Perspective on yet another obituary for classical music

classical music composersAnother obituary for classical music appeared recently at  It points out that classical music sales only amount to 1.4% of music consumption.

It says that audiences of classical music are not diverse. It quotes a pianist as being “kind of tired of making music for the same people all the time.”

The obituary in Slate by Mark Vanhoenacker that made the rounds last year said, “Classical music has been circling the drain for years.” Such pronouncements usually provoke a flurry of posts about how healthy classical music is.

By “for years,” Vanhoenacker means since some time in the mid-20th century. In fact, however, classical music has been in its death throes in one way or another since the whole concept emerged. I’d like to provide a wider historical view of some of the reasons classical music seems to be in a death spiral.

Opera and orchestral music is expensive

opera singer

Amalie Materna as Brünhilde, Beyreuth, 1876.

Opera started out as court entertainment for the invited guests of some duke or other nobleman. The first commercial opera theater opened in 1637 in Venice.

It did not make enough money from ticket sales to support itself without massive subsidies from local aristocrats, but nonetheless, it established opera as a form of popular entertainment. Ever since, opera has depended on fairly massive outside support to supplement ticket sales.

Orchestras are likewise expensive to operate, although considerably less so than opera. The general public had little interest in concerts of purely instrumental music until about the 1720s. The idea of a permanent orchestra apart from theater orchestras emerged even later.

Many 18th-century orchestras began (and likely ended) as opportunities for amateur musicians to rehearse music for their own entertainment. They may or may not have performed publicly once or twice a year. Typically, public concert orchestras depended on subscriptions. Only if they received sufficient subscriptions from wealthy music lovers would they announce performances and sell tickets.

Classical music appeals to a small audience

Orchestra audience

Audience at a performance of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, Grant Park, Chicago, 2009. Not all white, not all old.

Concert life basically disappeared from Paris and London between about 1790 and 1813, which brought about the first great crisis in classical music. Until concert life revived, there was no such concept as classical music, although the earlier concerts had had essentially two audiences.

Some music lovers preferred music that they could grasp immediately. They lost interest in music if they heard it too often. Therefore they sought new music with some mixture of novelty and familiarity. Others, and many fewer, preferred music that repaid careful attention and repeated hearing. These people got little pleasure from music that had no depth and no surprises in store as it became more familiar.

The music of Haydn and Mozart had been staples of concert life worldwide. Their use of standard forms with moments of silence clearly marking the end of one section and the beginning of another appealed to people who wanted to grasp music on first hearing. The sophistication in detail of their music appealed to people who wanted to hear something new each time they heard the same piece.

And so the cessation of concert life still left songs and theater to please the people who wanted a steady diet of new music. By the time concert life resumed, the now classical forms were no longer familiar. Listening to Haydn and Mozart now seemed like too much work for this audience. The music of Beethoven and Schubert, who began to mask seams between parts of a form, appealed even less.

By the 1830s, the two audiences that had both enjoyed Haydn and Mozart had diverged and begun to engage in heated polemics in the musical press. Arguments between those who preferred the music of Beethoven et al. (by then called classical music) and those who preferred Rossini and flashy piano virtuosos (popular music) would be familiar to anyone who has since argued the relative merits of Beethoven vs Elvis Presley or Lady Gaga.

Classical music is [not] elitist


Jullien, conductor of popular promenade concerts

Superficially, there may be some merit to this claim, but only superficially. No one but members of the aristocracy and upper middle class engaged in the polemics between adherents of popular and classical music.

The working classes, being beneath the notice of the people carrying on the arguments, managed to like concerts with a mixture of music, as everyone had before 1790.

Leaders of popular dance orchestras, like Johann Strauss in Vienna or Philippe Musard in Paris, seized on offering “promenade concerts” to whomever would come in order to keep their musicians employed during the off season.

Once the idea of promenade concerts became established, French-born conductor Jullien led a long series of proms in London. His 1853 American tour greatly influenced American musical taste and practice.

These concerts had low social status because the lower social classes could afford to attend. Their programs included large doses of music by the classical masters because their audiences loved it. They also included quadrilles and virtuoso solos on wind instruments that would never be heard in more upper class concerts.

In the US, opera in any language but English was an acquired taste (outside of French-speaking New Orleans). Rossini and other Italian opera was not popular entertainment, and the people who supported the earliest attempts to form a professional opera company in New York took steps to make sure the working classes never got a chance to hear it—surely one reason why they all failed.

