The short version

Faithful readers know I’ve said a lot in this blog — herehere, and here, for instance — about the drastic problems that the mainstream classical music world is likely to face in the not so distant future.

But I’m always looking for a shorter way to say it. Especially when I’m speaking in public, or semi-public (to a conservatory class, for instance) — not many people want to hear complex statistics. It’s better to cut to the chase. And at last I’ve come up with something. Here it is:

The classical music audience is going to shrink, and most likely shrink a lot. I don’t mean that nobody will listen to classical music in the future, but that the audience as we know it today will shrink, and maybe even disappear. This audience goes to classical music performances, simply because they’re classical music. I don’t mean to say that the people in this audience don’t have their preferences. Of course they do. Some like opera best, some like orchestras, some like chamber music. And they’ll all have their favorite composers and favorite soloists.

But, that said, they’re relatively undemanding. If there’s classical music in their area, they’ll go. If they like chamber music, and there’s a chamber music series, they’ll go to it. Likewise for orchestras, and opera. And yes, if the performances are really bad, or if they consistently hate the music that’s being played, then they might stop going. But how often are performances bad enough to drive people away? How often do programmers plan entire concerts — or worse, entire seasons — full of music that the mainstream audience will hate?

So the mainstream audience keeps showing up, just because the concerts are there. That’s the key to what I’m saying — to attract these people, you don’t have to do anything special. If you’re a prominent classical music institution in any community, you just give concerts.

And this, I’m afraid, is what’s going to change. This audience is vanishing. It’s getting older, and the younger people who might like to hear classical music think in a very different way. They won’t go to classical concerts simply because the concerts are there. They want to know what they’re getting. Why this concert instead of that one? Why should I go tonight? Exactly what will happen? What will I feel? Will I be surprised? Will I have anything to think about? Will the evening be not just a concert, but an event? Will all my friends be talking about it? If I can’t go at 8 PM, is there something I can hear earlier, or later? Can I just drop in, if I’m passing by on the street? Who are the people who’ll be playing? What are they like? What do they want to say to me?

And so on, through an almost endless series of questions, which, if you think about it carefully, amount to a new audience that wants classical concerts to be freer, more flexible, more engrossing, and above all smarter. Don’t just tell me to sit there and listen.

Don’t try to educate me. Don’t tell me the music is beautiful — tell me what kind of beauty you’re talking about. Does it have an edge? Will it lull me, or wake me up? Will it shock me? Please stimulate me, surprise me, make me think, entertain me, give me something to talk about with everyone I know. Let me speak to the musicians. Give me music that sounds and feels like the world I live in.

If you can’t do that, you won’t have an audience. People, in the future, will not come just because you’re playing great classical masterworks.

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  1. Michael Wittmann says

    An even shorter version:

    In the future, classical music will be considered contemporary, and will have to compete with all other contemporary art and media forms for people’s attention.

    Response: Compete to succeed.

    Longer response: Move past the comfort of historical “value,” move past the academic inbreeding, and face your audience and interact.

    (I just saw Imani Winds give a f&*%ing incredible concert, and they were brilliant at doing the right thing…)

    Michael — this is brilliant, too. So much better than what I wrote. I hope you won’t mind if I steal lit! (With full credit to you, of course.)

  2. hugo says

    Why do you suppose the existing audience for classical music doesn’t demand that the marketing folks make convoluted justifications for attending? Do they attend just out of habit? Or do you suppose they acquired a meaningful education in the art form when they were younger such that they already have a context for the music?

    They definitely have a context, but I’m not sure it’s because they had any kind of education. It’s more that they’re used to the way classical music is presented, and feel comfortable with it. They accept that they’re powerless, though they don’t think of it that way. Instead, they’re likely to feel that they don’t know enough to have very strong opinions. (This is based on audience discussion groups I’ve lead with a couple of big orchestras, and on focus groups I’ve seen.) It’s not that some members of the audience don’t have strong opinions, but a large number, maybe even most of them, are much more hesitant. Which they feel is their proper role.

    A younger generation won’t want to feel that way, and therefore won’t want to be around an art form that expects passivity from its audience.

