CHRISTOPHER CHOWRIMOOTOO and KATE GUTHRIE
From the pluralist vantage of today's academy, a colloquy on the “middlebrow” might seem like an unfashionable proposition. Coined in the 1920s to describe those who fell between high and low culture, the concept harks back to an era openly invested in cultural hierarchies.1 In response to the rise of mass technology, commentators of that era sorted consumers and products into polarizing categories in an anxious attempt to restore order to a shifting cultural terrain. In one camp were the “lowbrows,” whose imagined desire for mindless entertainment was supposedly exploited by shamelessly commercial companies; in the other, “highbrows,” epitomized by the emerging modernists, were said to shun the offerings of mass culture in favor of aesthetic autonomy, originality, and difficulty. Yet from the beginning, the battle lines were complicated by the “middlebrows”—those artists, mediators, and audiences who sought to combine these putatively oppositional aims. These included those who hoped to broaden access to high culture and the institutions and initiatives through which they sought to do so. For some, broadening access meant bolstering late nineteenth-century institutions, such as the BBC Proms and the Boston Pops, concert series founded in 1895 and 1885 respectively. Meanwhile, others devised initiatives inspired by new media, such as NBC's Music Appreciation Hour, which ran from 1928 to 1942; or Victor's “Red Seal,” a gramophone label launched in 1903 to promote classical music. “Middlebrow” also described the target audiences, who looked to culture for aesthetic education, social elevation, and spiritual edification. Last but not least, the category referred to the cultural products—literature, films, and music—that catered to this distinctive constituency.
From the time of its first appearances, the term “middlebrow” was deeply ambivalent. Self-described highbrows used it as a derogatory label for those whom they imagined to be guilty of a disingenuous attempt to have the best of both worlds—high and low. Perhaps the most widely cited indictment was Virginia Woolf's. The middlebrow, she complained in 1932, was “the man, or woman, of middlebred intelligence who ambles and saunters now on this side of the hedge, now on that, in pursuit of no single object, neither art itself nor life itself, but both mixed indistinguishably, and rather nastily, with money, fame, power, or prestige.”2 As these words suggest, critiques of the middlebrow echoed many of the charges frequently leveled at mass culture—those of standardization, of selling out to the superficial whims of the marketplace, and of the associated loss of individuality. More broadly, highbrow attitudes toward middlebrows were also shot through with anxieties about effeminacy and cultural miscegenation.3 Middlebrow initiatives such as music appreciation often shared many of these highbrow prejudices, championing a Eurocentric canon in response to the growing popularity of jazz.4 Cultural mediators—the educators, concert programmers, broadcasters, and publishers behind these middlebrow initiatives and critiques of them—frequently framed their values in gendered terms, borrowing negative stereotypes of women and excluding female artists from their canons.5 Meanwhile, the very idea of “brows” originated in racist phrenological studies, which sought to tie intellectual ability to head size and shape.6
Looked at from another perspective, however, the middlebrow's pedagogic and commercial compromises bespoke more inclusive, if paternalistic, ideals, the possibility of making “the best which has been thought and said in the world” available to everyone, as Matthew Arnold famously put it.7 This aspiration was founded on a belief that art music should not be the prerogative of an elite audience. As Percy Scholes, the BBC's first music critic and a pioneer of music appreciation, explained in 1923, “Up to the present, the great music of the world has been the private preserve of a little band of people. … Henceforth, it belongs to everybody. This means … a great raising of public taste.”8 Scholes's position was a typically middlebrow one: he shunned the highbrow rejection of the masses, insisting upon their capacity for learning.9 What is more, he envisaged education as a vehicle for personal empowerment and realizing a more equal society. Pedagogues and audiences invested substantial time and money in pursuing these ideals, even staking their identities on them.
This colloquy aims to rediscover the conflicted values that pervaded discussions of middlebrow culture throughout its heyday—from the 1920s to the 1960s—and more importantly to draw out their relevance to contemporary disciplinary debates. Until recently, this ambivalent cultural category had been largely overlooked in musicological accounts of the twentieth century. This stands in contrast to literary studies, where Joan Rubin's seminal 1991 monograph The Making of Middlebrow Culture paved the way for an entire subdisciplinary field.10 Analyzing processes of cultural mediation, Rubin offered a noncanonical perspective on canonical works, demonstrating how middlebrow institutions helped to define the literary classics.11 Subsequent scholarship has channeled the same revisionist impulse, but has tended to take the inverse approach: it has used traditional (“deep”) reading techniques to defend an altogether more eclectic range of texts, from genre fiction through to women's novels.12 Throughout much of this period, scholarship on twentieth-century music remained more polarized, variously championing or critiquing modernism, leaving the middlebrow to slip through the cracks. Where musicologists have engaged with the concept, their interest has been less systematic and more sporadic than that of their counterparts in the literary world. In popular music studies, the term has been applied to a handful of disparate genres, from easy-listening music and middle-of-the-road rock to symphonic jazz and music theater.13 Meanwhile, the first art music scholars to explore the middlebrow in depth have done so in relation to composers such as Britten and Shostakovich who, caught uncomfortably between popular appeal and critical respectability, occupied a problematic place within the twentieth-century canon.14
Musicological interest in the middlebrow has begun to open up new perspectives on twentieth-century music history; but it also brings into view alternative facets of middlebrow culture to those that have characterized literary scholarship. For one thing, studies of middlebrow literature have been overwhelmingly concerned with the novel and with the domestic (and by association feminine) contexts in which the genre was typically consumed. In contrast, musicological interest to date has centered on the public sphere: opera performances, rock concerts, music theater productions—to mention just a few. There is, of course, much that remains to be said about private listening, domestic music making, and the middlebrow.15 But this differing emphasis is also suggestive of the distinctive ways in which music mediated core middlebrow concerns. Put simply: where literature can represent ideals of good citizenship and democracy explicitly in its narratives, music can create opportunities to perform them in the public sphere. Music's nonrepresentational aspect amplified the tension between transcending and redeeming society that was at the heart of the middlebrow. If, as has been widely argued, novels worked to bring about transformation at the level of individual politics, music supposedly held out promise of redemption on a higher, more “universal” plane.16 Such promise owed to music's potential to traverse linguistic borders: stretching far beyond the anglophone sphere, the musical middlebrow canon brought together composers as diverse as Bach, Beethoven, and Tchaikovsky, or Gounod and Verdi, or Shostakovich, Dvořák, and Ravel.17 In this sense, music draws attention to the global politics of cultural production in which the middlebrow was implicated—although this history remains largely untold.
Beyond the field of middlebrow studies, the concept raises bigger, more pressing questions about our disciplinary history and methodological practice today. In part, the middlebrow's relative absence from musicology reflects the fact that it has served as a discomfiting mirror for the discipline's own compromised investments. On the one hand, for much of the twentieth century, musicologists championed the ideals of musical autonomy and transcendence; on the other, at least as pedagogues, they demonstrated an ongoing commitment to the social value of art. These emblematically middlebrow values were nowhere more obvious than in outreach initiatives, such as the music appreciation movement. Many of the educators involved worked both inside and outside the academy, promoting cultural aspiration in both spheres.18 At the same time, musicology's association with the middlebrow was constantly disavowed. As Tamara Levitz has recently argued, the ambition to professionalize the discipline led influential American musicologists to dissociate themselves from music educators, whom they viewed as intellectually inferior.19 Meanwhile, even those scholars who were committed to broadening access to the canon were at once eager to preserve highbrow illusions of aesthetic autonomy and purity.
From the mid-1980s, these long-standing commitments to aesthetic autonomy and canonicity came under fire as part of the broad critique of the canon in the humanities.20 The reverence afforded to a select group of “great” artists and works was denounced as a product of elitist cultural politics; so too was the view of art as standing apart from society. Where previously detractors had focused on the middlebrow's apparent complicity in mass culture, it now risked appearing suspect for the opposite reason: its highbrow ideology. It was no coincidence that the middlebrow became an object of interest at this time in literary studies and cultural history, if not yet in musicology. If its values had pervaded scholarship to such a degree as to render them invisible, it took such critiques to create the distance necessary to begin to examine it. Yet middlebrow studies' relationship to ideology critique was never straightforward. On the one hand, scholarly interest in the mechanics of cultural pedagogy was in keeping with the impetus to ground the canon in social relations. On the other, middlebrow scholars resisted the confrontational attitude toward highbrow values that often accompanied such critiques, seeking instead to excavate the artistic and pedagogic compromises involved in implementing these ideals.21
In recent years, the persistence of elitist ideologies has been a cause of growing frustration and renewed critique, fueled by interest in local networks, material histories, and social justice imperatives.22 Scholars have sought to complete the unfinished business of an earlier generation, finally ridding the academy of the social inequalities that have determined everything from university access to scholarly methodologies.23 Such consciousness-raising efforts have doubtless done the discipline a great service, highlighting the ways in which canonicity, autonomy, and other traditional musicological concepts are entangled in classist, chauvinist, and racist prejudices. Indeed, the problem with these once productive interventions is not that they implicate the discipline's founding concerns in unsavory social and political ideologies, but rather that they risk becoming all too routine gestures to contemporary pluralism. In doing so, they impede a more nuanced understanding of past and present cultural hierarchies. And with some scholars responding in increasingly defensive ways, the result seems to have been an ever cruder sense of polarization—between a seemingly narrow-minded, elitist, and unthinking devotion to “highbrow” values and a pluralist, democratic rejection of them.24
If the recent musicological interest in the middlebrow coincides with these trends, the concept promises to be a nuancing voice in disciplinary debates. This suggestion might feel uncomfortable. Saddled with its mid-twentieth-century baggage, the middlebrow still connotes snobby paternalism for many. What is more, recognizing its values as conflicted is more complicated than simply dismissing them: neat oppositions are at once more rhetorically effective and easier to digest. But there are compelling historical and methodological reasons for rediscovering middlebrow notions of compromise and ambivalence. These characteristics offer a way of approaching the past on its own terms—of acknowledging without endorsing its value systems, rather than simply seeing them through the lens of today. Musicological scholarship on the middlebrow has begun to demonstrate some of this potential. For instance, Christopher Chowrimootoo's Middlebrow Modernism uses the concept as a way of taking modernists' ideological commitment to cultural hierarchies seriously, even while showing how these hierarchies repeatedly broke down in practice. Meanwhile Alexandra Wilson's study of interwar opera uses the middlebrow to defend the genre against straightforward charges of elitism.25
Beyond complicating traditional understandings of musical modernity, the middlebrow might also help us to reflect critically on our own scholarly moment and to come to terms with the middlebrow legacy in musicology today. This historical lineage might, for example, be particularly useful for taking stock of the renewed interest in public musicology, bringing to light its tensions and contradictions. Like middlebrow scholars and pedagogues of the past, contemporary musicologists who contribute to NPR, the BBC, the New York Times, or online blogs are deeply invested in reaching a wider audience. They tread the same fine line between appealing to a broad public and deploying their expertise. However, where their historical forebears were particularly anxious not to be associated with populism, today's public musicologists are by and large more concerned with the opposite: distancing themselves from an academic elite. Many have sought to reverse the success of mid-century efforts to disseminate highbrow ideals of autonomy and transcendence, by myth-busting and exposing music's social and political ideologies.26 Yet even this mission to disabuse the public of their “elitist” beliefs arguably draws on a similar paternalism to the historical middlebrow.27 Where earlier scholars laid claim to aesthetic expertise, many of the current generation have framed their mission in ethical terms. The impulse remains the same, however: to elevate the value of music—and, more importantly, of musicology—to society at large.
The following essays explore these themes, making explicit the challenges that the middlebrow poses to timely musicological debates from a variety of subdisciplinary perspectives. By reassessing concepts such as canonicity, autonomy, and transcendence within the middlebrow's historical and theoretical frame, we ultimately suggest that they were never as straightforward as they have come to seem. This means showing how elitist impulses often coexisted with democratic ones, how acts of exclusion often went hand in hand with inclusion, and how even the most highfalutin aesthetic ideals responded to particular material circumstances. Instead of stoking New Musicological indignation, we aim to forge alternative, less polarizing paths in line with broader humanistic calls to move beyond critique.28 In taking the middlebrow seriously as a space of compromise, ambivalence, and contradiction, our intention is not to defend traditional conceptions of classical music but to strike a balance between dystopian and utopian visions of music's social ideologies. In so doing, we seek to account for the complex motivations and lived experiences of historical actors, while allowing for more open, honest, and humble understandings of our own ideological investments as scholars and critics.
This concentration on masterworks is having a profound influence on present-day musical life. A solemn wall of respectability surrounds the haloed masterpieces of music and deadens their impact. … It is both exhilarating and depressing to think of them: exhilarating to think that great masses of people are put in daily contact with them, have the possibility of truly taking sustenance from them; and depressing to watch these same classics used to snuff out all liveliness, all immediacy from the contemporary musical scene.
Aaron Copland, Music and Imagination (1952)29
As an outspoken critic of the canon's stranglehold on musical life, Aaron Copland would doubtless find himself at home in musicology today. If the canon wars of the early 1990s gave way to something of a détente, recent scholarship—doubtless inspired by the current political climate—has taken up the issue once again.30 Remarking upon the “egregious underrepresentation of women and people of color in the classical repertory” that persisted in 2017, Anne Shreffler matched Copland's mid-twentieth-century exasperation with her own latter-day sigh “Why are we still fighting this battle, after so many skirmishes, and 24 years after the publication of Marcia Citron's groundbreaking book, Gender and the Musical Canon?”31 Where Jim Samson once marveled at the canon's surprising reluctance to “lie down and die in the interests of cultural democracy,” Shreffler went even further: “If, however, we conceive of canons as hierarchically arranged sets of highly valued cultural objects, then musical canons have persisted and seem to be stronger than ever in the early twenty-first century.”32
The problem, for many, has been the canon's exclusivity and elitism, supposedly epitomizing highbrow esotericism in a number of ways. On an ideological level, this includes an association with aestheticism and autonomy, which scholars have traced to the canon's roots as a “reaction against commercialism”: “Because the great master-works were thought to stand above the money-making side of musical life,” William Weber explained, “they could help society transcend commercial culture and thereby regenerate musical life.”33 Indeed, scholars have arguably been much more successful at outing ideologies of canonic transcendence than at sketching a more concrete picture of the processes through which canons are constructed and maintained.34 Meanwhile, others have taken aim at the canon's contents, chalking its selections up to the same cultural esotericism.35 It is perhaps unsurprising that the modernist pantheon became the principal focus for broader canon critiques—despite (or perhaps because of) its relative obscurity—centered as it was on the most challenging, uncompromising works.36 For some, moreover, this issue of canonic representation bespoke a deeper, structural elitism, through which “interests of powerful people (mostly men)” were perpetuated.37
While Copland's objections touch upon many of the same problems of representation and power, they also point toward the canon's more complex “middlebrow” heritage. As a composer with skin in the game, he too was perturbed by the canon's role in championing select works or styles while consigning others to the periphery. “I revere and enjoy [masterpieces] as well as the next fellow,” he defensively proclaimed, “But when they are used … to stifle contemporary effort … I am tempted to … say that we should be better off without them!”38 For Copland, however, canonic exclusivity was not merely a symptom of elitism but also of the opposite: a crass commercialism that threatened the very aesthetic autonomy it proclaimed. After echoing Edward Dent's observation that “the religious outlook on music is an affair of business as well as of devotion,” he charged radio programs, record advertisements, and adult appreciation classes with undermining the audience's critical judgment: “the big public is now frightened of investing in any music that doesn't have the label ‘masterwork’ stamped on it.”39 At the same time, he criticized these same mediators for pandering to the middlebrows—those anxious to revere the “stuff they ought to like,” as Punch magazine famously defined the term.40 “The people who are persuaded to concern themselves with only the best in music,” Copland sniffed contemptuously, “are the very ones who would have most difficulty in recognizing a real masterpiece when they heard one.”41
For all this, however, Copland was not above touting canons of his own, especially as an instructor of music appreciation—arguably the middlebrow genre par excellence. When he included adult education teachers among the principal peddlers of the “masterwork,” he spoke from experience as a lecturer at the New School for Social Research (from 1927 to 1939). While Virgil Thomson was denouncing the “[a]ppreciation-racket” as irredeemably tainted by its commercialism,42 Copland routinely attempted to mediate between artistic-cum-pedagogical ideals and market concerns. Indeed, to judge from his extant lecture notes and overviews—meticulously preserved in the Library of Congress's Aaron Copland Collection—his classes were the model of what Russell Lynes called the middlebrow balancing act: “[The mediator] must take the measure of popular taste and cater to it at the same time that he tries to create a taste for new talent.”43
Copland's complex relationship with the canon was central to this process. Only on one occasion, late in his New School tenure, did he eschew canonic authority entirely and plan a course entitled “Modern Piano Music” (spring 1938), centered on works of the kind “seldom heard in our concert halls.”44 When only two people signed up and he was forced to cancel, he went back to teaching masterworks. Indeed, we might interpret “Symphonic Masterpieces” (winter 1938–39 and spring 1939) as a kind of penance for his sins against the middlebrow marketplace.45 The latter, according to Howard Pollack, “hardly ventured beyond the late Romantic repertoire” that Copland routinely charged with suffocating concert life.46 Yet even here, Copland was nothing if not inconsistent, gesturing in his final lecture beyond the established canon to the latest works (including Stravinsky's Symphony of Psalms and Roussel's Third Symphony). He also framed each case study as a launch pad for further discovery rather than an island unto itself, thereby undermining the supposedly transcendent “masterwork” conceit: “Each week one outstanding masterwork is selected to represent a particular composer's style and period. In this way a survey is had of symphonic literature and its development from the 18th to the 20th century.”47
Perhaps even more indicative of Copland's complex relationship with the canon was his modern music appreciation course, which he repeated more than any other during his time at the New School and beyond.48 Originally calling it “The Evolution of Modern Music” (1927–28), he quickly renamed it “Masterworks of Modern Music” (1928–29) in order to capitalize on what he later parodied as a middlebrow marketing ploy (see figure 1).49 “Thus along with the classics themselves we are given the ‘light classics,’ the ‘jazz classics,’ and even ‘modern classics,’” Copland scoffed, as if to recognize the contradiction in terms.50 Yet to judge from the composer's private correspondence, he was never as cynical as this might suggest. As Copland wrote to Nadia Boulanger in the midst of his first modern masterworks course, his mood was dampened only by his lack of compositional productivity: “My lectures are going brilliantly. I have already played Oedipus, Création du monde, Hindemith op. 37, etc. If I weren't a composer it would be very amusing.”51 This enthusiasm only grew later in life, even as he launched his most strident attacks on the “masterwork” fetish. “Looking back at my lecture notes,” he enthused, “fills me with renewed wonder and respect for the New School for the opportunity it gave me to explore such topics.”52 “Each lecture,” he recalled, “illustrat[ed] a subject or a style of music with a major work.”53 For Copland, evidently, the idealistic “masterwork” rhetoric could be salvaged by his more pragmatic, understated, and even positivistic approach.
