A Guy Named George – Part 5: George Grove and Classical Music Audience-Building

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Photo sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

The last in a series of posts about George Grove, the legendary classical music audience builder.

So in my last post about George Grove, I talked about my afternoon in the Royal College of Music and how George Grove’s Crystal Palace concerts turned out to be a canny mixture of education and crowd-pleasing fun (leaning towards the latter).

There is sometimes an (often unspoken) assumption in modern classical music circles that the secret to getting a big audience is to playing the music at a very high standard of excellence.  But after those few hours spent in the Royal College, I’m going to be more emphatic: I don’t think we ever grew audiences that way.

Excellence Organisations vs Audience Organisations

I now have a new theory. I believe there are two types of classical music organisations – those that are focused around Excellence and those that are focused around Audiences. Surely that’s the same thing, you might be thinking? Not necessarily.

Nowadays there are so many recordings floating around of any classical piece. (Who can even count how many complete sets of Beethoven and Mahler symphonies are in existence?) This is because classical music nerds, the connoisseurs, are so intimately familiar with the details of these works that they are always looking out for that interpretation or performance that is just that little bit better than any they have ever heard. They’re looking for the most perfect rendition, the one that gets an A+ while all the others get an A.

And this is what the classical music industry has thrived on for the last century. The existence of the connoisseurs. So a typical modern classical music company is built around the concept of drawing in the best conductors, the best musicians, the best ensembles, because they are performing for the connoisseurs, that audience who is knowledgeable enough to know the difference between the A performance and the A+ performance.

But for the person starting out with a vague interest in classical music – they have no such level of knowledge. This is why there were so many cheap and nasty CD labels selling classical CDs for $5 in bargain bins at supermarkets back in the 80s and 90s. To the average person, Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony or the 1812 Overture is the same, regardless of who plays it.

So Excellence Organisations play to connoisseurs, strive for perfection, and the emphasis is geared towards performing a broad repertoire with prestigious musicians. However, by comparison, George Grove’s Crystal Palace series was an Audience Organisation. Perhaps by necessity of being run for a profit, it needed to be one, rather than any great desire by Grove. But necessity is the mother of invention, as they say. And so Grove’s Audience Organisation was built around the audience: It had to be entertaining to reach a broad crowd. It had to include not just serious music, but also music the masses would respond to as well. It attempted to make the audience more sophisticated, definitely, but it always recognised that it had to get them in the door first before any of that could happen.

So what happened? Why did the Crystal Palace concerts die out after Grove died? Why don’t we see concerts like this any more? Why is nearly every classical music organisation today trying to be an Excellence Organisation with virtually no one trying to be an Audience Organisation?

My theory – and I’m now going out on a limb and completely speculating here – is that Grove, quite by accident, had stumbled on the magic formula for growing classical music audiences. If the concerts were just to please the crowds, it would have been like André Rieu – great fun for those who go, but not a bridge to the great classics. If it had been all serious and musicological, it would have been like a modern-day film appreciation class: great for the small number of people who like to educate themselves about culture, but not meaning a lot to the hordes thronging the multiplex. But George did both – he was an entertainer and an enthusiastic teacher and he taught the lay audiences of Britain to love classical music.

Like MasterChef for Classical Music

The closest thing to which I would compare George’s achievement would actually be MasterChef. Everyone who watches the show knows it’s manipulative, cheesy and aiming at the lowest common denominator in terms of entertainment. Its goal is to have you glued to the TV set every night for an hour. And yet, slowly but surely, as this cheesy little reality TV show has infiltrated the hearts and minds of Australia (and I’m sure other countries that have the show), what has happened? It has raised a generation of foodies. And that has a flow-on effect for the restaurant industry, for fine-dining experiences. There are more upmarket food experiences to be had in my city of Sydney than ever before. So a show that is built entirely around pleasing its audience is actually doing a service for food culture in Australia, more so than any fine dining guides or food reviewers were ever able to achieve before.

A Victim of His Own Success?