  3. hugo says

    You may be right. I live in Chicago and have attended an awful lot of CSO performances so I’ve seen the demographics and demeanor of the audiences first hand over an extended period of time. It’s clear that the core audience is very grey and “passive”, but the attempt to market to the younger concert-goer by making the experience more “relevant” seems to me fundamentally misguided. Classical music seems to me to be a legitimately “elitist” art form in the sense that you genuinely do need a certain grounding in music theory and cultural history in order to take part in the experience. By pinning the orchestra’s hopes on “Renee Flemming Sings John Williams” it seems to me that we’re not addressing the real issue.

    I second that last point. A concert like that would make sense only as an attempt to give the CSO another “product line,” another way to sell tickets, earn revenue (and also give the musicians their contracted number of services).

    But I’m not so sure about the elitist bit. Classical music didn’t used to be that way. And many people now relate immediately to musical genres they haven’t heard before — world music, techno, many others. Classical included! So I think it’s the presentation that’s keeping people away. The sense, communicated wordlessly (though sometimes also in words) that this is something special, something we should stand in awe of, something we need to be educated to understand. I’ve never found that most peole in the existing classical audience understand classical music all that well. They’re just comfortable with it. Now we have a couple of younger generations that like the sound of classical music, but don’t like to go to concerts.

    And if we did more new music…that would probably be as much a draw for younger listeners as it’s a turn-off for older ones.

  4. Rob Gold says


    Your response to the comment by Hugo matches my experience (28 years of arts marketing, mostly orchestras)

    While insiders fret over minutiae between works (Sibelius 5 will sell, the 4th is sales poison, etc.), most audience members don’t know Monteverdi from Martinu, have never heard of 90% of our soloists, and don’t really care. They are coming for “the classical music experience,” and expect to be seduced and thrilled (and often, to my personal surprise, for “relaxing music”).

    As long as what we present is somewhere between Bach and Bartok and it meets their general expectations, they’re ready to enjoy. Who buys tickets to something they expect to hate?

    It is the organization’s job, in its marketing, in its presentation, to describe the event and give their audiences (both prospective and actual atenders) the information and tools needed to feel welcome, informed and to enjoy.

    This ain’t rocket science.

    Yes, a large part of the existing audience finds the music relaxing. Or inspiring, in some vaguely spiritual way that isn’t so very far from a lofty form of relaxation. You don’t find words like “challenging,” or “though-provoking’ in these audience surveys.

    I wonder what people who go to clubs to hear alternative bands would say they’re looking for?

  5. Rafael de Acha says

    Hello Greg. We regularly attend concerts by Miami’s New World Symphony with a couple of friends of ours. Being European, they have both had a good basic secondary education that introduced them to the arts, and, in spite of coming from families of humble means, both our friends immensely enjoy the classical music concerts we attend, whether Corigliano or Grieg are in the program. I can’t draw any scientific conclusions out of this, but it doesn’t take rocket science for me to draw a couple of simple conclusions:

    No, Rafael, you and your wife aren’t passive at all. I’m sure every classical music institution has both passive and not-passive people in its audience. Look at the Boston Symphony. In Ozawa’s last years, musicians in Boston wouldn’t go to performances that he conducted. I’m not sure, though, that this had any great effect on Boston Symphony ticket sales. The great mass of their audience still went.

    a)None of us are “passive” as audience members. We state our opinions, our likes, and our dislikes with our hands and feet.

    b)Give us a lousy performance – and we have heard some this season albeit not from the NWSO – and watch us all go away. In fact, my wife and I are not renewing our subscriptions to a couple of series that we took this year.

  6. says

    For a really true look at the audience for classical music in the future, look at the college students who go to orchestral and chamber music concerts at their schools. Many of the college students I know appreciate hearing music written by living composers, and they often prefer new works to “standard” repertoire. Like all younger generations, they want music that they can relate to.

    I don’t know any college students who go to concerts to be “educated.” They get that in their classes. They go to hear music, and that’s what I think they will want when they become the “classical” music (we do need a better term) audience of the larger world.

    Thanks, Elaine. This mirrors what I’ve seen. And as I’ve written in my blog, I’ve also seen (and heard of) young audiences who go to concerts that mix edgy pop music with classical music. Even if they came for a particular band (not one you’d ever find on the pop charts), they’ll cheer loudly for Bach. I’ve seen that myself. And they’ll also cheer for new music, which for them doesn’t sit in any special, tricky category. It sounds a lot like the pop music they like, in fact.

