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Every so often, a clever and often thoughtful pundit in search of a topic to thrill and/or provoke his/her audience comes up with the clever idea of doing an obituary for classical music. This art form has been around for at least 600 years, and the tradition of moaning its demise has been around for almost the same length of time.
The litany usually includes the following – here accompanied in each instance by my response:
Classical Music is too long. To be sure, we are a culture of sound-bites. Brief snippets of information or Tweets are the standard of the iPhone generation. One pop music composer proclaimed, "I personally count it as a win if I am able to hold a fan's attention right through to the chorus of a new song before they click on another link to someplace else."
Classical music is longer than other forms of music because it has much to say. Franz Joseph Haydn gave it form, somewhat the equivalent of words, sentences, paragraphs, essays. He called it a quartet and then a symphony. Composers in the 19th century gave it emotions and sometimes story-lines and music grew from 20-minute works to 40 minutes to an hour or more from Haydn to Mozart to Beethoven to Brahms to Mahler.
I must point out, however, that form is one of the things popular music learned from classical. From the late '60s through the mid-'70s and beyond, concept/rock opera albums were coming on strong. Consider The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust by David Bowie or Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band by the Beatles or Pink Floyd's The Wall, just to scratch the surface. Don't forget Miles Davis' Kind of Blue or John Coltrane's A Love Supreme. The concept album often included longer, more complex songs linked together in some meaningful manner. A classical composer might have called these suites or song-cycles or operas. Is longer a bad thing?
Classical Music is losing audience, and those people it is holding onto are mostly gray-heads. Have you been to a Moody Blues concert recently? Or a Rolling Stones extravaganza? Gray-heads in abundance fill the audience. As senior citizens, some of us are entitled – have earned the right – to say: the prejudice of the worthlessness of the elderly is a sad misjudgment of our age. Perhaps we should listen instead to some of these graying audience members: we might learn from them what they have learned in their vast experience and find out how their history of listening has enriched and enlarged their lives.
Major symphony orchestras are struggling financially. Some are folding. Yes, some orchestras have gone through horrific financial struggles – but others have thrived and grown. Classical music has been pretty much a nonprofit operation throughout its existence, supported by the church, royal courts, and aristocratic patrons before arriving in the New World to convince wealthy industrialists and sometimes a democratic government that it is well worth funding. It is a highly worthwhile investment.
Classical music is out of touch with our time. The narrow meaning of the word "classical" refers to the artistic era from around 1750 to around 1830 and includes composers like Haydn, Mozart, and early Beethoven. In the broader sense, however, it refers to something that has achieved the status of a classic – judged over a period of time to be of the highest quality and an outstanding example of its kind. A classic holds its value. It still has something to say to us down through many different ages.
More than that, there are many young composers now, both male and female, composing vibrant new music, relevant today. There are pieces born out of the tragedy of 9/11. There are operas based on an American president's negotiations with China or incidents out of yesterday's news. And we still have The Ring, which deals with pride (the hubris kind), greed, deceit, and more – its four (long) operatic evenings are as contemporary as tomorrow.
Benjamin Zander, conductor of the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra, in his awesome TED Talk says, "There are some people who think that classical music is dying, and there are some of us who think 'you ain't seen nothing yet.'"
Classical music recordings account for a slim margin of the market. Since the 1980s, classical music recordings have held steady at right around three percent market share. That's not great, but it's not dead either. Luciano Pavarotti's recording of "Nessun dorma," from the opera Turandot, reached the #2 spot on the chart of singles in the U.K. In 1994 an album of Gregorian chants rose to #3 on the Billboard chart – sold as an antidote to the stressful times in which we then lived(!). I wonder what lies around the corner.
Classical music is too snooty and snobbish. I hope it's not true, but it is a fact that when folks get hooked on classical music, they often develop an intense enthusiasm for the meaning and adventure that wafts up from the orchestra or down from the opera stage. It is unjust and untrue to suggest that classical music is inherently better than any other kind of music – but a fire still burns in the hearts of many of its strongest adherents.
Millions of Americans sing in volunteer community choruses or play in volunteer symphony orchestras and chamber groups. America boasts some of the finest professional classical music ensembles in the world. Concertgoers buy tickets (except during pandemics…) – and contribute. Classical music is a vibrant and enriching part of our culture. There is nothing else in the world like hearing a live performance of a Mahler symphony in a grand hall (like Raleigh's Meymandi) or a performance of Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg at the Metropolitan Opera.
We live in an era when more and more pop borrows from classical, classical uses jazz developments, and all forms and styles incorporate elements from others. Alex Ross, the eloquent classical music critic for The New Yorker, in his book, The Rest is Noise, relates, "One night in 1967, György Ligeti (significant modern classical composer) was sitting with several colleagues at the Darmstadt Schlosskeller, the favorite late-night hangout of teachers and students at the Summer Courses for New Music, when Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, a new album by the Beatles, started playing over the loudspeakers. Some of the sounds on the record bore a surprising resemblance to the Darmstadter's latest and most advanced experiments." Ross goes on to describe how the Beatles "borrowed" sounds and techniques from some of the most daring Darmstadt projects. There are examples of classical composers making use of progressive pop and jazz, as well.
Do you think Zander is right? "We ain't seen nothing yet."
Performing musicians are going through a heart-breaking time right now and we may lose some of them – for a time, if not permanently…. But the coronavirus will not rule the roost forever. What do creative musicians do when they cannot perform? They compose music that puts the times in perspective, music that expresses the frustrating anger of an unbearable situation, music that rekindles hope and celebrates the human spirit.
There are millions out there who have never heard (or been aware they have heard…) classical music. Some of them will stumble on it because of a friend or an unanticipated chance encounter. Some of them will become immediately enraptured. Some will just never get it. It may sound like Paul Simon or Radiohead or …(?). But to be sure, classical music will be there for you.
Listen – that sound you hear is not death throes but a steady heartbeat.