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Unfashionable Music – Classical

May 15, 2010

The Martyrdom of St. Cecilia, patron Saint of Music (photo by Sébastien Bertrand via wikimedia commons)

Classical Music on Life Support

For years music critics have bemoaned the decline of classical music – with good reason. CD sales keep falling, along with concert attendance. Orchestras and opera companies face life and death struggles. Radio stations with exclusively classical formats are a dying breed.

You don’t have to be a music critic to see what’s obvious: classical music is dying in the culture. Upscale restaurants, which once complimented elegant plate presentations and mirrored rooms with Mozart, now play jazz, or even rock. TV commercials no longer marry diamonds and BMW’s with Bach. They get their elegant vibe from cool ambient tracks. Hollywood as recently as 1995 dared to base a score around a semi-obscure classical symphony (the Saint-Saens Organ Symphony, in “Babe.”) It’s given up on classical scores, unless the story explicitly involves a musician, as in “The Soloist,” or you count contemporary orchestral scoring, with its dim echoes of the great 19th century works. (see Avatar)

You can see it right in people’s homes. A piano in the parlor and someone who could play Beethoven on it was, starting in the 19th century, an obligatory symbol for anyone aspiring to middle class life. In the 60’s the pianos were still there, though kids were starting to bang out Beatles’ tunes rather than butcher Haydn sonatas. (Actually, I admit, I did both.) In just the last decade I’ve noticed friends – who regularly attend Classical concerts, who love Beethoven! – getting rid of their pianos. And why not? There’s no one left to play them. I go to Tanglewood a few times every summer, and notice with alarm how the median age seems to increase in direct proportion to the passage of time. (Unless Joshua Bell is playing; he seems to attract a crowd of 20-something fans.)

It’s been a while since I’ve seen that once ubiquitous statue of Beethoven – perhaps because Charles Shultz, along with Linus, is no longer with us. A few classical giants still haunt the culture, but as caricatures – Beethoven, brooding and deaf. Mozart, reduced to that brat in Amadeus (which is mostly fiction). And what was with Bach and all those wives and kids? Ha. When it comes to the music, most people don’t recognize much. Of Beethoven, the opening of the 5th, the “Ode to Joy” chorus, the slow movement of the Moonlight Sonata, perhaps “Fur Elise.” Mozart is perhaps best known for the part of his Requiem at the end of “Amadeus.” (Gnarly, dude! Did he write that for his own funeral?) As for Bach, I guess the Brandenburgs hang on, Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring, Air on a G String gets regular play in Wedding Videos.

Its sobering to think that as recently as the 70’s the Scherzo from the 9th was the theme for the NBC nightly news, and that in the 1965 The Toys turned a Bach Minuet into a delightful hit song, “Lovers Concerto,” (proving the theory that as long as you play the notes, Bach sounds great no matter what.)

Why is classical music disappearing? Yes, it’s old, but its recent decline is much too rapid to be explained by the mere passage of time. Classical music requires some preparation before most can appreciate it, and it’s taught less and less in schools. Perhaps it’s populism, the masses snubbing their noses at elites with grunge and rap. Except that even the elites no longer care. Students at prestigious universities prefer various brands of Indie Rock; at concerts of world-class chamber groups at Smith College I never see even a handful of students.

At least colleges still have music departments. But what are they teaching? My Alma Mater, Wesleyan, gave me the priceless gift freshman year of Music 100 and 102, turning me on to the music I still enjoy today, and which has enriched me as a composer. Wesleyan still offers an introduction to music – but it’s World Music. Nothing wrong with that – in fact Wesleyan led the way in that field. But reading recent course descriptions, I was struck that the only mention of Beethoven was in a course that studied not his music, but his cultural significance viewed through the lenses of post-modern theory. Perhaps that’s worth studying, though I doubt it’s as interesting as his music. Or maybe I’m still smarting over the feminist Susan McClary’s equating a moment in the 9th symphony with… rape. Oh come on.

Academic nonsense aside, we live in a culture with a seemingly bottomless hunger for irony and snark. Those attitudes are profoundly uncomfortable with notions of beauty, with expressions of deep emotion. So Beethoven’s rare appearances in recent commercials come as the butt of some joke. Indeed, in the light of contemporary culture there’s something ludicrous in a chorus belting out the “Ode to Joy” with such rectitude.

