It seems that every year, at least one major article appears that either mourns classical music’s death or seeks to dance on its grave. What’s wrong with classical music? Can it still be important, or is it dying?
(Classical music comprises a wide spectrum of music, but this article only deals with orchestral music to keep focus.)
It seems that fewer and fewer people like it. They complain it’s old and boring music of long-dead composers. How can anything that old still be relevant today? (Never mind that plenty of people enjoy literature, theater, and visual arts of the same vintage.) Continue reading →
Daguerrotype of Jenny Lind taken September 14, 1850, shortly after her arrival in New York
P.T. Barnum and Jenny Lind have always seemed an odd combination, but their collaboration helped make operatic music popular throughout the US.
To be sure, opera companies had been touring the country successfully for twenty-five years, but they did not have the advantage of either Lind’s star power or Barnum’s promotional genius. American culture has forgotten most of them, but we still remember Jenny Lind.
Barnum made his first reputation as a huckster. As a budding promoter of lowbrow entertainment, he introduced an elderly slave woman to the public, claiming she was 161 years old and had been a nurse for George Washington. Later he trained a 4-year-old boy to sing and dance and exhibited him as Tom Thumb. His “feejee mermaid” was nothing more than the top of a juvenile monkey’s body sewn onto the bottom of a fish.
Such shenanigans made Barnum rich. But he also wanted to claim that entertainment could be a morally uplifting and instructive force in American life. For that, he needed to promote something morally uplifting and instructive. Continue reading →
Leonard Bernstein during his visit to Finland, 1959
Leonard Bernstein contributed so much to the world of music that it’s taking two years to celebrate his centennial.
He was the first American-born conductor of a major American orchestra, the New York Philharmonic. And of course, he guest conducted orchestras all over the world. He was a virtuoso pianist.
Like George Gershwin, he composed in both “classical” and popular styles, with the result that critics don’t always take his “serious” music seriously.
For all that, Bernstein regarded himself primarily as a music educator. He saw it as his primary goal to increase musical knowledge, not just among music students and professional musicians, but also the general public. He wrote:
There is a lurking didactic streak in me that turns every program into a discourse, whether I utter a word or not; my performing impulse has always been to share my feelings, or knowledge, or speculations about music––to provoke thought, suggest historical perspective, encourage the intersection of musical lines.