There’s been a small explosion over Richard Taruskin’s long piece in the New Republic, about, yes, the future of classical music. Or, more precisely, about three books that try to make classical music’s case. Taruskin, as anyone who’s read him might expect, goes after these books with savage virtuosity, or maybe it’s virtuoso savagery. I loved every word, and agreed. This is a very long piece, but ought to be required reading.

Sample excerpts:

I had a grim laugh when I read an interview in The New York Times this past July with George Benjamin, a forty-seven-year-old British composer, in town for the American premiere of a chamber opera that he had written. He was pulling the usual long face about the fact that music “is not valued in contemporary society.” He challenged the reporter interviewing him to “name a single politician who shows interest in the music of our time.” This was only days after the Times had published an interview with John Edwards in which the candidate spoke enthusiastically about U2, Bruce Springsteen, and Dave Matthews.


[T]he present collapse looks more dramatic than it really is, if that is any consolation. It follows a period of enthusiastic but unsustainable growth that coincided, ironically enough, precisely with the inauspicious changes in consumption patterns just surveyed [he means the rise of popular culture]–a testimony to the triumph of romanticism over realism in our musical culture….

As long as this gravy train lasted, the attrition of the audience could be overlooked. The result of living for three decades in a fool’s paradise was a vast overpopulation of classical musicians as many more were trained, and briefly employed, than a market economy could bear. The cutbacks that seemed to imply the sudden cruel rejection of classical music were really more in the nature of a market correction, reflecting the present scarcity of patronage and a long-deferred confrontation with the changed realities of demand.


There are two ways of dealing with the new pressure that classical music go out and earn its living. One is accommodation, which can entail painful losses and suffer from its own excesses (the “dumbing down” that everybody except management deplores)….Orchestras have accommodated by modifying their programming in a fashion that favors the Itzies and Pinkies and little divas. Composers have accommodated by adopting more “accessible” styles. Love it or hate it, such accommodation is a normal part of the evolutionary history of any art.

The other way is to hole up in such sanctuary as still exists and hurl imprecations and exhortations. That is the path of resistance to change and defense of the status quo, and it is the path chosen by the authors of the books under review here. The status quo in question, by now a veritable mummy, is the German romanticism that still reigns in many academic precincts, for the academy is the one area of musical life that can still effectively insulate its transient denizens (students) and luckier permanent residents (faculty) from the vagaries of the market.

Inevitably, all three authors are professors. In its strongest and most “uncompromising” form, the heritage of German romanticism is the ideology of modernism, and it is again no surprise to learn that two of the authors are composers who write in academically protected styles….Despite their obvious self-interest, they claim to be offering disinterested commentary and propounding universal values.

And so on. I could quote endlessly. This is important stuff, and of course parallels many things I’ve said.

But there’s an outcry, very seriously raised in Marc Geelhoed’s blog. Marc (who’s often posted comments here) doesn’t like Taruskin’s tone:

Taruskin’s lusty bravado and the rude, put-down-laden qualities of some of his writing has always rubbed me the wrong way, since it’s more appropriate for a tabloid-writer or some paper you could pick up for free in a sidewalk kiosk. (It’s entertaining, but so is a cockfight.) The gloating, the I’ve-forgotten-more-than-you’ll-ever-know arrogance, the snide assertions, none of it is the finest way to discuss either the music, its practitioners or the words written about it. I’ve argued  in the past that classical music shouldn’t be treated with kid gloves, or as if it’s not part of contemporary culture, but Taruskin’s intellectual thuggishness ultimately detracts from his arguments.

But mainly Marc thinks that the central thrust of Taruskin’s argument is wrong:

[W]e’ve now progressed from The Crisis of Classical Music, to The Saving of Classical Music, to Criticism of The Saving of Classical Music. No other genre of music takes its future livelihood so seriously, its obsolescence at some as-yet-undetermined date as a fact, or feels the need to raise an army to defend itself, as does classical music. It doesn’t matter to those arguing these positions that 2,400 people showed up to hear the Chicago Symphony play Mozart and a Mark-Anthony Turnage premiere last night. It doesn’t matter that Angela Gheorghiu can get on the front page of the Chicago Sun-Times by being fired by the Lyric Opera, or that one small contemporary music ensemble (the International Contemporary Ensemble) can find upwards of 200 people to fill each of eleven venues in seven days, or that another (eighth blackbird) can entice 800 to an enormous amphitheater. (Yes, there were large of amounts of freebies given away. That’s not unheard of in popular environs, however.)…

The accommodation Taruskin’s talking about isn’t a black/white, either/or scenario, given the number of performers and institutions out there. The best will win out in every style. Yet Taruskin devotes his mental energy not to this phenomena, but decrying the efforts of three writers with extraordinarily small readerships.

