Dead again

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.

11 thoughts on “Dead again

  1. 1) There’s nothing wrong with the health of the music, just participation in it (allegedly)
    2) Let’s not draw monetary comparisons based on US orchestras, who have (even today) by far and away the best-paid rank and file musicians in the world.
    3) Often it doesn’t do to measure the value something by the money it makes. And classical music is one of those things. The value of green spaces is not the money they make. Or street lights. Or clean water. Or having friends and family. Or having an English Language.
    So how do we measure the value of those things? Well the answer is: you’ll find out when you’ve lost it and want it back again, or when you’ve lost it (or never had it) and someone else still has it.

    IMHO the biggest mistake (and some might raise an eyebrow at such a capitalist as me saying this) has been in the last 50-odd years to measure the value and “success” of classical music in terms of a “classical music industry” and the money it makes, or contributes to GDP, etc. And more recently, to measure it in terms of the side-benefits (“if you study music at school it makes you a better team-player” etc etc) – all of which can be bought more cheaply by some other means (e.g. “team-player”: sport is cheaper to provide than classical music and better at producing that particular benefit)

    Personally my solution would be to somehow take the money required to maintain and provide classical music away from the easy control of politicians and bean-counters. This can only be done if it’s commonly understood that we have a right to our classical music just as much as we have a right to our language, to our green spaces, and the rest of our cultural heritage. I’ll leave the details to someone else to work out!

  2. Tim, there is a small handful of critics and consultants in the US who have made fairly lucrative careers out of the “classical music is dead” trope. They get paid well for coming into a conservatory or university music department or speaking to the local board of directors of some regional orchestra, holding forth on the current state of the business, pronouncing it dead and advising on a proper embalming procedure. (I call them thanotophiles, others prefer necrophiliacs.) Can it be that this odd profession is now establishing itself in the U.K. as well?

  3. “And why do we acquiesce?”

    Well, in a broader societal sense, “we” never liked art music that much. The people in power liked art music and promoted it. It’s not as though Haydn or Beethoven ever pulled in the kind of mass audience Adele or Eminem does—art music was always the music of an “elite”, even if some of it was accessible to middle- and lower-class audiences. Then around 1950/60 thanks to the large-scale societal changes we were going through (positive ones, I might add—e.g. the civil rights movement) the balance shifted in favour of people in power who liked jazz and rock music. So that became “elite” music for a while. Still is, possibly.

    I think the biggest problem is that we decided somewhere down the line that there’s no such thing as the arts. There’s just entertainment, and that’s a hobby. STEM is the only thing that’s actually important.

  4. Surprisingly, in places like Hong Kong where under 20 are mostly if not universally musically literate (many non-music major play more than one instrument at a very high level), almost anything after Schoenberg is virtually unheard of (with few exceptions such as Britten’s YPs Guide), not to mention being played in large venues like the Barbican.

  5. Reblogged this on Musicbru and commented:
    Some pertinent reflections (here and earlier posts) on classical music today and the way the media, and others, are playing fast and loose with selective data…

  6. Good points here – but I think its time to acknowledge that art music and classical music have diverged and that art music needs to let go of the classical tradition that has both fed it and confined it.

  7. Also… I don’t think you need fear STEM; in my experience, the most ardent patrons of new music come from STEM. I would never have heard about contemporary music were it not for NIST who put on contemporary music concerts for nearly a decade at taxpayers expense 😀

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