The good old times. Beethoven was not only largely responsible for the creation of what we know nowadays as a symphony orchestra, but he was also the prototype of what we know as “classical” music. His symphonies, in particular, defined the category of the “classical”, the timeless and the sublime. The constant demand for the performance of orchestral works, and the Beethoven Symphonies in particular, led to the unprecedented growth of concert activity in the early 19th century. It was the time when many modern orchestras and subscription series were established.
Working on “Eroica”, I decided to look closer at this time and the early orchestral concert life to find some answers as to what lies at the root of our orchestral concert culture. In our own time, audiences and listening habits are changing and there is an intense search within the music community for answers to the future of classical concert life. This is not a problem, but a great opportunity. So let’s look back and look at the situation in the first half of the 19th century:
1. Audiences of the 1820s and 30s recognised central questions of their time in instrumental music. The early symphonic works, and particularly the symphonies of Beethoven, were seen as representations of individual freedom and collective and democratic aspirations. His works provided aesthetic answers and perspectives to the big questions of the time.
2. Music addressed the public as thinking and feeling persons. Instrumental and orchestral music in particular, were written and programmed for a critical and demanding public. Listening involved the brain just as much as the ear.
3. The way of presenting concerts reflected the contemporary society and habits. Concerts were changing in order to include a new, demanding and curious audience. And they included a high percentage of new or very recent music.
4. Music was seen as relevant. It was was discussed and written about by the most important thinkers of the time and was an important part of the public and private debate. Particularly in Germany, where music was a powerful influence on early romanticism, and was a fundamental aspect in the philosophical foundations of the nation state.
The early 19th century concert scene shows that intellectual challenge, high aspirations and presenting complex contents in interesting formats is at the center of the concert experience. In 2015 there are many incredible new halls, a super talented new generation of musicians, a global community for classical music and unlimited media possibilities. But strangely, classical music struggles to connect to our contemporary reality and to create an impact and a public debate as in the early 19th century. From the media presence to musical interpretation, some aspects of classical music performance are stuck in a idealised version of a past that never existed. Maybe we should look at the real history, rather than our invented past to re-connect with audiences, and to bring classical music back where it belongs – to the center of our contemporary reality.