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.
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.