Friday, August 20, 2010

Is this Classical Music's Golden Age?

This is one of those weird debates, acrimonious and nasty, in which I fundamentally disagree with both sides. Traditionalist Heather MacDonald wrote this essay, which ticked off modernist Greg Sandow. (Here is her reply.)

Her idea is basically this: Classical music is flourishing today as never before. The standard of performance is higher, there are more performers, there are more works available, audiences are more sophisticated, than ever before. You even have instant access, she points out, to beautiful performances such as the one I've embedded above. Classical music is in a new golden age.

There is a huge gulf between the way this person thinks about the arts and the way I do. Look at it this way. The reasons she gives for thinking the music is flourishing are: a) the performers of the music, b) the conduits by which the music is communicated to the audience, and c) the audience that listens to the music. What is missing from this list, class? Anybody? Anybody?

That's right! The music!

Here is an analogous argument: Dodo birds are flourishing today. More museums have dodo bird exhibits than ever before. Their quality is higher than ever. You can even see stuffed dead dodo birds on the internet! For free! So don't give me that stuff about how the golden age of dodo birds is dead and gone, pal. You're full of crap.

Okay, that's a little silly. Here is a closer analogy. Poetry today is flourishing. There are more volumes of old poems written by dead people than ever before. Previously unknown old poems are discovered and published every day. And they are embalmed in such beautiful editions! You can even read old poems by dead white guys on the internet!

I have been told that the most recent piece of classical music to become an established part of the standard repertoire is Strauss' exquisite Four Last Songs, which was composed in 1948. If the last poem with that sort of status were that old, no one would be giving an argument analogous to MacDonald's that poetry is flourishing.

I guess the reason it is possible for an intelligent person to give an argument like MacDonald's is that she doesn't think of classical music as an art like poetry or painting. What she means by "classical music" is something like the world of people who collect antiques, old coins, or classic cars. It so happens that the world of classic car collecting is flourishing. There are several shows every year in my area. More classic cars are being restored and displayed every year. It's really cool. But the giant automobile with tail fins is not flourishing. It is as dead as the dodo.

And so, it breaks my heart to say, is classical music.
BTW, here is a more professional performance of "Cum Dederit Dilectis" than the one to which she directs us:


Skip said...

I don't think classical music is dead. On life support? Surely.

I don't think it fair to use songs entering the standard repertoire as the sole criterion for determining the state of the music. Is it possible that the process by which pieces enter it has changed over the intervening decades?

New music is performed, although not as often as I wish. For example, the CSO is doing Danza Petrificada by Bernard Rands this season. I saw a new piece receive its premiere at the Milwaukee SO a few years ago.

I think a better indicator of classical music's status is how often new music is performed and by whom.

Did you read the piece by John DeMain at The Daily Page last week? He wrote: "Sure, we play beloved works by Beethoven and Tchaikovsky, but we're always exploring new works as well." The only new work I see on the schedule is Harbison's Great Gatsby Suite. It is better than having nothing new on the slate at all but it is disappointing to see but a single contemporary piece.

Ann Houston said...

Wow, Philippe Jaroussky has an absolutely sublime voice - thanks for posting this video! Your analogies are good ones. A couple of years ago I was visiting Philadelphia on business and tried to find one of the three classical music stations I remembered from grad school days. There were none - all rap and pop up and down the FM. In grad school in the summer they had free concerts in Philadelphia and I heard Leonard Bernstein conduct Mahler's Ninth there; a very gentle rain began at the end of the symphony and audience members quietly opened umbrellas, and there was just the sound of little drops of rain mingling with the softly decrescendo of the final notes. Unforgettable.

Lester Hunt said...


I knew you would appreciate the Jaroussky!

One issue I don't get into, which MacDonald and whatsisname do, is dwindling and aging audiences. She seems to be saying that more people are listening to classical music than ever before, but she cites no hard evidence for this curious opinion.

One piece of evidence against her on that point, as you suggest, is the virtual extinction of commercially successful classics radio stations. When I was a student there was a San Francisco station called KKHI (1947-1994). It was unrelentingly middle-brow (no chamber music, nothing avant-guarde) but perhaps for that very reason it was very successful for a couple of decades. Now there is nothing remotely like it in the Bay Area.

Maybe MacD's problem is that, unlike you and me, she's too young to remember when things were very different from today.

Lester Hunt said...


The rate at which new works are introduced would certainly be worth looking at, if only because "is a new work" is a much clearer predicate than the one I was relying on ("is part of the standard repertoire").

I guess my position would require me to predict that the rate at which such works are being introduced today is the merest trickle compared to that of, say, the half century or so immediately before World War I.

BTW, I didn't see the Demain piece, but one of the things I like about him is that he does program new material. I don't think he does so more than once or twice a year though.

Ann said...

Boston has quite a diverse classical music scene, there are three opera companies now and a vibrant Early Music community. Opera seems to draw the broadest audiences in - the people who attend symphonic music and early music are more of a niche and seem to be composed of two demographics; gray-headed affluent urban professionals (the ones who attend charity balls and such) and young classical music students. I wonder how hard it is for the students to earn a living nowadays as a musician - they can teach, sing in professional choruses and second-tier orchestras (a chosen few will go to big opera stages and major orchestras).

Lester Hunt said...

I should have guessed Boston has lavish resources. I envy you. We have to make the 2 1/2 hr. drive to Chicago to get to something that remotely approaches such marvels.

The scene in Madison is better than one might have expected and, thanks to conductor John Demain, much better than it was 20 years ago.

Like everywhere else, the symphony orchestra audiences are as you say a niche affair. The stench matronly perfume is at times enough to make your eyes water.

Zoran Taylor said...

Maybe the tides of society have turned against an institution that insists on assimilating works into a total canon. It also doesn't hurt that the word "classical" has come to define this music - when it was new, it was "contemporary" music. There is plenty of new "orchestral" music, but it does not enter a "repertory" because that is a type of entombment. I think our culture has fragmented to the point where any system of assimilating art that does not ACKNOWLEDGE that fragmentation is deemed inherently regressive.

Lester Hunt said...

I detest the word "classical". It smells like death.

However, I think this sorry phenomenon -- of referring to all serious concert music as classical -- is an effect, not a cause. As 1948 (see original post) recedes further and further into the past, the music becomes (I hate to say it!) old and, well, classical.

It is true that there are still composers around who are writing music that people who are not musicologists would like to hear, but there are darn few of them and the material they are producing is far from achieving critical mass.

Will S. said...

There are still, of course, those writing musical scores for movies, like those done for Superman and Star Wars, for instance. But that's really about it, isn't it, for new compositions in the classical genre, these days...