Network News

X My Profile
View More Activity

In Praise of the Amateur (Part One)

A couple of weeks ago, I gave an informal talk to the Friday Morning Music Club in which I summarized some of my thoughts on the idea of "the amateur" in music. Someone asked me if I could repost them here, and I'm recapitulating them in abbreviated (bloggable) form, over a couple of posts.

I focused on the idea of amateurism not out of an urge to patronize or flatter Washington's Friday Morning Music Club (which, for those who don't know it, has been presenting concerts by dedicated non-professionals since 1886), but because I've always been interested in the role so-called amateurs have played in classical music. There was nothing condescending in the idea of an “amateur” in late 18th-century Vienna. Amateurs were simply people who loved music. They were patrons, but also performers and composers: Ignaz von Beecke, a military man who was one of the leading pianists of Mozart’s day; Louis Ferdinand, the beloved Prussian prince who may have been the "hero" of Beethoven’s "Eroica" symphony and who was himself an impressive composer. Amateurs, or dilettantes – that word wasn’t pejorative either – founded the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde in Vienna, the group that established the hallowed Musikverein, one of the leading concert halls in the world. And a composer like Franz Schubert was in a sense an amateur: most of his works were heard in informal gatherings of friends.

I think most of us who love music are sorry that the general experience of it has evolved (or devolved) from active to passive. Where once the audience bought piano arrangements and played chamber music at home, fans now are simply listeners, whether in the concert hall or at home on CD. And the term amateur has changed correspondingly. Now, it tends to imply a lack of seriousness.

And music has become a very serious business. Professionals have to work hard, for years and years, and don't you forget it. Concert programs have become more and more earnest, thorny, presenting great masterworks in performances that are supposed to be transcendent (if you believe orchestra’s marketing brochures). Henry Fogel, who used to run the Chicago Symphony and then the League of American Orchestras, wrote an interesting article in Symphony Magazine a couple of years ago about how orchestra programming has gotten more serious: the overtures and Strauss waltzes and bonbons that used to feature on regular concerts has pretty much been relegated to summer festivals and pops concerts and lumped together as "fluff." Some of that fluff is a lot of fun, though, and is perhaps part of a balanced musical diet. (Henry sums up his view here, in a blog post criticizing another aspect of music's increased seriousness: the tacit prohibition on between-movements applause.)
(read more after the jump)

And since music is a serious business, musicians have become more serious. I think a sense of fun is missing in a lot of professional performances. Our paradigm has become the fiercely focused conductor: Lorin Maazel or Herbert von Karajan, rather than Bruno Walter (who had a lilt and a love in everything he did). Or the high-minded soloist: our stars today are the violinist Christian Tetzlaff or the cellist Alisa Weilerstein, both players I deeply admire, both fiercely serious in their approach. If any of you heard Leonidas Kavakos play the Mendelssohn concerto with the NSO in April, so deadly earnest it was almost deflated, you’ll know what I mean.

When I see videos of performers from the 1940s and 1950s, I am so often struck by a spark in the playing that I think is frequently missing today. There's a video of a television gala from the 1950s that includes Isaac Stern playing the Mendelssohn concerto; I wasn't a huge Stern fan until I heard that performance, which is so filled with joy and delight that it's absolutely irresistible. Similarly, the film “Carnegie Hall” that I blogged about a few weeks ago offers performances by Walter, Artur Rubinstein, Rise Stevens, Ezio Pinza, Jascha Heifetz, and many more: and most of these performances have a spark, a kind of twinkle in the eye, a sense that music is fun and a delight. Pinza is flirting not just with the women around him, but with the audience; Rubinstein is reveling in the sheer showmanship of what he's doing. Unserious, perhaps; but it also conveys a sense of love, even, I'd argue, to someone who's new to classical music. And it's a quality I hear in a lot of old recordings. Caruso was an amateur. Bjorling was an amateur. It sounds like they love what they're doing.

I’d love to rediscover and reinstate the original sense of amateur: someone who loves music enough to care about making it, and make you care about making it. So often in the world of professional concerts we are presented with hard polished surfaces, music as a fait accompli, a distant object that we are meant to admire instead of a living thing with which we are meant to interact. It’s the difference between worshipping a film star on screen and having a relationship with a real person. We need to find more of the latter kind of love in our musical life.

[Part Two: The Critic as Amateur, tomorrow.]

By Anne Midgette  |  May 26, 2009; 11:10 AM ET
Categories:  random musings  
Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   StumbleUpon   Technorati   Google Buzz   Previous: In Performance: Conservatories and "Capuleti"
Next: In Praise of the Amateur (Part Two)


Lack of humor in the music itself is also part of the problem. Martha Argerich, in the film Evening Talks, remarks at one point about the lack of humor in music during the Romantic and modern periods. Tim Page, in discussing Rossini operas, made the point that we only expect the more profound insights into life in serious works, whereas he felt comic operas could offer the same rewards.

