We talk a lot about the age of the classical music audience.
Generally people now assume it’s always been (or at least for generations has
been) more or less what it is now, 50 and up. That’s what Allan Kozinn said it’s been in the essay we’re debating on one of
pages, and I can’t blame him. After all, this is what everyone says.
But is there any data to support this common view? I’ve
never seen any. And in fact I’ve seen data that opposes it. Some years ago, I
found a 1940 book that reports the results of a 1937 study of American
orchestras. This study wasn’t much concerned with the audience (its focus was
finance), but it did survey the people at concerts in two cities,
And the result? It’s a shock! The
audience was young — median age 27 in
Rapids, 33 in LA. In LA (but not in Grand Rapids),
subscribers were older than single-ticket buyers, with a median age of 38,
which of course is older 33, but nowhere near as old as the subscription
Can we believe this data? It’s hard to say. It’s pretty
fragmentary (surveys in just two cities, at an unstated number of concerts, though
with more than 1900 replies; no further data on the methodology used, though in
the book where I found this, there’s at least an appendix where we can read the
questions that the surveys asked). But on the other hand, it’s the only data
I’ve ever seen from this far back, and the authors of the book, in writing about
it, show no sign of surprise. Surely, if they’d been as amazed as we’re likely
to be, they would have said something.
And now I’ve found data that appears to corroborate that
1937 study. From 1963 to 1965, people at the 20th Century Fund did a study of
the performing arts. They made a point of studying the audience, and passed out
questionnaires, according to a book about their work, at 153 performances
(orchestra, theater, opera, dance, chamber music, and “free open-air” events)
in 20 cities. They got nearly 30,000 usable replies.
And how old was this audience? Median age 38! Again a shock. Of course, we have to wonder what the
breakdown was among the various performing arts, and at this point I have to
say that I haven’t seen the full study report (which was published in a book in
1966), but only a single chapter from it, reprinted in a 1973 book about
American orchestras. But that chapter does say that — even though the orchestra
audience has a greater percentage of people over 60 — “the audiences from art
form to art form are very similar
[the book’s emphasis]. They all show a median age in the middle 30’s.” The orchestra audience, then, really did seem to have a median age of 38.
And again this information is reported without any sign of
surprise. What does surprise the authors is the percentage of women in the arts
audience; it’s smaller than they expected, only 48%. (In
1937, more than 70% of the orchestral audience surveyed in the two cities was
So what does this mean? First, it means we don’t know our
history. Nobody I’ve talked to in the orchestra world had ever heard of the 1937,
and I’m betting they also don’t know about the later one, since if they did, they
wouldn’t be saying that the audience was always as old as it is now. (And I
should add that I came across these studies only by chance. I was browsing
through the Juilliard library, looking for books on other subjects, and came
across these two volumes, one a few years ago, the other just today.)
Second, these data fragments suggest that our history might
not at all be what we think it is. The classical music world, as I’m beginning
to think, is in the midst of a very long-range shift, which we won’t fully
understand until we learn a lot more about how things used to be.
Margery Grant and Herman B. Hettinger,
How They Are Supported.
W. W. Norton & Company, 1940, pp. 226ff, 301ff.
George Seltzer, The Professional Symphony Orchestra in the
The Scarecrow Press, 1975, pp. 240ff.