Who are they, to take themselves so seriously? Not to speak of old Ludwig, that dude should have lightened up…I find myself wanting to wag my finger, like some 19th century schoolmarm, now children, don’t you know that some things in this life are sacred…

Some things are sacred, and eternal. Classical music appears to be dying in the culture, but it’s no more dying than Rembrandt’s Art, Jim Hendrix’s music or the Wizard of Oz. Some stuff is just plain great, and if most of the world has forgotten doesn’t mean it isn’t there, waiting to be enjoyed. Take Greek and Roman culture. No one gave a hoot about it for a thousand years, until they did. They called that the Renaissance.


From → Classical Music

  1. I agree with you John, 101%.

    I think the problem here is culture, worldwide culture, globalized culture and the rise of Industrial Music aided by a geometrically uprising technology. What do I mean? Corporations (so called “bands”), composing “Music” for the mass, to the sole purpose of money. The objective is money, from the start (not a tool, the objective). What can you expect from that? Generations of humans who, since they were born, were feed by shallow, empty and tin-canned so-called music; in a developing globalized mechanical world were communication is no longer face-to-face and the sense of humanity is going backwards.

    Classical music is hard to understand because it’s complex, it’s complex because it was composed by a f’ing HUMAN BEING. And humans are complex. So, where does classical music fits in this new paradigm? where you said. And the fact that everything with strings/piano/and an opus in it’s name is categorized as “classical” music does not help at all; debussy was classical? or was impressionist?…and so on.

    Cheers mate, I really enjoyed Entrepeneurial Spirit form MySpace, sounds and feels f’ing great.

  2. Good post! All the more odd when you consider that the likes of Bach and Beethoven would be perfectly at home with the chord progressions, melodies and harmonic structure that is contemporary pop music, yet would be scratching their heads over some of today’s ‘classical’ music. given this, why do we shy away from 200-year-old ‘pop’?

    • True! Though I think the great B’s would be happier in the ’60’s, before pop music started losing much of its sophistication. Still a better bet than you’ll get from conservatories. (I have much more to say on these subjects, and will be soon enough Coming: “12-Tone Totalitarians.”)

  3. Dear John,

    Thank you for commenting on my ongoing series on classical music at I hope you’ll stay posted as I am working backwards from the twentieth century.

    As a classical singer and a music teacher myself, and now a music researcher, I have been puzzled by the need to add light shows, popular music (not that there’s anything wrong with that), and other non-essentials to concerts. I have written an article, “Performing 2.0” at the same web site I think addresses a few of these problems.

    But I think in addition to the very real and pressing problem of music education today (about which I could not agree with you more enthusiastically) is the way in which classical music has become straitjacketed into a few composers. Not that I don’t love Bach, Beethoven, and all the classical composers you can name; I do, wholeheartedly. But what I notice is that without education, the whole classical repertoire in the minds of most people who have only the briefest exposure to it is some fleeting remembrance of a symphonic performance. When people find my own specialty is French Baroque drinking songs, they are eager to hear more, and I believe it is because first, there is a hunger for something, anything to connect that music with something in people’s own lives; and second, that classical music performed today is mostly the “greats” and so people think there is not that much classical music out there; they’ve heard classical music, and they don’t like it. (But I take the position that they haven’t heard enough to find something they like.) When I began researching classical composers of Latin America (a series of books is forthcoming, featuring composer biographies from Cortes to World War I, with other 200 composers featured), people I knew began to notice that classical music was just by white elite men, but written by all kinds of people. There’s so much classical music that most of it doesn’t get the billing it deserves, when audiences are desperately craving something new (and not modern)!

    Sorry for the posting before my second cup of coffee; hope I made sense.

    • Perfect sense! You’re lucky your doctor still lets you drink coffee. I have to do with tea.

      You’re right about venturing out from the obvious composers. I’m going to post a list of “10 Hidden Classical Gems” (none of which will be unknown to you, I’m sure), but which are catchy and beyond the 9th, Brandenburgs, etc.

      I’m also completing personal research into Elgar, finishing a 30-CD collection of his music (!) and 850 page biography (!!) I’ll post about him when I’m done.

      My tastes run from high ’60’s rock to Classical; I’m trying to bridge that gap here, as I’ve been with my music for the last 30 years. (Clickon the link to John Manchester Music for a taste of mine.)

  4. Great piece John!

    I do believe great classical music endure generations. Aside from being a composer, I teach piano and modern music production. When teaching youngsters piano, I am surprised to learn that in addition to their interest in learning Beyonce they are as eager to learn Fur Elise or Moonlight Sonata.

    I’ve just signed up for Luminous Muse, so hope to read your postings more often – Thanks.

    • Amir, so glad that you not only write great music, but also introduce kids to the great music of the past! (I have always been a terrible teacher – could not even get my sons to appreciate Classical music.)

  5. Your website has to be the elorectnic Swiss army knife for this topic.

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