So why do we not see anything quite like the Crystal Palace series today? My theory is that Grove’s experiment was, in the end, a victim of its own success. By the end of the 19th century, as Grove’s life came to an end (he died in 1900), there were new Audience Organisations having a crack at the lay person. (The most famous of which were the Proms, which are still running to this day.) People were so keen to nerd up on classical music, that Grove was able to successfully put together and publish the Grove Dictionary of Music. (This is still in print but nowadays it’s a large multi-volume work that lurks in Conservatorium libraries. What has possibly been missed today is that the dictionary was intended, not for classical music students, but for the lay person to gain an understanding of classical music.)

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Portrait of George Grove by Charles Furse that hangs in the foyer of the Royal College of Music in London.

Also, rather than head off to Europe to learn to play classical music, there were enough talented young musicians that a good music school was warranted in England. And so the Royal College of Music was established and has continued in operation ever since.

In short, classical music was such an in thing to do in London, that really nobody had to worry about trying to persuade people it was entertaining. The peer pressure did that work. Everyone was reading up on it, studying it, and going to as many concerts as they could. The ecosystem was well and truly set up. So in the early 20th century, you can see the extraordinary explosion of public orchestras setting up in London. The London Symphony, the London Philharmonic, the New Philharmonia, etc. If an orchestra could get its A+ conductors and musicians lined up, there was an audience willing to part with their money to hear them.

In short, classical music was now so much part of the popular culture, that it was carried along by its own momentum.

Hereditary Culture

Also – and this would require a whole separate blog post – culture up until the 1960s was hereditary. You aimed to carry on the traditions and culture of your parents and grandparents, thus why many churches, to this day, sing the same old hymns from the 19th century and why many classical music audiences over the age of 70 can remember going to concerts with their parents and listening to classical music their entire lives. Why would you listen to anything else? It’s the best that culture can offer!

But in today’s day and age, we don’t think like that. At least for the last 40 years, the goal as soon as we hit our teenage years was to discover music that sounded as obnoxiously differently from our parents’ music as humanly possible. But side by side with this generational shift amongst the masses, something else had happened in classical  music circles – we possibly lost sight of how to make people love classical music.

Everybody has been competing in the Excellence space for so long, no one is really sure how to do the Audience-building thing any more. And the reality is, it’s much harder to do now than it ever was. It will look different for every generation, because audiences are always looking for something new and exciting. By the time Grove died, classical music was so popular and the Crystal Palace wasn’t the new and exciting venue that it used to be, that his series of concerts just died out. Unlike the Excellence Organisations, which just need to be excellence, Audience Organisations need to be constantly evolving because the audience is evolving.

To build an audience today for classical music – and it’s something that is desperately needed – will require a whole new set of different tricks. I suspect it might need to involve a larger role for film music, which is the most common orchestral music still listened to by laypeople. But no one is entirely sure.

But more pressing even than the mix of music is this question: where are our George Groves today? Where are people who can speak the ordinary language of laypeople, and yet draw them into a greater knowledge of the classical music art form? Where are people so enthusiastic for classical music, that their enthusiasm infects a whole city? (And in this day and age of the internet, one person’s enthusiasm could spread across the globe.)

I’d like to be optimistic, but as the classical music industry faces an uncertain future, I’m not sure whether we’ll be able to return to the Audience focus fast enough to stem the tide of the ageing audience. But there are glimmers of hope. For instance, this young orchestra, the Melbourne Philharmonia Project, popped up in an article I was reading earlier this year. They talk about wanting to create “an orchestral experience which was aimed at not the 7 per cent that listen to classic music but the other 93 per cent”. Now that right there is the language of an Audience Organisation. I’d like to think that if enough groups like this appear, following in the footsteps of George Grove (even if we unfortunately just think of him as the guy with the multi-volume music dictionary named after him), maybe collectively we all might be able to make a difference.

After all, if George Grove could change my life and open up the world of classical music to me, why couldn’t the same happen to plenty of other people out there if we gave it a try?

A Guy Named George – Part 4: Secrets Hidden in the Royal College of Music

rcm-atmosphericA series of blog posts about George Grove – in my opinion, the greatest classical music entrepreneur and audience growth expert in the English-speaking world. If you’re just joining me, here are the other parts:

A Guy Named George – Part 1: The Book That Changed My Life

A Guy Named George – Part 2: The Man Who Changed My Life

A Guy Named George – Part 3: The Engineer Who Stole Classical Music Back From the Boring People?

