All Orchestras are Ethnic Orchestras

One of the things that is striking about the early accounts of Classical Music is how provincial it was. Until the 20th century we didn’t really conceive of Classical Music as one unified field. In other words, there was a lot of diversity in the genres and repertoire performed. This coincided with what we could call a fragmented audience along ethnic lines for various genres and repertoire.

As I mentioned in a previous post, in describing the decline of virtually all varieties of music since 1992, Flanagan states that

This trend is easier to report than to explain.  The trend does coincide with the increasing demographic heterogeneity of the U.S. population, particularly in the cities that typically support orchestras.  In the words of one observer: “The ethnic groups that do not trace their roots to Europe will increasingly affect the definition of national cultural values.  The traditional value system associated with classical music concerts is not universal, but derived from a European cultural heritage.  The style of concert performances may not appeal to members of ethnic groups” (Kolb 2001, p. 20).  The distinctly smaller proportion of ethnic minorities attending classical music concerts in the United States is consistent with this view.  There is a certain irony in this development, since earlier generations of immigrants stimulated the formation of early U.S. orchestras in the 19th century.

That last part of the quote “The distinctly smaller proportion of ethnic minorities attending classical music concerts in the United States is consistent with this view.  There is a certain irony in this development, since earlier generations of immigrants stimulated the formation of early U.S. orchestras in the 19th century.” is particularly relevant. That could have described the distinctly small proportion of German-Americans that would go to Italian Opera, but would fill the opera house if it were German Opera–that much I learned reading Davis’ “Opera in Chicago: A Social and Cultural History 1850-1965” and Marsh’s “150 Years of Opera in Chicago.”

As future generations of immigrant groups slowly assimilate and shape a more blended culture the ties to the culture and arts of their Motherland lessen. The thing is, there are constantly immigrants coming to US, and often they come in waves. For example, one large wave of Croatian immigrants happened during the 1890s and early 1900s and peaked around 1910. Most of the dozens of Tamburitza Orchestras in the US are in those regions where the immigrants settled (see Richard March’s “The Tamburitza Tradition: From the Balkans to the American Midwest”). The period between 1880 and 1920 was a peak of immigration in the US, and consequently, that’s when may of the Tamburitza Orchestras, Balalaika Orchestras, and Mandolin Orchestras in the US flourished.

However, by this period the various immigrant art music traditions (what we now call “Classical Music”) have already become somewhat entrenched–due in large part to the Women’s Music Clubs which were flourishing throughout that period. Some of that activism, sadly, involved denigrating the newer immigrant population as well as the culture and music of Blacks and Native Americans–this is also the period where we started to see the evolution of our current concept of “high versus low” art as it pertains to music.

That view carried into the Federal Music Project and WPA period, probably in large part due to the influence that the Women’s Music Clubs had in formulating specific policies. For the same reasons that Chinese Opera Troupes couldn’t get the same type of government relief that Orchestras and Operas could through the Federal Music Project, these newer ensembles suffered the same.

As I’m reconstructing the history of Classical Music in the US, I’m having to pull together a wide variety of (in many cases) non-overlapping lines of research. To understand the forces that shape growth, I believe we have to understand how that growth was at the expense of other music traditions. That we no longer have a Federal Music Project and now that the Women’s Music Clubs have much less political power, we’ll have to see if the explosive growth of non mainstream Classical Music ensembles in the past few decades can start to flourish in ways that the earlier groups couldn’t. The changing racial demographic of the US will also be a boon to the newer ensembles as they grow in political and economic power.

As an aid to all this, and for those interested, I’ve started a US-centric Timeline of Orchestras and Large Ensembles. It’s a work in progress, and doesn’t touch on anything other than instrumental ensembles but will give an overview of the types of ensembles that have formed and grown since the middle of the 18th century. At some point I’ll also add in Concert Band, Symphonic Wind, and Brass Band ensemble since, in many ways, these are more ubiquitous in the US and vastly outnumber the European-styled Symphony Orchestra.

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