Food for thought/Opinions please
It's Time to Face the Facts: Classical Music Is a Marginal Interest -- And Will Stay That Way
By Tom Strini
In the 1950s, everyone knew that Albert Einstein was some sort of scientific genius, even those without a clue about the theory of relativity.
In the same way, everyone knew that Igor Stravinsky was a musical genius, even those who'd never heard (and would never care to hear) The Rite of Spring.
In the 1930s, '40s and '50s, Hollywood cranked out many sudsy pseudo-biographies of The Great Composers, and a number of opera stars and pianists had considerable film careers. From 1937 to 1954, NBC Radio had its own NBC Symphony Orchestra, with no less than Arturo Toscanini conducting.
Millions tuned in to hear Beethoven and Brahms on commercial radio. In the 1960s, composer-conductor Leonard Bernstein became a cultural icon for his Young People's Concerts with the New York Philharmonic, on nationwide commercial television.
All of that is inconceivable today. The Western, high-art musical tradition has lost broad cultural currency and the vague but widespread respect that went with it. The tradition isn't scorned, it's worse than that. To most people, it's invisible and inaudible.
John Adams, the most successful and well-known American composer of the moment, is anonymous outside the field. The same goes for Lorin Maazel, who occupies Bernstein's old podium at the New York Philharmonic. The wider world knows Pavarotti, but as much as a parody of the stereotypical hefty Italian opera singer as an artist.
This loss of cultural centrality, even more than chronic budget deficits and the implosion of the big-label classical recording trade, drives the malaise that hangs over the art-music business.
Not so long ago, pop culture acknowledged the Western high-art tradition as the crowning glory of civilization.
The middle class was middlebrow, and middlebrows aspired to at least a passing acquaintance with the highbrow. They watched The Bell Telephone Hour, attended symphony pops concerts and would go to a classical concert if, say, Van Cliburn were playing. Music lessons for their children were next to obligatory and they insisted on music classes in their schools. When Jackie Kennedy proposed spending some tax money on the arts, they were all for it.
Middlebrow musical culture is dead, and support for art music is no longer taken for granted.
Serialist composition, the most important intellectual movement in Western art music for more than half of the 20th century, alienated the middlebrows, who never could perceive sound without consonance or pulse as music.
Multiculturalism eroded faith in the largely male and European high-art tradition, which is no longer assumed to be the pinnacle of human achievement. For 30 years, high culture has been under unrelenting attack in certain parts of academia.
Symphony orchestras and chamber music ensembles settled into their present configurations by 1860 and have barely changed since. The 19th century accounts for at least 80 percent of their repertoire. It's not so surprising that as time goes on, fewer people relate to it. In the 19th century, after all, viol consorts and lute playing, mainstays of Baroque [sic] practice, died out and were mourned by no one.
The death of socialism as an idea has trickled down to the economics of the classical music world. Government subsidies, which played a huge role in the establishment of classical music institutions in middle-sized American cities in the 1960s and '70s, have been reduced and partially redirected to folk arts and children's programs. The triumph of capitalism has made subsidies anathema in America and suspect even in Europe. Under Darwinian capitalism, arts that are not profitable on some level deserve to die. Britney Spears, gangsta rap and Josh Groban do well under such a philosophy. Symphony orchestras, which have never been moneymakers, do not.
Classical music is urban and sophisticated. Between 1950 and 1990, America became ever more suburban and unsophisticated, and proud of it. Suburban culture centers are popping up lately, but for 40 years life out there centered on lawn care and television.
Most important of all, changes in popular and commercial music have shifted the ground beneath the classical music world.
As recently as 50 years ago, pop and classical music were closely related.
The guys in the swing bands of the 1930s through the 1950s had training and discipline in common with their classical counterparts. They could cross genres in a natural way and casual listeners could perceive their kinship and follow them. Pop and classical music were built on essentially the same kinds of harmonies, melodies and rhythms and performed on the same instruments. In such an environment, symphony pops concerts made musical sense and could draw an audience.
That is no longer the case. Rock, with its harmonic simplicity, non-orchestral instruments and emphasis on attitude as a main marketable commodity, stretched the relationship thin. More recently, synthesized sound and sampling have replaced traditional musicianship in most arenas of popular music.
Modern teen pop is more about sexual display than about music, although it's not inconceivable that Britney Spears will wash up on the 2030–31 symphony pops circuit. (How will Britney's navel look then?)
Rap, the dominant pop style of the day, has no use for traditional musical skill and no harmony or melody to speak of. Its rhymes-with-bitch crudity offends the civilized sensibility of classical music. Unlike many former pop and folk stars, no washed-up rapper will ever find second life on the pops circuit.
Today, classical musicians feel alienated from the mass culture around them.
They have the uncomfortable sensation of being crowded into an ever-shrinking niche — a feeling shared by jazz players, who are trying to maintain the other great Western tradition of complex and challenging music.
The worst fear of both jazz and classical musicians is that the vast majority of the public has simply become too musically dumb and lazy to even comprehend their art, much less buy tickets and recordings or allow support through tax dollars.
The survival of larger classical musical institutions, particularly orchestras, is in doubt across America. But there are some hopeful signs.
A semi-underground classical recording trade is taking shape on the Internet. Musicians are making discs and marketing them on their own mini-labels, and small, creative recording companies are finding ways to stay in business.
The aging of the population is a good thing for classical music. People might well start looking for more substance as they hit 50.
In a related development, the revival of the American city is bringing the most likely audience — mature empty nesters with money to spend — back into the central cities, the natural home of high culture. Art museums, theater companies, opera houses and symphony halls appear to be main drivers of the urban revival.
Some classical music institutions are getting better at marketing, and the level of musical performance is much higher than it was 40 years ago. If you can get them to come, they'll probably like it.
The economic elite of our cities have proved unexpectedly tenacious and generous about saving classical music, and musicians and managements have turned out to be more resilient and resourceful than we might have expected. Several orchestras have folded, but as often as not leaner, smarter institutions have risen from their ashes.
But will classical music regain the standing it had in society in the first half of the 20th century?
Classical music and new music rising from that tradition will remain marginal. We can take comfort in the fact that almost every cultural commodity is marginal these days — marginality is a matter of degree.
Most of us are intensely interested in certain things and oblivious to many more things of intense interest to millions of our fellow citizens. We have sliced and diced ourselves — and been sliced and diced by media manipulators — into hermetically sealed demographic bits.
Once there were three TV networks and we all had them more or less in common. Now, cable and satellite offer hundreds of choices. The Internet expands and subdivides the spectrum vastly. Each channel and Web site has its target audience, and each slice of pie is thinner than it used to be. The result is that we all have less in common.
It's not the size of the audience that counts anymore; it's the target demographic and whether you hit the bull's-eye. Celebrities can pop out of the white noise and span multiple demos, but do so as often for freakishness as for accomplishment. Even I know who Paris Hilton is. I don't care, but I do know.
John Adams, Andreas Delfs, Lorin Maazel et al. will never enjoy such notoriety, but maybe that's not such a bad thing. Classical music must embrace its marginality and make a modest nest in a splintered marketplace.
Here's the target demo: Thoughtful people with long attention spans and a little bit of money. It's a small market, but surely sizable enough to keep the music playing in this country if the classical business is smart enough to draw them out and serve them well.
We'll have to be content to practice, extend and (I hope) write and read about this noble tradition within a modest sphere and leave celebrity and fortune to Janet Jackson and the rest. The music will have to be enough.
Tom Strini: firstname.lastname@example.org