2 Public Concerts and Celebrity

The turn from patronage to ticketed public concerts marks one of the great shifts in the development of music as a self-sustaining industry. This change was not wholesale and complete, however. Remnants of the patronage system still remain an important part of the music industry today, particularly in classical music, where wealthy patrons often provide a significant source of financial support for orchestras and chamber music groups. A 2016 report by the American League of Orchestras found that only about 40% of the income of the average American orchestra came from ticket sales, with the remaining 60% coming mostly from donations from wealthy patrons and government grants. Nor did the shift from patronage to public concerts take place suddenly. Rather, the shift occurred during a period of over 200 years, from roughly 1650 to 1850.

In England, for example, one of the first regular series of advertised public concerts in Europe emerged in 1672. Other similar series followed in its wake. These concerts were typically held in taverns, pubs, and coffee houses catering to a largely middle-class audience, providing an alternative to the church and state-sponsored performances then common throughout Europe. Over the next 50 years, the tavern concert culture was copied by the aristocratic classes throughout Europe and the public concert emerged as a competitive site of advanced music-making to rival that of the church and court.

We cannot understand the shift from patronage to public concerts without also placing that shift in the context of broader social and political changes. During the so-called Age of Enlightenment (or Age of Reason), roughly 1700 to 1800, European philosophers such as Kant, Locke, and Rousseau argued for a political and social system based on man’s ability to reason, rather than on what these philosophers considered to be outdated and irrational passions and prejudices of the past, including institutional religions. The clearest losers in that philosophic and political shift were the church and the aristocracy, both seen as embodying outdated traditions rather than enlightened reason.

The elevation of the enlightened and sovereign individual over the church and the aristocracy in the Age of Reason, particularly those who were educated to participate in a new professional class of elite taste and wealth (the so-called bourgeoisie), provided the conditions by which composers and musicians freed themselves from the yoke of patronage. This new social and political environment was fertile ground for the development of a new musical economy based on the taste and ticket-buying ability of the new secular upper middle-class culture.

Historian Michael Chanan identifies three types of concerts that developed in the 19th century out of this new economic model: The most common was the “benefit” concert, which was not the charity benefit we know today but rather a concert put on by a composer or musician for his own benefit and featuring his own compositions or works chosen to highlight his musical skills. The second type was the concert organized by standing musical organizations, such as symphony orchestras or opera companies. The third type was geared to a lower-class of consumer and featured amateur musicians without pretense of catering to an elite artistic taste. These three different concert models corresponded to an increasingly stratified public taste, reflecting political divisions as much as aesthetic differences.

The large public concert also gave rise to a backlash against musical democracy among the most elite music consumers — so-called salon culture, particularly in Paris. For those with the highest regard for their sophisticated musical taste, and with a correspondingly elevated wealth, public concerts meant acceding to the tastes of the vulgar masses. The solution was to bring the elite concert experience into one’s own home (the equivalent of today’s “house concert”). Wealthy music lovers could afford to hire celebrity musicians and composers of the 19th century (such as Chopin or Beethoven) to perform in one’s own home (in the salon, the French word for “living room”) to entertain a small group of friends in an intimate evening of elite culture. Just as with the earlier patronage system, salon culture enabled the bourgeois elite to exchange their wealth for social and cultural prestige with the currency of music. Music thus continued to be a commodity of social status, even as the transition to public concerts created an alternative market of exchange and taste.

These changes in the musical economy brought about corresponding changes in musical style that continue to play out today. With public concerts replacing patronage, composers now had to compete with each other for the public attention. No longer was it sufficient to please the musical palettes of a few highly-placed tastemakers in the aristocracy, composers now had to stand out among their peers by appealing to the fickle and broader tastes of a mass audience. The predictable result of this competition for financial security was the logic of musical originality and novelty. Composers could no longer simply create music that followed the conventions of the time, they now had to create music that would become known for breaking the mold. Composers created personal musical styles, indicative of their unique musical personality. In the jargon of our time, composers now had to create a personal “brand” in order to attract a paying audience who would be eager to pay to see their favorite musical celebrities. As we have seen, this emphasis on originality was already a part of the patronage system, but only so far as originality or creativity would accrue to the prestige and personal desires of the patron. With the ticket-buying public now in the role of the patron, the stakes were raised as composers needed to create an exciting product if they were to be paid at all (or even not lose money on the expenses required to put on a public concert). This new economic dynamic goes a long way to explaining the explosion of musical novelty and “rule-breaking” during the late 19th century among Romantic Era composers such as Franz Liszt, Richard Strauss, and Claude Debussy. 

This emphasis on originality extended beyond just musical novelty into the realm of charismatic personality. Just as an original, novel musical style could attract a new audience, so could an outsized personality. Composers and performers in the 19th century began to draw on their celebrity status as much as their musical reputations. The flamboyant virtuosos of the 19th century, such as pianist Franz Liszt and violinist Niccolo Paganini, are just two examples of this new breed of musician pedaling a beguiling mix of novelty, charisma, and celebrity. They were the Jimi Hendrix’s of their time, creating awe in their audience with unprecedented musical skill.

The competitive pressure towards novelty that we hear in the 19th century corresponds logically with the flourishing and maturation of the music print industry during that same period.  As the capitalist industrial model filtered down to all levels of society in the Industrial Age, the music print industry was no exception. 

Share This Book