Where we stand (1)

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.)

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  1. Alex says

    Not saying that this view doesn’t resonate, but: It’s interesting to claim these things even as Yo-Yo Ma’s new album sits at #2 on the Itunes Top Albums list, in front of Justin Timberlake, and everything except The Shins; a week after, according to Alex Ross, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson’s Neruda Songs spent some time at #3 on the Amazon Top Seller’s list, and immediately after a year that saw a nearly 5 million unit, or 30 percent, increase in Classical album sales over the previous year, even as overall album sales declined.

    Are things really this precarious?

    I’m going to address this. An increase in classical recording sales can’t fund the classical music business. That’s especially true because, currently, classical recording is essentially a nonprofit operation, funded by the artists or organizations being recorded (or, of course, by donors these artists and organizations go out and find). This is true even for many recordings on highly commercial major labels.

    Thus, there isn’t much money in classical recording, and one question always looming is how classical musicians can expect to make a living.

    But that’s the least of it. What supports the classical music business as we now know it are ticket sales to live concerts. People who buy CDs or download classical music may not buy tickets to concerts. In fact, the data I’ve seen shows that they don’t. People who listen to classical radio may never go to concerts. So it could actually happen that recording sales could increase ,and the live concert would could tank.

    The key question is whether the live concert world is sustainable in its present form. People can buy and download classical music, new and old, and listen to it in the background at home, in their cars, on their iPods while they fly on business trips or walk down the street. Maybe they listen in 20-minute spurts a few times a week,. This isn’t at all the same thing as going out for a full evening of three pieces (very likely old ones), lasting from 8 PM to 10. Even less does it translate into doing this regularly. Studies of current culture easily demonstrate that people are taking a voracious interest in all kinds of formerly niche phenomena, which is one reason classical sales are up. These studies also would suggest that people are increasingly unlikely to make evening time committments long in advance, or to tolerate the formal world of the classical concert hall, with its largely old repertoire.

  2. says

    You mean a slight hiccup upwards in sales for one year doesn’t mean classical is HOT? Aw, gee….

    If you’re going to be using this material in your book, it would be great to see you get a little more specific on what the end of classical as we know it means. Your sentiments here strike me as a little vague and leave me with a number of questions. For example, the age of Attic Greek ended a couple of millenia ago – but it’s still taught and spoken in universities. There’s no reason to think university music departments wouldn’t continue and be popular, and present performers and ensembles from other schools just like other departments bring people in for colloquia or talks. These performances would likely remain at a high level. The music ed circuit for younger children is booming and there will likely be continuing success with family concerts and arts in ed presentations, which pay a perfectly decent living wage.

    Over winter holiday I had a chat with a main supporter of the Kansas City Friends of Chamber Music. He felt they were doing fine: they had a circle of well-heeled people who were interested in keeping the series going and get maybe 100-200 people to come to their concerts. I see no reason to think a low-key chamber music circuit wouldn’t sustain itself, as well as the occasional bunch of amateur and semipro Baroquies.

    So far, we’re talking about a world I’m not afraid to live in. I think I’ve already sequestered myself there voluntarily as my fiance and I tend to spend our limited entertainment time & budget on theater, dance, and international performance troupes, which usually hold more interest for us, even musically, than what the symphonies are offering – resources are limited after all. Maybe you could put your finger a little more clearly on what will be lost. I get the feeling it’s the industry of classical music? Orhestras as civic institutions, that were once thought of like baseball teams but will lose their importance in civic life? The idea that we should even know who Beethoven is? I don’t doubt that what will be lost will be something major, but it would be great to see someone put their finger right on it.

    I trust I’ll have a lot more to say about this. My commoents were necessarily vague; they’re only a beginning.

    Consider your Greek example, though. Of course people still study Greek. Or a few do. But this is very few compared to the number of educated people who would have had at least some mild familiarity with ancient Greek two centuries or more ago. Or even more recently — it’s fascinating to read intellectual books (like Stuart Chase’s gloss on Joyce’s Ulysses) published in the 1940s or 1950s, and see what kind of cultural world they assumed their readers lived in. They’d venture short passages in Greek, with very free references to the culture of the ancient world. They could assume their (educated) readers would know all that.

    Surely that isn’t true any longer. If classical music survives in some form like its present form, in university music departments, that won’t do much for the classical music industry in the wider world, which depends on a non-univeristy public willing to buy large numbers of tickets.

    Finally, university music study itself is threatened, as teachers increasingly (and this has been going on for well over a decade) have to justify including classical music in introductory humanities classes. It’s not an easy sell to the students, to put it mildly. In the fall, I took part in a meeting at a midwestern university, where faculty members were beginning to iron out a new core program in the arts for the general student body. The cultural assumptions being made at that meeting were miles away from those of the classical music world, and it’s very hard to see — especially given how struck the teachers were by the new, emphatically self-directed and intellectually curious culture the students now inhabit — how traditional classical music teaching could play much part in this.

