Cockeyed optimist

People have been sending me links to an optimistic view of the future of classical music — an effusive essay that even says we live in the greatest age classical music has ever had. This is “Classical Music’s New Golden Age,” by Heather Mac Donald (that’s really how she spells her name; the space after “Mac” isn’t a typo), appearing in the summer 2010 issue of City Journal, a quarterly journal of urban affairs published by the Manhattan Institute.

Of course I take a different view, and one person who sent me the link said, wittily, that Mac Donald is “sort of like an inverse of you,” because “[s]he seems to be celebrating the things you have identified as possible problems with classical music – changes since the 19th century like the quietening down of audiences, moving away from potpourri-style programming, the growing untouchability of composers. Plus she thinks new music is best sourced from previously neglected old music.”

All true. More on some of that in a later post. More generally, here’s how Mac Donald summarizes her main point:

…we live in a golden age of classical music. Such an observation defies

received wisdom, which seizes on every symphony budget deficit to herald

classical music’s imminent demise. But this declinist perspective ignores the more significant reality of our time: never before has so

much great music been available to so many people, performed at levels

of artistry that would have astounded Berlioz and his peers. Students

flock to conservatories and graduate with skills once possessed only by a

few virtuosi. More people listen to classical music today, and more

money gets spent on producing and disseminating it, than ever before.

When I read this, I think I’m looking at an inverse of me in more than one way. It’s not just that Mac Donald and I disagree. It’s that we seem to inhabit inversely-related universes in the way we use data. I like to analyze it. Mac Donald, for the most part, just exclaims over it.

For instance:

…professional orchestras in the U.S. today dwarf in number anything seen in the past. In 1937, there were 96 American orchestras; in 2010, there are more than 350.

Yes, and in those years the US population increased 238%, from about 130 million in 1937 to about 310 million now (according to the latest Census Bureau estimate).  Wouldn’t population growth account for some of those new orchestras, and in fact for many of them?

The number of orchestras predictable for 2010, from population growth alone, would be 228. And the remaining increase might easily be due to increased prosperity, along with the combination of population growth and prosperity that, between 1937 and 2010, brought many cities to a place where an orchestra could sustain itself. (It’s interesting here to read Robert and Helen Lynd’s seminal 1925 book Middletown, the first thorough sociological study of an American city, in this case Muncie, IN, disguised under another name. What you’ll find there is a city with very few resources, compared to equivalent cities now.)

So Mac Donald’s statistic, in this case, doesn’t mean much more than “wow, there are a lot more of us now than there used to be, and we have more money.” I’ll grant that a “declinist” perspective might have predicted a slower growth in the number of orchestras, but if all you do is wave numbers in the air — or, to be fair, if all you do in addition is compare the increase in orchestras to population growth, as I did — you haven’t even begun to analyze the reasons for orchestral growth, or to put yourself in a position where you can safely decide what the numbers mean.

My analysis is only the vaguest beginning, but at least I know that. Mac Donald seems unaware that she hasn’t said anything at all. Likewise the last sentence in the first passage I quoted from her:

More people listen to classical music today, and more money gets spent on producing and disseminating it, than ever before.

All she’s saying, once again, is that there are more of us, and that we have more money. One thing notably missing is any projection into the future. Will still more of us listen? Will even more money be spent?

Weirdly, Mac Donald gives reasons for answering “no” to both questions. She notes the NEA finding, which I’ve blogged about (here and here), that over the past 30 years there’s been a striking decline in the percentage of adult Americans who go to classical music performances. (Though she wrongly credits the League of American Orchestras, which set out only to confirm the NEA study.)

And she also notes, as so many others have, that the current generation of people with money don’t support classical music:

“What is different today is that the nation’s elite, the very rich, don’t care about classical music,” [Leon Botstein] observes. “The patron class is philistine; instead of Andrew Carnegie, we have Donald Trump. Some rich guy with a hedge fund wants to be photographed with Angelina Jolie, not support the Cleveland Orchestra.” Bill Gates didn’t help matters when he proclaimed gratuitously: “I have no interest in giving to opera houses.” Younger philanthropists seem to be following Gates’s lead in spurning the arts, write Matthew Bishop and Michael Green in Philanthrocapitalism. The celebrity-bedecked Robin Hood Foundation enjoys extraordinary cachet on Wall Street; organizations that promote classical culture, far less so.