Posted by: kashe | May 27, 2009 1:18 PM | Report abuse

Lack of humor in the music itself is also part of the problem. Martha Argerich, in the film Evening Talks, remarks at one point about the lack of humor in music during the Romantic and modern periods. Tim Page, in discussing Rossini operas, made the point that we only expect the more profound insights into life in serious works, whereas he felt comic operas could offer the same rewards.

Posted by: kashe | May 27, 2009 1:26 PM | Report abuse

I'm glad these thoughts were posted. The word amateur's ultimate Latin source, (amātor) indeed means “lover or "devotee". Today it implies someone who just can't make the grade. And I'll add that this attitude permeates other areas beyond music. I remember when my small-city hometown used to enthusiastically patronized high school football and community theater. Not any more. Now it isn't considered real theater unless the actors are movie or Broadway stars and it isn't considered sports unless the players are multi-millionaires.

Thanks, Anne. This needed to be said.

Posted by: everycritic | May 28, 2009 10:38 AM | Report abuse

Sadly, there professional musicians who have lost the spark that amateur musicians have. Many are so busy with trying to create or sustain a career, that the love of music that they once had has fizzled down to a relatively unimportant part of the professional package, and image has become a replacement for musical substance.

Posted by: elainefine | May 28, 2009 2:07 PM | Report abuse

I'm delighted to find Ms. Midgette endorsing "fluff" at symphony concerts. All of the great conductors of the past, not just Bruno Walter, led performances of "lighter" works as an integral part of their concerts. They also recorded them. These works have now been relegated to Pops concerts, and real Pops concerts have vanished. (The NSO Pops under Marvin Hamlish are a travesty of the programing pattern Arthur Fiedler launched so successfully in the 1930's. Fiedler is remembered for marches and arrangements of musicals, but at one time his Boston Pops concerts had offered more of the Mozart piano concertos than the parent Boston Symphony.)

My delight at the Midgette endorsement comes from the impression her reviews often convey that anything not deadly serious (perhaps requiring a cold towel around the forehead) isn't worth hearing. In these trying times, a little "fluff" is most welcome as a help to keeping our balance.

Posted by: wsheppard | May 28, 2009 2:27 PM | Report abuse

As the world gets busier and more entertainment options are available, fewer amateur musicians do seem to be joining the ranks...especially in the field of classical music. That said, those who do remain seem more committed as a whole.

While I know a great many full-timers who are passionate about their music, I do think part-timers often relish the opportunity to play so much that something extra just shines through, even if the performance isn't as polished as one done by professionals. It's nice to know others notice that "spark" as well.

Thank you for the thought-provoking article. And to anyone who doesn't currently play an instrument, pick one up! Try it and see what you're missing. :-)

Keep playing,
"A day job is there to support a playing addiction"

Posted by: MarkAtPTM | May 28, 2009 10:00 PM | Report abuse

I am an amateur musician (piano) and several years ago I found a wonderful group of similar people. It is the Adult Music Student Forum, and its purpose it to provide performance opportunities for members. Master classes also happen as well outreach to assisted living communities. Visit for more info.

I could not agree more with Anne that non-professionals should jump in and play music themselves. In addition to personal satisfaction, it increases your understanding and enjoyment of professionally performed music.

Posted by: kashe | May 29, 2009 10:52 AM | Report abuse

In regard to the following bit from Ms. Midgette's post:
...Washington's Friday Morning Music Club (which, for those who don't know it, has been presenting concerts by dedicated non-professionals since 1886)...

I feel it is important to note that the Friday Morning Music Club is a mix of amateur and professional musicians making music together, and that all the musicians donate their services, providing free concerts throughout the area. As a professional singer and member of FMMC, I have been privileged to perform alongside other musicians who sing and play with many of the major professional performing organizations at at all the major venues in this area (and throughout the world). We professionals and amateurs alike take our joy of music and give it back to the community.

Posted by: baileywhiteman | May 30, 2009 1:32 PM | Report abuse

Thank you for these posts, Anne. I am a performing arts administrator in Boston and so have heard quite a bit of discussion about the state of the contemporary music audience. I think you describe a challenging issue for the performing arts in general and a topic of immense importance for classical music in particular. This topic and its cousins are certainly much debated among concert presenters.

The death of amateurism is a principle source of the steadily increasing gap between audiences and performers. But whatever the causes the gap remains, having taken root in the public consciousness and become a cultural trend.

On a more optimistic note, it has been my experience that certain exceptional performers actively seek to engage audiences across the footlights, especially in recital situations. It is heartening to see these performers break with concert etiquette and speak freely between selections, giving background information or sharing their own connections to the works. The result is usually an increased willingness to follow them into unknown musical territory. Yo-Yo Ma, Dawn Upshaw, and Renee Fleming are some stars who, I believe, break down barriers that others of similar musical stature for some reason do not or cannot. In my opinion, these performers and others like them are the future of classical music performance.

Jack in Boston

Posted by: jw11231 | June 1, 2009 11:13 AM | Report abuse

The comments to this entry are closed.

RSS Feed
Subscribe to The Post

© 2010 The Washington Post Company