Published: 12:01AM GMT 08 Dec 2008
Do Mozart and Mick Jagger really have anything in common? wonders Noel Malcolm
In 1771 Archduke Ferdinand of Austria asked his mother whether she thought he should employ a 15-year-old musician called Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.
‘I can’t think why you should,’ replied the Empress Maria Theresa, ‘for you don’t need a composer or any other useless people for that matter. I don’t want you lumbering yourself with good-for-nothing folk.’
Ten years later, when Mozart’s genius had become even more blazingly obvious, the composer tried to present a petition to the chief steward of his current employer, the Archbishop of Salzburg.
The steward threw him out of the room and, as Mozart later told his father, ‘gave me a kick on my arse’.
Such was the experience of a great composer in the 18th century. But within just 50 years, almost everything had changed.
Franz Liszt travelled on an Austrian passport which described him simply as ‘Sufficiently known by his fame’; an honoured guest at royal courts, he once ticked off the Tsar for chattering during his performance.
And when Wagner opened his Festival Theatre in Bayreuth in 1876, assorted royalty dutifully travelled there for the occasion (including the Emperor of Brazil, whose entry in the hotel register reads ‘Name: Pedro’; ‘Profession: emperor.’)
Tim Blanning, Professor of Modern European History at Cambridge, is one of our leading experts on the late 18th and early 19th centuries; so you might expect that a book by him about the rise of the status and popularity of music would focus mainly on the extraordinary transformation that took place in that period.
But this book goes much further than that. For in Blanning’s eyes, the upward trajectory did not stop with Liszt or Wagner; it has continued to this day, giving us superstars with a cultural power and influence (and income) that even the megalomanic Wagner could only have dreamed of.
Now we have the Rolling Stones, who have earned £650 million in just 13 years of touring, and Bono, who gives world leaders not so much his advice on political issues, as his instructions and his demands.
How and why did this huge cultural change take place? Part of the story, obviously, is the disappearance of the old court culture – not just the decline of the courts themselves, but the abandonment of the general idea that they must form the apex of cultural life.
Instead, we have the development of mass markets and mass culture, with cheap printed music, public concert halls, and the spread of mass-produced musical instruments (above all, the piano) into middle-class homes.
Here too it seems that the most important changes took place in the period between Mozart and Liszt.
The first large-scale concert hall in London (the Hanover Square Rooms) opened in 1775, running a series of subscription concerts; by the 1840s the entrepreneur Louis Jullien was hiring venues where he could put on an orchestral concert for 10,000 fee-paying customers.
In 1763 a ‘fortepiano’ was played for the first time in public in Vienna; by the 1830s there was one piano for every family in that city. This kind of data is relatively easy for historians to handle: factual, concrete and quantifiable.
But some of the other changes going on here are harder to pin down. How, for example, are we to describe (let alone account for) the rise of ‘Romanticism’ in music – not merely the shift in style between Haydn and Chopin, but the development of the idea that composers express their individual feelings, and thereby create unique works of art?
It can’t be a coincidence that this change happens during just the same period; but the link between it and the socio-economic data is hard to establish.
Tim Blanning’s master-idea is drawn from the German theorist Jürgen Habermas: it is the notion of the rise of a ‘public sphere’, which gradually replaces the old top-down model of courtly culture.
No longer were symphonies commissioned merely to illustrate and embody the power of the princely patron; instead, the composer wrote for an anonymous public, made up of individuals whose feelings he could touch when he expressed his own.
Habermas’s real concern was with the development of a modern political culture; and some of the most fascinating pages in Blanning’s book are devoted to the ways in which music has been charged with political significance, from the Marseillaise in revolutionary France to the soul music of the American Civil Rights movement. Here at least the Habermasian approach works well.
But in other ways it seems a little over-schematic. To define the ‘primary purpose’ of music before the late 18th century as ‘representing the power of the patron’ is surely an exaggeration.
Some patrons were philanthropic music-lovers rather than power-projectors; and religious music is a rather different matter, where the ‘power’ represented is that of God, not the local bishop. Much music was written without any commission, and composers such as John Dowland spread their own fame by having their own music printed.
These are minor queries, though; and every reader will have some, because this is an extraordinarily wide-ranging and stimulating book, which covers everything from technology to politics, from Haydn to hip hop, from Monteverdi to MTV.
It may, indeed, be the only work written by a Cambridge professor to include a comparative description of The Rubadubbers and Bob the Builder.
Here too, though, I have a problem. For Blanning, all music is music, and the ‘triumph’ of his title is an unbroken ascent from the 19th-century composers to the 20th-century rock stars.
But a breach has surely occurred, and I wish he had said more about it.
The gap between classical and pop music is greater now than any equivalent difference in the other arts – between, say, highbrow drama and Hollywood, or between Booker Prize novels and Mills & Boon. In those other cases, the highbrow and the popular form parts of a single spectrum.
In the case of music we now have two vastly different worlds; and only one of them, I fear, is ‘triumphing’.