We talk all the time about our American degradation of all forms of high culture. We wear jeans to the opera. We check our glowing cell phones at live theater. We bring crinkly bags of potato chips into the cinema. As we all remember, we let our cell phones ring in the middle of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony at the New York Philharmonic, and have to be reminded to turn them off by the frustrated conductor.
However, symphonic music as background noise is absolutely nothing new. Back in the early 18th century, one of the most popular styles and schools of symphonic composition, the Mannheim school in Germany was basically ignored by its usually-courtly audiences. Despite including some of the best musicians anywhere in its large orchestra, Mannheim composers often had to include compositional techniques that would retrieve the audience’s attention back from their other activities.
Mannheim symphonies probably were background music because the nobility often played cards during concerts. However, the idea that the symphony was completely ignored also isn’t entirely true because of the fact that the symphony’s performances were very expressive. If the audience didn’t pay any attention to the orchestra, then, it wouldn’t make sense for them to add nuances to their performances because their listeners would only hear a wash of sound anyways.
However, the orchestra often had to work to steal their listeners’ attention back to the music. Many expressive and explosive musical techniques—such as the Mannheim sigh, rocket, and roll—were created during this time. One may think these new techniques were necessary because the orchestra needed to steal their listeners’ attention away from whatever activity they were doing.
Because of the use of these techniques, musical scholars have said that the orchestra was like a group of leaders. Again, if the audience wasn’t paying attention, they wouldn’t need to have any nuances or creative new ideas. In this case, it may be preferable if no one were a leader besides the first violinist-conductor. But because people did listen to Mannheim symphonies they had a group of leaders to create new musical ideas to keep people interested and to keep their orchestra on the cutting edge of music.
Ironically, one of the biggest Christmastime noise bands, Mannheim Steamroller, is often played at malls or at suburban homes for background noise in trimming the tree and the like. Mannheim Steamroller seems to embrace their often-ignored status.
What do you think of ignoring the playing of classical music? Do you think that the Mannheim school had it right?