The first permanent concert orchestra in the US, the New York Philharmonic, was essentially a German orchestra in New York. Most of the players and most of the audiences were German. So was most of the repertoire. The orchestra ignored music composed by Americans.

Most Americans liked the same mix of music heard in European promenade concerts, except they rarely wanted to hear every movement of a symphony. Theodore Thomas set out to “elevate” public taste in order to establish his own permanent orchestra. He taught the public how to enjoy complete symphonies, but did not successfully get it to stop liking cornet solos.

I do not know what concerts Mark Vanhoenacker, who wrote the Slate article, used for his assessment of the audience for orchestral concerts. I perform for a community orchestra and get to attend concerts of the Eastern Music Festival. The audiences are not all old and white. I see children all the time.

The current crisis

YouTube caption: “This is 3 year old Jonathan conducting to the 4th movement of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony. This piece was conducted by Herbert von Karajan and the Berliner Philharmoniker, one of Jonathan’s favorite conductors and orchestras. Jonathan’s passion for classical music became apparent when he was only eight months old. Shortly after that he began trying to conduct on his own.”

This video is not the only evidence of young children obviously enjoying classical music, or, for that matter, the only one showing a preschooler conducting to a recording of an orchestra. I could have chosen one of a 5-year-old conducting Rite of Spring.

I myself have witnessed a racially diverse roomful of children chattering through someone trying to introduce a string quartet and then sitting at rapt attention to performances of Beethoven, Ravel, and Britten. How can chamber music be elitist?

How can opera be elitist if second graders in a public school in Brooklyn can enjoy learning to sing it–in Italian—and enjoy attending a dress rehearsal at the Met, where they met the prima donna and sang for her?

Time was, within living memory, that American society had some vague notion that classical music was somehow culturally superior even among people who didn’t much care for it. It was unavoidable. Anyone who went to movies heard classical music either in the cartoons or feature films like Disney’s Fantasia. They understood all the musical jokes and innuendos, too.

Nowadays, everyone quickly denies that classical music is superior. Too quickly. Popular music, by definition, has a short shelf life. Popular music loved by one generation will generally be scorned by the next.

People have been making jokes about the “elderly” Rolling Stones still playing rock (as if they’re supposed to start playing something else after they reach a certain age) for decades. Interest in the Rolling Stones will die with the last of the generation that grew up when they were fresh and new. Meanwhile, that generation’s children and grandchildren will still enjoy opera, symphonies, and chamber music given the chance.

The disappearance of music from the school curriculum is a disaster, not only for classical music, but for education and society as a whole. Children will like whatever music they hear frequently. If they never hear classical music as children, they will most likely not grow up to like it later. Or at least without deliberately deciding to learn to like it.

It doesn’t help matters that some stores play classical music specifically to discourage youth from loitering there. Vanhoenacker sites many examples in popular culture of someone’s liking classical music standing as a code for a social outcast, something to embarrass and offend the poor nerd’s friends and family.

The classical music world is not without its own faults. The generation of composers after the Second World War had absolute contempt for ordinary concert-goers, who had never learned to like even Schoenberg.

Many of avant garde composers became academics, where their paychecks would not depend on pleasing anyone outside the music department. They persistently assured everyone else that appreciating the post-war avant garde was a matter of civic and cultural duty.

So of course new music became poison at the box office. Orchestras and chamber music groups that programmed it at all carefully sandwiched it between two popular pieces, right before intermission so that anyone who wanted to hear the first and last pieces had to endure the one in between.

But for at least the past 40 years, composers in the classical music tradition have tried to write music that people will enjoy listening to. Many of them incorporate rock rhythms and harmonies into their music.

And no orchestra or radio station plays any of that music often enough for audiences to become familiar with it. People who still buy CDs can listen to it at home, that is, if they have come to know the composers’ names well enough to know what to try out.

Perhaps the deliberate and sustained assault that classical music has suffered in recent decades will indeed make it impossible to keep performing classical music. Fewer and fewer people will have a chance to learn to play the instruments or sing with appropriate vocal technique. Recruiting new musicians to replace retirees will become impossible.

If classical music dies, the autopsy will reveal the cause: murder.

Photo credits:
Classical composer montage. Public domain from Wikimedia Commons
Brünhilde. Public domain from Wikimidia Commons
Audience. Public domain from Wikimedia Commons
Jullien. Public domain.

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