This meant framing the “modern masterworks” less in terms of transcendent genius than as representatives of general historical trends, much as he would later do for their “symphonic” counterparts. It also involved downplaying the role of his canon in arbitrating good taste.54 Occasionally, he went even further to make space for what literary scholar Margaret Russett has dubbed “canonical minority,” insisting that “lesser” composers were as integral to the canon as the undisputed greats.55 Clearly uncomfortable with stereotypes of a grand, unified tradition of self-sufficient works, Copland wanted to make clear in his course brochure, first, that his survey was broad and diverse, extending the various “isms” of the established canon (Classicism, Romanticism, and so on) into the twentieth century (impressionism, expressionism, neoclassicism, and so on), and second, that his selections were mere stepping-stones to “a more comprehensive appreciation of the whole field of contemporary music” (see figure 2).56 Copland also insisted that this openness applied just as much to music of the past, reassuring students that an appreciation of modern music was not incompatible with established masterworks and styles.57 “We must have a balanced musical diet,” he later explained—borrowing a classic middlebrow trope—“that permits us to set off our appraisals of the old masters against the varied and different musical manifestations of more recent times.”58
Given Copland's commitment to experimental, marginalized, and even unknown works, not to mention his dismissal of “haloed masterpieces,” it is tempting to explain away his canonic gestures as straightforward products of financial necessity—a young composer merely trying to make ends meet by catering to audience prejudice. Some, doubtless perturbed by the apparent paradox, have cast his surveys as unusually flexible or porous—anticanonic canons, even—a symptom of his idiosyncrasy as a modernist or even postmodernist avant la lettre.59 Writing about comparable efforts to expand, reframe, and imagine alternative canons in the twentieth century, Shreffler has raised a similar prospect in relation to updated canons writ large: “one could legitimately question whether these new groupings are canons at all.”60 Applying this logic to the Copland case has the advantage of defending him from charges of inconsistency, while preserving the canon's association with dogmatism, exclusivity, purity, idealism, and all the other values that recent musicologists have come to reject. Yet this defensiveness also risks reinforcing simplistic oppositions between canonic ideologues devoted to enforcing cultural boundaries and uncompromising pluralists committed to breaking them down, as if there was nothing in between.
While scholars have been right to point out that, in sheer numerical terms, canons excluded more audiences and repertoire than they included, individual experiences and motivations were always more complex, as Copland's example makes clear. His canon of masterworks—modern masterworks especially—served to cordon off and protect “real masterpieces” from the mass marketplace; as such, it relied on now problematic, value-laden distinctions between “serious” music and everything else.61 Yet the canon was also a way of making this music commercially viable, so that it could sustain composers and pedagogues like himself. While lecturing at the New School, a somewhat dispirited Copland wrote of his anxieties along these lines to fellow composer Carlos Chávez: “It becomes increasingly difficult for instance to have that sense that there is any public for our music—in any case, the public that can afford to pay for concerts is quite simply not interested.”62 Indeed, the very fact that Copland was required—on pain of dire financial consequences—to appeal to the masterworks complicates the agency that detractors have often assumed. Far from a top-down construction imposed on students and audiences, canons were continually re-formed in dialogue with those at whom they were aimed. At the same time, Copland evidently understood his pedagogical mission in socially conscious terms, as a means of making music available across class lines and broadening audiences' horizons by consent.63 Indeed, even as he bemoaned the canon's exclusivity and narrowness, he recognized its capacity for incremental development and change. It is telling that he continued to lecture on canons after his tenure at the New School had finished—long after teaching had ceased to provide a necessary financial crutch.64
At a time when compromise and impurity were frowned upon, it is perhaps unsurprising that Copland preferred to disavow this delicate “middlebrow” balancing act: as we have seen, his public dismissals of the canon were belied not only by his private correspondence, but also by his pedagogical practice throughout his career. By no means unusual, however, such ambivalence, inconsistency, and even disavowal were also characteristic markers of the middlebrow, as I have argued elsewhere.65 For the category was less a stable center than a pressure point in a culture industry split to its root—divided between “highbrow” ideals of transcendence, purity, and genius, and “lowbrow” concerns with popularity, accessibility, novelty, and commercial success. Even a cursory glance at the practice of Copland's contemporaries reveals similar attempts to draw in, maintain, and appeal to new audiences by invoking and updating the canon, while simultaneously preserving its association with a timeless and transcendent cultural elite. Instead of explaining away Copland's “middlebrow” inconsistency, then, we might usefully take it seriously as a symptom of the real tensions faced by twentieth-century pedagogues.
At the same time, this middlebrow context may help us to acknowledge our own continuing ambivalence and inconsistency as scholars, pedagogues, composers, and audiences. For it seems likely that, even now, many scholars' foundational musical experiences come from reverent encounters with the canon of “masterworks,” which we subsequently reject with the zeal of the believer-turned-atheist. What is more, this tension often persists between our activities as scholars and those as teachers, many of the staunchest ideology critics often deploying similar canons in their undergraduate surveys, albeit modified incrementally to broaden students' horizons and gesture toward diversity.66 Nor is this altogether surprising; for today's teacher-scholars negotiate similar tensions to those faced by Copland, dependent as they are on institutions, colleagues, and students still very much committed to canonical knowledge and the broad cultural authority it commands.67 Perhaps this need not be such a bad thing. For despite all its faults, the canon offers us—no less than it did Copland—a convenient and manageable starting point: a basis from which to build knowledge outward, reflect upon one's blind spots, and draw new composers and works into the fold. Indeed, it seems worth acknowledging that much of the strongest advocacy on behalf of noncanonic works depends for its effectiveness on the existence of a culturally hegemonic canon, against which noncanonic and anticanonic advocates strain.68 It is thus arguably as much for pragmatic as for ideological reasons that the canon remains a firm fixture in university curricula and concert programs, even as it has been undermined by ideology critique and global technology's profusion of musics and styles.69 Perhaps the greatest provocation that the middlebrow can bring to musicology's canon debates, then, is to force us to take seriously the canon's complexities and paradoxes: to acknowledge the space it provides for idealism to collide with pragmatism and materialism, exclusive impulses with more inclusive ones.
For the Love of Music
The decline of classical music has been a popular topic among American commentators for some time now. For certain devotees, concerns about shrinking audiences have inspired a desire to take action. One such is principal trumpeter of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra Andrew Balio, who in early 2012 founded the Future Symphony Institute, a think tank aimed at “formulat[ing] a strategy for the renaissance of live classical music.” As the institute grew from its humble beginnings as a Facebook page, Balio's grand ambitions were soon matched by a striking staff list: the founder and his wife were joined by philosopher Roger Scruton, architect Léon Krier, and composer John Borstlap. Each being renowned in his own field for a commitment to traditional aesthetic values, it comes as no surprise that the desired “renaissance of live classical music” is imagined on such terms. According to the institute's vision and mission statement, Western art music and its apex, the symphony orchestra, represent “an achievement unique and unparalleled among cultures in this or any other age.” Critical of a supposedly “growing tendency” to co-opt music to social and political agendas, the institute is committed to combatting the “growing gap between those who speak today for classical music”—a nebulous group including unspecified bureaucrats and socialist reformers—“and the eternal and transcendent art form itself.”70
A century ago, such unbridled claims for art music's autonomy would have found receptive listeners among those working in the nascent field of musicology. For a large part of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, autonomy was one of the primary concepts through which educated music lovers expressed their devotion. It encapsulated an ideal of art transcending social concerns, an ideal that made abstract music—the least representational of the arts—its apogee. To borrow Richard Taruskin's words, it was “not a property of artworks … but rather a way of viewing, describing, and valuing artworks.”71 During the nineteenth century, this attitude was a “prime factor in the flowering of the high arts,” especially where music was concerned.72 In the final decades of the twentieth century, however, the musicological tide turned against the concept, as it became a subject of New Musicological critiques.73 It was around this time that the pursuit of aesthetic autonomy came to be associated with the struggling classical music scene beyond the academy. As Taruskin argued, during the Cold War decades it provided a basis on which modernists sought to justify their esoteric compositions, thereby fueling the production of works in an alienating style, which in turn contributed to the waning public interest in art music.74 Like much scholarship of the New Musicological period, these critiques of autonomy had a Foucauldian edge, as scholars sought to excavate the ways in which this discourse had been complicit in producing and sustaining social inequalities. Far worse than merely restricting musical understanding, autonomy became emblematic of a period in which art musicians and scholars had shirked their social responsibilities. The concept's demise, William Cheng recently argued, is a reflection of its “moral untenability.”75
These critiques provided a necessary and well-founded corrective to a deeply elitist bent within the academy. At the same time, however, they were the product of an academy reacting against its own scholarly traditions. As suggested by the persistence of an ideology of autonomy—that of great composers and works transcending worldly concerns—within the contemporary public sphere, the concept also developed a life beyond the walls of the ivory tower. In what follows, I seek to complicate our understanding of autonomy's contribution to twentieth-century musical culture by reanimating this narrative. In so doing, I intend neither to defend the idea of autonomy per se, nor to exonerate its advocates. Although I will ultimately raise some questions for today's public musicology, my argument is primarily a historical one. The impetus for an alternative history comes from the educators who mediated the rise of a middlebrow musical culture in mid-twentieth-century Britain. While they were committed to highbrow musical ideals, they were also deeply invested in broadening access to art music. More than this, they sought to mobilize the concept of autonomy as a means to precisely this end.
To illustrate this claim, I will briefly consider one of the BBC's earliest music education programs, Music and the Ordinary Listener. The brainchild of composer, university professor, and organist Walford Davies, the series was conceived to foster a deeper musical appreciation in the adult radio-listening public. It thus responded to a widespread concern among Britain's educated class that the general public's apparent preference for the lowest common denominator in music ran counter to their best interests. The producers hoped to ameliorate this situation by elevating public taste through education. The program took the form of a lecture-recital: speaking from his seat at the studio piano, Davies used musical excerpts to introduce concepts such as melody, harmony, and rhythm. His primary focus was, of course, the Western art music canon. On the rare occasions when non-Western or popular traditions were addressed, it was usually to illustrate musical evolution, a perspective steeped in colonialist misunderstanding and arrogance. First broadcast at 10:10 p.m. on Tuesday, January 5, 1926, Music and the Ordinary Listener was scheduled sufficiently late in the day that working men (as well as housewives) could tune in. It quickly became a staple of the BBC's interwar music education program, appearing under a handful of different titles and involving a variety of prominent composers and educators as presenters.76
At first sight, the program might appear to be a straightforward example of highbrow snobbery and an unlikely starting point for an alternative history of autonomy. Even the notion of “benevolent paternalism,” which various scholars have invoked to account for the good intentions behind early BBC initiatives, is shot through with audacity.77 But Davies's motives were not merely paternalistic. For one thing, his belief in the value of critical thinking led him to emphasize the equality between teacher and student. Listeners, he insisted, should view him as a “companion” with whom to explore the world of music, rather than a “lecturer” who would tell them what to think.78 For another, Davies's pedagogy was at root an extension of his own love of music, which he delighted in sharing. His biographer, the long-standing Times music critic Henry Colles, detected this even in his mode of presentation. Inspired by “the genuine wish to tell what he had found to be true,” Davies adopted a convivial tone that he hoped would “make the ‘listeners all’ feel its truth with him.”79
If Davies desired to open up his experience of music, ideals associated with autonomy provided a language for communicating his passion and a direction for his pedagogy. To offer just one example, the first two years of broadcasts climaxed in a twenty-two-part series on “Audible Form,” which ran from September 1928 to April 1929. As Davies explained during the opening lecture, this was “the vital thing of all,” to which previous lectures on chords, rhythm, phrasing, and multimedia art forms had been building.80 The ground having been firmly laid, listeners were finally ready to “lean back and converse with the mind of music as it stands,” to “concentrate with shut eyes on it as abstract music, as Audible Form.”81 In other words, Davies imagined that his aural training would culminate in something akin to Adorno's structural listening. It was through this ideal that he sought to facilitate heightened musical encounters of the kind he himself had experienced. Elsewhere, he articulated his experience in more explicitly transcendental terms, describing music as “compact of, and concerned with, such superhuman and universal things as Energy and the rest.”82
The 120 or so listener letters that survive in the Walford Davies archive give some indication of the way in which audiences interacted with this pedagogy.83 In almost all cases, very little is known about the correspondents beyond where they were living at the time of writing; thus, if I treat their testimonies as valid in their own right, this is not to suggest that they are necessarily representative. What is immediately striking about the correspondence is its conversational tone: listeners repeatedly ask Davies for further reading suggestions, for clarity on specific analytical queries, or for further explanation where their listening experiences seemed not to match his claims (a problem that was especially common where modernist music was concerned). The frequency with which the pedagogue responded on air likely encouraged this particular teacher-student dynamic. The impression of an ongoing dialogue also shows how seriously listeners could take these broadcasts, as they earnestly probed Davies's ideas in order to enhance their own understanding. Their evident agency in the learning process makes it seem all the more significant when they found aspects of his pedagogy and ideology compelling enough to make them their own.
Among those who testified to the benefits of Davies's analytical listening mode was a Geoffrey C. Potter. Writing in October 1936, he concurred that listeners should aspire to that “purer” point of view gained by attending to music's “tonal and other more important qualities” and thanked Davies for his assistance to this end. At the same time, he recounted his own musical journey as a riposte to Davies's dismissal of “extra musical point[s] of view”: Potter's interests had initially been inspired by articles in the Radio Times about composers' lives. An anonymous writer—he might have been a Welsh laborer, given the tatty, decade-old Tregynon Choral Society flyer on which the note is scribbled—similarly reported that he had “benefited intellectually” from the broadcasts. His attempts “to apply your analysis of a musical composition in my subsequent experience as a listener” had enabled him to follow “the development of the theme in the composer treatment.” He claimed, however, that the music's “spiritual influence” on him had thereby been diminished. His scribble concluded by requesting Davies's help in rediscovering the “emotional” side of the listening experience.
This anonymous listener was far from atypical in placing a high value on music's supra-intellectual appeal. While a handful of writers expressed notions of musical autonomy in analytical terms, many more conveyed them when waxing lyrical about the feelings of transcendence inspired by the music. For instance, one L. E. Walton declared in February 1937,
I am inclined to agree with your correspondent who said that “the music of Beethoven makes you want to die,” but I don't think he went far enough. If you listen to the magnificent harmonies of Beethoven and let yourself be steeped in that glorious flood of music, you are dead. In so far as the surrounding world counts, you are as far removed as though you were on another planet. … [T]he normal reactions to your surroundings cease.
What do we do with such enthusiastic idealizations of great artworks as autonomous? We might dismiss these correspondents' rhetoric as naive, the unfortunate product of a less enlightened era. To do so would be to rehearse a common scholarly critique of the middlebrow as self-important and undemocratic. There are certainly instances in these letters that would justify this response, such as when listeners take on an arrogant tone. We could, for example, cite one Stanley Potts: writing from a small village in the countryside to the northeast of London, he reported feelings of “defeat and battlement” when faced with a “man of culture” who “was unable to observe any difference between two chords of quite different musical significance.” “Do such as these,” he pondered, “apprehend certain ingredients of music with added intensity, in natural compensation, or are they for ever debarred from the full measure of understanding?” The effusive outpourings quoted above, on the other hand, perhaps invite an alternative approach. Drawing inspiration from “reparative” reading practices, we might recognize these as sincerely felt expressions of the positive value that listeners drew from Davies's pedagogic methods.84 To put this another way: where ideals of musical autonomy caught on, they seem to have captured a kind of musical encounter to which “ordinary listeners” could relate. That these ideals also came with the stamp of intellectual approval was an asset in an aspirational culture that valued continuing education as a vehicle for self-improvement. Viewed from this perspective, the letters offer an insight into the contribution of autonomous ideals to a “flowering of the arts” not just among nineteenth-century elites but also, in a different way, among the mid-twentieth-century general public. In this sense, autonomy was not simply a vehicle for excluding people from the art music world; it could also help to draw the expanding listening public in.
At this safe historical distance, we can contemplate some of the positive effects of ideals of autonomy for Davies's audience. But what about their legacy in the present day? For the sake of provocation: if these letters had been written by members of today's general public participating in the Future Symphony Institute's outreach initiatives, how would we deal with them? Would our primary response be to try to disabuse the authors of a complacent devotion to great composers and works? If we as scholars have recognized the damaging effects of these ideals, do we have some sort of imperative—ethical, scholarly, or otherwise—to instill a similar disillusionment tout court in the general public? Or perhaps, in attending to these alternative, middlebrow histories, we could imagine a more reparative approach: one that acknowledges the dangers of such narratives, while hearing how they have enriched people's lives.