But she dismisses the NEA data by noting that other activities also show a decline in participation, and moves onward from that powerful paragraph about funding without drawing any conclusion from it, or even mentioning anything in it again, leaving me breathless — or, no, stupefied.

First, how does it help classical music if other audiences — for movies, rock shows, or sports — are also getting smaller? If I have a heart murmur, how does it help me to know that you’ve got cancer? Maybe boxing matches are drawing fewer people (just as fewer people are building model railroads or going fishing), but even so, your local orchestra either has to get its numbers up, or else — with a smaller audience, and less money coming in from ticket sales — give fewer performances.

And second: Wouldn’t you think, if you’d established that classical music has (or is likely to have) a smaller audience and less funding, that then you wouldn’t go around saying that it’s in a golden age, or talk — as Mac Donald does virtually throughout her essay — as if everything in almost all ways was just super-ducky. Sample, from her final paragraph:

…the present-day abundance of classical music–of newly rediscovered works, consummate performances, thousands of recordings, and legions of fans–is a testament to its deep roots in human feeling.

The italics are my emphasis. Lost in the ether is any thought, based on League or NEA data, that those legions might be getting smaller. But that’s how Mac Donald seems to deal with data. She’ll sniff it for a moment, and then let it blow away in the wind.

No wonder, when I read her, that I think I’m in another universe.

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  1. Jason says

    In her day job, Ms. Mac Donald is a conservative hack whose main thesis seems to be that there’s nothing wrong with any of our country’s institutions, ever. Her other greatest hits include the claims that police racial profiling isn’t racist, that college women who get raped should try dressing more prudishly next time, and that legalized gay marriage will lead to increased illegitimacy — specifically among African Americans. I hope that this article signals her intent to leave public policy forever and confine herself to a realm in which the stakes are much lower.

    What I find ironic, however, is that Ms. Mac Donald is describing the “golden age” of classical music at the same time that the more public representatives of her end of the political spectrum are branding people with an interest in high culture and the arts as “elitist”. One wonders how compatible those two positions can be in the long term.

    Fascinating. I didn’t take the time to find out more about her, or about the Manhattan Institute.

    I’m especially amused, in a grim way, by what you describe as her position on gay marriage. It’s going to cause illegitimacy among African-Americans — who, by many reports, largely oppose it?

  2. says

    We have to consider when the time is right to abandon the term ‘classical music’. It has varied stereotypes–boring to those who don’t ‘get it’, and, expresses only one short period of time in music history.

    So what alternate term would you suggest, and how will we get people to use it? I’m not saying you’re wrong, but the difficulties of this fight have long made me think it’s just not worth the trouble.

  3. Andy Buelow says

    Bravo, Greg… Ås soon as I read Heather’s article I thought, “wait till Greg sees this. A golden age?!? A golden age?!? You’ll pay for this, Mac… you’ll PAY for this!”

  4. says

    Greg your criticism of that writer seems fair — she does appear to be just trolling statistics to find some numbers supporting what she already believes. Smells a lot like she’s one of those whose understanding of the use of data for critical thinking starts and ends with the stupid old cliches about how “you can make the numbers say anything.” Hence your irritation at her breathless hyperbole about this being a “golden age” for classical music is entirely understandable. And I’ve also seen differing versions of the facts that she recites, albeit different only in degree not in overall thrust.

    Suppose though we set aside the adolescent giddiness and focus in a more balanced way on what conclusions the facts might actually support. Mac Donald may be simply over-reacting against what you call the “declinist perspective”, and at least as far as that she does have a point. At a minimum the reality around us [the number of professional symphonies today vs. decades ago, the number of young people choosing to study classical music at the conservatory level, the success of classical recordings in iTunes, etc.] do not at all support the claim that American culture has rejected classical music or whatever.

    I know of course that you do not actually view the issue in such a simplistic “the sky is falling/no it’s not” way, but I guess I’m suggesting that in this post you seem to be falling into that trap a bit.

