Getting off the classical music merry-go-round

Walt Disney Concert Hall

Walt Disney Concert Hall. How much of the music played inside as bold as the architecture?

Last month I examined arguments in the periodic obituaries for classical music and found most of them a bunch of bunk. One, however, rings true.

If classical music isn’t “circling the drain,” then it’s on some kind of merry-go-round, covering the same ground over and over. After a while, the charm wears off.

The greatest asset classical music possesses is its current audience, people who regularly attend concerts.

For all the disrespect heaped on them by people who would prefer that classical music go away, they attend concerts, purchase recordings, and listen to classical radio.

Performing organizations always seek to enlarge the audience by attracting new people to classical music. That’s a vital task, but let’s not forget an equally important way: induce the people who currently listen to classical music to consume 10% more of it.

In principle, the classical music audience would grow by that much if everyone who’s already part of it would go to 10% more concerts every year, buy 10% more recordings, and listen to classical radio 10% more. The repertoire stands in the way.

Expand the canon, expand the audience

Berlioz caricatuare

A well-known caricature of Berlioz by Andreas Geiger, when his music was new and controversially bold.

Over-reliance on the same classical canon of mostly 18th– and 19th-century music steps away from modern life.

When the term “classical music” first appeared, it referred specifically to the Viennese triumvirate of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven.

Two of them were already dead. Classical music has always played the music of dead composers and always will.

Younger composers who aspired to write music like the revered classicists emerged soon enough. As they grew old and died, their music enriched the repertoire, but the percentage of concert music by living composers has steadily decreased.

That’s not only because the younger composers (beginning with the generation of Berlioz and Mendelssohn and continuing through the generation of Gorecki and Schnittke) have also died.

The generation of composers who emerged after the Second World War, including Stockhausen, Boulez, Babbitt, and others developed a strong contempt for concert-goers and, in some cases, any music composed earlier than their own efforts.

New music therefore became poison at the box office. If it appeared on concerts at all, it came after the first beloved classic, just before intermission. The piece most of the audience probably most wanted to hear came after intermission. They had to suffer through the new piece in order to hear anything they really liked.

modern composer John Adams

How much music by Pulitzer Prize winner John Adams have concert audiences had much chance to hear?

Since about the 1980s, “classical” composers have once again wanted to appeal to an audience. Likely as not, their music owes as great stylistic debt to rock music.

Orchestras never play any of it often enough for audiences to become familiar with it. One year I constantly heard The Infernal Machine by Christopher Rowse. Never since. A Short Ride in a Fast Machine by John Adams was all the rage for a while, but a long time ago.

How many concert goers can even name more than one or two living composers?

Of course orchestras should play the music of Beethoven and other great masters. They shouldn’t play only the music of the great masters. People not already steeped in classical music don’t relate to it.

The classical music canon now consists largely of music written at a time when it was expected to be smooth, flowing, and sensuously beautiful. The music of our own time and most of the previous century, including not only modern “classical” music, but especially popular music, is not smooth, flowing, and sensuously beautiful.

Igor Stravinsky is a revered composer, but orchestras perform his music less and less. I can’t remember the last time I heard any of it on the radio. Has it ever occurred to our most prominent orchestras and choruses that audiences steeped in rock (and perhaps jazz) might find the music of composers who aren’t dead yet or died only within the past half century more accessible than Mozart?

Do audiences need permission?

Honneger on 1996 Swiss 20 franc note

Honneger on 1996 Swiss 20 franc note

Within living memory, orchestras expanded the repertoire by reviving the music of a composer who had been ignored for half a century. The concert going public at mid century did not hear much of Gustav Mahler’s music.

Then, famous conductors (Leopold Stokowski, Bruno Walter, Dmitri Mitropoulos, John Barbirolli, Leonard Bernstein, and more) began to perform and record Mahler’s symphonies.

That much star power gave audiences permission to like Mahler after decades of neglect. By the 1970s the Mahler revival had become an irresistible force. Today Mahler is one of the most frequently performed composers of all.

Is Mahler’s music really vastly superior to that of dozens of his contemporaries, whose music rarely appears on concert programs? Where is the chance to hear and learn to like composers like Malcolm Arnold, Wilhelm Stenhammar, André Jolivet, Alan Hovhannes?

Or just to name composers who have been dead about as long as Mahler had been in the 1970s, Charles Koechlin, Arthur Honneger, John Alden Carpenter, Ernst Bloch, Bohuslav Martinu, George Antheil, and Hugo Alfvén?

If orchestras and other musical organizations would perform unfamiliar music (especially music by living composers, but also the more recently deceased) often enough and consistently enough to give the audience “permission” to like it, concerts would become more interesting and have a greater chance of getting people to attend more of them.

I play for a community orchestra that in recent years has played music like Stravinsky’s Firebird, Prokofiev’s Seventh Symphony, Márquez’ Danzon 2, and Copland’s Rodeo and Red Pony.

I keep reading and hearing complaints about too much of the same old merry-go-round in classical programming. I, too, get tired of hearing nothing on classical radio but music from Bach to Debussy,with the masters supplemented mostly by their second- and third-rate contemporaries.

If a community orchestra can go beyond the same old same old, why not our major concert organizations and classical music radio? And it’s not enough to play some token newish pieces once in a while. Today’s audience needs to hear the same newer music often enough to appreciate it, just as the audience 40 years ago needed opportunity to learn Mahler.


Getting off the classical music merry-go-round — 3 Comments

  1. Thanks for another excellent post. It’s true that concerts and classical radio focus on a standard canon of works. I sometimes find the musicianship of the new generation of conductors and performers bring a freshness to the old standards. But your point is well taken; I only recently came across the works of Arvo Part, and I’m sorry it took so long.

    • I only discovered Arvo Part because his music was on the same disk as something else I was looking for. I have enjoyed it for maybe 15 years. But I wonder who else’s music I’d enjoy but have never heard of. Thanks for your comment.

  2. I just read “Getting off the classical music merry-go-round” and am struck with the fact that a great deal of that article could easily be re-written to apply to ragtime music–which seems now to appeal almost exclusively to old people like me (age 78). What a pity–both in regard to classical and to ragtime music!

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