by Barry Edelson
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The Day the (Classical) Music Died


"[Atonal music] is in fact gibberish, a music which ignores or violates the structure of the mind: we literally cannot hear it."
— John Gardner

Something is very, very wrong with classical music.

This observation could have been made, and indeed has been made, at any time in the last 100 years, since the boundaries of historical tonality were overrun by what was then considered the avant garde. The advent of Arnold Schönberg's 12-tone system, or serialism, in the 1920's was a natural if largely unwelcome development in composition, following as it did several decades during which any number of prominent composers laid waste to the chromatic scale on which all Western music had been based for many centuries. As traditional harmonies were stretched to ever greater limits to express whatever it was that composers wished to express, a divergence began to emerge between audiences and composers. As composers largely abandoned the aesthetics of sonority altogether, that divergence grew into a chasm.

At one time, this question was dismissed as a typical generational divide between tradition and experimentation. Didn't Beethoven rattle the cages of the classical order of his time, much as his forebears Haydn and Mozart had previously turned their backs on the Baroque? Didn't the Romantics make a mockery of established tonal relationships, only to be out-done by their successors in the latter part of the 19th century? Didn't Debussy, Mahler and Ives, in their very different ways, affront the ears of their audiences? Every new era in music had its initial detractors, but audiences eventually learned to listen in a new way to works that originally sounded too strange for comfort.

However, the dramatic turn away from tonality was something different altogether, and the distaste with which audiences respond to most new classical music has been with us for so long that it is clearly of a different order of skepticism entirely. Until the early 20th century, every new major style in the history of classical music was eventually embraced by audiences and put down roots in the repertoire. This continued even in the decades that followed Schönberg's first pieces written without a key signature, when many other composers who pushed the limits of tradition nonetheless garnered wide acclaim and attracted audiences, even though they worked within idioms that would have been utterly alien to listeners of the previous century. Many works once considered outrageous or even bizarre, a few of which, like Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring", even caused riots in Paris (a city that seems uniquely prone to riots about music), have long since become standard fare. Gershwin and Copland, Prokofiev and Shostakovich, Milhaud and Poulenc, each in his distinct way brought a generation of performers and listeners to a broader understanding of what classical music could be.

Alas, that generation was past its prime more than half a century ago. There have been precious few pieces of classical music written since the 1960s to which audiences willingly and happily will buy tickets to hear. It's not that the music being written isn't good, in the sense that it is expertly crafted (though the music of any era contains many more forgettable works than masterworks). Audiences, for the most part, just don't want to hear it. This problem has persisted since the middle of the last century, despite the passionate advocacy for new music by many fine musicians and critics. There are some major exceptions to this trend, especially in the realm of opera, where new productions by Adams, Corigliano and others have become widely popular in a way that the serialist operas of Berg, for example, never quite did. Music for voice, which cannot escape the human element entirely, seems to have compelled composers to find forms of expression that are less analytical and theoretically "pure" than much of the orchestral and chamber music of the last few decades. For example, Ned Rorem's opera "Our Town", written a decade ago, is a deeply moving work that demonstrates that audiences will respond emotionally to new music that does not rely on a 19th century definition of lyricism. Of course, there are listeners out there who genuinely appreciate music that eschews tonality, and who will flock to the latest creation by Boulez and his ilk, but they are vanishingly small.

The dichotomy between works for voice and instruments was shown in stark relief at a recent concert at Carnegie Hall by the American Symphony Orchestra and its polymath of a music director, Leon Botstein. This particular concert was in collaboration with Cornell University and featured both its outstanding chorus and glee club. Botstein's program of three choral works and two orchestral pieces was intended to illustrate the close connection between the Ivy League and 20th century American composition. Inadvertently, the concert demonstrated how this relationship has been more of a detriment than a benefit to the development of classical music in our time.

