Off in the clouds

So here are the main points made in the essay I talked about yesterday — the main points as I think the author sees them, rather than the serious holes in both her data and her analysis that I noted in my post.

This, remember, is an essay on classical music’s new golden age, a golden age that the writer, Heather Mac Donald, thinks is happening right now. Anyone who doesn’t agree, apparently, is a “declinist,” to use the very cloudy term Mac Donald throws around, apparently applying it to anyone who thinks classical music might be in trouble.

(Which, parenthetically, might include many of the leading people in the classical music business, Peter Gelb, for instance, and also many others who run big classical music institutions. Does Mac Donald know that the people on the front lines — the people who, unlike Mac Donald or me, actually have to cope with classical music’s present-day reality — wouldn’t, on the whole, agree with her?

(But then she has an answer for them. They’re “declinists.”)

Here are Mac Donald’s main points, at least as I understand them:

1. Performances are better than they’ve ever been.

Anyone inclined to lament the state of classical music today should read Hector Berlioz’s Memoires. As the maverick French composer tours mid-nineteenth-century Europe conducting his revolutionary works, he encounters orchestras unable to play in tune and conductors who can’t read scores….

Berlioz’s exuberant tales of musical triumph and defeat constitute the most captivating chronicle of artistic passion ever written. They also lead to the conclusion that, in many respects, we live in a golden age of classical music….

The caliber of musicianship also marks our age as a golden one for classical music. “When I was young, you knew when you heard one of the top five American orchestras,” says Arnold Steinhardt, the first violinist of the recently disbanded Guarneri Quartet. “Now, you can’t tell. Every orchestra is filled with fantastic players.”…

The declinists who proclaim the death of classical music might have a case if musical standards were falling. But in fact, “the professional standards are higher everywhere in the world compared to 20 or 40 years ago,” says James Conlon, conductor of the Los Angeles Opera.

These points, I should add, are buttressed by many fetching if not entirely unfamiliar anecdotes from the past. And in fact her contention, on which she lavishes so much space, isn’t new, or very revealing. No one doubts that technical standards are higher now than in centuries past, or even than in decades past. It’s a well-known story, with two of the main landmarks in it (which Mac Donald doesn’t mention) being the rise of recording — when musicians for the first time heard themselves they were amazed at how imprecise they were (as Robert Philips recounts in his books) — and the collossal impact of Toscanini in the early years of the 20th century, with his unprecedented insistence on precision.

And so it’s amazing — given how familiar this territory is — that Mac Donald doesn’t mention the counterargument, that performances have grown not just more precise, but more sterile, especially in the last few decades. I might argue this on what you could call ideological grounds — I think classical music has lost touch with the world around it, has retreated into itself, and set up rules for proper performance that have little to do with real communication.

But others, for decades, have made the argument without any ideological point. They’ve said that jet travel has made performances sterile — musicians travel so much, and perform so much, they don’t have time to be themselves, and also constantly perform with different partners, so they can’t settle into a free and individual performance style with musicians with whom they have a meeting of minds and souls. (Of course there are exceptions to this.)

People also say that recording makes things sterile — recordings, edited to be perfect, now set a standard that audiences expect to be met in live performance. Musicians, trying to meet those standards, work on precision first, and expression only later.

Neither Mac Donald or anyone else has to agree with these arguments. What’s amazing to me is that she doesn’t even mention them, given how rampant they are in the music world (especially, maybe, in opera, where it’s routine to meet people who think current singers can’t stand up to the singers of the past, even in their vocal technique).

Stranger still, Mac Donald quotes an anecdote from a book she calls a “mesmerizing study of Romantic pianism,” Kenneth Hamilton’s After the Golden Age — and Hamilton himself says performances have gotten more sterile:

Romantic pianism [he means piano-playing in the Romantic era of the 19th century] was not simply a matter of creative translation, of free rearrangement. Virtually the entire spectrum of performing styles was heard and applauded somewhere, from our standard sober renditions of pieces [he means the “standard sober renditions” we normally hear in our time] to [very free] versions which we would without hesitation classify as transcriptions. The key word is variety — the fascinating variety of approaches one finds on early recordings, which always leave open the possibility that with each new disk transferred to CD we will hear something quite thrilling, or something quite appalling. Modern pianism is no less full of talent, but it is often more uniform or straitlaced, a mirror of our stiffer concert etiquette.

