One of our favorite quotes from Riccardo Chailly, that passionate optimist, is that "one day, not now, but one day, you'll hear people whistling Varèse's Ameriques as they walk down the street".
The average classical music listener – that is, the majority of those who attend concerts and opera performances and listen to the radio – is a simple soul. Looking into it, one finds that he prizes melody above all else. But not just any melody. The melodies of Hindemith, Stravinsky or Schoenberg, Lutoslawski, Glass or Adams, to name a few, will not do at all, and the average listener, in so far as he is able to define what a melody is, would not recognize these composers’ efforts as such. No, by melody, the average listener means something narrower in scope, a tune, really, a song.
His definition of melody, though he doesn’t realize it, also includes a type of phrasing, regular and foursquare, and a question-and-answer design to the harmony. It’s this whole melody package that he enjoys most, which limits his aesthetic scope to the music from roughly 1750-1900. Beyond that he can find himself in rough waters....
The Moderns are a problem, of course, and will ever remain so, because they require a musical ear and curious mind that the average listener doesn’t have now nor ever will. The Moderns require the engagement of the mind as much as the heart. Schoenberg’s claim that his time would come is nonsense. Whether you make a case for the human brain being hardwired this way or just that the average listener is aurally dim, it amounts to the same thing. Much of the great music of the 20th century is lost on him and always will be.
But then, a great deal of 20th century music, including Schoenberg’s, was written for the elite ear, not the average one, so we shouldn’t be surprised, nor blame the average listener all that much. But to the extent that the average listener limits the repertoire – dictates concert programming by his taste – he has a lot to answer for. And that, in sum, is just what he does. Thus the endless rehashing of Brahms and Tchaikovsky on our concert programs, and of Puccini in the opera house.