  7. says

    I don’t mean to start a debate, but I politely disagree with Miss Fine’s comments. I’m probably a special case, but part of my attendance at orchestral and chamber music concerts is education. I’m not a music major, but I have a huge desire to learn more about music, and unless I’m willing to shell out a bundle for university classes that I don’t need, the only place I can go and hear people talk about composers, musical eras and movements is the concert hall.

    In a sense, I’m starving for musical knowledge. Knowing more and more about the music I hear increases my appreciation for it. To be honest, whenever I hear my town orchestra (the Mobile Symphony), I walk into the concert hall only having heard one of the three pieces on the program. I usually have a small knowledge about the composers, but almost everything I hear, I’m hearing for the first time. Scott Speck, MSO conductor, does a great job at explaining the importance of the music we’re hearing and describing what the music is meant to illustrate.

    When I take my other college aged friends to a concert, they are full of questions, and tell me that they’ve always wanted to listen to classical music but never knew anything about it. They’re usually excited about being able to, for the first time, attach a composers name to a work by hearing it live.

    I think Elaine is right that some young people are more receptive to the newer works. I’m not sure why just yet. I know a lot of young people who “hate classical music” but “love Philip Glass.” Maybe people have begun to keep the newer composers out of the classification of classical music…but that’s something different entirely!

    Ariel, thanks for this, and why not start a debate? We all need to figure these things out, and nobody has the final answers.

    I’d guess — this one of my contributions to the debate! — that you’re not typical of people your age. You have much more hunger for classical music, and for knowledge about it. Your friends may or may not be typical. One thing, parenthetically, that plagues these discussions is the lack of general information. So instead we all use ourselves and people we know as examples (I’m guilty of this myself), without really knowing how much we can generalize from this.

    I can imagine that people who are new to classical music want to know more about it. But do you think that means that concerts should be overtly educational? I’d love to know your opinion!

    As for the taste for new music among new young listeners, I think it’s a combination of things (not that I have any final answers). New music sounds more like our time; it sounds more like the pop music people already know; and nobody’s gotten used to hearing music that sounds very different.

  8. Rita G. Levine says

    Why must older classical music fans lose access to the music that has always been meaningful to them in order to satisfy the uneducated tastes of a younger generation that has not been allowed to have music appreciation in their elementary schools to form their true appreciation of classical music.

    I can sympathize with your anger here, since I grew up myself in the traditional classical music culture.

    But it does seem to me that you’re making some rather harsh assumptions, chief among them being the implication that younger people don’t love classical music as much as you do simply because they have “uneducated tastes.” Can you imagine that a new generation might simply be different, and that their education (whether they get it at school or not) leads them to like other things? And do you think we can restore the past simply by imposing it on kids when they’re in school? I’m certainly not saying kids shouldn’t have music education, but for a start I’d want it to be about a lot more than classical music. (As I’ve often said before.) American kids don’t learn about blues or jazz, which is to say that they don’t learn the musical traditions of their own country.

    I think there’s been a large cultural shift, which goes very deep, and takes many forms. To reduce it simply to a matter of people now being “uneducated” strikes me as a very partial (and possibly patronizing) view. Would anybody younger care to comment on this?

  9. Joe Nichols says

    I do not think that your characterizations of people who go to concert music, be it orchestra, chamber, solo are a “mainstream” audience. There is a common thread in the writings of those that think the audience is dying to picture the audience as you do: grey-haired nincompoops who are not discerning enough to tell a good concert from a bad concert. One or two “bad” concerts, while it may drive the critics away will not drive the “mainstream” audience away any more than one bad concert by Elton John, Metallica, or Celine Dion will drive the audience away. I truly am fed up with your almost panic-stricken warnings that Classical Music is dead, or the audience is dead or dying, etc. The music has been around for more than a thousand years, so has the audience. Go to a Montreal Symphony Orchestra concert — quite a bunch of different ages in those seats. I don’t know where you go to concerts, but I wouldn’t get into the hyperbole that “the audience as we know it today will shrink, and maybe even disappear” — it makes your argument empty of veracity.

    I’ve seen half-empty halls in Pittsburgh, with most of the audience being old. Which, like your Montreal example, proves nothing. We need real data, about what happens in many places (which I’ve tried my best to provide). We can’t rely on anecdotes about what you or I happen to have seen.

