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With few worthy exceptions, historians of Western music have treated it as an autonomous art form, developing under the impulse of stylistic innovations for which composers take the principal credit. However, music is a social phenomenon. It brings people together in song and dance; it is a mark of ceremony and religious devotion; and it changes as audiences evolve. Indeed, to speak of "audiences" is already to import a particular social context - that of the concert, in which people sit in silence (or relative silence) while musicians play.

The concert was unknown in the ancient world and, as the word itself implies, was originally a concerted effort among musicians, rather than an assembly formed to listen to them. Many of the most important innovations in Western music came about because people made music together, without an audience and without a thought of one. The madrigal and the brass band, the Lutheran hymn and the parlour song developed in such a way.

Such thoughts form the inspiration for Tim Blanning's lively and informative social history of Western music. With impressive range and scholarship, Blanning documents the rapid change in status of the musician - from low-grade servant to international superstar. Just when the change occurred is uncertain. Long after Handel had become a rich and sought-after member of London society, Mozart was still a feudal serf of the Archbishop of Salzburg, compelled to eat at the servants' table, and finally dismissed from his job with a kick up the bum. Within a few decades, however, Beethoven came to be regarded by his aristocratic patrons as their social equal and spiritual overlord. Mozart died in obscure circumstances and was buried without ceremony. Beethoven was accompanied to his grave by a vast crowd from every social rank, and eulogised by Franz Grillparzer in words that, as Blanning points out, made no reference to God, but focused instead on the divine spirit of the man in the coffin.

One cause of this enormous change, Blanning suggests, is the rise of the cult of the "genius". This cult did not originate among music lovers, but was part of a wider phenomenon, associated with new attitudes to classical antiquity (the art historian Johann Joachim Winckelmann), to the role of the poet in society (Goethe), to the place of aesthetic education (Rousseau, Kant, Schiller), and to religion. The influence of the Church was already in decline when Mozart received that kick from one of its more arrogant officials. However, human societies cannot exist for long without the sentiment of the sacred and the transfer of this sentiment to art had been fully effected by the time of Grillparzer's eulogy.

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Tim Waite
September 26th, 2011
1:09 AM
has no one at Standpoint ever heard of Frank Zappa ,Tim Buckley,Roxy Music, The Cocteau Twins ; or Henry Cow and it's offshoots ? Sorry to sound segregationalist but there is a whole world of 'minority interest' pop music out there and unless you've actually engaged with it talking about music per se as it stands today is a waste if time

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