The Classy Populuxe Songbook
While mid-twentieth-century middlebrow literature says much about consumerism, it has surprisingly little to say about popular music. This is particularly true of “highbrow,” anti-middlebrow writings up to Dwight Macdonald's often quoted essay “Masscult and Midcult” (1960) and his related book Against the American Grain (1962). Such Frankfurt School–indebted criticism routinely involved protectionism against cultural democratization and middlebrow, or entertaining, art. At this time, Macdonald was resident film critic for the male (middlebrow) lifestyle magazine Esquire. He admitted he knew little about music, particularly beyond classical music.85 Such ignorance of popular music and classical music snobbery—and often oversight of music in general—characterize mid-century middlebrow discourse on music. For instance, in the volume Mass Culture (1957), there is amazingly little discussion of popular music beyond one essay that positions itself against “gifted Europeans” (i.e., the Frankfurt School) who are “horrified” at both American “vulgarization[s] of taste” and “middlebrow ‘culture diffusionists.’”86 Nevertheless, the author concludes that teenagers have “undiscriminating taste in popular music,” surmising that pop merely provides “training in the appropriate expression of consumer preferences.”87 The author's taste predilections as a jazz-loving, white male, adult academic are hardly questioned; neither are the invisible social mechanisms that Pierre Bourdieu later called “habitus.” Nonetheless, notable scholarship has underscored the significant relevance of middlebrow culture and discourse to understanding broad areas of twentieth-century popular culture and media, including popular music. Thus, despite a predominant post-2000 scholarly focus on middlebrow aspirational relations to highbrow cultural capital, aesthetics, practices, and taste values, I am wary of a unitary middlebrow conception defined solely by such highbrow-aspirational parameters.88
This essay offers an alternative perspective on the middlebrow, by considering the 1949–53 roots of the postwar big-band-plus-strings sound associated with the “Great American Songbook,” using the orchestral jazz-pop that Nat “King” Cole produced in conjunction with Capitol Records as a primary example. In this period, much of this music was entwined with middlebrow-adjacent discourse. I employ “adjacent” here in the sense of sharing common meeting points or adjoining elements. While efforts at democratizing concert music are obviously central to the mid-century musical middlebrow, the intersections of the middlebrow and the expanding middle class also included aspirational entertainment traditions, which glamorized affluence through consumer fantasies of luxury and jet set cosmopolitanism.89
The relevance of middlebrow-adjacent, class-aspirational popular music—“class” and “classy” being understood as glamour-based stylistic adjectives relating to aspirational, socioeconomic status rather than high-culture pretension—is seen in two famous 1949 articles from Harper's and Life magazines. The presumed highbrow dominance is evident in the essay “Highbrow, Lowbrow, Middlebrow” by Russell Lynes, which describes a “new cultural class order” notable for its distinction between upper middlebrows, the “purveyors of highbrow ideas,” and lower middlebrows, who consume “what the upper middlebrows pass along.”90 Lynes's arguments were widely circulated through a subsequent Life article that included an illustrated lifestyle chart with notable music references.91 The distinctions on the chart imply that one key difference between the upper and the lower middles is found in the aspiring high-cultural-capital pretensions of the upper middles: they have the economic means but not the refined taste of the highbrow. By contrast, the depictions of lower-middle taste suggest a less self-consciously aspirational consumption of lifestyle goods and experiences, leaning toward goods that could be appreciated (in the right contexts) by both upper middles or lowbrows. For lower-middlebrow musical tastes, the artist suggests “light opera, popular favorites,”92 depicting music by Victor Herbert, vocalist Nelson Eddy (an operetta-style vocalist), Ferde Grofé's Grand Canyon Suite, and albums by crooner Perry Como and radio conductor Andre Kostelanetz (who positively embraced his middlebrow characterization).93 As Keir Keightley notes, all five were identified as “easy listening,” a broad category of often middlebrow-adjacent hybrid orchestral pop.94 None of this maps easily onto notions of tastes driven by highbrow cultural pretensions/aspirations or cultural molding from the upper middles. Rather, these goods align well with postwar middle-class socioeconomic notions of aspiring to “the good life,” prosperity, and cosmopolitanism. In other words, the historical evidence suggests that the aspirational modes of the orchestral pop explored here are centrally determined by social and economic factors tied to glamour, cosmopolitanism, and affluence, rather than by high culture or classical music per se, though “elevated” associations derived from classical music (via an aura transference facilitated by massed orchestral instruments) may be present.
Keightley has defined 1946–66 as the “Easy Listening Era,” a period in which an aesthetic of “music for middlebrows” spanned “radio programming,” “relaxing background music,” and “adult-oriented pop.”95 Capitol's period catalog is a synecdoche for this pop aesthetic, as heard through Jackie Gleason's mood music, Les Baxter's exotica, Stan Kenton's progressive jazz, and the vocal jazz-pop of Cole, Frank Sinatra, Peggy Lee, and others. These idioms emerged alongside the postwar “class”-focused cocktail lounge, which famously included such venues as the Copacabana in New York, established in 1940, and the Las Vegas casino lounge, the Copa Room, established in 1952. Here, “class”—as employed in Variety and Billboard—connotes lifestyle, decorative, and consumer signifiers for sophistication, luxury, and glamour. The central musical entertainment for such venues was from “croon-swoon” vocalist “personalities like Sinatra” and “the school of Perry Como, Dick Haymes, Dean Martin, et al.”96 In the bigger, more prestigious venues, such artists were increasingly backed by often bestringed hybrid ensembles that recalled period radio, theater, and recording orchestras. Such conspicuous symphonization production practices were central to “class” entertainment—practices that paralleled wider trends of “conspicuous consumption” and consumerist displays of social status, wealth, and/or sophistication.97 I adopt the term “populuxe,” coined by Thomas Hine to characterize consumerist trends of 1954–64, to describe this mid-century orchestral jazz-pop idiom.98
The populuxe sound is epitomized by the late 1940s and early 1950s Capitol Records orchestral pop recordings of Nat “King” Cole. The Cole Trio signed with Capitol in 1943. With Cole featured as a genial vocalist/pianist, the group greatly benefitted from the postwar cocktail lounge boom as their act successfully rose to the top tiers of national entertainment. Around 1948–49, in near parallel to the aforementioned Harper's and Life articles, Capitol led the industry in the embrace of new high-fidelity technologies, thereby positioning the label at the forefront of the “hi-fi” vogue.99 Cole became the label's premier artist and a black vocalist with both cross-race appeal and significant success on the national supper club and lounge circuit (which largely catered to white audiences). His recordings were at the center of Capitol's early shift in 1948 to the new technologies that were showcased in their then unusual choice of employing lush orchestral arrangements for backing an African American artist. This music stands as a cornerstone for 1950s Capitol hi-fi populuxe—in sound, orchestration, fidelity, and studio personnel—and the chart success of these efforts in turn positioned Cole well for both the highest-class (and highest-paying) supper club venues and related career markers of his celebrity.
The orchestral-Cole hits, from “Nature Boy” (1948) to “The Christmas Song” (1953), delimit a foundational, pre-Sinatra era during which the Capitol populuxe sound both emerged and formed key associations that subsequently became central to our understanding of this idiom.100 These recordings were “class” consumer goods with new postwar, middlebrow-adjacent aesthetics distinct from more common understandings of middlebrow aspiration. The codes of glamour in these recordings readily parallel similar aspirational lifestyle codes seen in Hine's mid-century populuxe consumer-goods trends. Their melodramatic orchestral veneer—as in other easy-listening orchestral pop—specifically invites consumers to indulge in the hi-fi audio luxury (to paraphrase Hine) of the recordings' vibrant, lifelike orchestral renderings (cutting-edge fidelity for that time). The associative style and textural topics in this music invoke the luxe material stagings of “class” entertainment of the day, whether in relation to glamorous nightclub lounges, or media depictions of such glamorous venues and their entertainment. This is closely akin to the musically “mediatised cosmopolitanism” that Tom Perchard identifies in similar intersections of jazz-related music and mid-century luxe consumer materialism.101 Moreover, mid-century American populuxe, at Capitol and elsewhere, was complemented by the promotion of glamorous media personalities presented via the same discourse that Stephen Gundle, in his study on glamour, describes for the Hollywood celebrity system.102
These intermedia connections between populuxe and “the good life” as evoked by Hollywood and Madison Avenue defined this music's postwar connotations, shifting such lifestyle fantasy associations to a glamorous, classy entertainment register within postwar popular music. Such classy lifestyle fantasies—which bind together specific conceptions of glamorous entertainment venues and accompanying decor, fashion, and luxe-music idioms—are widely seen in Variety's reportage on the postwar and mid-century nightclub/lounge business.
Gundle observes that postwar “Americans were drawn to European ideas of sophistication, class, taste, and sex and to the products that somehow embodied them.”103 He also notably identifies the new “upmarket” glitzy hotels and nightclubs (in New York, Las Vegas, Miami Beach, and so on) as being central to this new glamour discourse. As noted, the music of these venues—typically populuxe-backed crooners—is innately tied to postwar glamour via intermedia image constructions and musical signification. Lloyd Whitesell has theorized the glamour-focused “style modes” of Hollywood musicals. These modes closely relate to the orchestral pop aesthetics discussed here in that both employ the “contributing aesthetic qualities” of “sensuousness, restraint, elevation, and sophistication” to project glamorous “ethereality or sophistication by way of suave deportment, sensuous textures, elevated styles, and aesthetically refined effects.”104 In populuxe, such artifice is heard in the connotative tensions between popular idioms and such glamorous textural, performative, stylistic, and timbral signifiers.
Postwar easy-listening idioms owed much to the “sweet” dance bands of the swing era. Following Sinatra's departure from Tommy Dorsey's orchestra in 1943 to pursue a solo career, the pop industry was dominated by the solo crooner vogue, with its significantly reduced relations to jazz and often highly melodramatic orchestral backgrounds. Despite what some perceived as a feminization of popular music in this male “swooner-crooner” trend, most 1940s crooners, like Sinatra, evoked a clear heteronormativity (unlike many early 1930s crooners).105 As the African American Cole held jazz bona fides, his move toward jazz-pop, and then to pop, was a fence-sitting act between the worlds of jazz and white-dominated crooning.
By 1946, swoon-croon was reported to be “on the wane.”106 Subsequent 1940s pop trends ultimately reworked the early 1940s Dorsey big-band-plus-strings jazz-pop model;107 but this compromise between orchestral easy listening and swinging sweet jazz was manifest in other ways too. For instance, Variety noted the “tremendous” impact in 1947 of Cleveland's “class” Continental Cafe, with its “gilt-edged” “dinner pop concert” formula showcasing a “21-piece symphonette” playing “urbane but catch[y]” programs of “light-keyed symphonic syncopation” for “middle-brow fans” of “good music.” The lineup of “nine violins, a tuba, eight reeds, harp and piano” also had “cheesecake appeal” involving female violin and harp soloists. It would further reconfigure as a “10-piece dance band” to play “extremely urbane but catchier rhythms for customer hoofing” using “lushly-orchestrated, ear-soothing” pop arrangements “airmailed weekly” from “Frank DeVol, the Capitol recording maestro.”108
Axel Stordahl's 1940s Columbia arrangements for crooner-era Sinatra have often been described as “bland and sticky-sweet” with their “tinkling harps, swooning strings” and “those terrible mewling [vocal] choruses.”109 While Stordahl was briefly employed for Sinatra's first Capital recordings, a new idiom emerged through the arrangements of Nelson Riddle, from April 1953 through their 1954 Swing Easy! sessions.110 The easy-listening title ably captures the aesthetics of the new Sinatra-Riddle idiom (minus strings), which incorporated sweet swing stylizations. These stylizations evoke the earlier Dorsey orchestra alongside “hot” jazz elements derived from the Count Basie and Jimmie Lunceford big bands.111 The path to this sound is found in earlier Cole populuxe releases. Cole had three of Capitol's biggest sellers from its first decade, including “Mona Lisa” (1950) and “Too Young” (1951), both arranged by Riddle. The DeVol-arranged/backed third hit, “Nature Boy” (1948), similarly featured the Cole Trio alongside brass, reeds, and strings. Billboard noted Cole's “usual simple, relaxed [vocal] manner,” the “haunting, rich” melody that could be a theme for “a magnificent piano concerto,” and the “spellbinding” “pastoral music mood” of the “semi-classic arrangement.”112 Such “semi-classic” textures were key to the subsequent Cole tracks with arranger Pete Rugolo, such as “Land of Love” (1949), which is said to have both the “same fancy orking with strings” and a “pash [posh] Pete Rugolo big ork scoring.”113 Initially these qualities were employed at the expense of the upscale lounge jazz-pop elements of the Cole Trio recordings (for example, “When I Take My Sugar to Tea” (1949) swings with a sophisticated sheen suggesting—as the lyrics state—“rubbin' elbows at the Ritz with the millionaires”).
The “fancy” melodramaticism of “Nature Boy” is heard in the intro, with its minor-key French horn motive, which lands on a bed of low strings with an upward harp glissando. This transitions to an English horn response, and then a register-expanding, flute-led orchestral texture. Following another harp sweep, the music slows over held low strings, which soon undergo another harmonic shift (again expanding register), over which a fluttering flute (evoking exotic birds) is foregrounded. The music ultimately gives way to an easy swinging orchestral lilt, but the “posh” scoring never transcends into jazz, even while Cole's voice is grounded in black jazz-pop. The track is more 1940s Hollywood underscoring than post-Romantic modernism (for example, in the lush string sweep following “over land and sea”).114Billboard once referred to these Cole arrangements as “production background[s].”115 This phrasing references elaborate, extended New York/Hollywood “production numbers” in radio, film, and recording. In 1946, the NBC arranger Tom Bennett described production arrangements for big-band-plus-strings radio orchestras as the scoring of “banal and trite” pop in a “concert manner,” using a “startling variety of treatments” “to attract the attention of the listener.”116 This goal is a clear foundation for both 1940s crooner arranging and later populuxe practice.
The transition to “swinging” Capitol populuxe briefly included Cole's subsequent pairing with Rugolo, starting with the 1949 recording of Billy Strayhorn's “Lush Life.” Casting a cynical eye on a life of “jazz and cocktails,” this recording reintroduces jazz foundations under the orchestral Cole, alongside nods to Stan Kenton's progressive jazz, albeit with vocal “production” arrangements built on a hybrid art/entertainment aesthetic.117 In “Lush Life” musical glamour is richly conveyed through the sensuousness of key juxtaposed textures, including lustrous strings and the cool emotionality of the jazz trio. There is a graceful, flowing quality that stands at a restrained distance from “progressive” excesses and bop-indebted mainstream jazz, providing a sophisticated, bespoke formal wear for its lounge jazz-trio foundations.
In 1950, bandleader Les Baxter commissioned Riddle to write two ghost arrangements for Cole, including “Mona Lisa.” The uncredited Riddle had previously been an arranger/trombonist for Tommy Dorsey, as well as an NBC radio arranger. Riddle's first credited arrangement for Cole was “Unforgettable” (1951), which owes much to Riddle's deft adaptation of the lounge jazz sound of pianist George Shearing's quintet. Shearing voiced his group's piano, vibraphone, guitar, and bass in a manner akin to what he describes as “the Glenn Miller saxophone section” being “scored for piano, playing all five voices, with vibes playing the top [melodic line], [and] guitar playing an octave lower than the vibes.”118 Furthermore, Shearing's “locked-hand” piano style consisted of a three-note-harmonized melody in the right hand, while the left hand doubled the melody in octaves below. Example 1 shows an extract from Riddle's adaptation, with the locked-hand piano voicings complemented by guitar and celesta (evoking vibes) doublings, brushwork on drums, and rudimentary bass, alongside a lower cello doubling and responsorial pizzicato strings and harp.119 While this subdued hybrid-instrumentation aesthetic partly foreshadows mid-1950s West Coast cool, the textures also evoke glamour modes (without progressive textures) comparable to those of “Lush Life.” Though distinct from Riddle's forthcoming big band arrangements for Sinatra, “Lush Life” retains a similarly cool, swinging aesthetic in accompaniment and easy, swinging vocals, which foreground Sinatra's new employment of baritone chest resonance, particularly in interpretive verbalizations that modulate the grain of his voice (enhanced by hi-fi recording). Similar subtleties permeate Cole's vocals, and both vocal styles and their lush backings embody the glamorous but middlebrow-adjacent aesthetics of a luxe life of jazz and cocktails.