    As for classical music having been around for a thousand years, I take this more as a sign of how deeply you care about these questions than as a useful argument. Quite a lot has changed in the world since 1007, and most of the institutions and cultural practices of that time have — to state the obvious — long since disappeared. Including almost everything involved with music. I doubt that anyone alive then would even remotely recognize anything in the classical music world we have now.

  10. richard says

    A couple of months ago, the Minnesota Orchestra played a concert as part of new works as part of their composer’s institute program for young composers. It was heavily promoted on one of the “Alt”-pop radio stations, and one of the DJs act as the master of ceremonies at the concert; talking with the composer before his or her work was played (as a musician, I found some of these discussions to be painfully lame, but they seemed to go over pretty well with the audience). The tickets were cheap; $10 with open seating, and the main floor was full. What was interesting was the age demographic was opposite of ordinary concerts, with the vast majority in the 20-30s age group (it was nice that my wife and

    I were not among the youngest attending the concert) and there was a “loosening” of concert etiquette, with some hooting cheering at times.

    Thanks, Richard. I think we’ve seen this enough, in many places, to be able to say it’s a general rule. Do this kind of program, promote it in the right places, and you’ll get a young crowd, behaving as you described.

  11. Michael Wittmann says

    Hi, again,

    This morning, I interviewed the oboist from the Imani Winds quintet, and had an excellent conversation. Without me even asking about, she promoted all the ideas that I find relevant in the chamber music world:

    • outreach work to ages “from 2 to 102,” with “hook” pieces like Luciano Berio’s “Opus No. Zoo” to pull people in,
    • talking to the audience and sharing enthusiasm and interpretation, with explanations of a difficult Wayne Shorter piece helping people get pulled a little closer to the piece,
    • music by living composers, or recently deceased, walking a fine line between challenging and enjoyable, mostly doing both at once, and doing that well,
    • meeting the audience afterward, to sign CDs for sale, or just hang out,
    • making promotion an active part of their work, with a rotating list of who does the interviews, so that one was willing to meet with me unannounced, the day after the concert for an interview with my radio station,
    • playing music that was interesting and joyful, had soul and rhythm, pulled no punches and grabbed the mind, and playing their asses off.

    About that last point, an interesting observation my wife made: At the end of the show, the students got up first, then us 30-somethings, then, slowly, the older crowd. How fascinating that the younger crowd went for it, loved it, ate it up.

    The issue that people aren’t being clear about in the discussion above is the difference between “Big Band / Orchestra” and “Power Ensemble / Chamber Music.” I believe that the chamber music world is doing fine: there’s fusion and fire, and a golden age of string quartets, wind groups, and other small outfits. It’s the orchestral groups that are having a hard time of it. And, let’s face it, the Big Band era ended at some point, as well. Yes, there are a few, but not the way there used to be.

    Thanks for this further info. All very much to the point.

    And I agree that chamber music shows more promise, right now, than orchestra concerts do. But it’s hard to make a living from chamber music! So the classical music world, as we know it now, depends a lot on orchestras. They’re one big way that instrumental musicians make a living.

  12. says

    Greg, I always check to see if you have new posts up, and I enjoyed this one quite a bit. One issue that others have broached is the repertoire: I simply grew tired of hearing compositions by the same small number group of mostly pre-20th century German-Austrian and Italian (with a few pre-and-20th century French, Russian, American, and British tossed in) composers over and over again when I went to concerts given by the major orchestras and opera houses. I’m in my early 40s, and I’ve pretty much given up on going to hear live classical music in the major venues, except in a rare cases. I have several friends, great musical enthusiasts, who feel the same way (and none of us live in San Francisco, whose symphony does really mix things up).

    About a decade ago, after having had some musical education (band and orchestra) and exposure at home, in secondary school, and in college, I decided that I would try to systematically learn about the history of European and American classical and art music, so I began going to concerts and operas when I could afford to, listening to CDs at the library and buying them. I learned about operas, symphonic and other orchestral music, chamber music, you name it. I learned how to talk about this music and understand a lot of it. But I also began to take pleasure in a far wider group of works than ever before.