Hamilton also blames the belief that performance exists largely — or only — to realize a composer’s intentions. The passage I quoted comes from the last chapter of his book, at location 3478 of the Kindle edition. Remarks about realizing a composer’s intentions come a little later.

Again, I’m not saying that Mac Donald (or anyone else) has to agree with this. But it’s stupefying, I think, that she’d make her argument without even mentioning an opposing point of view so common that I’ve encountered it routinely for many years. And, even more stupefying, that she’d praise a book that takes this opposing point of view, without ever mentioning that it does so. That almost equals the feat I noted in my last post, when I showed how Mac Donald cites facts that undermine her opinion, and then leaps away, never to mention them again.

(Granted, Hamilton states his views judiciously, and starts by debunking the idea that the past was a golden age, but still, as the passage I quoted shows, he’s no fan of the idea that our present-day precision is an achievement of supreme value.)

How sad, beyond this, to hold up precision as the standard for a golden age! Have we really sunk that low?

This has gone on too long, so I’ll discuss Mac Donald’s other main points in a future post.

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  1. says

    This is a bit of a tangent, but re: precision, it’s incredible how the differences between a mechanical and square performance, one having swing and soul, and one that sounds clumsy and incompetent come down to the tiniest fractions of seconds, increments of time so small that a performer can only perceive/control them intuitively. And it’s interesting to think of the performers whose position on the continuum of rhythmic quantization have inspired controversy, Thelonious Monk being a particularly famous example. (I remember Dave Weckl sounding a little too clean for some of us when he exploded onto the scene in the ’80’s, and nowadays there seems to be disagreement over whether Meg White’s drumming is messy in a good way or a bad way.)

  2. says

    It seems to me also that Heather Mac Donald is confusing the quality of a product with the demand for a product. As an analogy, as a PC user I can confidently state that Windows 7 and OS X “Snow Leopard” are the finest PC operating systems ever created. Does that mean that we’re living in the “golden age of the PC”? Well, no, not at all, because PCs are now being overshadowed by smartphones, the popularity of which is greatly outpacing that of PCs. But I presume that Mac Donald would think me a “declinist” for saying so, and think me a philistine for liking my iPhone.

    Good point. I think a lot of Mac Donald’s arguments depend on what I believe philosophers call “category errors.” You’ve hit on one here — quality and demand can be independent factors, though they might also be related, and in any given case we’d have to assess what their relationship was. Another familiar category error is the belief that the longevity of classical music is proof of its quality. Or, in other fields, that the popularity of something is proof of its quality.

  3. says

    The addiction to accuracy-ahead-of-communication also stems from a late-mid-20th century view that music is not ‘about’ anything, least of all anything with an emotional aspect; if one believes that one *cannot* communicate through music, that there is nothing else to say beyond correct durations, attacks and pitches, then one will simply not bother trying.

    And this addiction to pedantry above and beyond any requirement to express, convince, cajole, pester, amuse, remonstrate, or in any other way create a connection with other human beings is also (in my opinion) at the heart of music education being more and more sidelined in the schools of western democracies. If musicians have persuaded the mainstream that music is not about anything except music then it is little wonder that when this argument is believed music ceases to be an integral part of the curriculum.

  4. says

    You’re right again, Greg. “Declinist” is a pretty weak word, so your snide dismissal is entirely justified — every bit as much as pointing out that “Mac Donald” is not a typo — she really OMG spells it that way with a space.

    But I think you ought to rethink precisely who Mac Donald intended to include in her target. Of course she was aiming at those who are actually dealing with the situation as bona fide musicians who happen to be pretty bummed out these days. And “cheer up, everybody, we live in the best of all possible worlds” probably won’t go down too well out there, with or without your help. But I can’t believe she wouldn’t want to include you. Perhaps, even if she knows your name, she doesn’t consider you enough of an influential player. So let me step in, because I believe you should at least get a heavy footnote when someone writes the history of clinical depression in classical musicians in the early 21st century. It’s not everyone that can make a profession out of telling others that they’re miserable (which they already know) & all they need to do to get better is to buy a bottle of Doktor Neoschenker’s I-V-I ™ Tonic.

