I’ve been doing historical research, as readers of this blog know. And finally I think I know enough to make some predictions. Or at least to speculate about the them.
What I think I’ve found is that the present crisis is worse than most of us would think, and also that it’s been brewing for a longer time than most of us have realized. This makes me think that the era of classical music is going to end. Not this year, not next year, maybe not in 10 years (though surely by then we’ll see decisive signs of where we’re going). But sometime reasonably soon, the era of classical music will be over.
What does that mean? It doesn’t mean that classical music will die, or that Beethoven (or Schoenberg, or Guillaume de Machaut) will never be performed. It doesn’t mean that people won’t go on writing classical music (defined, maybe, as music that uses classical instruments, or that’s written down, and then performed from the written score — not that there can’t be other definitions, or that other music that’s clearly in the classical tradition might not take some other forms).
But I do think that organized classical concerts, as we know them now, won’t be very numerous, or at least won’t be as numerous as they are now. Though they may well be replaced by other kinds of concerts — more informal, or also offering other kinds of music — in which classical music might be played. To be as precise as I can, I might say that the apparatus of classical music, as we know it now, will very likely fade away. We won’t see many concerts (or at least not nearly as many as we see now) featuring only music from the past. We won’t explain classical music primarily in historical or structural terms. We won’t tell classical musicians that their main job is to serve the great composers. We might not ask our audience to sit in silence, clapping only when it’s told to.
What will take the place of all of this? Concerts in which classical musicians emerge from their hiding place behind the repertoire, and present themselves as human beings, playing whatever music means the most to them. This doesn’t mean that nobody will study Beethoven sonatas, prizing out their meaning with every tool available. (Very much including structural analysis.) But those same musicians might also play country songs, or jazz, or techno; they might compose. And when they play Beethoven (or Bach or Berg or John Corigliano) what will matter most is what they think about the music — what it means to them, what they’re saying with it, what they think it might just mean to everybody else.
But how — people will surely ask — can this happen? How can things change so drastically? And if these changes really do occur, what will happen to our classical music institutions, the Cleveland Orchestra, Carnegie Hall, the Metropolitan Opera? The institutions, I’m afraid, will very likely shrink, unless they can adapt, and completely reinvent themselves. (Which doesn’t mean that I’d be happy to see them shrink or disappear, or that I won’t gladly work to help them to adapt.)
And as for how the changes can take place, remember first that the classical music world as we know it now is hardly very old. It emerged no earlier than 1800, which means that many of our honored classical composers — Bach, Haydn, Handel, Mozart, Monteverdi — worked in an atmosphere that wasn’t (in our present terms) exactly classical. The audience talked; musicians improvised; music from the past was almost never played. Only in the 19th century did people start to venerate the great composers, to play (and play, and play) their music, to expect musicians to solemnly respect the composers’ intentions (or what can be guessed of them). Only in the 19th century did people start to say that the audience should sit in silence, and as documents from that time — and even from the 20th century — clearly show, the battle over silence took a long time to be won. Only in the 1950s did audiences (at least in the United States) stop clapping after every movement of a symphony, saving their applause for the end of the entire piece. And even in the ’50s, Italian opera audiences would sometimes shout at singers, or applaud while they were singing. (In one Callas performance of Norma that I’ve heard on records, there’s a ripple of applause while she sustains a calm high C).
If a new paradigm of classical music could emerge in 1800, another one could start to show itself right now, or in 2010. And we also should remember that other things have changed in history. For centuries, educated people learned Latin. But now they don’t. For millennia, men ruled women; now they don’t (or at least their rule has been contested). In the 1950s (when I was young), you’d go to the movies or turn on TV and see a western; try to find one now. Also in the ’50s, no corporate executive would dare to wear a shirt to work that wasn’t white. Nor did executives drop out, as they do now, to open restaurants or run organic farms. Hardly anybody jogged, ran marathons, or lifted weights in gyms. Women mostly stayed home. Gays were in the closet. African-Americans sat in the back of the bus. Only teens (and blacks) listened to pop music that had a heavy beat. Non-western cultures were routinely stereotyped (African cannibals, Arab hootchie-kootchie dancers, “Chinamen” with buck teeth). So a whole new culture has emerged in recent decades. And if everything else has changed so forcefully, why shouldn’t classical music also show some drastic change?
Besides, as I’ll show in my next installment, the classical music world as we know it very likely can’t sustain itself. Its audience is vanishing; its institutions are up against financial walls that very well could crush them. (The numbers that suggest this have all been in this blog before.)