    Now, I had been exposed to some of this music–and I had some favorite composers, like Glass, Adams (esp. Nixon in China), Debussy, Villa-Lobos, Beethoven, etc.–but when I started to seek it out, I was coming across stuff that no one would ever have exposed me to, like the Second Viennese School; Hindemith; Ives; Janacek; Weill; Varèse; Riley; Cage, Feldman and the other New York composers of that era; Nancarrow; Meredith Monk; Adès; Lutoslawski; Ligeti; Messiaen; African-American composers like Coleridge-Taylor, Still, Hailstork, and Anthony Davis; Roy Harris and William Schuman; Karl Amadeus Hartmann; Boulez; Henze; Gubaidulina; Petterson; Rihm; Adams; Dun; Corigliano; Daugherty; Sculthorpe; Torke; and on and on. If I wasn’t buying stuff from Other Music or Academy Music, I was checking it out via Naxos. What I found so frustrating was that I could seldom hear the vast majority of this larger repertoire being played at most of the major orchestras in the cities where I was living. I understand why people want to hear the major European composers like Brahms and Schubert and of course Mozart. But not everyone wants to hear just these few composers with a Tchaikovsky or Bartok tossed in once in a while.

    I would like to see mixed concerts, concerts that include jazz and rock or musicians from those traditions and other ones, concerts that play composers like composers like Erwin Schulhoff and Robert Nathaniel Dett and Silvestre Revueltas and John Zorn and Anthony Braxton and Debra Drattell, and so on. There are also very contemporary younger composers from around the world as well whose work should get more attention. I and others can keep getting this music from CDs or online, but why does it have to be this way? (No other art form is so stuck in the past, and in such a narrow past.) Is this all asking too much? Can’t the orchestras meet listeners under 60-65 halfway?

    John, thanks for this! Orchestras would say that there aren’t enough people like you to make a difference. I’ve seen some scary stats, which would seem to support that opinion.

    But how much have orchestras tried to promote the kind of programming you’re talking about? They may not be finding people like you because they’re doing nothing to reach you.

  13. says

    I don’t always agree with everything I read here, but in this case, I agree with you pretty much entirely; and so I find this a rather optimistic case. So the audience will be smaller but more discerning and smarter, you say? Right on! I mean, I’d certainly prefer the classical music world not to shrink, but if what we’re talking about is a few less folks in the field, but more carefully thought-out programming and advertising… well, sounds okay to me. Not ideal, but not half bad. Bring it on!

  14. says

    Although I’m nearly sixty, I stopped going to concerts because they were there a long time ago, when I decided that concerts had to be special. I don’t subscribe to anything (except to the excellent Orpeheus at Carnegie series), and I try to hit all the halls.

    What this approach has brought me to is an understanding that it doesn’t really matter what they’re playing, as long as there’s at least one piece that I really want to hear. What matters is the playing. This may be why chamber music is doing so much better – it seems to have taken on some of the electricity of jazz. Large orchestras working under conducters, in contrast, are like horses yoked to a plow, incapable of much subtlety except for wizards like Levine.

    Two things had better never change, though: silence during performance and no miking.

    (Thanks for the provocative entry.)

  15. says

    An afterthought: James Levine has shown that the Vienna/Leipzig model, in which the opera orchestra is also the principal symphony orchestra, might work in New York.

    I’m sure it might. The institutional obstacles are enormous, though. We have two large institutions, each employing a separate group of musicians, and each with its own vested interest, including the understandable interest of the musicians in keeping their jobs.

    And what’s especially amazing is that the Lincoln Center institutions don’t even collaborate. Levine hasn’t guest-conducted the Philharmonic, or at least not in the past couple of decades. No Philharmonic music director in recent memory has conducted at the Met. Maazel will do so in a future season; this is a showstopper, since nothing like it has happened for so long. It would be wonderful if the Met and the Philharmonic could work together, though, and I would imagine Peter Gelb would like to see that happen.

  16. Henry Fitzgerald says

    If the audiences of the future are going to be demanding “music that sounds and feels like the world I live in” … well, the battle is lost; there’s nothing for it but despair.

    Mozart’s music will never sound and feel like the world we live in. It never did. (Once upon a time, no doubt, it sounded contemporary, or at least failed to sound old-fashioned; but barring a miracle, the natural, default musical language will never again be that which it was in the mainstream Europe of 1790.) The chief glory of Mozart, Beethoven, Wagner, Bach, and hundreds of other lesser lights besides, is that their music does NOT sound like the product of the world we live in; it is supremely IRrelevant. That’s why it has endured.

