Is classical music dead or dying? Just 24 hours after the broadcast of Gabriel Prokofiev’s documentary Who Killed Classical Music, Slate‘s Mark Vanhoenacker, apparently coincidentally, returned to this hoary old question. Personally, I don’t know. I don’t have data. However, I am sceptical about how you’d go about measuring the death of something as chameleon as an art form. But let’s for the sake of argument say its health could be better.*
And now let’s be honest about why. If classical music is dying, it is not because the music has got weirder, more dissonant, less accessible. It is a choice we have made as a society. It’s a political decision.
“You assured me it was tired and shagged out after a long squawk.”
Look: the relative vitality of classical music is always measured (such as it can be) in terms of bums on seats. Or, put another way, money. In these neo-liberal times, whether we’re talking about healthcare or sending cancer sufferers back to work, no other metric counts. Vanhoenacker states it explicitly:
Live classical music is less commercially viable than ever. Attendance per concert has fallen, according to Robert Flanagan, an emeritus professor at Stanford. But “even if every seat were filled, the vast majority of U.S. symphony orchestras still would face significant performance deficits.” Live orchestral music is essentially a charity case.
There are significant and unavoidable structural reasons why classical music is expensive. Putting on an orchestral concert requires 70–100 highly skilled professionals on stage, plus all their supporting staff (many of whom also have specialist skills). That’s not cheap.
Worse, an orchestral concert is an ephemeral experience. It’s not like a novel, which you can keep printing, or a painting, which has scarcity value that plays well at auction. Two hours and it’s gone, never to return. So there’s a very small window in which income can be made. Even in the best case scenario you are limited by how many people you can squeeze into a concert hall. You can’t even do what theatres do and make a little back selling the script on the way out, because most people can’t read a score like they can read a play.
And that comes to the third problem. Classical music appreciation takes effort. Listeners require leisure time and expendable resources. (And therefore a work-life balance that gives them these things.) They also benefit from education. Instrumental tuition at school is the major gateway to art music appreciation later in life. And that makes sense, because unless you have some idea of what it’s like to hold an instrument in your hand and interpret music that somebody else has written, the activity of an orchestra can look pretty bizarre and inscrutable. But again, primary and secondary music education costs money. An economy that provides workers with the expendable time and income to pursue an interest in the arts costs money.
And the fact is, we have, as a society, decided to stop spending that money. We could have all these things; and for a time, under certain terms, maybe we did. But we’ve decided they’re not worth it, and we’d rather spend that money on wars, tax cuts, financial services and other things. Or at least, we’ve acquiesced when the governments we elect decide to spend our money in this way. (If anyone harks back to a supposed golden age for classical music in, maybe the 18th or 19th centuries, it’s worth pointing out that we chose different ways to spend our money then, such as massive social inequalities, poor sanitation, slavery, etc. It’s always a choice, at least for those in power.)
And why do we acquiesce? Because we’ve been inculcated with the idea that art music is not worthy of our support. Because it is too esoteric, too unpopular, too ‘irrelevant’. The narrative of Prokofiev’s documentary was crudely put, but it wasn’t original. It will be familiar to anyone who has studied a little bit of music history in the last thirty or forty years: modernism was bad, it ruined everything, let’s listen to something that everybody will like.
I’m not ignoring the legitimate charges that have been made against art music in recent years, chief among which are its history of racism and misogyny (which remain ongoing habits for some). There aren’t easy answers here, and the questions should not be brushed under the carpet. But one thing is sure: if the power within classical music remains concentrated among a small elite – as it surely will if we keep talking about death and irrelevance – change of that kind is unlikely to happen.
The only way to effect change is to broaden participation. And to do that requires the sorts of investments I mention above. And to do that requires political desire. But if we talk ourselves down like this at every opportunity that desire will never emerge. The narrative of irrelevance will perpetuate itself. As Ben Harper observed eight years ago, and as Greg Sandow has been saying tirelessly since long before that, classical music’s worst enemies are often those who are supposedly promoting it.
*UPDATE: If you’re looking for a more complete smackdown of the Slate piece, Andy Doe has done the decent thing.