    Another big break may well come when students start to have serious trouble making careers. Already many schools stress entrepreneurship, and talking about classical music to the world at large in brand new ways. Just watch this gain major speed when students aren’t finding the normal kinds of work.

  3. David Cavlovic says

    A couple of other points : there is already enough repertoire in “Pop” music to actually justify different interpretations of a familiar work (Cindi Lauper’s Time after time comes to mind), and not just as a “cover tune”. Heck, there are even “period instrument” performances happening of The Beatles (as in ensembles sounding exactly like the recordings, note-for-note.)

    On the other hand, As I’ve stated before, I’m sure there are a lot of “pop” musicians who would really like some people to shut up once in a while and LISTEN to the music at the concert they are attending.

    Good points. The last one suggests that joint performances of pop and classical music in a concert setting would please many people — a point that Molly Sheridan made in a comment to a previous post of mine. You and she should share ideas!

  4. Anonymous says

    Thank you, thank you. Your latest entry reminded me of the best seller, “Who Moved My Cheese.” In reviewing the four change skills, today’s blog helped me be much more comfortable with the change and helped me with skill #3: Moving Beyond Fear.

    Where I used to fear that classical concerts won’t exist when I retire in 20 years, I am now looking forward to a new and improved concert experience with excitement rather than mourning.

    An excerpt from:


    In today’s changing times, there are four change skills that people are using to deal with change with less stress. These skills are easy to understand and anyone can put them to good use.

    Skill #1: Anticipating Change

    Anticipating Change is the ability to see what has happened in the past and what is happening now, and realizing what is most likely going to happen next. When you use this skill and become experienced at anticipating change, you feel more in control in changing situations, and become more valuable.

    Skill #2: Taking New Actions Now

    Taking New Actions Now is the ability to see what you need to do differently and to do it soon. Then, look at the results and see where you need to correct your course and do something differently again. As you scurry into new actions, you become more energetic and influence others to try new things as well.

    Skill #3: Moving Beyond Fear

    Moving Beyond Fear is the ability to do what you would do if you weren’t afraid. It doesn’t mean that you may not still have the fear, but you don’t let fear hold you back. When you move beyond fear, you feel more confident, creative, and effective, and are more likely to enjoy your work.

    Skills #4: Imagining Real Success

    Imagining Real Success is the ability to see what you would like to have happen, in such realistic detail, that this “personal movie” lets you experience how it could really happen and you enjoy making it happen. As you imagine real success, you feel happier and less stressed, even before you get an ideal outcome.

  5. Charles Semowich says

    I perform on the Albany City Hall Carillon. When I started, I played mainly classical and standard carillon music. I now play all kinds of music including jazz, pop, religious, rock, etc. I also play new music written for carillon. So the comments in this blog are relevant for me. Although, I might prefer to concentrate on the classical repertoire, I need to play for a wide audience. This synthesis creates a wider audience and more interest in the music and carillon. Is this good or bad? Who can know?


    Similarly, performing arts concerts at arts centers used to be mainly classical music. But for well over a decade, maybe two decades, they’ve been a mixture of genres, and also include dance and performance art. This is a change paralleling what you’ve described (and we could find many other examples of it).

  6. says

    I basically agree with you. Accepting what you say as true, isn’t it complete malpractice to allow (or encourage) young people to enroll in university programs as music performance majors? (Music Ed is a different story). I’d be interested to know how you extend this analysis to include the future of music departments at universities or conservatories.

    The day before I posted this, I gave a keynote address at a conference of career development specialists at music schools. I said exactly what I’ve written here (though in more detail). Most of them seemed to agree with me. One point I made was that the students now in music schools (along with recent graduates) were going to be crucial players in the change we’re likely to see. It’s up to them to find new directions to go in, to map out the future. I didn’t say this would be easy, and in fact I said that careers would very likely be harder to find than they’ve been in the past. But those students who do make careers will be showing us the shape of our future.

    I should add that I teach at two music schools, Juilliard and Eastman, so I’m presenting this material to students regularly, and trying to work out the consequences.

  7. gpanetta says

    I agree with all of this, but I would add one qualification. The classical music era actually ended in about 1950. All of the concertizing that’s taken place since then has simply been the afterglow of a golden era — an afterglow that has slowly been fading. I gather from what you’ve written that you don’t believe that this necessarily a bad thing; in fact, I think getting rid of the conventional ways and formats that have enabled people to hear European art music is good for the music, which will continue to live on.

    Good choice of date! As far as I can figure out, it’s in the 1950s (or just afterward) that the audience started to get older, eventually — if we trust all the available data — to disappear.