    What we need for it to continue to endure, is another generation prepared to admire works of art for their own sake, who are able to appreciate beauty without troubling themselves about whether or not it’s immediately relevant to what’s going on in their lives at the moment. We need people prepared to step outside themselves for an hour or two.

    Note this delightful example of the classical music ideology at work.

    Classical music, according to the ideology built up around it, is different from other kinds of music (and is better than they are) because it has no contact with our present-day world. It stands apart from the lower things in life.

    And thus it speaks to a better class of people than other music does. (“People prepared to step outside themselves, “etc. As opposed to people so involved with themselves, so narcissistic, so trivial, that they can’t see beyond their own noses.)

    Allied with this, of course, is the idea that classical music exists on some abstract plane, and requires special education to appreciate. Thus the superiority of people who like it is once again reinforced, along with the superiority of the music itself.

    Of course, there are a number of fault lines running through these ideas. First, the music of the past that we now call classical was plunged into the daily life of its time. If you think of Mozart from your high perch in the dreamworld of the classical music ideology, you think of music whose loveliness transcends everyday life. If you think of Mozart as he was when he lived, you think of music that was partly improvised (cf. the second act finale of Don Giovanni at its premiere), music which was designed to make its audience applaud the moment it heard a passage that it liked (cf. Mozart’s letter about the premiere of his Paris Symphony), music designed for particular social uses (by which I mean particular performance circumstances, none of which resemble our present-day concert and opera worlds), music (cf. The Marriage of Figaro, the Magic Flute) that even might be designed to explicitly reflect social concerns.

    Second, the classical music ideology is itself a creation of contemporary life — that is, it’s something our contemporary culture has invented. So people who believe that they’re transcending contemporary life by listening to classical music are actually participating in contemporary life in their own way. Classical music, for them, is supremely relevant — it reflects (for these listeners) a better world than the one they live in.

    Third, the classical music ideology creates difficult problems, to say the least, for composers. What sort of music are they supposed to write, which will be acceptably classical, meaning (according to the terms of the classical music ideology) that it will have no contact with the world the composers live in? Thinking of this sort did contribute to some of the theorizing about abstract art and atonal music (cf. Clement Greenberg and Theodor Adorno) — art should take forms that didn’t reflect any recognizable reality, and that would be unintelligible to a mass audience, so as to purify itself from the contamination of mass society. But that thinking is 60 years old, and hardly reflects any current understanding of art, or the practice of most current artists.

    Finally, the classical music ideology rests on an implicit criticism of contemporary life, which, when made explicit, will often include wildly inaccurate statements about popular culture and other contemporary matters (cf. Julian Jameson’s book, “Who Needs Classical Music?”). This pretty quickly reveals how the classical music ideology really does function as an ideology — or in other words as a system of thought that serves to hide reality, rather than to face it.

  17. Henry Fitzgerald says

    I’d like to take issue with your response…

    Many of the ideas you’re railing against are nowhere to be found in what I wrote. (Some of the alleged falsehoods you attribute to me I in fact agree with; others I in fact disagree with; almost none of them, though, have much to do with what I actually said.)

    I said that Mozart’s music, and other classical music, does not reflect the world we live in, or the world anyone ever lived in, and that this is part of what makes it valuable. I did not say one word against, or about, any other kind of music.

    (Declaration of interest: as it happens, I think classical music is superior to contemporary popular music… but this isn’t the point; perhaps I’m wrong about contemporary popular music; and anyway, it’s not what I’m talking about.)

    Sure, Mozart’s music was created “for some particular social purpose” – what music isn’t? And what of it? If that’s all you mean by “music that reflects the world we live in”, then, sure, it’s simply impossible for any music not to reflect the world we live in, which means you can’t draw a distinction between music which does and music which doesn’t – so when you envisaged an audience saying: “We demand music that reflects the world we live in!” they were demanding something tautological.

    Mozart’s msuic, like it or not, is music whose loveliness transcends mundane contemporary concerns – those of 1790, and those of today. This is obvious enough in reference to today’s world, because we’re very familiar with today’s world, and can tell at a glance that Mozart’s music has nothing to do with that. We’re only led to do doubt this with regard to late 18th-Century Europe because it’s a world we’re not familiar with that world, and don’t live there. Contemporary admirers knew full well, and said in Mozart’s praise, precisely the same kinds of things you’re criticising people for saying now.