There was plenty of non-luxe pop on 1950s charts to foreground populuxe's elevated, classy style mode. As noted, this music's having-it-both-ways brow fluidity—as mass pop with “fancy orking” (to echo Billboard vernacular)—neatly reflects glamour-aspirational consumerism. Such mid-century luxe consumer goods inherently involve a range of sustained tensions between their mixed-class markers. Academic literature on brow discourse frequently mentions the Harper's and Life articles but has yet to consider the original reader responses. While Life briefly observes that the “differences are often blurred” between the brows,120 letters to the editor emphasize this point, readers proposing “all-around brow,” among other variations, to describe their broad consumption habits.121 Such mixed-brow interests are captured—all in one—in populuxe consumer goods, including music. In his important 1974 study on taste cultures, sociologist Herbert Gans observed that in real life “people do not limit their choices to one [taste] culture” and they “often make cultural choices from many menus.”122 He underscores that the indices of education, occupation, and income, alongside age, gender, and race, form vital factors in brow affinities, thus suggesting the need for more nuanced criticism and that some cultural/brow exchanges may be decidedly more (democratically) horizontal than (hierarchically) vertical. (Gans likewise correctly observes that the pre-1970 “standards of the other taste cultures” beyond highbrow “are rarely discussed” objectively or otherwise.)123 Music trade magazines display a similar brow eclecticism, as seen in Billboard album “popularity” charts in 1950, in which music by Arnold Schoenberg (“not suitable” for jukeboxes; “moments of chromatic schmaltz”) are reviewed alongside easy-listening orchestral pop by black crooner Billy Eckstine, each being ranked by points according to “Production Idea,” “Name Value,” and so on (Eckstine 85, Schoenberg 68).124 As the music industry ramped up postwar promotion practices, trends in classy entertainment circulated among marketing of “the good life” to the lower middlebrows. Gans characterized the postwar lower middlebrow as both “America's dominant taste culture” and more interested in “cosmopolitan sophistication” than high culture per se.125 Here, the focus shifts from class/brow aspirations to classy entertainment, with luxe artifice and stylization resulting in middlebrow-adjacent consumer goods (recordings) where the imagined cultural fig leaf hiding commercial intent (to paraphrase Macdonald) has more to do with significations of affluence, glamour, and Hollywood-style elevation than with high culture.126
Sepia and the American Black Middlebrow
The Black Middle Class
For most of the twentieth century, “middle” was not the correct way of describing the black middle class in the United States. Only recently have sociologists, demographers, and other scholars of African American culture and society begun to discuss a more nuanced tripartite division within black societies, placing the middle class between elite and poor sociological strata.127 For African Americans in the postwar era, the middle was, in fact, most likely the top. To be among the middle class was to have exceeded societal expectations for blackness in larger American society.
There had been a range of statuses and means within black communities for centuries. Notable periods of visibility after Emancipation included movements such as the Harlem and Chicago Renaissances, but even small towns across the country with smaller black populations had a sense of class stratification. Doctors and lawyers lived alongside the working class and poor. National demographic data shows clear trends toward bifurcation among black Americans in significant numbers after the Second World War, later viewed by many historians as the rise of a “black middle class.”128 A generation of black professionals moved out of segregated communities for the first time, beginning a process of both geographical and cultural assimilation into communities that had formerly been all white.
This demographic change was closely related to, but far more urgent than, the aspirational middlebrow outlook. As a consequence of long-standing issues of racism within American culture, African Americans were still heavily marginalized, laws and customs often being explicitly designed to prevent class and status mobility. Even so, it was a massive change in black society. It made the black middle class visible to white communities and helped to reinforce a form of social understanding that led to much of the most important civil rights legislation in the history of the nation. And the growing dynamics of class within black communities after the Second World War dramatically changed the demographics of traditionally black neighborhoods. Physical detachment created cultural barriers.129
There is a large body of writing about black class stratification, comparable to that on the middlebrow.130 Perhaps the best-known early example is prominent sociologist E. Franklin Frazier's scathing study Black Bourgeoisie, first published in France in 1957. The work of an insider who had studied and taught at a number of prestigious historically black colleges (Clark, Howard, and Fisk), the book analyzes the structure and inner workings of the new community of black professionals. He is dubious of their actual status within larger society, and concludes that they are operating within a world of “make-believe.” Striving toward uplift, he claims, will not lead to social integration within a fundamentally racist society.131
Frazier's ideas still resonate loudly within the field of African American studies. More than sixty years after its publication, Black Bourgeoisie is still regularly cited in studies of class tensions within black communities and remains required reading in many introductory courses on African American history and culture. Unlike well-known critiques of the middlebrow, many of which are discussed more fully elsewhere in this colloquy, the majority of writings on the black middle class have been produced by African American voices from Frazier's day to the present. These writers' identity politics are often embroiled in the very class issues they discuss.132 White intellectuals have significant personal stakes in these discussions, too, as much of the rhetorical positioning of middle-class blackness in these studies involves cultural interweavings of black and white communities, interrogating issues such as white fetishization and the impact of structural power.133
Black Popular Music and Class(ification)
There are a number of interesting ways to observe the rise of the black middle class during this era. Like the widespread phenomenon of the Book-of-the-Month Club studied by Joan Rubin, sources from this time such as magazines, books, and records contain traces of these changes, variously displaying both the feeling of progress and the tensions they wrought.134 Performers modeled aspects of class difference in their performance styles, lyrics, and image, and both white and black listeners used mechanically reproduced—and increasingly available—recordings to improve their social standing and explore different aspects of black culture. The records themselves were sometimes about issues of social stratification, offering powerful evidence of art depicting issues relating to class.
It was a time of great change for African American music makers. At the beginning of the 1940s, a world war and an extended musicians' strike dramatically reduced commercial recording production, enforced rations that made professional travel difficult, and led to a decentering of American culture in areas outside major cities. The social and cultural norms of the period meant that black musicians were regularly subjected to segregation practices in their personal and professional lives. Black economics were necessary and became extremely important. A mostly insulated black-oriented entertainment field developed, encompassing retail outlets, jukebox locations, radio programming, performance venues, and many other elements. A number of significant new interactions between black performers and the white mainstream developed during this period, as styles associated with black culture—in addition to a number of black musicians—began to slowly break through various Jim Crow barriers within the entertainment business.
Study of record companies such as RCA Victor, Columbia, Capitol, and Decca—four of the major firms at the time—makes it clear that these businesses found it increasingly difficult to classify black music during the 1940s. The manner in which a publication like Billboard updated its nomenclature—changing chart names from “Harlem Hit Parade” to “Race” and then to “Rhythm and Blues”—reflected developments in attitudes toward ethnic difference in the larger record business. As the decade wore on, it might be argued, these changes in labeling testified to a growing acceptance of racial other.
A far more nuanced way of viewing this shift is through record classification, alphanumeric systems devised by record companies as a means of dividing their catalogs into discrete groupings.135 Whereas in later eras record retail outlets were oriented toward consumer browsing and clerks used large-scale alphabetical schemes for organizing stock, in the 1940s many stores kept merchandise behind a counter and arranged records by catalog number to facilitate easy location. Cataloging schemes were central to the identity of the records. They dictated geography as much as the infamous neighborhood covenants of the period.136
Record companies classified their output in a variety of ways. For its low-cost Bluebird imprint, for example, RCA Victor used a prefix numbering system to separate records into demographic categories. Record numbers that started with 30 and 31 were in the popular series, 32 and 33 were used for various country styles, and 34 and 35 marked records as belonging to any number of groupings associated with black performers.137 A variety of ethnic categories were also used in these schemes, including Latin American, Irish, Scottish, and Calypso. Similar labeling and categorization techniques were present in promotional literature sent to record shops and news outlets. In its weekly press releases in the mid-1940s, for example, RCA Victor organized its new records under headings like “Popular,” “Old Familiar Tune,” “Race,” “Country Music,” “Rhythm,” “International,” and “Blues,” in addition to many other seemingly fleeting labels that differed slightly from week to week. What we now tend to view as meaningful genre categories were much more fluid in their early commercial incarnations.
The major American recording firm Decca offers an interesting case study in this regard.138 Decca's involvement with black artists was far more extensive than that of RCA Victor. The company's catalog blurred boundaries between categories of race, style, and demographic in ways that help to tell a more nuanced story about black class mobility during the 1940s. Musical style, professional association, and a number of other factors determined where records by black artists were listed within Decca's corporate demographic space. In many cases, the same side was included within multiple numbering schemes.
Decca had had a long history in the UK dating back to the cylinder era. During the early 1930s, economic tensions brought on by the threat of war forced the company to split. Its US arm became independent in 1934, launching a new era of corporate and creative history. By the end of the decade, Decca was more fully invested in black artists than any of its major-label contemporaries. Yet even from its early years, the company treated black artists differently from one another. The Complete Decca Popular Record Catalog of ca. 1940, the guide to acts such as Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters, included records by many black artists, including significant entries for Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Art Tatum, the Ink Spots, and the Mills Brothers (the last two listed as “Negro Male Quartet”).139 Stylistically, all of these releases were in accepted popular modes like dance-oriented jazz (swing and combo), boogie-woogie piano, and vocal quartet arrangements. Most of the dance songs were labeled “fox trots,” encouraging listeners to consider them for dancing.
The company also maintained a separate “Race” list at the time, which was housed in a series beginning with the catalog number 7000. These releases were included not in the popular catalog but in specialty booklets, segregated from their mainstream counterparts. Catalogs and company promotional materials labeled these 7000 series records with genre titles such as “Blues,” “Hot Dance,” “Gospel Singing,” and “Preaching.” They were releases that revealed deeper aspects of “blackness,” mostly through faith and vocality. The 1940 “Race” record catalog, for example, included music by gospel quartets like the Dixie Hummingbirds, a number of black preachers, and many male and female blues singers.
The manner in which Decca classified records by African American performers changed in the early 1940s. As the black middle class became more visible within American society, the company introduced a new black-music series called Sepia, which was active for several years alongside the 7000 series. Sepia records were organized using a new catalog numbering system beginning with 8500. They displayed an increasing sense of difference within black music, a glimpse of understanding from the industry that accounted for class connotation and uplift.
“Sepia” (or “sepian”) was a term that had been in use for over a decade in the entertainment business, usually as a euphemism for “black.” It reminded (or informed) listeners of the race of the performer, but was often used within African American culture to signify upscale blackness. This usage drew on a larger practice of employing terms like “tan” and “copper” as a means of highlighting aspects of difference and liminality within black culture.140 “Sepia” was used widely in popular media of the time, perhaps most famously by a black-oriented magazine published in Fort Worth, Texas, which changed its name from “Negro Achievements” to “Sepia” in 1946.
Decca used its Sepia series to house records by swing groups, vocalists, boogie-woogie musicians, jazz greats like Art Tatum, a young pianist and singer called Nat Cole (before he signed to Capitol), and other styles representative of more respectable cabaret culture. As suggested by its name, the series was intended as a way of hearing race through a prism that shifted ethnic stereotypes. The first Sepia release, “Pompton Turnpike,” was a Louis Jordan record issued in 1940.141 The song had been popularized earlier that year in an instrumental rendition by the white bandleader Charlie Barnet. Written by musicians Will Osborne and Dick Rodgers, it was about a road in the New Jersey suburb of Cedar Grove and a famous club that resided on it, the Meadowbrook, a dance hall active in the 1920s and 1930s. Jordan's rendition is easygoing and suave, much like the club's environs. He includes a set of lyrics that speak of “country charm” and “dining with lights subdued.”142 The slow, meandering track provides an aural and lyrical snapshot of contemporary black middle-class sounds and images, conveying a sense of class and elegance in an African American context.
In introducing the Sepia line, Decca was reacting to broader changes in the way black entertainers and their music were viewed by African American communities and also by the mainstream music industry. “Negro performers are being presented with more dignity,” reported Paul Denis in a Billboard feature article in 1943. This was in part due to the “traditional excellence” of jazz musicians and to clubs like Café Society choosing to present “serious, competent Negro musicians and singers.”143
This perspective is audible in a number of other releases from the time. The Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn composition “Sepia Panorama” (1940) contains a mélange of styles and approaches to jazz that presents the African American experience in a manner that furthered discussions about a “politics of respectability.”144 Like many of Ellington's tone poems, “Sepia Panorama” prompts listeners to think about black culture rather than being simply entertained by it. Thomas Brothers has written about the juxtaposition of styles in the piece, and how its form encourages exploration of “higher-level emotional synthesis” rather than “logical continuity.”145 Through this lens, “sepia” is seen to be used less as a labeling device than as denoting potential, a way of thinking of blackness and its long-standing cultural sensibilities and a model for listeners, both black and white.
The Decca release of “Sepian Stomp” by Jay McShann in 1942 shows another dimension of the sepia concept, using the term to refer to an ironic melding of the corporeal (stomping and dancing) and the intellectual.146 The record offers a big band arrangement of an original song based on standard “rhythm changes,” rotating through a series of solos featuring piano and saxophone, the last of which is performed by a young Charlie Parker on alto. It would be Parker's last session with McShann before moving during the next several years through a series of groups that helped to develop the approach to jazz that later became known as bebop. Parker's presence on this recording gives the idea of sepia a modernist twist, reclaiming a form of music that had grown out of African American cultural ideas but had since become mostly corporeal. Like Ellington's use of stylistic juxtaposition, Parker's new language also required a type of “higher-level emotional synthesis,” involving complex and virtuosic reworkings of material based on standard musical building blocks.
Around 1945, Decca phased out the 7000 series and also abandoned the use of “Race” as a category. Many of the acts in this list were now grouped within a new 48000 series that represented a collection of ethnic-oriented records by African American performers in the upper reaches of the catalog itself alongside categories like “International” (45000), “Country” (46000), and “Latin American” (50000). The flyer introducing the series was printed in a deep red-brown hue and adorned with caricatures of African American musicians in silhouette.147 Like the older 7000 series, these records often contained music related to black folk idioms, such as jubilee quartets and blues.
Not long afterward, the company also stopped releasing records in the Sepia series. This style of uplift-oriented releases had mostly supplanted the idea of backroom “Race” records in Decca's marketing and promotion. The company moved some of these acts to the 48000 line, such as Sister Rosetta Tharpe, whose style of electric gospel was easier to view within a segregated marketplace. Others, such as Louis Jordan, were folded into a new set of more mainstream categories, labeled “Popular,” “Personality,” and “Black Label.” These new groupings were mostly reflective of price category and “value added” elements like specialty duets, rather than the race or ethnicity of the performer. Throughout all these changes, the manner in which Decca incorporated jump blues within this larger popular framework showed that the conduit for black musical identity was widening. Jordan's music, in particular, was a major catalyst for the development of a new style of crossover rhythm and blues in the mid-1940s that led to a commercial explosion in the postwar rhythm and blues market.
Sepia as a Shade of Middlebrow?
There were interesting similarities between the place of the sepia concept in black life during the 1940s and what critics had been discussing as middlebrow culture for at least a decade. Both relate to the representation of, and tensions surrounding, class uplift in underclass and marginalized communities. Rubin cites “elocution lessons, charm courses, and beauty aids” as examples of products that reinforced middlebrow culture.148 It does not seem coincidental that these same types of product are littered throughout the pages of newspapers and magazines—like Sepia—targeted at both those in the black middle class and those with more aspirational class aims. Rubin also discusses theater and the arts, publishing, and higher education as structural middlebrow means of expression and communication.149 Likewise, the strong presence of each of these was central to twentieth-century black middle-class culture.
There were also stark differences between sepia and the middlebrow. The well-established practice of racial segregation within the music industry formed an economic and social barrier that often prevented depictions of African Americans outside a number of lower-class stereotypes. Writing about music released two decades later, historian Brian Ward found that critics still seemed to prefer “their black artists poor and marginalized.”150 Far more recently, essayists like Hanif Abdurraqib continue to write about the issues that arise from being “black, and not from the places that some in America imagine All Black People to be from.”151 The difficulty of overcoming expectations of this sort has been one of the major strains of thought in studies on the black middle class since Frazier, and it was as much of a problem for the artists who projected sounds and images aligned with sepia in the 1940s. Despite parallel efforts to integrate with mainstream culture through self-improvement and the construction of image, members of the black middle class faced far greater social and economic challenges than their middlebrow counterparts.
Demographic categorization in the output of major record labels like Decca reveals nuanced projections of race and class, as well as messy interactions between segregated musical forms and the dominant majority-white mainstream. Decca's use of the term “sepia” as a labeling device provides clear documentation of the aspiration often attributed to the black middle class during the 1940s. At a time when this burgeoning group was working to improve its opportunities in areas such as housing and employment, the record business both reflected and stimulated changes within African American attitudes toward uplift. These developments, largely related to depictions of class, were the beginning of a massive postwar shift in African American representation in the broader field of commercial music, the effects of which are still evident in society today.
Can the Middlebrow Rock?
If there is a middlebrow strand in rock music, progressive rock surely embodies it. This middlebrow status makes “prog” a problematic topic in both popular music studies and rock's historiography. After a brief period of acceptance, progressive rock was denounced in its time by music critics for its musical pretension, excess, and overreach. Some feared it represented a middle-class colonization (or “gentrifying”) of rock.152 Yet its influence on future generations of musicians is also attested in music journalism, where many of its top acts have been admired for setting high standards for musicianship and inventive songwriting.153 For others, it was a negative influence, a warning about what not to do musically.154 Much pioneering research in popular music studies (coming from cultural studies and sociology) paid very little attention to it, making it seem like a blip on the pop culture map.155 But as musicologists and music theorists began researching popular music, analyses of progressive rock amassed, and the genre became—in proportion to other popular genres—seemingly overemphasized by those disciplines.156
These responses to progressive rock reflect its entangled relationships with value hierarchies in many fields of discourse. My discussion here focuses on the relationship of progressive rock's reception to the middlebrow, and also to the lower-middle-class position with which middlebrow culture is mostly associated.157 Progressive rock musicians and rock critics both tried to define a “high” cultural register for rock, but they did so in very different ways and with different results. A brief overview of these helps to explain how and why progressive rock was received and ultimately devalued as a middlebrow form. I will begin by looking at how “lowbrow” and “highbrow” registers were framed in rock criticism.
