Monday, August 13, 2012

Musicians in society

I've been reading "Mr. Langshaw's Square Piano: The Story of the First Pianos and How They Caused a Cultural Revolution" by Madeline Goold.

It's an interesting book, more about the life and training of musicians in the 1750s-1810s than it is about pianos.

The training of musicians back then was not too far different from now--musicians trained with teachers until they were deemed masters, and then they tried to get jobs.

And it wasn't an easy thing to do, partly because of the social status given musicians. Social status at that period in England was much more stratified than now, but it struck me that musicians still occupy the same social "space" as they did back then.

For example, Goold writes that it was "an era when professional musicians were regarded as menials; Mozart had been required to sit below the valets in the service of the Archbishop of Salzburg. In England, musicians ranked as tradesmen; Lord 1755, advised: 'Nothing degrades a man more than performing on any instrument whatsoever.'" (p 168).While it isn't considered degrading to play any instrument whatsoever nowadays, but it certainly only elevates him artistically. Nobody considers bassoon or oboe players to be socially "It".

Chesterfield also told his son, "piping and fiddling puts a gentleman in a very frivolous and contemptible light...and takes up a great deal of time that might be better employed" (p179). This is certainly an attitude that we (Tim and I) have noticed--often--in our own lives, over 250 years after it was said. I guess some things never change.

A friend of ours is writing his dissertation on band music in America in the mid-1800s, just after the period covered by the book I'm reading, and on the other side of the world. I got a sneak preview of the research (and it's really cool!), and one thing I noticed there that is parallel to England a century earlier is that communities value music as something that elevates them and brings them to a more sophisticated social plane. How interesting, then, that the very same communities did not (and still do not) value the musicians who make the music. They value the results of the labor, but not the laborers. Rather, they actually disdain the laborers, somehow isolating the fruit of their labor from the workers who create it, even while acknowledging not only the value of the fruits of the labor, but also the reality that they, themselves, could not create it.

Back in the day, it wasn't just musicians who were looked down upon. Any tradesman was considered inferior to those who did not have to work with their hands. Brain work was considered superior to manual labor. It strikes me that this is still true today--we value the hardwood floor, but not the man who cut the wood or the man who installed it; we value the fresh produce, but not the farmer who grew it; we value the smooth roads, but not the men who build them; we value large, sturdy houses, but not the men who build them. All of those things give us status socially even while associating with the people who make them does just the opposite.

Bizarre and sad. Why not value the workers, builders, and creators in society?

In our society, we do value the thinkers just like the men in the 1700s did, and we value the doctors and lawyers just like they did in the 1750s, and (oddly, when you think about it), we give social status to the wealthy even if they didn't earn their wealth. We also give status to the famous because our society craves both fame and money, imagining (wrongly) that those things give you both power and happiness.

Interestingly, some of the most famous and wealthy people in America are musicians--and because of their fame and wealth, they are held up as the pinnacle of success and social standing.  But it's not because they are musicians, and it's not because of their talent, even if people claim otherwise. It's because of their fame.

 That leaves most musicians in an odd position socially--most of them are still considered quirky frivolous time-wasters. They are treated as though they are irresponsible. When things go poorly for them, instead of getting sympathy, they get "I told you so" and "if you hadn't been so foolish as to become a musician.....". But if they happen to break through and become famous, suddenly they are the pinnacle of social success and looked to as something akin to the 1750s royalty, even if the day before they were the lowest rung of the ladder, below even construction workers because of the misperception that musicians do nothing all day and then sing at night for hundreds of dollars (at least construction workers, the thinking seems to go, have the decency to earn their wages honestly by using their hands and time to work--as if musicians don't.).

While by the mid-1800s, a few musicians (mostly composers) became superstars (Strauss, for one), most never did. Or do. Obviously, some things never change.

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