical culture. Nothing will remain, some have predicted, but rock festivals and Lawrence Welk. While the outcome has not been that severe, much clearly has changed. Orchestras, recitalists, and even opera companies do not reign supreme over all musical life as they once did. Fewer young people seem to be learning orchestral instruments than before. Declining attendance figures and unimpressive record sales (a meager four per cent of the market) make it all too obvious that the classical-music business is now more than ever a minority trade. An era has ended.
But what did that era amount to? It is high time that historians started asking what the classical tradition has meant in the lives of its devotees. Despite all that has been written about the music and the people who played it, there is still only fragmentary knowledge of the life surrounding music. Musicologists have been shy to investigate the social dimension of their field; cultural historians have spent little time talking about anything other than master composers and their camp-followers. Perhaps now that the classical scene has lost much of its luster, scholars will approach its history with cooler eyes and greater respect for the mundane side of it all.
This writer should therefore warn the reader that the present volume is not about musical works or personalities except insofar as they have contributed to the development of concert life in worldly ways. The book concerns the people who went to concerts, the groups they came from, the taste publics they formed, and the huge new entertainment world they shaped. It is a social history.
Some people may, of course, bridle at the implication that society influenced musical experience. But however much this study will press that point, it will not hazard any conclusions about the ways in which society affected the creative process itself. Indeed, it will show how—as always—musical taste had its own social structure and operated independently of other areas of society, even as the concert world, seen as a set of institutions, was intimately linked to major social change.