The best will win out in classical music, too, just as it does in popular music. I keep wishing that we could just drop The Death of Classical Music, a hyperbolic idea which appears to be deathless itself….Can’t we just play the music, let the marketers attract them any way they can, let the critics write about their enthusiasms, and move on? The defense of classical music will persuade no one, because you can’t argue in favor of art.

“Why can’t we all just get along?”

I’m quoting that sympathetically, and I’m sympathetic to Marc’s points, even though I disagree, because I think the classical music mainstream is in more trouble than Marc thinks it is. And — most crucially — that the people trying to save it (I mean arts advocates, and people who run major arts institutions) often believe the arguments that Taruskin’s targets make, without having to read the books in question. In fact, they make those arguments themselves. They’ll say that classical music is superior, that to understand it you need to understand its formal procedures, and that the audience is declining only because people in our culture haven’t been properly educated.

And thus they

(a) maintain a crippling sense of entitlement

(b) waste their energy on demands for music education, and on education-based attempts to convert a prospective audience, which then

(c) leaves them without any workable plan to make things better.

Not enough of them, I fear, understand something that Taruskin says very well:

What draws listeners to music–not just to classical music, but to any music- – is what cannot be paraphrased: the stuff that sets your voice a-humming, your toes a-tapping, your mind’s ear ringing, your ear’s mind reeling. And that is not the kind of response anyone’s books [or any education program] can instill. If we need more people to hear classical music, we need to have classical performances that people want to go to — which doesn’t mean dumbing down, but means (my points here, not necessarily Taruskin’s) tearing down the walls of blankness and formality, playing with edge-of-the-seat excitement (or at least some audible and visible sign of interest), and greeting the audience as active and intelligent co-participants.

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  1. says


    I don’t think it’s accurate to write that I think that Taruskin has “wasted 12,000 words.” [This refers to an earlier version of my post, which I was happy to change at Marc’s request.] What he wrote about the power of classical music to draw people to classical music needs to be said, loudly and often. I do think that he could choose his targets with more care, and dial down, to use an appropriately wartime term, the rhetoric a few degrees.

    “Why can’t we all just get along?” is also a vast simplification of my point. There’s no other genre or force out there that’s trying to do classical music in, or that’s trying to destroy it. There’s no one to make peace with. Presenters and administrators are doing their jobs, musicians are seeking out ever more opportunities, and this appears to be, to me, a net gain and a gross gain. There aren’t two opposing camps that need to come together here; what we need to do is move the argument beyond the Death or Non-Death of Classical Music.

    I’m also not convinced that there is, or am aware of, a “classical music mainstream” in this day and age, which is moving faster and faster towards a world of niches. I only wish that musicians and presenters would realize the numbers they are dealing with, such as those I cited, and derive strength from them. I always believe in dealing from a position of strength, rather than throwing up a wall against the outside world, and taking high-minded solace in your supposedly threatened state.#

    Marc, I’m sorry if you think I’ve represented you. From my point of view, there definitely are battles going on, but maybe they’re being fought in private.

    Some of those battles involve the mainstream’s struggle to survive. By “mainstream,” I mean the big classical music institutions, whose long-term future isn’t as secure (if you project their numbers for the past decade forward) as you might think. These big institutions, plus their smaller cousins — all the groups doing standard classical repertoire in familiar classical venues — are, at present, the only established source of income for classical musicians. By “income,” I don’t mean any pay at all, but enough pay to live a reasonable middle-class lifestyle. You can look from above, and see a long tail at work, and happily foresee classical music becoming a productive niche. But if you look from below, you might see something else — a threat to classical musicians’ livelihood. Can the Chicago Symphony survive, with its $58 million budget, as a niche? If it’s just a niche, should it get public funding, and can it claim the universal importance that’s the basis of much of classical music’s fundraising?

    Like you, I can go to sold-out concerts most nights of the week. I can see cheering crowds. But I can also look behind the scenes, and see what a thin foundation some of it rests on.

    Quiz question: Which major classical music institution quietly reveals, in its most recent publicly available tax return, that it borrowed $35 million, almost certainly to pay off accumulated debts it’s never talked about in public?

  2. says

    Greg, thanks for pointing out this article.