Rock criticism, in its early phase of development, brought together elements of music industry trade magazine reviews, writings from the underground press, and jazz criticism, and developed an aesthetics based on a particular reformulation of modernist ideas about high and low culture.158 Rock critics were dealing with a lowbrow, commercial form of music, and they found ways of valuing it by emphasizing its positive effects on the body (through its vital rhythm), its social importance (breaking down racial barriers, articulating social or political rebellion), and its efficacy in offering raw, energetic, visceral fun. As Kembrew McLeod notes, critics sometimes repurposed pejoratives as terms of praise when reviewing rock music, so that adjectives like “primitive,” “savage,” “brutal,” “simple,” and even “stupid” were used to describe the music's power, immediacy, and lowbrow appeal.159 For some critics, rock provided a window on, or a simulation of, a more exciting and “real” working-class life, which Simon Frith describes as “a fantasy community of risk,” with an “un-bourgeois innocence of caution, an uncalculated directness and honesty.”160
Rock criticism also recognized, and helped to construct, a “high culture” side to rock. But, as we will see, critics' reference points for this were quite different from those of progressive rock. Rock critics praised artists who used irony or artifice in clever and self-conscious ways. Lawrence Grossberg describes this as “authentic inauthenticity,” also called “meta-authenticity” by Hans Weisethaunet and Ulm Lindberg, both terms referring to the use of play and irony to generate a productive tension between art and commerce.161 While this seems to create a space between art and the popular, Weisethaunet and Lindberg assert that it is not middlebrow, because it does not mediate the “high” for the “low,” but functions as an “intermediary aesthetic” by exploring the unresolved tension between them.162 Will Straw builds on this idea, explaining that rock criticism constructed a “highbrow” style of rock through artists who integrated “street wisdom, a certain ironic distance from rock mythology … sexual ambiguity,” and a self-conscious, reflexive sense of their place within rock's archives. These attributes, Straw observes, were taken as signs of competence, intellectuality, and a sophistication born of experience.163 Bernard Gendron adds that the “high” side in pop and rock was constructed along similar lines to postmodernism's antifoundationalism, a refusal to recognize the authority of established traditions, aesthetics, and boundaries. The avant-garde strains that influenced rock movements like punk, no wave, and some indie rock (in which musicians sometimes drew on art school training) presented “an anti-art aesthetic, [but] function[ed] also as a strongly pro-art aesthetic. Being against art simply meant being against the unmediated appropriation of mainstream art notions and their pretensions into popular music—the pieties of singer-songwriters, the virtuosic convulsions of some heavy metal, and the classical music quotationalism of British art rock.”164
When progressive rock first emerged in the late 1960s, it had claims to being in the vanguard of rock through its merging and juxtaposition of rock styles with an eclectic range of music, including Baroque and Romantic European art music, in an apparent effort to broaden the genre, and make it more serious from an artistic standpoint. Its embrace of technology, especially emerging electronic instruments like the Mellotron and Moog synthesizer, and its exploitation of studio technology to create elaborate concept LPs, suggested that the genre was advancing rock's expressive and aesthetic range. Many of the stars of the genre—keyboardists Keith Emerson and Rick Wakeman, guitarists Robert Fripp, Steve Hackett, and Steve Howe, bassist Chris Squire—were virtuosos, some with classical training, who made spectacular musical-technical displays a part of rock concerts in the early 1970s. The lyrics and concepts used by progressive rock bands built on practices started in the mid-1960s by artists like Bob Dylan and the Beatles, who aimed for a high poetic register and alluded to art poetry, while writing socially or morally critical lyrics.165 Albums were sometimes unified through larger themes or narratives built up across several songs. For example, Jethro Tull's Thick as a Brick (1972) and Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon (1973) were both concept albums that purported to make moral criticisms of British society or modern capitalist life in general.166
But while progressive rock seems to construct a “high” form of rock music through these characteristics, the critical reception of the genre undercut such claims by framing the genre with middlebrow attributes. For example, Lester Bangs, writing about Jethro Tull's Aqualung album in Creem in 1973, referred to it as “two LP sides of unmitigated social moralizing, weighty lyrics in musical settings so heterogenous … as to have become a recognizable style.”167 Ben Gerson, reviewing the same album in Rolling Stone in 1971, called Jethro Tull “one of our most serious and intelligent groups,” but noted that albums that lack “self-irony, which is basic to great rock and roll,” risk becoming pompous affairs: “While [Jethro Tull singer Ian] Anderson is adept at conceiving a musical approximation of an idea, his lyrics are overly intentional, ponderous and didactic. … Thus, despite the fine musicianship and often brilliant structural organization of songs, this album is not elevated, but undermined by its seriousness.”168
Similar assessments of the lyrical content of progressive rock groups, from Genesis to Rush, abound. The critics almost never invoked the term “middlebrow,” but they seemed to instinctively recoil at progressive rock's attempts to edify or morally uplift their audience. This reaction implies a rejection of a key motivation of middlebrow cultural consumption: to engage with culture that should (like nutritious food) be “good for you.”169 The consumption of high culture through middlebrow channels was supposed to be a path to self-improvement. Progressive rock with “weighty lyrics” provided one such channel, but critics seemed to feel that serious, morally sanctimonious lyrics meshed poorly with rock's “lowbrow” energy, producing little more than a dim imitation of highbrow poetry or social criticism, and failing the standards of both art and good entertainment.
Critical assessments of progressive rock's musical content were mixed. The high quality of musical technique and musical production in progressive rock was acknowledged, but it was seen as a crutch compensating for a lack of musical or emotional meaning. To wit, progressive rock was dry, empty music executed with impeccable technique. Reviewing Yes's Close to the Edge (1972) for the New Musical Express, Ian MacDonald noted, “Yes … have made the elementary mistake of developing their facility with structure to the detriment of any consideration of content. They ain't got no heart, is what I mean.”170 In a scorching article on Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Lester Bangs offered that “Keith Emerson never played an interesting solo in his life. Hell, might as well admit it all the way, they're not even solos, they're just some guy racing all over a keyboard like Liberace trying to play Mozart behind a Dexamyl OD.”171 The rock-classical fusion achieved by ELP was appealing to Bangs at first, as he interpreted it as a burlesquing or soiling of high culture with rock and roll impudence and irreverence. But after drummer Carl Palmer stated that he hoped ELP's performances would interest young people in “music that has more quality,” Bangs decided that the band's rock-classical dialogue represented “the insidious befoulment of all that was gutter pure in rock.”172 John Rockwell, reviewing Rush for the New York Times, respected the group's “crisp, professional dispatch” but felt that “to this taste, the whole thing seems busy and empty.”173 And Dave Marsh, in a triple review of Genesis, Queen, and Starcastle for Rolling Stone, called these groups “rock's icy edge,” acknowledging the musical complexity, but finding the music “determinedly middle-class” and “truly arrogant because it refuses to articulate just what moods its complex structures are meant to evoke.” For Marsh, progressive rock was founded on a “class-based cult of musicianship” together with lyrics apparently drawn from “half-digested English literature courses.”174
What we find here is a conflict over the “high ground” in rock's aesthetics. Progressive rock musicians used selected allusions to European high culture (those that would be recognized by most in the popular culture audience) in order to claim some of that culture's legitimacy for rock and their own musicianship. They complexified the form and content of rock music from their standpoint as producers of music. If progressive rock embodied excellence, it was from a poietic standpoint, that of the makers. Progressive rock was commercially successful in its day, and studies of progressive rock audiences suggest that a significant community of amateur musicians followed the bands reviewed above, and that these audiences understood the music from that poietic standpoint. Meanwhile, rock critics viewed this music aesthetically, from their perspective as consumers. For them, progressive rock failed to provide the pleasures of a purer “lowbrow” experience, and the attempt to merge rock with highbrow culture did not offer the deep or engaging experience it promised. Progressive rock was received as a disappointing middlebrow compromise, neither highbrow enough (in the right ways) to be elevating nor lowbrow enough to be fun.
As academic study of progressive rock picked up in the late 1990s and 2000s, many of those who covered it sympathetically understood the music poietically, especially those writing from the perspective of musicology and music theory. They analyzed, interpreted, and defended this music using musicological methods and language, seemingly reclaiming the high ground for the genre, and relegitimizing it. But other disciplines, especially sociology and cultural studies, seemed to read the broad genre of rock in much the same way as the critics. As a lowbrow form, rock could be read through its audience reception, subcultural formations, socially situated contexts, and its semiotics of style. In short, the complexity of rock as a cultural phenomenon was framed through its circulation, reception, and semiosis, rather than through its production as such. From that perspective, progressive rock was just one strand of post-countercultural popular culture, and not necessarily the most interesting.
In the end, progressive rock and its fan base hailed largely from lower-middle-class and embourgeoised working-class positions, and the genre's popularity reflects that fan base's acquisition of educational and cultural capital, as well as its simultaneous immersion in mass culture.175 The critical rejection of progressive rock's “middle” position between high and low culture echoes the ambivalences associated with petit bourgeois identity. As Rita Felski notes, cultural critics have long derided the lower middle class for loving high culture for the “wrong” reasons: “On an aesthetic level, the lower middle class … is despised by everyone: by defenders of elite culture for its irredeemably bad taste (kitsch is often seen as quintessentially petit bourgeois) and by radicals for its moral and artistic conservatism and its reverence for high culture.”176 What is ironic to the “high” aesthetes is earnest to the petit bourgeois, Felski observes,177 and this is probably why progressive rock has been taken so seriously and was so vigorously defended by its audience, while the hip side of rock criticism laughed or cringed at it from the sidelines.
Rather than agree with the critics on the “shame” of middlebrow rock, or join at least some fans and musicians in defending it or praising its alleged musical excellence, analysts of prog might think about how and why a self-consciously middling sort of music serves a function in popular culture. Though this may come as a surprise, one music critic, Simon Reynolds, reflected on this, writing about what he sees as “the importance of a strong middlebrow culture.” He notes that “there's little cultural capital to be had from sticking up for middlebrow,” but “[the] middlebrow calls into question both the mainstream and the margins: pop, for its lack of risk and reach, and the unpop peripheries, for their pointless extremism, concealed macho, impotent inconsequentiality. At its best, middlebrow really does offer the best of both worlds.”178 Reynolds reminds us that critical opinion is not united in shaming the middlebrow, and that some see value and purpose in this middling cultural register. What he offers here might be considered a reparative reading of middlebrow music, a reading defined by Susan Crozier as an “effort to take already well-critiqued or formerly suspect cultural objects, and make them over as a resource for the self,” and that Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick describes as reassembling such cultural objects in ways that make them “available both to be identified with and to offer one nourishment and comfort in turn.”179 Thus, it is certainly possible to make a place in cultural criticism for music that speaks to the aspirant desires of the working and lower middle classes without making it a place of shame.
For many critics, from the 1920s to the present, one of the most pernicious aspects of the middlebrow has been its dependence on the comfortable and the familiar, and its avoidance of the difficulty of the new. In his study of Norman Rockwell's paintings, for example, Richard Halpern locates their middlebrow character in their stance “against the new, the threatening, and the unfamiliar.”180 For Tom Perrin, the mid-twentieth-century middlebrow novel offered “a comforting fantasy” about the problems of its day while trading in outdated literary conventions.181 In 1932, Q. D. Leavis similarly linked the middlebrow's dependence on outdated or recycled styles with comfort, writing about the “outworn technique” of the middlebrow novel alongside its “soothing and not disturbing sentiments.”182 All these critics are discussing products made for middlebrow consumption, but even as the circulation of high culture in accessible form—the mode that most concerns me here—the middlebrow involved the idea of comfort. One of its harshest critics, Clement Greenberg, wrote in 1953 that middlebrow culture was a product of “the new American middle classes,” who demanded that “high culture be delivered to them by a compromise, precisely, with their limitations.” He went on, “The liberal and fine arts of tradition, as well as its scholarship, have been ‘democratized’—simplified, streamlined, purged of whatever cannot be made easily accessible.”183 In this way, for Greenberg, even the most difficult object was made self-affirming rather than threatening.
One could also make a case, though, for a vein of intense discomfort running through the middlebrow. This sense of discomfort is what Halpern ultimately wants to draw out in his study of Rockwell, finding in his paintings elements that are deeply anxious and unsettling; for Halpern, these elements tend to undermine the paintings' middlebrow status.184 I would argue, rather, that they point to a broader anxiety underlying the middlebrow. After all, the middlebrow is founded on the idea of a gap to be overcome. As film critic Lawrence Napper writes, “the term expresses a dynamic relationship between class status and cultural taste—one that is essentially aspirational.”185 David Savran has gone so far as to say that “the principal affect associated with middlebrow—understood as a mode of cultural production, a level of taste, and a critical apparatus—is anxiety.”186 But even he tends to discuss this anxiety in relation to the experience of tastemakers, rather than that of middlebrow readers, listeners, and theatergoers themselves.
Middlebrow studies has expended considerable energy on the ways in which the gatekeepers of high culture work to ease access and ameliorate anxiety, focusing on the guides, products, and institutions of middlebrow culture. The middlebrow consumer, meanwhile, often appears as a passive participant in this process, if visible at all. One of the few critics to attend to the ambivalence of middlebrow readers and listeners is Pierre Bourdieu. In his Distinction (1979), he described what he called “culture moyenne” in much the same terms used by Greenberg to denounce the middlebrow—as an accessible repackaging of high culture for the lower-middle-class consumer. But he saw the middlebrow consumer's relationship with culture as at once self-assured and worried.187 He wrote that the social position of the “petit-bourgeois”—and constant awareness of that position—determined “his relation to legitimate culture and his avid but anxious, naive but serious way of clutching at it.” “Legitimate culture,” Bourdieu added, “is not made for him (and is often made against him),” so that “it ceases to be what it is as soon as he appropriates it.”188 It is partly Bourdieu's attention to the specificity—however imagined—of lower-middle-class experience that allows him to get at this tension between affirmation and anxiety in the middlebrow. As Rita Felski has pointed out, this attention is rare among scholars, even if the note of scorn is not.189 For Felski, the emphasis on educational aspiration and mobility in lower-middle-class identity—that is, on the traits most aligned with the middlebrow—is similarly linked with experiences of dislocation, anxiety, and shame.190
What can the middlebrow tell us if we start paying more attention to these experiences? For Lauren Berlant, the middlebrow “organizes anxieties about the good life as seen from an identification with middle-class aspirations for both pleasure and instruction from aesthetic transactions.”191 It involves a tension between pleasure and edification, then, but more fundamentally between anxiety and optimism, as immense hope is placed in the objects of middlebrow attachment. Berlant herself has shown us how to be more attentive to why and how people grasp onto the objects of mass culture—and onto a sense of belonging to an “intimate public”—as a means of survival in a hostile world.192 In her discussion of “reparative” approaches to culture, similarly, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick draws attention to “the many ways selves and communities succeed in extracting sustenance from the objects of a culture—even of a culture whose avowed desire has often been not to sustain them.”193 As suggested by Sedgwick's formulation here, though—intriguingly echoing Bourdieu's—such objects can be double-edged. Berlant takes this idea further: “all attachment is optimistic,” she suggests, but such optimism becomes cruel when “the object that draws your attachment actively impedes the aim that brought you to it initially.”194 The middlebrow offers endless elaborations of such cruelly optimistic relationships between people and the cultural objects to which they are attached, and a body of tools and terms for thinking about them.
One such elaboration is Abigail's Party (1977), a British play that stages a crisis of class and social mobility by way of a suburban drinks party gone horribly wrong. Here, the anxiety and shame of middlebrow experience is clearly on display. The play comments on a late stage of the middlebrow, and on specifically British performances of class, in ways that give rise to its foregrounding of anxiety. But it speaks broadly to the dilemma of those attached to the objects of middlebrow culture, a dilemma that is not categorically different in earlier or American forms of the middlebrow. It also suggests how music—more than literature, still the central object of middlebrow studies—might bring out the anxiety of the middlebrow in especially marked ways, partly as a result of the less private nature of listening (at least before the dominance of headphones) and of the relative opacity of the object itself. It seems telling, in any case, that this comically agonizing study in shame finds its locus in middlebrow aspirations, and in the peculiarly public form they take in music.
Devised by Mike Leigh, Abigail's Party was first performed at London's Hampstead Theatre and filmed for BBC television in 1977, but it was only when it was rebroadcast in 1979—the year of Margaret Thatcher's election, dubbed “the Winter of Discontent”—that it really grabbed public attention, drawing an audience of 16 million.195 At the time, the play was criticized as snide and patronizing.196 In many ways it replays dismissive tropes associated with British suburban life from Howards End (1910) to the 1930s novels of George Orwell to postwar Marxist criticism, inflected by a newer critique of the rising consumerism of the late 1970s (embodied above all in the character of Beverly).197 But the play is also a more complicated reflection on shifting aspirational strategies, and on the middlebrow in particular, exploring characters who are ultimately trapped despite—or sometimes by—these various strategies. It might even be understood as a reflection on critical discourses like those of Greenberg and Bourdieu, and on the relationship between their dismissive categories and the complex realities of people's lives and attachments.
In Abigail's Party, the middlebrow is embodied in the character of the host, Laurence, a real estate agent eager to display his collected editions, art prints, and classical recordings, but also frustrated by limits of time, money, and education. He is in many ways a caricature—more interested in the bindings of his editions than in their contents, while parroting empty judgments of value (“Macbeth. [Pause] Part of our heritage”)198 or offering capsule descriptions of Van Gogh's life and style. He clearly uses these displays of taste, moreover, to compete with his more lowbrow (but also more conventionally masculine) new neighbor, or to be accepted by Sue, the reserved middle-class divorcee who represents the neighborhood's slightly grander past.199 Throughout the play, his strained relationship with his wife Beverly is articulated through their differences in musical taste in particular, Laurence favoring James Galway (“Light classical—just as background,” he insists), while she is interested in more immediate pleasures, opting for sultry, slightly nostalgic popular music, from disco to Elvis to easy listening.200 She always wins out, leaving Laurence frustrated in his attempts to represent his cultural aspirations. Through Laurence, the play clothes the abstract idea of the middlebrow in a human reality; he seems trapped by the intensity of his attachments to high-cultural objects, and to the hopes for a richer, more dignified, and fulfilling life that they embody for him—hopes that are, perhaps inevitably, largely disappointed. In Abigail's Party, the middlebrow is anything but comfortable.