    But, still, the right word is not “declinist.” The correct word, “thanatophile,” was used recently by composer Daniel Wolf ( The reason “thanatophile” is more accurate than “declinist” from my viewpoint, is that it gets across what I, as a reader, sense from many bandwagon bloggers every time they stumble over a new cadaver. I know, I know. You in particular are different: you’re only dwelling on death so that you can proclaim The Rebirth. Yes, you do live in another universe, and I’ll cut out for now because it’s not a good idea to question someone else’s religion.

    Delectable, Stephen. Nobody writes comments like you do!

  5. Phillip says

    To me you both are right in certain respects. MacDonald is right about the level of musicians today and especially the abundance of musicians who play at a top-notch level today. But this of course is the main problem, we continue to churn out ever larger numbers of outstanding players but have not found the answer (if there is one) to the question “what good is this gift/skill if there is not sufficient market to sustain all these people?”

    It has become a little bit of a cliche of our times that playing is more technical and “sterile” than in the past…while I understand your views on classical music becoming more insular and “out-of-touch,” I don’t think that that is as linked to how communicative people are when they play as you seem to. As for “jet age” syndrome, maybe that’s true for some of the “stars” of the business…but I hear so many fantastic and completely committed performances from what might be called second-or-third-or-fourth-tier (in fame, not quality) performers…if they’re playing for ever smaller audiences it’s for many reasons including many you’ve repeatedly cited, but in few cases is it because of lack of passion or fire in their approach to Beethoven, Brahms, or Bartok. (Maybe they take the train or drive to their gigs more!)

    Personally I don’t see any major contradictions between some of her major points and many of the larger ideas you have been advocating for some time. There are at least as many great artists out there (musical as well as technical) as there have ever been, probably many more (though even most classical music followers may not have heard of most of them). But the “industry” has not come to grips with the fact that there is just not enough work to employ all these people. When it comes to music schools, if they are not at least giving these musicians a chance to cast their net wider as regards their talents (different styles, genres, markets) or at least being blunt with them that they need a radically different set of ideas and tools in their kit in order to have a career than their teachers’ generation did, then these schools are committing a kind of malpractice in my opinion.

  6. says

    Yesterday I took some issue with this writer’s use of statistical data. Today I enthusiastically–if also sadly–agree with his painful point of view. Are there solutions already at work? Is there ground for hope?

    Yes, there’s joyful ground for hope. Change is already happening, and will gain momentum until it reaches a tipping point. The hardest part, I think, will be developing ways for classical musicians to make a living, under new conditions. But I think that will come, too.

    This is a frequent subject on this blog. Look, for instance, at the “Solutions” page — linked in one of the right-hand columns here — for a quick and dirty list of a few of the many changes taking place.

  7. says

    Thank you for the compliment, Greg. In return, I hope the works list on your web site has been getting mega hits after my recommendation. Your music really deserves to be more widely known. One final thing before the curtain falls on Act I. I’d like to follow your lead, using your words almost verbatim, and comment on my own comment:

    “This, to me, is the best exposition I’ve ever given of my ideas about” postmodern music criticism, “what’s wrong with it and where it’s going. I’m available, needless to say, to give this talk (at greater length, if anyone wants that, and with much more detail) anywhere, arrangements permitting.”

    Humbly yours, etc. etc.

    And now, a very brief intermission before Act II.

  8. says

    Thank you for the compliment, Greg. In return, I hope the works list on your web site has been getting mega hits after my recommendation. Your music deserves much wider attention than it has received in the past. One final thing before the curtain falls on Act I. I’d like to follow your lead, using your words almost verbatim, and comment on my own comment:

    “This, to me, is the best exposition I’ve ever given of my ideas about” postmodern music criticism, “what’s wrong with it and where it’s going. I’m available, needless to say, to give this talk (at greater length, if anyone wants that, and with much more detail) anywhere, arrangements permitting.”

    Humbly yours, etc. etc.

    And now, a very slight intermission before Act II.

  9. Andy Buelow says


    I agree with the post above that both you and Mac Donald have valid points. You’re each looking at the classical music world from a different perspective, using different measurements of success. I hope both of you can stop expending so much steam in debunking and tearing each other down and more on listening to what each other is saying. I think it would be fascinating and wonderful to see the two of you in a live debate setting (if you can restrain yourself from beginning every reply with “Heather, you ignorant slut”).