I haven’t been blogging, and haven’t said how thrilled I am with Alex Ross’s piece on the nature of classical music, which ran in The New Yorker in the issue dated February 22, and was linked here last week. This is surely the most important essay ever written on classical music’s future, or maybe, more precisely, on what its future ought to be.
As I wrote to him after I read his essay (it’s called “Listen to This”), he leapfrogs all the usual debate, all the breast-beating, all the criticisms people like me make, all the cries of “whither us” we hear throughout the field, and instead offers a vision of what classical music would be like if it were saved. Or what I hope it will be like. He touches on many of the familiar debates, but always in new ways, with phrases striking both for how vivid they are, and how true.
And his piece is intensely personal. This isn’t an academic argument. This isn’t a theory. Alex can talk about what classical music should be like with special authority, because he’s writing about what classical music already is for him. Two people — one of my current Juilliard students, and one from last year — have already told me they’re xeroxing the piece, and sending it to many people they know. I can’t believe they’re alone. Read the piece yourself. To say I found it thrilling isn’t even a small exaggeration. It clears an important new path.
Just to whet your appetite, here’s how Alex begins:
I hate “classical music”: not the thing but the name. It traps a tenaciously living art in a theme park of the past. It cancels out the possibility that music in the spirit of Beethoven could still be created today. It banishes into limbo the work of thousands of active composers who have to explain to otherwise well-informed people what it is they do for a living. The phrase is a masterpiece of negative publicity, a tour de force of anti-hype. I wish there were another name. I envy jazz people who speak simply of “the music.” Some jazz aficionados also call their art “America’s classical music,” and I propose a trade: they can have “classical,” I’ll take “the music.”
For at least a century, the music has been captive to a cult of mediocre élitism that tries to manufacture self-esteem by clutching at empty formulas of intellectual superiority. Consider some of the rival names in circulation: “art” music, “serious” music, “great” music, “good” music. Yes, the music can be great and serious; but greatness and seriousness are not its defining characteristics. It can also be stupid, vulgar, and insane. Music is too personal a medium to support an absolute hierarchy of values. The best music is music that persuades us that there is no other music in the world. This morning, for me, it was Sibelius’s Fifth; late last night, Dylan’s “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands”; tomorrow, it may be something entirely new. I can’t rank my favorite music any more than I can rank my memories. Yet some discerning souls believe that the music should be marketed as a luxury good, one that supplants an inferior popular product. They say, in effect, “The music you love is trash. Listen instead to our great, arty music.” They gesture toward the heavens, but they speak the language of high-end real estate. They are making little headway with the unconverted because they have forgotten to define the music as something worth loving. If it is worth loving, it must be great; no more need be said.
When people hear “classical,” they think “dead.” The music is described in terms of its distance from the present, its resistance to the mass—what it is not. You see magazines with listings for Popular Music in one section and for Classical Music in another, so that the latter becomes, by implication, Unpopular Music. No wonder that stories of its imminent demise are so commonplace.…
Please read the rest. I think it’s very important.