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.
…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.