    A lovely, calm response. Thanks.

    The thought that Mozart’s music “transcends mundane contemporary concerns” is very much a 19th century notion. In fact, it’s a staple of 19th century Mozart commentary. In the 18th century, not many people — if any — said anything like that. To be absolutely precise, the last decade of the 18th century was a time of change, in which 19th century notions of art and music were beginning to take shape, and were sometimes expressed.

    The typical reaction to Mozart in the 18th century had nothing to do with transcendence. A frequently expressed concern was that his music was cold, and too complex. This may seem baffling to us, today, but that’s what people often said back then. Some of the reviews of the Don Giovanni premiere in Prague said this — and this premiere, in Mozart legend, is considered a success. Mozart’s father warned him about writing music too complex for his audience (see the letters they exchanged before the premiere of the Paris Symphony).

    And Mozart himself, when he commented on his work, would often say mundane things. There’s the famous letter about the opening tenor aria in “The Abduction from the Seraglio,” where he talks about imitating the beat of the character’s heart. And in the equally famous letter about the premiere of the Paris Symphony, he talks about crafting the music in order to get the audience to applaud.

    Reaction to Mozart in the 18th century was also conditioned by a typical 18th century belief that now would seem quite alien to us — the belief that music was a minor art, and that instrumental music couldn’t possibly be anything but entertainment. This is something most of us weren’t taught in our music history classes, but it’s still the truth. It’s quite thoroughly documented in a book by Mark Evan Bonds, “Music as Thought: Listening to the Symphony in the Age of Beethoven,” and also in the opening chapter of “The Naked Heart,” the fourth volume of Peter Gay’s monumental history of 19th century bourgeois culture. Opera was entertainment, too; only religious music was considered truly serious.
    So when Mozart was active, he was working in a culture that expected composers to create entertainment, and which saw Mozart, in his mature years, somewhat failing at that, because his music was too complicated. Another way to put this is that they rejected exactly the qualities — or at least many of them — that make us love him today.

    As for pop music, I know that Henry didn’t say anything about that. I was using his e-mail (and forgive me, Henry, if this seemed in any way unfair) as an example of a classical music ideology that often includes the views of pop music that I described.

    And about contemporary relevance: Henry’s comment is very helpful to me, because it teaches me to be more precise in the things I say. So, in that spirit, I’d offer this clarification. Every piece of art — and every thought about art — reflects something about its culture. I take that as a given. “No man is an island,” as John Donne so famously said. >br>

    But pieces of art and particular thoughts about art reflect particular parts of the culture around them. Atonal music, for example, reflects some cultural things I’m very familiar — and comfortable — with. But that’s not true of the mainstream classical music audience, which largely finds atonal music alien and unpleasant. Plus, in the wider culture at large, the most common reaction to atonal music is that it sounds like something from a horror film, which is yet a third view of it. (Though one that’s interestingly resonant with Adorno’s famous view that the dissonant harmony of atonal music represents, in frozen, ritualized form, the pain necessarily felt by everybody living in our corrupt society.)

    Classical music, as presently practiced, doesn’t much sound like most other things in our culture. It evokes, for most people, a world of peace and elegance, a reaction most amusingly reflected in something I’d sometimes hear from people in the pop music business, years ago when I was a pop critic: “You used to work in classical music? That’s wonderful — there’s no ego or careerism there!” We could only wish!
    Meanwhile, popular culture gives a very different, more contemporary, and really — in contemporary terms — more honest view of the world. Or at least more comprehensive. All the traditional high art forms — theater, novels, painting, poetry — now do this, too.

    So when I mean that classical music should be more like the world most people live in, I hope I’m doing more than expressing the tautology that, like all art, it should have some relationship to the culture surrounding it. (That was badly put, but I trust people know what I mean.) I want it to have a particular kind of relationship. I want it to sound contemporary, to do more than evoke some transcendent loveliness beyond everyday life, but to do what it did when the classical masterworks were new — reflect contemporary life in all its contradictory reality. As films, novels, plays, painting, and poetry now do. Not to mention popular culture.