First was Randall Thompson's "Alleluia", which is familiar to regular attendees at Tanglewood as it is performed at the first concert of the festival there every year. It was written in 1940 and is the composer's most well-known work. It is sung a cappella and in a style that has become familiar to audiences by now. Its performance was very satisfying and well received. There followed an unremarkable work for chorus and orchestra in a decidedly late German Romantic style by the 19th-century composer Horatio Parker, who is remembered today mainly for being the teacher of Charles Ives.
There's more than one way to please the masses
Next was a symphony by George Rochberg, a composer best known for his later break with modernism. Regrettably, the opus on the program was an early one, full of energy and drama but with a sonority that rendered it indistinguishable from countless other works of indeterminate tonality. A Cornell student who was sitting in our box left his seat during the performance; when asked during the intermission why he had absconded to the lobby, he replied, "I've heard it before." It would be hard to imagine a more damning criticism of any piece of music. Regular concert-goers of every genre of music are in the habit of seeking a second hearing of a piece they liked, and routinely buy recordings of what they've just heard. (In the music world at large, selling records is one of the main reasons why concerts are given in the first place). We have at home a collection of many hundreds of vinyl records, CD's and digital downloads, but would be hard pressed to find a single piece of so-called classical music written in the last 50 years that we've run out and bought after hearing it at a symphony or chamber music concert. Moreover, how many currently active composers would prompt you to buy a ticket if you saw their name on a concert program?

The remaining pieces on the program, "Music for Cello and Orchestra" by Leon Kirchner from the 1990s and the world premiere of "Cantares", a choral work by Roberto Sierra, were less impenetrable but little more inspiring than the Rochberg.

One notable exception in recent years to the experience of disliking new works performed live by an orchestra was Wynton Marsalis' "Swing Symphony", which received a terrific performance by the New York Philharmonic a few years back. But some will argue that it is not classical music at all. And there's the rub. The world is awash in new music, some of it brilliant, much of it dreadful. But nowhere outside the classical bubble do musicians worry themselves about whether their music crosses some artificial boundary between genres. Moreover, nowhere else do musicians have the benefit of patronage, corporate sponsorship and university endowments to keep them afloat. The Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, which Marsalis created and leads (and which combined with the Philharmonic to play "Swing Symphony"), is as brilliant an ensemble as one will hear anywhere in the world today. The pieces they play, a mix of old and new, are as sophisticated and complex as anything written in any of our vaunted conservatories. And while their home venue in New York City may also be a beneficiary of the vast fundraising apparatus that keeps Lincoln Center and its constituent not-for-profit organizations viable, they could fill concert halls every evening of the year and survive handily on the proceeds, as innumerable other jazz and other popular artists the world over manage to do.

In his introduction to the concert, Botstein writes, "Classical music, new and old, has never thrived as a business. It has been dependent on patronage from the 17th century on. It cannot compete as a dimension of the contemporary marketplace of entertainment that earns profits." This is largely though not entirely true; Mozart was the first of the great composers who broke with the custom of kow-towing to aristocratic patrons and presented public concerts for his own profit. Many others in the Romantic era would follow his example, and earn their livings largely on public acclaim. Inarguably, there is no composer today of the stature of a Liszt or Dvorak who could command a sufficiently large audience to sustain a living. Ask even the most avid fans of classical music who their favorite LIVING composer is, and watch the blank looks come over their faces. To be sure, occasionally a composer like Pärt or Gorecki attains a degree of popular success with a particular piece, but they are few and far between and can hardly be said to have captured the public imagination. Ironically, they are also frequently savaged by "serious" composers for the sin of accessibility.

Botstein is an astute and frequently brilliant writer on music, and one of the most consistent advocates for new, particularly American, music. His unabashed elitism is in a way refreshing: he makes no apologies for wanting to preserve a body of art that only a small number of people will ever have an interest in. It is very expensive to keep an opera house or symphony orchestra going (or an art museum or a ballet company, for that matter). If financial survival demands more than ticket sales, so what? Supporters would say that the audience for classical music is just never going to be as big as for rock and roll, but it's important to future generations to keep this irreplaceable art form alive, and its relatively smaller following is not an argument for letting it die. Detractors, however, would say that it doesn't cost any more to mount an opera than a Broadway musical, or to present a string quartet than a jazz quartet (probably less, in fact), so why is the classical ensemble entitled to so much extra public and private help to stay in business?