    The impression I increasingly take away from these discussions is the utility of backing up and look at the music business from the 30,000 ft. (10,000 meter) level. For an example, you can see a model that Drew McManus and I did that explored the potential connection between low average income for musicians and a increase in the number of new musicians coming out of schools in The Dynamic Lifecycle of a Musician at http://www.pegasuscom.com/aar/model7.html. Download and explore the associated model, if you want to see what I’m writing about. I still think that analysis has validity, although it wasn’t focused directly on the problem you’re discussing now.

    When I look at what you and Taruskin described, it sounds very much like a classic boom and bust pattern. Something gets out of whack between perceived and actual demand (typically involving delays and, potentially, distortions), and the system responds according to the perceived demand and overshoots the actual. Eventually reality makes it through to perception, leading to a return to normalcy. If in the process the overshoot has eaten up the “carrying capacity” of the system, though, the eventual end state may be at a far lower level than had the overshoot not occurred.

    If that’s what’s going on, don’t feel alone. There is a whole litany of such booms and busts, some of which have been cataloged at http://www.investopedia.com/features/crashes/default.asp.

    While it’s easy to make conjectures about the causes of a particular boom and bust cycle, it’s more reliable to create a simulation model, as Drew and I did, to see if one can create a structure that mimics how one thinks the problem arose and that adequately replicates the behavior that’s been observed. With such a model or series of models, one can begin to weed out unlikely explanations and strengthen one’s belief in likely explanations. One can also test conjectures about ways out of the problem, for it’s usually far faster and cheaper to experiment on a model than on society.

    The good news of such modeling is, in the immortal words of Pogo, “We have met the enemy and he is us.” Typically you can create a model that replicates the structure and behavior of the problem and that contains no exogenous pieces. In this case, you might expect that the problem isn’t due to an external public which doesn’t recognize good art when it hears it but to something about the system that produces music, musicians, and performances.

    That’s good news, because if you cause your own problems, you likely have the potential to fix your own problems, too. (That’s not to say that fixing this problem will allow the US to field 50 million professional musicians all making in the seventy-fifth percentile or higher in annual income.)

  3. says

    “There aren’t two opposing camps that need to come together here; what we need to do is move the argument beyond the Death or Non-Death of Classical Music.”

    With all due respect to Marc, there _are_ at least two distinct camps working at cross purposes with eachother. They aren’t the Death and Non-Death camps — that terminology is simulataneously loaded and meaningless, and Marc is right to want to move beyond it. The camps in question are the classical music chauvinists and then anti-chauvinists. These viewpoints are diametrically opposed, and are fighting it out. When the chauvinists succeed in reenforcing the “classical music is superior” narrative, we anti-chauvinists see it as exacerbating the marketing problem that the public doesn’t like elitists. When the anti-chauvinists argue that classical music isn’t inherently any better than popular music, the chauvinists see it as undermining their ability to leverage the “superiority” of classical music into increased funding and cultural relevance. If there’s a compromise to be had between these viewpoints, I don’t see it — it’s not a question of the camps coming together, it’s who’s going to win the war.

    Galen, this is brilliant. Much better than I’ve been able to put it. I agree with you completely. Thanks!

  4. John Borstlap says

    I agree with the main arguments of Taruskin’s essay, apart from one. The three reviewed books defend – however clumsily – the reality of the ‘classical canon’ as containing some of the greatest music the human mind has dreamed-up, and for that reason it deserves a place of symbolizing cultural identity and aspiration in public space. It should never be a monolitic repertoire of course, there is so much around it which is good and interesting, but ‘the classics’ are NOT just what academia have made of it, but works full of life and worth more respect than they get in the shopping mall of contemporary culture where everything is on offer without any hierarchy of value or meaning.

    I’d think this is why we’re all here — because we think classical music is pretty wonderful.

    But I don’t know about that contemporary shopping mall. Do you really think there are no distinctions of value or meaning? I have to admit I haven’t seen that. Hierarchies might be a different story. I’d agree that things don’t get put in categories any more, with some categories more or less universally assumed to be worth more than others. But certainly there are understandings about what’s tremendously good — the current Bruce Springsteen album, for instance, which has been acclaimed as more than simply a terrific rock record, but as a serious political and cultural statement. Which is exactly what it is. The problem for classical music, or one problem, is that our field can make huge claims for its general value, but comes up surprisingly short when anyone asks why any particular performance or composition (especially new compositions) demands attention. The usual answer amounts pretty much to saying, “Go hear X conduct Mahler, because Mahler is important, and X conducts him very well.” Rather than what people are saying about the Springsteen record, “You’ve got to hear this, because he has something to say.”

    There are exceptions. For me, Simone Dinnerstein’s Goldberg Variations CD would be one. But they’re rare — and the classical music world isn’t good at identifying them or talking about them.