The Fat Lady Is Still Singing – New Yorker (blog)
As the musicologist and pianist Charles Rosen so eloquently put it, “The death of classical music is perhaps its oldest continuing tradition.” To place that tradition in context, consider the infographic below. Design credit goes to Andy Doe, a consultant in the classical recording industry and the author of the blog Proper Discord. Doe has already addressed some of the factual and conceptual errors committed by Vanhoenacker. This timeline shows just how long the “crisis” in classical music has lasted, and just how superfluous it is to declare 2014 the year the art form kicked the bucket.
Click the image to expand.
There is a creepy bloodlust to the doom-mongering of classical music, as though an autopsy were being conducted on a still-breathing body. What if each commentator decided, instead, to Google “young composer” or “new chamber ensemble” and write a compelling profile of a discovery? Why not interview members of the local orchestra and find out how real people make careers in a purportedly comatose industry? Why not talk to those graying audience members—contempt toward the elderly is a common theme in death-of-classical-music articles—and find out how their history of listening has improved their lives? Statistics provide firm answers, but not necessarily to the right questions. If the stakes are as high as the life and death of an art form, why not explore the question of why it might be the case by looking at the actual, lived experiences of those involved?
Instead, classical-music concern-trolls toss poorly aimed barbs. Critics blame the business (“It’s a charity case!” “Ticket sales will never account for all of its costs!”) and the culture (“Why all the abstruse rules of conduct?” “Why can’t I wear shorts?”) without having a clear grasp on either. There seems to be a deeper savagery at work, one that maniacally insists that a functioning industry reflect on itself, as though orchestra managers and opera intendants were oblivious to their own problems. “Listen to me!” the pundit demands, shaking classical music by its shoulders. “I have the stats. You’re dead.”
What supports these jeremiads is the implicit idea that classical music is an aberration in the United States, something to be regarded with suspicion. (Vanhoenacker writes of “classical trappings … that never sit quite right in the homeland of popular culture,” as if popular culture were an exclusively American affair.) But, like plenty of other great things in the U.S., classical music has endured because it has been made American. For more than a century, agitators for Beethoven and Brahms helped secure it an increasing stake on American soil. These were educators and musicians who carried what the historian Joseph Horowitz calls “moral fire,” who genuinely believed that great music made people better. The moral angle is bust—it’s unjust and untrue to claim that classical music is inherently better than any other kind of music—but a fire still burns. Talk to anyone who performs, composes, promotes, or organizes anything in this field and the blaze is palpable. It is not a profession for the apathetic.
It’s also not an industry full of naïve devotees without business acumen. Remember, this is a nonprofit enterprise that has endured from the era of church and court, through the days of aristocratic patronage, only to arrive in the United States and convince wealthy industrialists and a democratic government that it was worth funding. The recent economic failures of individual institutions do not mean that the whole system is broken.
Vanhoenacker cites scenes from the sitcom “Modern Family” to demonstrate classical music’s recent split from popular culture. Such moments of mockery go back at least as far the Marx Brothers’ “A Night at the Opera.” Classical music was for pretentious snobs in 1935, according to the movies; classical music is for pretentious snobs in 2014, according to television. In between, Americans built Lincoln Center and the Walt Disney Concert Hall; penned “Appalachian Spring,” “4’33″,” and “Music for Eighteen Musicians”; and sold millions of classical records.
Granted, classical music has lost the central position it held in American culture in the mid-twentieth century, when the NBC Symphony Orchestra blared through home radios and Presidents regularly shook hands with conductors on television. But let’s remember that the art’s exalted status was as much the result of global politics as of middle-class tastes. America, an ascendant superpower with its own dark history of oppression, found classical music a useful tool for convincing the world of its cultural prowess. Today, we no longer require classical music to flex soft power. Until the U.S. again feels the need to use high art to prove itself to the world, it’s unlikely that a New York Philharmonic broadcast will interrupt the ten o’clock news. But Time covers and “Modern Family” should not be the benchmark for success in the wide expanse of the American cultural landscape.
To play the numbers game briefly: Vanhoenacker professes to be alarmed that classical recording presently constitutes only 2.8 per cent of the market. A cursory glance at industry reports would show that the market share has hovered around three per cent since the mid-nineteen-eighties. The stability of that share might actually be a sign of health. Yes, it’s a niche market, but so is most music in our polyglot society—not reigning supreme is not the same as ceasing to exist.
The doomsayers also like to cherry-pick a few crisis-ridden institutions and use them to generalize about the art form itself. Classical music is the sum of all its institutions, performers, and listeners, plus a thousand-year-old cultural lineage; it can’t be snuffed out through any combination of bankrupt orchestras and mediocre album sales. What’s most remarkable, perhaps, is that the industry remains relatively vibrant in the face of an American media culture that appears so determined to marginalize it. The classical-music declinists rarely consider the value in having a few of the greatest orchestras in the world located in America, the so-called homeland of pop culture. Or the civic pride that the citizens of Chicago and Minnesota take in their symphonies. Or the lifelong bonds forged between musicians and their audience. Or the uncanny thrill of hearing Mahler live, an experience like no other.
American classical music launched in earnest on Christmas Day of 1815. The Boston Handel and Haydn Society—comprised of middle-class music lovers—unveiled excerpts from European oratorios, and concluded with a rousing “Hallelujah” chorus. “There is nothing to compare with it; it is the wonder of the nation,” proclaimed one critic. Next year, the Society will celebrate its two-hundredth anniversary. How many other American phenomena have endured for two centuries? Those are not the sounds of death throes you hear; they are a steady heartbeat.
Photograph: Hiroyuki Ito/Getty