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Provocative thoughts from Patric Standford


Bach would have known the members of his audience quite as well as he knew his choristers and instrumental players. In fact it is perhaps not too fanciful to imagine that, like the priest or rabbi within a small town community, composers like Bach -- and Haydn when he was at Esterháza -- may have welcomed at the outset or bade farewell to the members of the audience as they departed by name, asking after family and mutual acquaintances, and perhaps receiving congratulatory comments or even words of caution upon too daring a passage in the new piece they had heard. There would have been a friendly and informal relationship with the audience.

Beethoven may have been less concerned about pleasing them all, but he, like Schubert, would have seen many familiar faces in those Viennese audiences. The small world would have seemed a safe one. Those audiences would have known only too well the faces of the great names, their acknowledged masters, and the work of less familiar composers would be compared critically with them. Even a poor performance may not have been such a severe occurrence for, like a poor sermon, they knew it to be from a reliable source and most probably the outcome of a busy and fraught time. Familiarity forgives much.

But as the world became bigger, composers knew their audiences less well and eventually not at all. Suspicious audiences relied more on familiar sounds, and composers threw out their works into a darkness. The orchestral players would play new pieces in the style of what they already knew well, and often miss the point. The audience would miss it too, and decide that the new was not as good as the old, for such reactions seem peculiar to music far more than with the other arts. A composer perhaps several thousand miles away would be helpless to steer persuasive opinion and, not knowing the audience, must rely on hopefully enticing advance promotion and, if fortunate, an understanding performance.

It must have been so much easier for composers in the smaller world of the 18th and 19th centuries -- yes, even Wagner -- to know the audience and know how to command them. Now it is easy to know the audience for old music -- they have all been persuaded to the same default format, world wide. But is it possible for a composer working now to know an audience, know how to write for an audience, on such a vast scale? Maybe the composer is best writing for all that will come to the village hall.

Copyright © 28 April 2005 Patric Standford, Wakefield, UK




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