If you’ve been following along with the previous posts then you’ll know I’d ended up in London in April 2016 trying to work out the secret of George Grove’s success in the classical music field. In the last post, I described how looking at George’s biography and a bit of sleuthing around Wikipedia led to the astonishing conclusion that Grove – a non-musician, from a working class background, running a series of concerts with an (arguably) second-rate orchestra with the same conductor every week, performing for an audience so unsophisticated it didn’t even know to sit down while the music was playing – was able to out-perform his more sophisticated rivals, the Philharmonia Societies (the Royal and the New).

I was madly curious to know what actually happened at these concerts of his in the Crystal Palace and for that, the internet wasn’t helping so much. So there was only one place to go – the closest thing that you could call a “home” for George Grove in London – The Royal College of Music, still regarded as one of England’s best music schoools.

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The Royal College of Music, defying being photographed in the London midday sun.

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I had lined up a chat a few weeks before with Dr Peter Horton, who works in the RCM library. He was amazingly helpful, and a fount of knowledge on all things to do with concerts in the 19th century. I know musicologists and researchers are probably used to these sorts of things, but as a lay person completely new to any sort of historical sleuthing, being able to chat to people who are full of knowledge and stories about a past era is nothing short of astounding.

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Down the Library corridor …
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The beautiful stained-glass windows of the RCM library.

After our discussion, I got to visit the Reading Room of the library. This itself, was a powerful experience. Because as well as being a charming old-school academic reading room right there, sitting on top of a bookshelf overlooking the reading tables – was Grove himself.

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The Grove bust, just sitting there on top of a bookshelf in the reading room.

It’s a slightly larger-than-live carved wooden bust (there’s a matching one in the room next door for Elgar) with no name caption – but there is no mistaking those mutton-chops. It was George and it was like he was waiting for me.

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George Grove.

I only had a few hours, so I decided to check out a couple of books on Grove and the Crystal Palace days, some of the old Crystal Palace programs and a couple of examples of Grove’s  “commonplace books”.

The commonplace books took my breath away, because I’ve never been connected with someone from the past so intimately before. To look at, a commonplace book is just a small hardbound book with blank musical staves in them. But this was more than blank sheet music – this was the equivalent of George Grove’s iPod favourites playlist. (Substitute whatever personal device you listen to your music on nowadays.)

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In the 19th century, when recorded music was still several decades away, what did you do if you really loved a piece of music, especially a symphony or something that required a large number of musicians? You might be lucky to hear it half a dozen times in your lifetime. And so, almost as a way of carrying the experience around, Grove had his commonplace book.

Any time Grove came across a musical idea that he particularly liked, he would make his own copy of the sheet music. Never the whole thing – you would have had to buy the sheet music for that – but maybe a theme that caught his ear. His favourites were clearly Beethoven, Mendelssohn and Schubert because they cropped up again and again. So here, for instance, is the majestic French horn opening of Schubert’s Symphony No. 9 (“The Great”). Which sounds like this for those who can’t read music.

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I can just imagine Grove, flicking through his commonplace book, seeing that notation of the opening of the Schubert symphony and hearing the French horns firing up in his imagination. It made me wonder how many times he got to hear that symphony live in his lifetime. Did he listen extra closely every time he heard that theme, knowing that it would be several years before he’d get to ever hear it again. And, later in life, did he listen to it wondering if this would be the last time he would ever hear it?

The whole thing was utterly moving.

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And there were little quirky things – on one of the blank pages inside the commonplace book, he had written out in full the words to a hymn “Lead Kindly Light”. Why did he do that? Did he like that particular hymn tune? As a man who dug into his faith intellectually (he was a huge enthusiast for Biblical archaeology when he wasn’t doing music) but struggled with doubts, were these words a comfort for him? We’ll never know 100%, but it was fascinating.

And then on to the programme notes:

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I love the warning at the bottom – clearly this was an audience that was used to tromping in and out of things, regardless of what was happening on stage.