    Similarly, regarding your comment “how does it help classical music if other audiences — for movies, rock shows, or sports — are also getting smaller?” That piece of context is [very] important to classical music not as a source of some sort of comfort or “help”, but rather as part of diagnosis or situation analysis. It seems clear from lots of countable facts that American society is in the midst of a broad shift towards direct participation, a shift which in hindsight seems to be at least two generations along now. If correct then that reality must alter both how one views the state and trends of classical music today [and of a lot of other subjects] as well as what one thinks should happen within that field.

    As of course you already know, you’ve been a thought leader on that very point, my point here is simply to suggest that you’ve let your irritation at the shallowness of Ms. Mac Donald’s argument draw you into — well, the shallows. Don’t let the annoying flies distract you from the elephant, would be my friendly suggestion…

    Thanks, Paul. Helps me gain perspective.

    About classical music being rejected by American culture — well, that’s not so simple. I might put it this way. Classical music itself hasn’t been rejected, but it doesn’t occupy the central place it once did. And the classical music world — the organized practice of classical music, as we know it today — is in the process of being rejected.

    It’s much like the famous quote from Gramsci, which I’d paraphrase like this: The old hasn’t died, but the new hasn’t been born. So classical music, in its organized form, manages to survive in its shrinking niche, bolstered by large emergency contributions from mostly long-time donors. The prospects for the future aren’t great, though, for classical music continuing in its present form, and one optimistic fact you cite — the conservatory students — shows how that’s true. Many of those students, in my experience with them, don’t fully believe, or don’t believe at all, in classical music in its present form, and think that changes are necessary if they’re going to have careers in the future. Music schools also recognize the problem, and have been stressing entrepreneurship, so that students can forge new kinds of careers on their own.

    But it’s complex, as I said. I should treat this more fully in my blog, and certainly will in my book.

  5. says

    At first, some of this argumentation seemed convincing, especially all of its reflections around the 228%. Then, however, I remembered my high school debate coach’s understanding of the difference between “statistics” and “statisticulation”–the art of messing around with statistics.

    Cleveland today has 1/2 the population it had in 1950. Should its Orchestra now, therefore, be 1/2 of its 1950 size? Detroit today may have roughly the population it had in 1930, although it has far less than it had in 1960. But the Detroit of 1930 and the Detroit of 2010 are virtually entirely different cities–almost different universes. In other words, this article reflects little upon the socio-economic realities of then and now. Finally, my own Los Angeles has easily more than 2.28 times its 1930 population: does this argue to its now having 3.28 Philharmonics–or even to a budget 2.28 times larger than its 1930 budget counterpart. (My hunch, BTW, is that its budget today represents an increase of far more than a factor of 2.28–which illuminates another set of economic data that differs vastly from socio-economic data and which data looks incredibly different when described either in hard numbers or in percentages.) I think Ms. Mac Donald off the mark, but I think Mr. Sandow may be specious in some of his working of the data.

    This all just ain’t that simple–or that quantifiable.

    Very good points, Gary. So, following your lead, it’s worth asking what the relationship might be between the population of a city — and the growth or decline of that population — and the amount of classical music in it.

    Big cities, generally speaking, will have more classical music than small ones. I don’t think it’s very helpful to use population ratios between cities, and then say, even jokingly, that the number of orchestras in those cities ought to follow the population ratios, even out to two decimal places. But it seems undeabtable that larger cities can sustain larger-budget orchestras, just as “big-market” baseball teams have more money to pay their players. New York has far more classical music than other cities do, and far more big-budget classical music institutions. Of course this isn’t simply a function of population, but population surely plays a part.

    You mentioned Cleveland. Its declining population (and declining number of big companies) definitely affects the orchestra. The Cleveland Orchestra has, in fact, defined its problem in recent years by saying, at least privately, that it has an “A” budget in a “B” city. Which then leads to its strategy of playing as much as it can outside Cleveland, most notably by establishing its annual residency in Miami (which brings with it substantial donations from former Ohio natives now retired in Florida).