This becomes especially clear at its climax, when the party's tensions spin out of control. Throughout the play, as Laurence and Beverly repeatedly fight over the LP player, music has acted as a way of controlling social space, of displaying taste and imposing it on others. Now, as Beverly threatens to display a beloved piece of erotic kitsch—the hugely popular 1972 print Wings of Love—Laurence resorts to Beethoven. At this point, his guests are attempting to leave, but he heads frantically to the LP player and searches out a record. “Sit down—please!” he tells them, in an assertion of control heavily tinged with desperation.201 As they wait in silence, Beethoven's Fifth Symphony begins, Laurence sitting upright and attentive in his three-piece suit, nodding slightly in affirmation.202 But that moment of assurance is brief—he looks increasingly uncomfortable, until he suddenly lurches out of his chair, stricken by a heart attack. The party ends in chaos, Beverly arriving with her huge erotic print as attempts to revive Laurence fail.
There are a few different ways of thinking about this moment and what it tells us about the middlebrow. It might be seen to dramatize the lower-middle-class consumer's appropriation of high culture as described by Bourdieu, taking to parodic lengths the idea that it is “made against him.” Here, in Laurence's anxiety to hold on to Beethoven's music as part of his identity, it literally kills him. Reflecting (or anticipating) Bourdieu's argument more broadly, Laurence tries to wield cultural power over others—especially women in this case—and in the process only falls victim to it himself. At the same time, the play reveals another layer of tensions within the middlebrow, between its aspirations to authority and its feminizing force; dominated by his more forceful wife and physically dwarfed (in the BBC version) both by her and by the towering Sue, Laurence is a figure of emasculation.203 His choice of Beethoven is at once an assertion of authoritative masculinity and a culturally obedient gesture that only reinscribes the feminizing force of the middlebrow.
But perhaps the most tragic aspect of Laurence, as an exemplar of the middlebrow, is his isolation, even as he strives for connection and recognition. Desperate for acceptance by Sue in particular—or just for conversation—he meets largely with bafflement. And as his wife repeatedly tells him, nobody is interested in his views on art or wants to listen to his music. The peculiar sadness of this is that while Laurence's anxiety to display his tastes can be conventionally understood in terms of status and cultural competition, he might be seen more generously to want connection and belonging, and someone to talk to about what he is interested in. But if anything, the specifically middlebrow form that his interests have taken serves to isolate him, partly because of the anxious, competitive quality with which he presents them. This is another tension within the middlebrow. In many ways it functions as an “intimate public,” constructed around an ideal of belonging. As Berlant writes, “What makes a public sphere intimate is an expectation that the consumers of its particular stuff already share a worldview and emotional knowledge that they have derived from a broadly common historical experience.” It promises, she adds, “to provide a better experience of social belonging—partly through participation in the relevant commodity culture, and partly because of its revelations about how people can live.”204 But the middlebrow's competitive logic complicates that sense of belonging, as does its emphasis on the display of taste rather than on emotional contact, while its prominent strain of autodidacticism tends to act as an isolating force. In Laurence's case, certainly, any promise of belonging has failed.
Laurence's death, then, speaks to some fundamental tensions within the middlebrow. But it also speaks more specifically to its failures and looming obsolescence by the late 1970s. In the play, which casts Laurence himself as distinctly old-fashioned, both the authority of high culture on which the middlebrow depends and the model of social mobility in which it participates are marked as things of the past.205 That idea of obsolescence gains further resonance from the particular object of middlebrow reverence here, Beethoven's Fifth. The symphony has long denoted a certain set of promises. These include grand Romantic notions of subjectivity, freedom, and dynamism, but also, for someone of Laurence's generation (or that of his parents), more historically specific promises of citizenship and inclusion. The Fifth, after all, had a prominent function as a symbol of victory in the Second World War (thanks to the resemblance between its central rhythmic motif and the Morse code for “V”), and was widely used to signal the motivation for shared sacrifice—victory, but also a more democratic future.206 Even in the 1940s, it was firmly located in the realm of “popular classics.”207 As such, it was associated with what a later history of music described as that period's “large and relatively unadventurous ‘middlebrow’ audience of catholic rather than discriminating taste,” and with a commodified concert culture dominated by a small number of familiar orchestral “masterpieces.”208 Something of its status by the 1970s might be gauged by its inclusion (first movement only) in the 1974 album Portsmouth Sinfonia Plays the Popular Classics, which presented comically inept performances of the most familiar works, radicalizing their accessibility while turning them into spectacles of failure and inadequacy.209 The recording suggests both the Fifth's established status as middlebrow and the particular comic poignancy of hearing it as failed.
The Fifth is used to similar effect in Abigail's Party. Accompanying or perhaps even causing Laurence's sudden demise, its triumphalism is reversed, its promises failed. Laurence's Beethoven-induced collapse also helps to suggest the end of the popular classics' aspirational middlebrow audience as an important social force, an impression reinforced by his isolation and the dominance of Beverly's cruder (if ultimately more satisfying) consumerism. Meanwhile, his excruciating drinks party is constantly interrupted by raucous music from Abigail's party down the street—the real party of the play's title—representing an ascendant youth culture of a very different order, which literally wins out over Beethoven in the end. On one hand, the play's representation of this demise is clearly gleeful, its irony juxtaposed cruelly with Laurence's earnestness. On the other, the spectacle of Laurence grasping onto a sense of dignity and control by way of his Beethoven record—and the failure of that record to achieve anything of the sort—is distinctly melancholy.
If Abigail's Party, then, is a play largely about anxieties relating to taste and consumption, it tellingly locates its most extreme anxiety in the middlebrow character of Laurence. It dwells on the ways in which people can become trapped within set modes of consumption—trapped by an attachment to fantasies of the good life, to draw on Berlant again, that are structurally bound to disappointment—but of all the modes it explores, the middlebrow is most dangerous.210 Laurence dramatizes its discomforts, highlighting the underside of middlebrow aspiration as described by Bourdieu—the anxious “clutching” at high culture, the sense that it does not bring the status or belonging it promises, and that, even as something valued in itself, it recedes from one's grasp.
So what does the middlebrow offer us now? It is perhaps a discourse that belongs more to the past than to the present, but its terms, habits, and assumptions still linger, in ways to which we ought to attend. Particularly in the mode I have been concerned with here, the middlebrow circulation of high culture, its most obviously pernicious effect has been to encourage the establishment of a relatively closed canon. But it has also shaped the options for relating to high culture in particular ways. When we pay attention to those whose high-cultural attachments are structured by the middlebrow, it offers a few success stories—of people to whom it has offered a lifeline of belonging in situations of unbelonging—and a vast archive of disappointment, as Abigail's Party so vividly suggests. It is an archive worth excavating, as we work toward understanding how culture can be sustaining in a world that so often is not.
Relinquishing the Missionary Position
I will begin in the spirit of the Judge's song in Trial by Jury—if you are of the middlebrow, you will know it already—and tell you how I came to be a participant in this colloquy. Two of the titles listed in note 14 of the convenors' introduction are items in a University of California Press book series, California Studies in Twentieth-Century Music, of which I am general editor. They are, in fact, and not by accident, the ones authored by our convenors, Christopher Chowrimootoo and Kate Guthrie; and I am here at their invitation, as a friendly witness or amicus curiae. I snapped up their work because one of the chief tasks of the series is to retell the history of twentieth-century music with due awareness of its institutional and discursive mediation, and the middlebrow project is a prominent part of that. I was also attracted to their work because it resonated with my own upbringing and my path to my profession. Having talked about this with them, and having thus become for them a kind of informant, I was invited to give one of the keynote addresses at their London conference “Music and the Middlebrow” in 2017. The three of us thus share a history, and a fund of anecdotes. So here are a couple.
One of the problems besetting middlebrow studies is definition, since I have yet to hear of a case in which the term has been self-applied.211 It is generally hurled as abuse; and although we may profess to use it purely diagnostically now, its negative valence lurks, and will out. One of a general editor's tasks, besides recruiting authors, is to act when needed as their advocate. Thus it fell to me to defend Chowrimootoo's Middlebrow Modernism: Britten's Operas and the Great Divide against a blackballing prepublication referee. The book uses the category of the middlebrow as a heuristic through which to expose several decades' worth of critical false consciousness as embodied in reviews of Britten's stage works. Britten, ostensibly the subject of the book, serves more as a catalyst, somewhat in the way he did for me in The Oxford History of Western Music, which juxtaposes chapters on Britten and Elliott Carter to exemplify what I called the mid-twentieth-century “standoff,” roughly comparable in some ways to Andreas Huyssen's “Great Divide,” which Chowrimootoo invoked in his subtitle.212 Britten enjoyed both high aestheticist and communitarian credence. He liked to emphasize the latter in his public utterances, knowing that he had reliable spokespersons to advance the former, often preemptively.213 His work provided a place where critics could actually do what Virginia Woolf always feared the middlebrows might do, “saying one thing and doing the opposite, indulging base desires while laying claim to aesthetic purity.”214 Chowrimootoo's book caught them, delectably, in flagrante.
But the word “middlebrow” in his title was a trigger. It blinded our referee to the book's point and purpose and came across as an attack on Britten. The word is an insult, we were instructed. No right-thinking person would buy the book. I managed to counter this misunderstanding, but then it was my turn to be surprised when I sent Chowrimootoo my acceptance of his and Guthrie's invitation to keynote their conference with a joshing pretense of indignation and was taken seriously. I received an apology and an unconditional retraction (not of the invitation but of the invidious implications I had pretended to detect). Never let it be said that we are beyond the Great Divide and its associated behaviors. Conditioned responses outlast their stimuli.
So “middlebrow” remains a fighting word when applied to an author or a work. For scholarship it is useful only for studying the fight. Just as, in the introduction to the Oxford History, I suggested that we ask of music not “What does it mean?” but “What has it meant?,”215 I would confine study of “middlebrow” as term and concept to the study of its applications. As Beth Driscoll, an Australian literary sociologist, has put it, to study the middlebrow is to study cultural practices (or as I would prefer to call them, social transactions) rather than cultural products.216
The first to use the term in this way, hence the first serious browologist as far as I am concerned, was Russell Lynes, in two ostensibly unserious magazine pieces: first a little sketch called “Highbrow, Lowbrow, Middlebrow” in Harper's (where Lynes was editor), followed by that endlessly recycled, updated, and parodied graphic feature “Everyday Tastes from High-Brow to Low-Brow Are Classified on Chart” in Life.217 They have spawned a giant corpus of commentary, but Lynes's keenest insight sometimes goes unnoticed. The title of the sketch mentions three brows and the title of the chart only two, but the breakdown in the chart recognizes four levels of taste. Brows being obvious stand-ins for social classes, Lynes recognized the necessity of breaking the middle class(= brow) into an upper and lower, the way sociologists routinely did, in recognition of its high mobility. Just as the middle class was the aspiring class in modern society, the middlebrow was where most of the cultural action was. It was between the upper and the lower middlebrow that one could best observe the transactions that literary scholars, like the ones listed in notes 11 and 12 above, have analyzed.218
The most basic transaction was transmission by the purveying upper middlebrow, highly cultivated and (as Driscoll puts it) “reverential towards elite culture,” to the consuming—and aspiring—lower middle.219 The difference between highbrow and high middle was to be sought not in their level of cultivation but in their attitudes toward sharing—viewed by self-identifying highbrows as a treasonous breach of exclusivity on the part of a venal (or, in Driscollese, an “entrepreneurial”) bunch of perfidious, if highly educated, arrivistes.220 Hence all the aggrieved rhetoric. In one sense the grievance was pure hypocrisy, for the elite culture was also quite profitably mediated, if covertly.221 But the traitors were as heavily invested as their accusers in the cultural hierarchies they were ostensibly traducing, with its mythology of disinterestedness and autonomy. Their pitch was based on another myth: that of uplift, the idea that cultural or aesthetic betterment equaled or implied social and moral betterment. There was plenty of hypocrisy to go around.
I take these matters personally. My childhood home, thanks to my eagerly lower-middlebrow maternal grandfather, had the full set of Harvard Classics (“Dr. Eliot's Five-Foot Shelf”) and the legendary eleventh edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, acquired as a subscription premium, on proud display. When I began reading about the middlebrow, first as Chowrimootoo's editor and later for my own scholarly edification, I experienced many jolts of recognition, and I will make history here and now by applying the dreaded term to myself. Though it may look strange to say it willingly, it is no great admission, and what is true of me is surely true of most if not all of my readers. My early, eventually consuming, and ultimately professional interest in classical music was in significant measure nurtured by the middlebrow machine, of which my parents—a violin-playing attorney and a former piano teacher—faithfully partook, and of which I am consequently a beholden beneficiary. But I acknowledge, too, that as I ascended from lower (receiving) to upper (dispensing) middlebrow, the category that takes in professors to the extent that we actually profess, social attitudes were nurtured within me that I have had to unlearn.
Those who look up also look down. My family was righteously contemptuous of the crasser manifestations of middlebrow mediation, as exemplified by condensed books and their many heavily advertised musical counterparts. RCA Victor marketed records called “Heart of the Symphony” (or Concerto, or Opera), as well as recordings by the Boston Pops with titles like “Classical Music for People Who Hate Classical Music.”222 An outfit called RTV Sales offered a compilation called “50 Great Moments in Music,” which “saves you hours of unfamiliar listening.”223 There was a natty Brit on late-night TV who hawked a set of LPs guaranteed to supply “all the classical music your family will ever need.”224 We weren't having any of that, or anything signed Morton Gould or Leroy Anderson or Ferde Grofé. But the self-anointed guardians did not distinguish what we weren't having from what we swore by.
Take Omnibus, the television program that gave the most famous musical middlebrowbeater of them all—of course I mean Leonard Bernstein—his earliest outreach forum. It ran from the fall of 1952 to the spring of 1961 (my seventh to sixteenth years), on Sunday afternoons, the intellectual ghetto of fifties TV, when no one was watching and the networks could meet their FCC public service obligations most painlessly. Its host was Alistair Cooke, another natty Brit (albeit naturalized), whose accent, for Americans, was a potent signifier. Dwight Macdonald gave it a paragraph's worth of contumely in “Masscult and Midcult,” his huge and hilarious howl-cum-horselaugh from on high:
Midcult is or was, “Omnibus,” subsidized by a great foundation to raise the level of television, which began its labors by announcing it would “be aimed straight at the average American audience, neither highbrow nor lowbrow, the audience that made the Reader's Digest, Life, the Ladies' Home Journal, the audience which is the solid backbone of any business as it is of America itself” and which then proved its good faith by programming Gertrude Stein and Jack Benny, Chekhov and football strategy, Beethoven and champion ice skaters. “Omnibus” failed. The level of television, however, was not raised, for some reason.225
It is no longer funny to read a segregationist pitch. Our convenors are right, in their introduction, to cite miscegenation as the original middlebrow sin. Mixing genres or registers (Macdonald insisted), like mixing races (as Senator Eastland insisted), merely degraded the superior stock. I do not actually remember the football or the ice skaters, though I probably watched them. What I do very pleasurably remember from Omnibus includes a (no doubt much abridged) performance of Everyman, a dramatization of the Egyptian Book of the Dead, Martyn Green singing Gilbert and Sullivan (yes, “The Judge's Song”), a documentary about the still living Sibelius at ninety (the first I had heard of him), and, of course, Lenny, beginning with the very first of his broadcast lectures with the New York Philharmonic, which were later collected into his bestseller The Joy of Music.
That first script was the one, reissued on an LP record, in which Bernstein tried out on the orchestra various rejected sketches for Beethoven's Fifth, in each case showing why Beethoven's eventual choice was not only aesthetically but also morally better, nay ideal, because by “giv[ing] away his energies and his life just to make sure that one note follows another inevitably,” Beethoven “leaves us at the finish with the feeling that something is right in the world, that something checks throughout, something that follows its own laws consistently, something we can trust, that will never let us down.”226
Many years later I would play this record for my introductory graduate seminars at Columbia and then at Berkeley, when it came to evaluating sketch studies. We would all smirk at the naive hyperbole, and indeed there is plenty in the lecture that will strike the musicological ear as silly. But then I would ask my students whether and how Bernstein's sketch study differed in intention or conclusion from the serious ones on our reading list, from Nottebohm on down. The answer, quite obviously (but not until you thought about it), was that it did not. And then I would focus on the phrase “something that follows its own laws consistently” and ask how you would say that in Greek. And when someone in the class remembered that the Greek for “law” was “nomos,” I would not have to force the realization that Bernstein was talking about the same thing we talked about when we credited music with aesthetic autonomy.
And yet what ended up in my teaching as a cautionary tale had at first been my introduction, when I was a lot younger than my future pupils, to grown-up thinking about art. Those Bernstein lectures were serious, and incorruptibly highbrow. And that is precisely what made them, unlike the abridgments and adaptations, especially worthy of anxious derision. Particularly symptomatic was the show called “Introduction to Modern Music,” first aired in January 1957 when I was going on twelve and just beginning to form my own taste in music. It was, inter alia, my first exposure to Schoenberg: first a passage from Verklärte Nacht, and then a snatch from the Third Quartet, an early twelve-tone piece. Again, the argument made was one I would eventually oppose: that Verklärte Nacht was the logical outgrowth of (you guessed it) Tristan und Isolde, just as “atonal music—music composed with no sense of key at all, no home plate, no bases to run, just music using the twelve tones” simply “had to be the next step” after Verklärte Nacht.227 Another sort of necessity, of “inevitability,” and, implicitly, an argument, implying a historiography, without agency.
