In the wake of my posts about MUSO magazine (
a small discussion has swirled in the comments to both posts, essentially about
whether classical music should or shouldn’t have some of the trappings of
popular culture, such as stars famous not just for their music, but also for
their good looks. Some people–understandably–wish this wouldn’t happen, and
that classical music could be (or remain, or become) mostly very serious. Like
class=SpellE>Bjork, someone said, not like Britney Spears.
My view is that this isn’t possible, at least not if we want
classical music to be healthy financially. (For those who’ve read me, on the
comments pages, saying this before, I promise: I won’t repeat it for a while.)
The serious wing of any branch of art or entertainment needs the popular wing.
The book industry, publishers and bookstores, doesn’t stay alive by selling
class=SpellE>Proust. But by selling Tom Clancy, Dan Brown, Danielle
Steele, whoever, the industry creates channels large enough to distribute–easily–copies
of Proust to the relatively few people who want to
For a musical example, I suggested that we imagine that
Britney Spears was a classical music star. How big would the classical music
business be, if that were true? But this might not have been helpful. Simply to
imagine this seemed, at least to a few people, to trivialize classical music.
So here are some better examples from real life. Last fall,
class=SpellE>ReneéFleming spoke at a forum at Juilliard. She and
Stephen Sondheim were asked about the difference between art and entertainment,
and, very strikingly, neither would draw any firm distinction. (See my
on this.) In the course of the discussion, both Fleming and Sondheim were asked
if they’d ever had to compromise on anything artistic, to do anything simply to
sell their work to the public. Sondheim said he never had. Fleming said it
happened to her regularly. Here’s one example she gave: She wanted to record
Richard Strauss’s Daphne, her record
company want her to record a CD of sacred songs. The
compromise? She did both. Quid pro quo.
So how many copies did the
href="http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B000AM6OXK/104-2378990-0239966?v=glance&n=5174">sacred songs class=SpellE>Panis
songsalbum sell? It featured chestnuts like “Ave Maria,” “
class=SpellE>Panisangelicus,” and “Amazing
Grace.” I don’t have any information, but maybe I’ll guess that it sold 20,000
copies. That would be a lot–a triumphant, gigantic success–for a classical
release. How many copies did Daphne sell?
Maybe 3,000, which for a complete opera would be quite
But now suppose classical music was widely popular. Then
maybe Sacred Songs would have sold
200,000 copies, or 2 million. And Daphne,
if the ratio still held, would sell 30,000, or 300,000, the kind of numbers
that serious and successful indie rock albums rack
up. That would be good for classical music, wouldn’t it? I can’t see how anyone
could say otherwise.
Here’s another example, from the past. Between 1906 and
1922, the leading soprano at the Metropolitan Opera was
a striking, beautiful woman who said she was mainly an actor, not a singer, and
who also made silent films. When she appeared onstage with the
class=SpellE>Met’sleading tenor, Enrico
Caruso, sparks would fly, and tickets would sell.
And–as those silent films might suggest–both singers had
fans outside the strict boundaries of the classical music world. Caruso was one
of the first top-selling recording artists. He sold a million records, I’ve
read, an astonishing number for anyone in the very early days of recording,
when both records and equipment to play them on were expensive (and the
population was much smaller).
Farrar had teenaged girl fans who came to be called “
class=SpellE>Gerryflappers,” and who’d flock to the Met to see her
perform. When she retired from the Met, these
fans unfurled banners, cheered, wept, and followed Farrar’s “flower-laden, open
limousine” up Broadway. (I’m quoting from the site I linked to, which offers liner
notes by Robert Baxter for a Farrar CD on Marston Records.)
Was this good for classical music? Absolutely.
Intellectuals–or, more simply, people listening to Stravinsky and Schoenberg–probably
didn’t care for Farrar and her Gerryflappers. But the
existence of such things meant, once more, that classical music was important to
our culture, and that intellectuals were listening to its intellectual
repertoire, instead of mostly ignoring it, as they do now.