    To say that the total population of the US has some effect on the number of orchestras might be a little speculative, but I did try to suggest what the relationship might tangibly be. I thought that for any city there might be a tipping point, a size at which an orchestra becomes possible. I thought, too, that prosperity had a role here, too. Basically my thinking was that to sustain an orchestra, a city needs enough people to buy tickets for its concerts (that would be a function first of all of the size of its population, though not only that), and then enough donors to support it financiallyl. That would be a function both of population size and of prosperity, though of course there are other factors — local history, tradition, the chance presence of one inspiring figure who sets an orchestra in motion — that might play a role. I think my view is reasonable, and I’d love to know if formal studies have ever been done, or if anyone ever constructed an economic model for what makes an orchestra possible.

    I’ve talked a lot to a prominent sociologist about these issues, and also to a prominent economist. I don’t claim to have their expertise, but they’ve generally encouraged my thinking on these issues, enough so that (even though of course they’ve corrected me, too) I feel I’m on at least tentatively solid ground.

    But you’re more than right to point out that these are tricky topics to deal with!

  6. says

    Hmm–alternate term for the generic ‘classical music’…there are many minds out there–perhaps surveys can be conducted for alternate terms to rid us of the stigma of the term which is indeed archaic. How about Music of the Second Millennium. And, everything after 2000 is Music of the 21st Century. This way, everything falls into sub categories in the 2nd Millennium, and similarly for 2000 forward. We need to unite styles so varied repertoire can be featured on programs when necessary. This might be one way to cultivate new audiences without the dogged term ‘classical’ music.

  7. Brian says

    I can’t see how you’ve refuted her main point; I sense that Mac Donald thinks this is a golden age in which to be a classical music fan. The fact that classical music is no longer as “central” culturally does not impact my enjoyment of it.

    I can’t imagine an individual classical music fan would feel anything less than blessed in this day and age.

    Also, your population argument seems flawed. Orchestras have outpaced population growth by a significant 50% (350 vs the predicted 228), while extending their seasons and drastically increasing musician pay. This seems significant, much more than just “wow, there are more of us now”.

    I said that another important factor is the growth in prosperity, and as I recall I went into that in quite some length. It’s a matter of cities reaching — as their population grows, and as more people in them have more money — a tipping point at which having an orchestra becomes possible. I’m not even remotely surprised, given that perspective, that the increase in orchestras has outstripped the growth in population. But the increase isn’t related to any growth in how popular classical music is.

  8. says

    I’m going to continue to read the rest of your comments on the Mac Donald piece, but this initial statement demands a response: you and Mac Donald are simply using the data in incommensurable ways. When Mac Donald claims that there is a larger total audience for classical music than at any time in the past, and you claim that a smaller overall proportion of the population listens to classical music than in the past, these claims are not necessarily in contradiction. The reason is, well, population growth. For example, 10% of 250 million is, obviously, larger than 20% of 100 million. So the surveys showing a decreasing percentage of Americans listening to classical music do not contradict the claim that classical music has more fans than ever before, and emphatically are not by themselves sufficient to support the claim that the fan base is shrinking.

    Indeed, if we have to choose between absolute numbers and proportions in this conversation, it seems to me that we ought to pay more attention to absolute numbers. If there are, to make up additional numbers, 200,000 classical music fans in Chicagoland, that is 200,000 potential ticket sales for orchestras, festivals, CDs, etc. — a good thing, and a better thing than 150,000 potential ticket sales. Proportional support seems useful as a measure of cultural penetration, and in that sense classical music is undeniably shrinking. But sustainability almost certainly depends more on the absolute number of supporters than on cultural penetration. Don’t you think?

    The absolute numbers are slightly down, and both I and the League of American Orchestras have concluded (based on demographic data) that they’re likely to go down more in the future. I’ve written about this in the blog. And even some people who might not be as pessimistic I am will often note — I’ve heard them — that it’s worrisome to see a large proportional decline, especially when the age groups (those 45 and older) that make up the largest part of the classical music audience) are becoming proportionally a larger part of the population. Under normal circumstances, we’d expect the classical music audience to be growing. That at best it’s holding steady can’t be a good sign.

  9. Eileen Pollock says

    These comments are proof music lovers are also mathematicians! Or statisticians. I’ve been hearing about the death of classical music for the last 20 years, and reports of its impending demise are I must say, grossly exaggerated. I was heartened by Heather Mac Donald’s piece in City Journal, and saddened that writers who obviously care about classical music as much as she does must display such personal vitriol in attacking her.