This was the standard modernist narrative, highbrow at its very purest. And it worked. It stimulated in me a voracious interest in modern music that has never abated. When, a year later, I was about to be Bar Mitzvah, one of my mother's friends gave me money expressly earmarked to buy records, because she had observed this burgeoning interest. As my mother told me later, she had first checked to make sure that it was okay with my parents that I listened to that sort of thing. But even more impressive was the effect of Bernstein's broadcast on my father, who like most musical amateurs of those days was unreceptive to modernist music. I heard him at the dinner table telling his sister and her husband that after hearing Bernstein he was “much more tolerant” of it. I offer this testimony to refute the notion that middlebrow culture was inherently and maliciously antimodernist. That is the modernist caricature, but it was not ever the case.
When I gave my keynote lecture in London in 2017, I dug out a couple of relics of my adolescence to prove this point: a pair of ten-inch LP records issued by the musical subsidiary of the Book-of-the-Month Club, straightforwardly called “Music Appreciation Records.”228 They came as a bonus with the monthly selections and contained illustrated lectures on the purchased items. On a few of them the lecturer was Bernstein, not yet at the pinnacle of his fame; but mostly they were narrated by Thomas Scherman (1917–79), a middling conductor of those days and the son of Harry Scherman, the founder of the parent enterprise. The two I exhibited were devoted, respectively, to Le sacre du printemps, not usually thought of as middlebrow fare, and the big Tchaikovsky piano concerto (no. 1 in B-flat minor), perhaps the very cynosure of middlebrow taste.229
Le sacre was touted for its revolutionary modernity, replete with the usual luridly exaggerated fable of its opening-night “riot” in 1913, and for its subsequent influence on composition. (To cinch the point, Scherman compared it with the namby-pambiest piece he could find from 1912, an elegy for violin and piano by Saint-Saëns.) Tchaikovsky's concerto was severely criticized for its technical shortcomings, especially (and predictably) in matters of “form.” Both treatments were exactly what you would have expected in an academic lecture: indeed the one on Tchaikovsky was authored by Howard Shanet (1918–2006), a man I later knew well as a teacher and then as a colleague at Columbia, where for many years he conducted the university orchestra. Both lectures fully lived up to what T. S. Eliot defined as “the function of criticism”—that is, “the elucidation of works of art and the correction of taste.”230 They sought to insure not only that you enjoyed the music, but that you “appreciated” it in a discriminating way, distinguishing what was good from what was not. They were not selling pieces, but a discourse, educating you in a version of snob taste.
This should not surprise. It is, after all, the wish of the lower middlebrow to become upper, and eventually high. The goal of middlebrow dissemination was a cultural variant of the American dream of upward mobility. The opinions the movement sought to instill were no different from those of a Dwight Macdonald, its most implacable critic, whose frenzied resistance was to upward mobility as such. His credo, expressed with delightful and endlessly quotable elegance and wit, nevertheless boiled down to a crass blurt: Keep your cotton-pickin' hands off my stuff. But we who fostered that mobility—and now I am using the first person because I participated in the project as a teacher of music appreciation classes, right alongside Howard Shanet—did it in a spirit of benevolent condescension. We did tend to think of ourselves as missionaries, which cast our project as a mission civilisatrice. We too were snobs.
The art-loving Nazis should have put an end once and for all to the notion that high art was high because it improved you. Hearing George Steiner whine, as he still does, about the inexplicable failure of the humanities to humanize now turns my stomach.231 He should have learned better in the forties. I should have learned better in the sixties, but it only sank in in the eighties. It has not made me love any less the music I have devoted my life to studying, or enjoy any less the communication of my enthusiasms to such as have sought me out. I remain grateful to the concatenation of circumstances that led me to my devotion, which included middlebrow proselytizing before I had reached the age of consent; but I could no longer engage as happily as I once did in proselytizing work. The contradiction between aesthetic elitism and social egalitarianism has become for me impossible to ignore, and the middlebrow project was founded on ignoring it. There are, quite simply, more important things than what matters most to it, or to me.
A precise origin is hard to pin down. Scholars usually cite the well-known Punch cartoon “Middlebrow,” published in 1925, which satirized BBC audiences: Punch, December 23, 1925, 673.
Woolf, “Middlebrow,” 115. This infamous letter to the New Statesman was published posthumously.
See Savran, Queer Sort of Materialism, 8–9.
See Chybowski, “Developing American Taste.”
For an example, see Russell Lynes, “Highbrow, Lowbrow, Middlebrow,” Harper's, February 1949, 19–28, here 27–28. Perversely, such stereotypes were sometimes invoked to defend the contribution of women. Writing in 1937, G. M. Young argued that, because of their realism and dutifulness, women had begun to surpass men in the important work of “continuing, enlarging [and] consolidating” Britain's high art culture: Young, “New Cortegiano,” 215.
See Rubin, Making of Middlebrow Culture, xii.
Arnold, Culture and Anarchy, 6.
Quoted in Doctor, BBC and Ultra-modern Music, 22.
John Carey argues for reading modernism this way in The Intellectuals and the Masses. See also Stefan Collini's critique in his English Pasts, 289–99.
The foundation of the Middlebrow Network in 2008, led by professor of English Faye Hammill, helped to consolidate the nascent field of middlebrow studies. Musicologists working on the nineteenth century have explored the mechanics of canon formation in a similar way to Rubin, but not through the lens of the middlebrow; see, for example, Locke, “Music Lovers, Patrons,” and Weber, “History of Musical Canon.”
Published just five years later, Radway's A Feeling for Books adopted a similar approach.
Notable examples include Humble, Feminine Middlebrow Novel; Harker, America, the Middlebrow; and Perrin, Aesthetics of Middlebrow Fiction.
See Keightley, “Music for Middlebrows”; McDonald, Rush, Rock Music, and the Middle Class; Howland, “Marketing to the Middlebrow”; Howland, Hearing Luxe Pop; and O'Leary, “Oklahoma!”
See Chowrimootoo, “Timely Traditions”; Chowrimootoo, Middlebrow Modernism; Fairclough, “Was Soviet Music Middlebrow?”; and Guthrie, Art of Appreciation.
Kate Guthrie's and Heather Wiebe's contributions to this colloquy begin to redress the lacuna. See also Tunbridge, “Frieda Hempel,” and Guthrie, Art of Appreciation, ch. 2.
For claims about the political power of the novel, see Harker, America, the Middlebrow, and Perrin, Aesthetics of Middlebrow Fiction. Perhaps the most powerful claims for music's redemptive properties have been made in relation to Beethoven's Ninth Symphony; for a critical account of this discourse, see Buch, Beethoven's Ninth, and Rehding, Music and Monumentality, 197–216.
The first study of the literary middlebrow outside the anglophone sphere—Diana Holmes's Middlebrow Matters, which applies the concept to French novels of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries—was published as recently as 2018.
To offer a few examples: in the United States, Daniel Gregory Mason (1873–1953) and Roy Dickinson Welch (1885–1951) were professors of music—at Columbia University and Princeton respectively—as well as prominent authors of music appreciation handbooks; and in Britain, Walford Davies (1869–1941) combined the role of director of music at the University of Wales with his celebrated work as a public broadcaster, while Donald Tovey (1875–1940) wrote programme notes and music appreciation books for the general public alongside lecturing at the University of Edinburgh.
Levitz, “Musicological Elite,” 25–27, 38.
Among the more famous musicological texts from this period are Leppert and McClary, Music and Society; McClary, Feminine Endings; Subotnik, Developing Variations; Kramer, Music as Cultural Practice; Taruskin, Text and Act; and Bergeron and Bohlman, Disciplining Music.
Rubin's The Making of Middlebrow Culture exemplifies this tension: it is at once an ideology critique of the middlebrow and an attempt to defend middlebrow values by situating them historically.
A recent example of the interest in local networks is Piekut, Experimentalism Otherwise. The materialist turn has inspired studies of everything from buildings to sound reproduction technologies, and from musical instruments to print cultures. Notable examples include Thompson, Soundscape of Modernity; Sterne, Audible Past; Davies, “Julia's Gift”; and Davies and Lockhart, Sound Knowledge. See also the Routledge series Music and Material Culture and the recently inaugurated University of Chicago Press series New Material Histories of Music.
Scholars identifying with the social justice movement are playing a particularly prominent role; see, for example, Cheng, Just Vibrations, and the University of Michigan Press series Music and Social Justice. For the ways in which the pursuit of disciplinary power has shaped methodological approaches, see Levitz, “Musicological Elite.”
Blogs and social media have become the primary battlegrounds, providing forums in which like-minded scholars and critics congregate to air their views. For a 2016 post that set this polarization in relief, see Pierpaolo Polzonetti, “Don Giovanni Goes to Prison: Teaching Opera Behind Bars,” Musicology Now (blog), American Musicological Society website, February 16, 2016, http://www.musicologynow.org/2016/02/don-giovanni-goes-to-prison-teaching_16.html. For responses to it, see, on the one hand, the Brown AMS Avenger website, https://brownamsavenger.livejournal.com/; and on the other, Norman Lebrecht, “Musicologist Went to Jail—and Got Torn to Pieces,” Slipped Disc (blog), February 18, 2016, http://slippedisc.com/2016/02/musicologist-went-to-jail-and-got-torn-to-pieces. For a more recent defense of traditional highbrow values, see Damian Thompson's review of William Cheng's Just Vibrations: “The Virtuoso Virtue-Signallers of Classical Music,” The Spectator, July 6, 2018. Such conservative attitudes also persist in some corners of the academy; see, for example, Berger, “Ends of Music History.” For an example of the way in which a commitment to highbrow values continues to shape parts of the popular music world, see Williams, “Construction of Jazz Rap.”
Wilson, Opera in the Jazz Age.
Richard Taruskin has been a pioneer of this approach, as testified by his essay collection The Danger of Music. For a personal reflection, see his contribution to this colloquy. In recent years, such ideas have also been widely rehearsed by a host of younger scholars, ranging from William Cheng in his Just Vibrations (chapter 2) to the late Linda Shaver-Gleason in her blog Not Another Music History Cliché, https://notanothermusichistorycliche.blogspot.com.
For a reflection on the risks of pedantry and cynicism in public musicology, see Linda Shaver-Gleason, “Not Another Music History Blog! Public Musicology on the Internet,” Musicology Now (blog), December 22, 2016, http://www.musicologynow.org/2016/12/not-another-music-history-blog-public.html (“Your job is to stimulate enthusiasm, not quash it”).
See, for example, Sedgwick, Touching Feeling; Anderson, Way We Argue Now; and Felski, Limits of Critique.
Copland, Music and Imagination, 18.
Of particular relevance here is the conference “The Idea of the Canon in the Twenty-First Century,” hosted at Smith College, MA, September 22–23, 2018; see http://www.musicologyandthepresent.com/conference-2018program.
Anne C. Shreffler, “The Myth of the Canon's Invisible Hand,” guest post on Linda Shaver-Gleason's blog Not Another Music History Cliché, December 27, 2017, https://notanothermusichistorycliche.blogspot.com/2017/12/the-myth-of-canons-invisible-hand-guest.html.
Samson, “Canon (iii)”; Shreffler, “Musical Canonization,” 5.
Weber, “History of Musical Canon,” 352.
For a classic example of this tendency, see Goehr, Imaginary Museum.
See Middleton, Studying Popular Music, 103–7.
See, for example, McClary, “Terminal Prestige”; Franklin, Idea of Music; and Born, Rationalizing Culture.
Shreffler, “Myth of the Canon's Invisible Hand.” For a detailed study of the relation between representational and structural power, see Born, Rationalizing Culture.
Copland, Our New Music, 134.
Copland, Music and Imagination, 19.
“Middlebrow,” Punch, December 23, 1925, 673.
Copland, Music and Imagination, 19.
Thomson, State of Music, 121.
Lynes, “Highbrow, Lowbrow, Middlebrow,” 26.
“Modern Piano Music, 1938” (course materials), Aaron Copland Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress (hereafter ACC), box 213, folder 3.
“Symphonic Masterpieces, 1938–39” (course materials), ACC, box 214, folder 40.
Pollack, Aaron Copland, 58.
Course description in “Symphonic Masterpieces, 1938–39,” ACC, box 214, folder 40.
Copland's “Masterworks of Modern Music” became the basis of several visiting lectures given throughout the 1940s and 1950s, a 1952 lecture series at Harvard, and a 1965 television series. For an example of the single-lecture format, see “Survey of Contemporary Music,” ACC, box 213, folders 36–39; for the Harvard lecture course, see “Music in the 20s,” ACC, box 213, folders 19–22; and for the television series, see “WGBH: Aaron Copland: Music in the 20s, 1965,” ACC, box 218/7–12.
A best effort has been made to seek permission for the reproduction of all third-party materials.
Copland, Music and Imagination, 19.
Quoted in Copland and Perlis, Copland, 139.
In the introductory lecture to his “Contemporary Music” course, Copland insisted that his purpose was “not to convince [students that] new music [is] good or bad”: “Contemporary Music: Living Composers, 1938” (course materials), ACC, box 211, folder 2.
For Copland's defense of “composers without a halo,” “lesser men,” or “half geniuses,” see Copland, Our New Music, 135. For a theory of canonical minority, see Russett, De Quincey's Romanticism. For its application to the music of Benjamin Britten, see Chowrimootoo, “‘Britten Minor.’”
Course brochure in “Masterpieces [sic] of Modern Music, 1928–1929” (course materials), ACC, box 212, folders 23–24. For a discussion of Copland's attempt to integrate modern “isms” into the established canon of past movements and “styles,” see Chowrimootoo, “Copland's Styles.”
See the advertisement “Copland on Modern Music,” New York Times, August 28, 1927.
Copland, Music and Imagination, 20.
Joseph Horowitz suggests as much when he argues that Copland's modern music appreciation lectures were not really music appreciation at all, on account of their inclusion of modern music: Horowitz, Classical Music in America, 436.
Shreffler, “Musical Canonization,” 5.
See Copland, Our New Music, 147.
Letter of August 28, 1935, in Copland, Selected Correspondence, 111.
Copland, Our New Music, 241–42.
For materials relating to Copland's teaching engagements, spanning his entire career, see “Lectures and Speeches,” ACC, boxes 210–35.
Chowrimootoo, Middlebrow Modernism, 13.
For identification of the continuing disjuncture between scholarly disenchantment with the canon and the “sanctuary of the undergraduate classroom,” see Dolan, “Musicology in the Garden,” 88.
This tension is felt with particular acuity by those without tenure and in contingent positions, who often have less control over course and curricular content and are more vulnerable to the immediate judgment of students and senior colleagues.
A recent example of this paradox may be seen in calls to “celebrate” Beethoven's 250th anniversary by banning or “unprogramming” his music; see Andrea Moore, “Commentary: Beethoven Was Born 250 Years Ago: To Celebrate, How About We Ban His Music for a Year,” Chicago Tribune, December 30, 2019.
For an elaboration of this point, see Shreffler, “Musical Canonization,” 5.
“About: Vision and Mission,” Future Symphony Institute website, http://www.futuresymphony.org/about/.
Taruskin, “Is There a Baby in the Bathwater? (Part I),” 171.
See the introduction to this colloquy for a fuller discussion of this scholarly turn. Texts that dealt explicitly with autonomy include Taruskin, “Is There a Baby in the Bathwater?,” and Dell'Antonio, introduction to Beyond Structural Listening?
Taruskin, “Is There a Baby in the Bathwater? (Part I),” 181–85.
Cheng, Just Vibrations, 48.
From 1929 to 1931 composer George Dyson took over and the program's billing changed to The Progress of Music; after a short hiatus, Davies returned in 1933, when a new series ran initially as Keyboard Talks and then from October 1936 to June 1939 with its original title. At various times during this period, guest appearances were made by the likes of Percy Scholes and Donald Tovey. Davies subsequently presented the wartime series Everyman's Music from July 1940 until his death in March the following year.
Scholarship that draws on this concept includes Mundy, British Musical Film, 109, and Dibbs, Radio Fun, 23.
Walford Davies, “Music and the Ordinary Listener: II. Energy, Mastery, Wonderment,” transcript of radio broadcast, January 12, 1926, Walford Davies Archive, Royal College of Music, London (hereafter WDA), 7951a(ii), p. 1. Similarly, he opened a later series, “I'm not a lecturer! I'm not going to talk like a book! … We are just listeners”: Walford Davies, “Keyboard Photography 1,” transcript of radio broadcast, April 27 [no year], WDA, 7952e(i).
Colles, Walford Davies, 136.
Walford Davies, “BBC Music and the Ordinary Listener. Series VII. Audible Form No. 1,” transcript of radio broadcast, September 25, 1928, WDA, 7951g(i), p. 1.
Davies, Pursuit of Music, 38.
The letters are located at Listeners' Letters, 7916 and 7917, WDA.
“Reparative” describes a mode of reading rooted in empathy rather than paranoia. The term was coined by Eve Kosofky Sedgwick in the introduction to her Novel Gazing.
Dwight Macdonald, “The Bright Young Men in the Arts,” Esquire, September 1958, 38–40, here 39.
Riesman, “Listening to Popular Music,” 408.
Ibid., 411, 414.
This focus began with one of middlebrow studies' seminal texts, Rubin's 1992 The Making of Middlebrow Culture. It has also dominated studies in the Middlebrow Research Network; see the scholarship keywords in the profiles of the “Researcher Database” on “Middlebrow: An Interdisciplinary Transatlantic Research Network,” https://www.middlebrow-network.com, as well as the site's “Bibliography” and “Defining the Middlebrow” pages. The program of the June 2017 “Music and the Middlebrow” conference similarly displayed this predominant interest in highbrow-hierarchy studies: “Music and the Middlebrow,” http://www.musicandthemiddlebrow.org/conference/program/. While the present colloquy expands middlebrow studies in a variety of ways that demonstrate eclectic diversity in middlebrow culture(s), its convenors, Christopher Chowrimootoo and Kate Guthrie, have likewise produced exemplary studies based on highbrow-dominant discourse: Chowrimootoo, Middlebrow Modernism; Guthrie, Art of Appreciation.