Very quickly I found out something amazing about these programme booklets. They weren’t just a random copy of the printed programs that had been kept for posterity. These were Grove’s own copies of the booklets. Flick through half a dozen of them and you’d find his familiar handwriting (and the ink of his fountain-pen or whatever pencil he had to hand, still just as dark and clear today as it was 150 years ago) scattered throughout. Holding it, you could just see him sitting in the Crystal Palace listening to the orchestra playing. He would think of a random idea, or perhaps something that he could have said differently in his notes, whip out his pen, and jot down his thoughts. That night, he’d add the program to his growing collection of the little booklets that were the trademark of that concert series.

But the really jaw-dropping fact emerged soon after I started checking out the second page of the programmes – the list of works that were to be performed at each concert. Suddenly, the penny dropped for me; I realised how he had gotten the crowds and grown his audiences. Look at this program – it’s a typical Crystal Palace Saturday afternoon concert program:

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Beginning and ending with exciting crowd-pleasing overtures, interspersed with lots of short songs and popular opera arias, and the only major work is the Beethoven Violin Concerto. A concert cleverly designed for newbies and classical music fans at the same time.

There were many, many concerts that had this sort of format – they would start with an overture (the opening music, if you like) from a ballet or operetta that was popular at the time. Then there would be a curious 5-minute interval. (Only 10 minutes into the concert!). Then after that a long classical work, like a piano concerto or symphony by Beethoven. Then a couple of singers would appear to do a number of popular arias from operas and others songs that are now long since out of popular rotation. There would be another 5 minute break and then one more final overture, followed by a bit of organ music for the next half hour while you got a chance to walk around (or “promenade” as they called it back then).

For those who aren’t used to classical concerts, let me say right now: this is completely different from how we do concerts today. This is the equivalent of starting a concert with 10 minutes of John Williams’ music from Star Wars VII, playing a major classical work, bringing out some singers to do a bit of popular musical theatre, and then finishing with some all-guns-blazing piece of crowd-pleasing orchestral action – like Thomas Bergersen, for instance. (If you’re sceptical, just listen to the last couple of minutes of that Sullivan “In Memoriam” overture that ends the concert. Totally designed to have the crowd roaring on their feet.)

But lest you think the Crystal Palace just sounds like a glorified 19th century André Rieu concert, flicking through the programme notes, we see that in the middle part, where they did the serious music, they were pretty determined to turn the audience into classical music nerds. They’d play the whole work, and Grove’s notes were thorough and methodical. He didn’t hold back from explaining key changes, sonata form structure and the other nerdy stuff. His language was enthusiastic and he was aiming at the lay-person, but he was determined that the lay-person could learn to love this music at the same level as the music nerds.

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George Grove having an enthusiastic gush (albeit a musically technical one) about how awesome he finds the Beethoven Violin Concerto. “An art which no one ever possesses, and perhaps no one ever will possess, as he did.”

In short, Grove was putting on a show that attempted to both please the crowds and yet make them more sophisticated at the same time. In short, the whole thing was built around the audience and it was designed to be fun. The dirty little secret of the Crystal Palace and their audience growth was finally out. The reason it took off was because they were giving the audience a good time. No wonder the poor old Royal Philharmonic Society couldn’t compete!

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Now in the 1860s, Grove can get away with putting two major works in the concerts – Mendelssohn’s “Reformation” Symphony and Beethoven’s E Flat Major Piano Concerto (which, interestingly enough, is not nicknamed the “Emperor” Concerto, as we would do today). But the program is still padded out with lighter, crowd-pleasers.

And clearly it worked. I looked through programs from the 1850s and then some from the 1860s and in a decade, the noticeable change was that the concerts had moved from having one lengthy major work to having two a decade later. (So an 1860s Crystal Palace would still start with light fluff, end with light fluff and have light fluff in the middle, but it might contain a concerto and a symphony mixed in the middle somewhere.)

I can’t prove this without doing a lot more research, but the evidence points to Grove’s “audience-first” approach starting to pay off. It took time, but gradually, his audience was getting a longer attention span and growing in sophistication.

Next time in this series on George Grove, in my final post on him, I’ll cover off why I think his influence died out, and what we can learn from him in the 21st century.