    Changes of era don’t happen all at once, though, so maybe it’s tricky to name a precise date. I think the new culture (which won’t be hospitable to classical concerts as we’ve known them) started to emerge in the 1960s, but ever since then it’s coexisted with the remnants of the old one. It may be some years yet before all these changes in both classical music and the culture surrounding it will be complete.

  8. SWPaul Mack says

    Is there more analysis to be derived from an economic viewpoint of the development of classical music? If prices for performance spaces are too high, wouldn’t that depress the performance profits and crush availability? If musicians’ salaries have gone bonkers, wouldn’t that force performance costs sky-high and depress profitability? If rich people are being sucked dry by unrealistic demands from arts’ advocates, wouldn’t that explain the inability to fund overly high performance costs? And, also, if the performance of classical music is about the music, and not about the money involved, isn’t it beside the point to bring marketing forces into the argument? It seems like you have closed off your argument from some fruitful critique, i.e. economic and artistic.

    I think the main economic consideration is Baumol’s dilemma — the economic doctrine that says the costs of service industries (with orchestras and hospitals two classic examples) will always increase faster than costs in the economy at large, because these industries don’t show gains in productivity. Hence they’re routinely in economic crisis. I’ll have a lot more to say about this as I continue the series of posts I’ve just begun.

    I think it’s not always helpful to single out individual factors, or decisions by particular people, as the causes for large cultural shifts. As in, “Oh, if only they hadn’t paid musicians so much…” It’s more productive, I think, to look for links among all these things, and to work from the assumption that — while they do influence each other — they all have common (or at least related) causes.

    As for doing the music for its own sake — even if this should happen, how would the news get out to the likely audience? Some kind of marketing is inevitable.

  9. says

    One of the reasons I started my blog (modernclassical.blogspot.com) is that I realized there was no support system for people who have become interested in modern classical music. When I got interested in jazz again after watching the Ken Burns series (imagine PBS airing a similar series on Charles Ives, John Cage, John Adams etc.), there was a whole system to sustain me — magazines such as “Downbeat,” national radio programs such as “Jazz After Hours” and “Jazz at Lincoln Center,” etc. I’m not clear on how the average person is going to get the chance to hear a Frederic Rzewski or William Bolcom piece in the first place, but if they do, I hope they can use sites such as mine and Internet radio stations such as Kyle Gann’s to find other music they might like.

  10. David Cavlovic says

    ” The classical music era actually ended in about 1950.”

    I have always believed that the Classical/Romantic era was concluded by Richard Strauss’ Metamorphosen and the Vier Letzte Lieder. As World War II hearalded the true end of the 19th Century, so too the two Strauss works bring Rameau-esque harmony to a conclusion. After that : Bill Haley, Shostakovich, Thelonius Monk, Stockhausen, The Beatles, Britten, Tippett….

  11. says

    One other reaction to this – I just recently read “Emergence” by Steven Johnson, who I know you’re a fan of too. It was an interesting lesson in predictions in historical time. He wrote the book in 2000 and made a host of predictions about what life would be like in 2005 – for example, no networks, just internet-based search-driven channels based on content rather than ownership (comedy channel, etc.). All that he said will come true. But this very savvy author was way off on the scale of it. One doesn’t see the TV networks fading away for quite some time as it turns out.

    I think this is bad not good for classical music, as many of us would like to see change now. But as has been the case in many historical crises, I get the feeling the current generation of elder statesmen will be free to live our their lives without addressing these problems at all, and change will unfold excruciatingly slowly over decades. Or, perhaps the situation of classical music is more, as Adorno might say, “advanced”.

  12. Martin Andersen says

    For a long time I’ve thought that 1950 (or so) was an important year, not so much from the standpoint of orchestras as performing institutions, but for classical music COMPOSITION. Where, oh where, are the genius composers? (I’m a working professional who has performed my share of premieres and new music.) I dare you to find someone even of the calibre of a Prokefiev (let alone a Beethoven!) working today. One could also say the same about the visual arts and of literature. Folks, I believe that what we call Western Civilization is inexorably winding down. Sigh. (Bang? Wimper?)

  13. Medievalmusica says

    First of all “classical” should be spelled with a small “c” . It should not be confused with the music of the Classical era, from 1750-1800. Monteverdi was from the 17th century that would make him from the Baroque era. As for Gregorian chant these were still sung even though the middle ages were gone, so what do you mean older music was not listened to? Also the 1950s has nothing to do with anything, the people in the USA have never been that cultured in the first place, I mean middle class Americans nor the wealthy of the 1940s or 50s could ever be mistaken for the de’ Medici. I always remember the wealthy Americans even in the 19th century always trying to buy class and culture (Astors), need I go on. If anyone recalls the 19th century was the Romantic era of music and that ended well before World War I. Period music of the 18th century and earlier was never a woven part of the American life.

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