By “democratizing concert music,” I mean both the popularization of the classical music canon “for the masses” and the creation of new, broadly accessible concert works, including “pops” repertoire, that aspired to the cultural capital of classical music.
Lynes, “Highbrow, Lowbrow, Middlebrow,” 28, 25.
“High-Brow, Low-Brow, Middle-Brow,” Life, April 11, 1949, 99–102.
Ibid., 101, but see the full chart over 100–101.
See Andre Kostelanetz, “Middle-Brow Recordings,” Liberty, September 1947, 85.
Keightley, “Music for Middlebrows,” 318.
Abel Green, “Terrific N.Y. Nitery Biz Now So Consistent It's Become a Cliche,” Variety, January 5, 1944, 207. See also Hal Halperin, “Cocktail Lounges Now Big Business Plus New Talent Source; Long Routes,” ibid.
See Howland, “Hearing Luxe Pop.”
Hine, Populuxe, 11.
See Zak, I Don't Sound Like Nobody.
For discographic details of the recordings cited in this essay, see the “Works Cited” list below.
Perchard, “Mid-century Modern Jazz,” 57.
Gundle, Glamour, 172–98.
Whitesell, Wonderful Design, 10, 37, 40, 6.
See McCracken, “‘God's Gift to Us Girls.’”
“Swoon-Croon on the Wane,” Variety, July 17, 1946, 1, 23.
See Howland, “Jazz with Strings.”
Glenn C. Pullen, “Symphonic Music with Dinner May Set New Vogue,” Variety, October 22, 1947, 1, 61.
John Rockwell, “6-LP Set, ‘The Voice,’ Samples Sinatra Years on Columbia,” New York Times, November 23, 1986.
See Howland, “Jazz with Strings,” 126–30.
See Berish, Lonesome Roads, 214–17.
“The Billboard Picks: Nature Boy,” Billboard, April 3, 1948, 28; “Record Reviews: The King Cole Trio,” Billboard, April 3, 1948, 116.
“The Billboard Picks: Land of Love,” Billboard, August 27, 1949, 31; “Record Reviews: Nat ‘King’ Cole,” Billboard, September 17, 1949, 33.
The harmony from which the arranger was working was A7sus (A-D-E-G), and the string sweep is A5–G5–E5–D5–A4–G4.
“Cole Breaks Up Trio for Sole Billing,” Billboard, September 1, 1951, 18.
Bennett, “Arranging Music for Radio,” 78, 79, 86.
See Howland, “Jazz with Strings,” 130–40.
Quoted in Levinson, September in the Rain, 93.
Example 1 is transcribed from Cole, “Unforgettable.”
“High-Brow, Low-Brow, Middle-Brow,” 102.
“Letters to the Editors: High-Brow, Low-Brow,” Life, May 2, 1949, 8, 10, 12, here 10.
Gans, Popular Culture, 9–10.
“Album and LP Record Reviews,” Billboard, February 18, 1950, 40.
Gans, Popular Culture, 110.
Macdonald, “Masscult and Midcult,” 35.
More in-depth sociological research certainly exists, but I am referring here to a more public vision of upper-class African American groups as exemplified in studies such as Benjamin, Black Elite, and Graham, Our Kind of People.
For an overview of the black middle class that includes this data, see Davis, “Rise of a New Black Middle Class.” Bart Landry calls this the “old black middle class”: Landry, New Black Middle Class, 18–66.
These issues are spelled out in greater detail using Detroit as a case study in Sugrue, Origins of the Urban Crisis.
Many of these works are referenced throughout this essay. For a good bibliography on the topic, see Landry, New Black Middle Class in the Twenty-First Century.
African American class mobility is frequently couched in terms of “uplift”; see Gaines, Uplifting the Race.
An example of a critique that discusses the manner in which insider perspectives can skew attitudes on black culture from within the black middle class is Dyson, Is Bill Cosby Right?
To be clear, I am a white scholar operating from a mostly outsider perspective.
Rubin, Making of Middlebrow Culture, 93–147.
An example of this may be found in the Decca catalog for 1948, 360. For access to Decca's catalogs, see note 138 below.
For discussion of neighborhood covenants in Detroit, see Sugrue, Origins of the Urban Crisis, 180–207.
See Bolig, Bluebird Label Discography.
More detailed discographic information on Decca can be found in record catalogs of the period. A good modern resource is the searchable Discography of American Historical Recordings database, https://adp.library.ucsb.edu/index.php. A good collection of Decca record catalogs is held in the Southern Folklife Collection Discographical Files, 1907–2018, Southern Folklife Collection, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 30014. Others can be found in the Milt Gabler Papers, Archives Center, National Museum of American History, Washington, DC, NMAH.AC.0849, box 56, folder 6, and box 57, folder 1.
A more complete list of African American artists who have a significant discography in this popular catalog includes Lil Armstrong, Count Basie, Cleo Brown, Teddy Grace, Edgar Hayes, Earl Hines, Claude Hopkins, Andy Kirk (featuring Mary Lou Williams), Jimmie Lunceford, Joe Sanders, and Chick Webb.
One historical example of this is the prevalence of “black and tan” clubs in the early part of the twentieth century, establishments in which African American artists often performed to mostly white audiences.
Discographic details of the recordings cited in this essay may be found in the “Works Cited” list below.
A vocal verse is not included in Barnet's original 1940 recording.
Paul Denis, “The Negro Makes Advances,” Billboard, January 2, 1943, 28, 80.
To be sure, the original recording of this piece appeared on Victor, not Decca. On a politics of respectability, see Higginbotham, Righteous Discontent, 185–230.
Brothers, Help!, 124.
This same performance was called “Sepian Bounce” on some pressings. The company also released a record by a group called Jimmy Smith and His Sepians in 1941, titled “Big Chump Blues.” It is female-led blues about a woman with relationship problems that features an ocarina solo.
This and many other relevant materials can be found in a large cache of popular music advertising papers housed in the Record Industry Publicity Collection, Series 8 (Decca Records), RPA 00353–00393, Music Division, Library of Congress.
Rubin, Making of Middlebrow Culture, 25.
Ward, Just My Soul Responding, 267.
Abdurraqib, They Can't Kill Us, 244.
On progressive rock as gentrification, see Dave Marsh, “In Another Land: Rock's Icy Edge,” Rolling Stone, February 24, 1977, 59–62, here 59.
On prog's influence on later musicians, see Kelefa Sanneh, “The Persistence of Prog Rock,” New Yorker, June 19, 2017, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/06/19/the-persistence-of-prog-rock.
See, for example, Mira Fisher, “The Endless Death of Prog Rock,” Cipher Magazine, December 4, 2017, http://www.ciphermagazine.com/articles/2017/12/4/the-endless-death-of-prog-rock.
See, for example, Frith and Horne, Art into Pop, where study of the directing of art discourses into rock is centered on art schools and selected bohemian movements, like glam rock, punk, and New Pop; the authors explicitly reject prog as a relevant example.
Musicological and music theory research sympathetic to progressive rock includes Moore, Rock; Macan, Rocking the Classics; Holm-Hudson, Progressive Rock Reconsidered; and Covach, “Progressive Rock.” I confess my own complicity here: McDonald, Rush, Rock Music, and the Middle Class.
On this association, see Felski, “Nothing to Declare,” 40, and Bourdieu and Nice, “Aristocracy of Culture,” 229.
On the origins of rock criticism, see McLeod, “‘*½’: A Critique of Rock Criticism,” 48–49, and Lindberg et al., Rock Criticism, 133–40. On criticism's absorption of modernist ideas about high and low culture, see Pillsbury, Damage Incorporated, 141–42; Frith, Performing Rites, 65; and Negus, Popular Music in Theory, 155.
McLeod, “‘*½’: A Critique of Rock Criticism,” 54.
Frith, “Magic That Can Set You Free,” 167.
Grossberg, We Gotta Get Out, 224; Weisethaunet and Lindberg, “Authenticity Revisited,” 474.
Weisethaunet and Lindberg, “Authenticity Revisited,” 474.
Straw, “Characterizing Rock Music Culture,” 87; see also 85–88 for the broader discussion. Straw's examples of such artists include David Bowie, Roxy Music, and Bruce Springsteen.
Gendron, Between Montmartre and the Mudd Club, 237.
On the genre's misunderstood lyrics, see Keister and Smith, “Musical Ambition, Cultural Accreditation.” The authors challenge the frequent elitist and effete characterizations of the genre, insisting on prog's critical, even provocative engagement with the social and cultural issues of its time.
Discographic details of the recordings cited in this essay may be found in the “Works Cited” list below.
Bangs, “Jethro Tull in Vietnam,” 128.
Ben Gerson, “Jethro Tull's Aqualung,” Rolling Stone, July 22, 1971, https://www.rollingstone.com/music/music-album-reviews/aqualung-189561/.
On the long history of middlebrow audiences' seeking self-improvement and moral uplift through books and other forms of culture, see Gilbert, “Midcult, Middlebrow, Middle Class,” 544–55, and Rubin, Making of Middlebrow Culture, xvii–xviii, which trace it as far back as America's nineteenth-century genteel tradition. For examples of “genteel” attitudes filtering into pop culture discourse in the twentieth century, see Frith, Performing Rites, 50–51.
Ian MacDonald, “Yes: Close to the Edge,” New Musical Express, September 2, 1972.
Bangs, “Blood Feast,” 53.
Ibid., 52, 50.
John Rockwell, “Pop: Rush Plays at Palladium,” New York Times, January 15, 1979, https://www.nytimes.com/1979/01/15/archives/pop-rush-plays-at-palladium.html.
Marsh, “In Another Land,” 61.
For sociological commentary on progressive audiences, see Macan, Rocking the Classics, 194–96. On the postwar embourgeoisement of the working classes, and its relationship with rock more broadly, see McDonald, “Bourgeois Blues?,” 428–29 and passim.
Felski, “Nothing to Declare,” 41.
Simon Reynolds, “Stuck in the Middle with You: Between Pop and Pretension,” The Guardian, February 6, 2009, https://www.theguardian.com/music/musicblog/2009/feb/06/simon-reynolds-animal-collective.
Crozier, “Making It After All,” 53; Sedgwick, “Paranoid Reading,” 8.
Halpern, Norman Rockwell, 135.
Perrin, Aesthetics of Middlebrow Fiction, 4. Perrin attempts to complicate characterizations of the middlebrow novel as outdated, arguing that it revises and updates eighteenth- and nineteenth-century conventions for the contemporary world rather than merely imitating them (2).
Leavis, Fiction and the Reading Public, 36–37.
Greenberg, “Plight of Our Culture,” 565.
When Halpern directly addresses the middlebrow and the avant-garde, he makes a complex argument about their imbrication (Norman Rockwell, 135–36, 157). He tends, however, to identify the middlebrow aspects of Rockwell's work with the comfortable and the sentimental (135, 156), and opposes to this both “potentially disturbing” (6) elements of perversion and a reflexivity about the “manufacture of innocence” (8) that seems associated with modernism.
Napper, “Time and the Middlebrow,” 73.
Savran, Queer Sort of Materialism, 10.
Bourdieu, Distinction, 327.
Felski, “Nothing to Declare,” 39–41.
Berlant, Female Complaint, 285n1.
Sedgwick, Touching Feeling, 150–51.
Berlant, Cruel Optimism, 1.
See Leigh, Mike Leigh on Mike Leigh, 113–14. The BBC broadcast is widely available, and I am referring mainly to this version of the play throughout; I have relied here on the DVD set Mike Leigh at the BBC.
The most famously critical review is Dennis Potter, “Trampling the Mud from Wall to Wall,” Sunday Times, November 6, 1977, 35.
On the play as a critique of consumerism, see Mike Leigh, “Mike Leigh on Abigail's Party at 40: ‘I Was Sure It Would Sink without Trace,’” The Guardian, February 24, 2017. See also Sandbrook, Seasons in the Sun, 14–16. Both the play and Leigh's comments in the article cited here strongly recall the depictions of suburban lower-middle-class characters in Orwell's novels in particular, especially as described in Felski, “Nothing to Declare,” 35–36.
Leigh, Abigail's Party, 49. This passage is changed slightly in the BBC broadcast.
Sue might also be seen as representative of the downwardly mobile female divorcee characteristic of the increasingly permeable lower middle class of the 1960s–1970s; see Felski, “Nothing to Declare,” 43.
Leigh, Abigail's Party, 32 (my emphasis). Laurence's Galway LP is not identified, but is surely Man with the Golden Flute, which was released in 1976. The play calls for Beverly to choose Donna Summer, José Feliciano's Feliciano! (1968, replaced with Demis Roussos in the BBC version, for copyright reasons), Elvis's 40 Greatest (1974, replaced with Tom Jones in the BBC version), and “smoochy” music by Sam “The Man” Taylor and His Orchestra: Leigh, Abigail's Party, 3, 33, 46, 52. On the changes to the music for the BBC version, see Leigh, Mike Leigh on Mike Leigh, 111–12.
Leigh, Abigail's Party, 58.
Leigh, Abigail's Party (DVD), 1:29:50. Laurence's posture and mode of listening, mimicking the habits of the concert hall, depart significantly from the more relaxed physical habits associated with the middlebrow reader as described in Humble, “Sitting Forward,” 47–51.
On the middlebrow consumer as “feminized and/or homosexualized,” see Savran, Queer Sort of Materialism, 6. On the lower middle class in general as feminized, see Felski, “Nothing to Declare,” 43.
Berlant, Female Complaint, viii. Berlant focuses on “women's culture” as “the first mass cultural intimate public in the United States” (viii–ix), and at one point casts it as essentially a subcategory of the middlebrow (258).
On this erosion of hierarchies and the post-1960s middlebrow, see Savran, Queer Sort of Materialism, 12–13.
See Guerrieri, First Four Notes, 211–17.
On the “popular classics” in the Second World War, see Baade, “Radio Symphonies,” 59–71.
Mackerness, Social History, 270.
The Portsmouth Sinfonia was an experimental group based at the Portsmouth School of Art, in which performers played only instruments on which they were untrained. This album achieved some popularity in the 1970s, the Portsmouth Sinfonia performing at the Royal Albert Hall soon after its release. See Tony Saint, “The World's Worst Orchestra,” Sunday Telegraph, May 25, 2004, https://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/music/classicalmusic/3617672/The-worlds-worst-orchestra.html; and Parsons, “Scratch Orchestra,” 9.
Here I am drawing both on discussions of disappointment in Berlant, Female Complaint, and on discussions of optimism in Berlant, Cruel Optimism, which addresses later twentieth-century failures of “good-life fantasies” in the face of “the retraction, during the last three decades, of the social democratic promise of the post–Second World War period in the United States and Europe” (2, 3).
The single (equivocal) exception known to me is a guest column by Andre Kostelanetz (1901–80), a prominent conductor of light-classical music, which appeared in Liberty magazine, a general-interest monthly, more than seventy years ago under the title “Middle-Brow Recordings.” The term is frankly identified there as a marketing category: “music every member of the family will enjoy.” Andre Kostelanetz, “Middle-Brow Recordings,” Liberty, September 1947, 85. The recordings touted ranged far beyond Kostelanetz's own potential repertoire. Alongside Alec Wilder, Tchaikovsky, and Khachaturian I was surprised to find Marc Blitzstein's heavy Airborne Symphony, “one of the most impressive works of native inspiration.”
Huyssen, After the Great Divide.
For the latter, see, preeminently, Britten's acceptance speech, On Receiving the First Aspen Award. For the former, see the impudently subtitled book masterminded by two writers who would remain Britten's most aggressive defenders, Donald Mitchell and Hans Keller: Benjamin Britten: A Commentary on His Works from a Group of Specialists. (In British usage, more fully than in American, “specialist” is interchangeable with “expert.”)
Chowrimootoo, Middlebrow Modernism, 14.
Taruskin, Oxford History, 1:xvii.
Driscoll, “Middlebrow Family Resemblance.”
Lynes, “Highbrow, Lowbrow, Middlebrow.” The “Everyday Tastes from High-Brow to Low-Brow” chart, which Lynes produced in collaboration with a Life magazine editor, first appeared in “High-Brow, Low-Brow, Middle-Brow,” Life, 100–101. It is now easily found online.
See also Driscoll, New Literary Middlebrow.
The scholars who blew the cover on this enterprise were Martha Woodmansee, in The Author, Art, and the Market, and Lawrence Rainey, in Institutions of Modernism.
Reissued, I learn from Amazon.com, on the Classical Heritage label as a four-CD set in 1994.
Wording verified by a review with a telling title: Chris Welles, “Music to Acquire Couth By,” Life, July 3, 1964, 19.
For this slogan, too, I found a corroborating witness: Alan Rich, “Needless to Say,” New York, February 16, 1976, 72.
Macdonald, “Masscult and Midcult,” 39–40. The piece first ran in Partisan Review in 1960. The quotation is from a press release by Robert Saudek, the show's producer.
Bernstein, Joy of Music, 93.
An expanded version of the lecture forms a chapter in my book of essays Cursed Questions.
Discographic details of the two records may be found in the “Works Cited” list below.
Eliot, “Function of Criticism,” 69 (my emphasis).
See Steiner, In Bluebeard's Castle, 65ff., or my Steinerian locus classicus, an interview: Peter Applebome, “A Humanist and Elitist? Perhaps,” New York Times, April 18, 1998, A15.