These arguments are valid but somewhat beside the point. The real questions are: what is classical music being kept alive for, and how is it going to last if audiences continue to dwindle? Botstein is far from alone among musicians who believe that classical music won't survive if it remains nothing but a museum piece, at least not in this country. Perhaps in Europe there will remain a critical mass of audience members for classical music; concert audiences there have long been noticeably and dramatically younger than in the United States. Circumstances presumably vary from place to place, but in this country it has been feared for a very long time that classical music fans have been graying to such a degree that the entire enterprise will eventually become unsustainable. A century ago, when having a piano in the parlor was a sign of middle-class respectability, and a good many people sang Schubert songs and played Brahms string quartets in the evenings, there was a natural audience for classical music. Of course, for a good while during the 19th century and into the 20th, classical music was the popular music of the day. How awful that it is now normal for conservatory-trained musicians to deride "popularity" as though it were a disease when, in eras past, working class men whistled the tunes from Verdi operas and symphonic scores were the backdrop to Warner Brothers cartoons. Artificial distinctions between musical genres — distinctions that musicians like Marsalis clearly have put behind them — obscure the truly and only important question of whether the music is any good and worth listening to over and over again.

A decline in musical education has also been cited for classical music's loss of audience, particularly because this decline has coincided with the rise of other, more popular forms of music. There was a time when piano lessons were a childhood rite of passage, and school trips to the symphony or the opera were fairly routine. But this is a problem of the chicken and egg variety: are young people no longer patronizing 'high' music and art in large numbers because schools have removed it from the curriculum, or have they been removed for the same reason that more kids want to learn the guitar than the violin? In other words, is it because the culture has simply moved on?

In the context of this recent concert, Botstein ascribes to the university an indispensable role in keeping the classical flame burning, even as he admits that academia is not ideally suited to the task. Not surprising coming from an academic, who has spent most of his adult life as president of Bard College. He writes, "The word 'academic' is frequently used as a pejorative when speaking about art, including music." With good reason. An art form that retreats behind the walls of academia, and is dismissive of the very notion of popularity, is doomed to the fate of many academic disciplines: ever-narrower, arcane disputes among practitioners to which the rest of humanity is blissfully oblivious. In fact, there is a strong argument to be made that academia is largely responsible for the decline in classical music's popularity in the first place, as composers have increasingly been free to indulge their abstract theories without deigning to subject their work to the ears of nonprofessionals. Composers of old had to make their case in the court of public opinion, or the court of some wealthy nobleman; without a check against insularity, music inevitably became less interesting to non-musicians. Pushing the envelope is one thing; burning it up and burying the ashes is quite another.

Is more new classical repertory that hardly anyone wants to hear really the prescription for a bright future? It is hard to see how. The game has already been lost when an audience files into a concert hall and dreads having to "sit through" a modernist composition which it just cannot warm to before getting to the Chopin or Tchaikovsky that it came for. It doesn't matter how passionately the music director may have explained its nuances in the program notes and during the pre-concert lecture. It is like asking an audience of laypersons to listen to a debate among physicists who speak only in the language of mathematics. One may grasp the broad outlines, but actually listening to it more often than not feels like a punishment. Relying on academics to keep the music alive virtually guarantees that audiences will be further alienated from performers and composers.

If symphonies and concertos are no longer being written to satisfy popular demand, it would seem that the only reason they are being written is to feed a very large infrastructure of performing organizations, soloists and concert halls, not to mention university music departments. Year by year, our conservatories continue to churn out excellent musicians by the hundreds, many more than there are seats in orchestras or teaching posts to provide gainful employment for them all. What are they all going to do? Kudos to musicians like Dr. Botstein who are trying to expose new music to the light of day, but, with all due respect, the mere fact that this body of music needs to be championed at all is in itself a condemnation of contemporary composition. Potentially, classical music is indeed facing a lingering death, and unless a newer music emerges that excites audiences, sells a lot of tickets, and inspires millions of kids to practice, there doesn't seem to be any clear way to save it.


April 25, 2015


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All writings on this site are copyrighted by Barry Edelson. Reprinting by permission only.