Culture change 1 — Glee

I said in my last post that I’d start blogging about changes in our culture that spell trouble for classical music — because classical music hasn’t kept up with them. 

And I thought I’d start with Glee, the hit TV show about high school singing groups. Out of curiosity (on my own, I’m more likely to watch Project RunwayCaprica or The Walking Dead), I went on Hulu and watched an episode (“Special Education,” which aired November 30). And I liked it. 

But not only that. I thought it threatened classical music. 

A little background: I think there are two approaches, broadly speaking, that people might take to fix classical music’s problems. There’s the approach that says classical music, as presented right now, is fine, and the problem lies in two things — access and education. Teach people about classical music, give them a chance to hear it, and they’ll love it just as much as we do.

The other approach says that more is needed. I’m sure you can tell from my first paragraph — even if you haven’t read my blog before — that I’m in this camp. Classical music just doesn’t fit very well into current culture. Which, to recapitulate my last post, is why the classical music audience has aged, why you don’t find classical music in current media, and why, with each passing year, a smaller and smaller percentage of people go to classical performances. So to fix things, we have to bring classical music up to date, and make it a contemporary art.

How could we verify this? And how can we know what changes should happen? One way to answer these questions is to look at current culture, and see how it differs from what we find in the classical music world.

So back to Glee, a fine example (as I hardly have to say) of contemporary popular culture. Here’s what I found in it, that threatens classical music:
Black kids, Latino kids. Heavy kids. Disabled kids. Including a guy in a wheelchair whirling through a dance routine. Plus, of course, black music and Latin music. (Not sure, to be honest, that I remember any Latin music in this episode, but I’d be surprised if it didn’t crop up in the show.) We don’t see these things in classical music. Go to a performance, and diversity isn’t talked about (not likely, in art from past centuries), or in evidence. Just about everyone performing and everyone in the audience is white. (And — in the audience, anyway — old and well off.) 
Well, yes, we find brains in classical music, too. But the writing in Glee shows an especially current kind of smarts, quick-witted, fast-moving, concise, and dense with cultural references. More might get covered in three lines of dialogue than in half a scene of secco recitative in a Mozart opera. This doesn’t mean that the profundities of classical music might not strike home, but — to people who cut their teeth on Glee — the presentation might seem slow, slow, slow. 

And obvious! “Quiet! I think I smell a woman,” says Don Giovanni, in the opera that bears his name.  “Oh, what a sense of smell!” says Leporello. When I was in high school, you’d go to the Met, and people — those who knew the opera, anyway — would chuckle. The Glee audience, I think, would just roll its eyes. 

And that scene between Susanna and Figaro, at the start of Mozart’s Nozze, when Susanna makes Figaro see that the Count has the hots for her? Mozart needs two duets and two bouts of secco recitative before Figaro fully gets the point. In Glee, he’d be there in 20 seconds, almost as soon as Susanna opened her mouth.

Part of “Special Education” hung on a teacher’s decision to bench a star vocal soloist, and give some other kids a chance. That doesn’t happen in classical music. We don’t see Pinchas Zukerman sitting at the back of the second violins, while the third horn wows the crowd with a solo just as strong as the Beethoven violin concerto. Dudamel doesn’t play the triangle while one of his violists conducts. 

And, sure, maybe the episode romanticized how much talent we might find in any group — and, just as surely, out in the big-time pop world Christina Aguilera doesn’t sing backup while one of her dancers records a hit song. But classical music is notably hierarchical, and “Special Education” cut against that, suggesting that many people (even unlikely people) can shine, given a chance. 

I might even suggest that, by so strongly valuing its hierarchy, the classical music world may even discourage non-stars from shining. But certainly our culture now promotes inclusion and transparency, while classical music, as we’ve known it all these years, fosters hierarchy, in a world where everyone stays in his or her place.

Music that speaks for you
You realize, watching Glee, how rich the huge repertoire of pop songs is, how varied, and how diverse. And how personal. There’s a song for everyone, for every situation. In “Special Education,” two kids searched for the perfect song for one of them to sing in an audition, a song that would be completely him. They decided on “Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina,” and before you laugh (I would have, before I saw this episode), watch the kid sing the song, and see how intimate and powerful he makes it. 

But the key repertoire moment, for me, came in the singing competition at the end, when one of the competing groups was made up of older people — gray-haired, some with canes. They sang “The Living Years,” a No. 1 hit in 1989 for Mike & the Mechanics, a song loved then and ever since for its straight-to-the-heart music and lyrics, which tell you to value your father, and learn to talk to him, before he’s taken from you. 

I loved the song when it was a hit. But if it got to me in 1989, sung by a group mostly in their late thirties, how do you think I felt when I saw and heard it sung from the other side, by older people, by the people the lyrics tell you not to neglect? 

It just about killed me. And the optimism — the joy — of the elderly singers made the song all the more poignant. 

Tell me, please, where in classical music people in their 60s and 70s could find anything that speaks for them so directly? 

[ADDED LATER] But the bottom line is simpler, and (if you like) less confrontational. People whose cultural norms are set at least partly by Glee may well find classical music — as it’s normally presented — at least a little bit slow and out of date. Doesn’t mean they’ll never go to a classical concert, but I can’t believe they’ll ever go anywhere near as often as the older audience we have now.

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  1. Aaron Liskov says

    On the hierarchy question:

    A basic point this episode of Glee can stress about classical music’s values concerns how these values apply at the level of amateur communities, as opposed to that of elite professionals. I have long wished this blog would give that distinction more attention, because at the end of the day, it is the behaviors and culture fostered by enthusiasts for classical music rather than its most glamorous celebrities who can make the difference between a lost or a gained concertgoer.

    Your analysis of Glee suggests that popular culture is biased toward a more democratic approach to music-making where everyone gets their moment. This obviously jars with classical music’s “virtuoso” cult, but the problem coming out of this tension is more specific. As you say, no one minds that Bruce Springsteen leads the E Street Band and for the same reason no one minds that an orchestra posing as the most talented ensemble in the world will rank its players as meritocratically as it can. Even pop music at the “grammy” level refers to a strikingly “classical” language of talent and elitism (see for example, the q1043 station thanksgiving countdown of the “greatest songs of all time.”) The problem arises when the amateur community of classical music apes the professional ethos of classical music which need not apply to it. From elementary school band to non-conservatory university orchestras to community opera groups, all the egoistic ritual and institutions of principal seating, Violin 1 v. 2, concert masters etc are copied out to a T without notice. Of course this is entirely unnecessary, since the main purpose of these institutions are to make it possible for people to enjoy playing music, not to get great reviews in the Times.

    This unnatural imitation has two detrimental effects. First, it immediately (read: 5th grade) associates classical music for beginning musicians with hierarchical exclusivity. That prejudice is nearly impossible to overcome. Second, it deprives the potentially most effective ambassadors of classical music – the fans and amateurs who try and get their non-classical friends to come see concerts – of a more democratic language for advertising the music. Playing, listening to, knowing about classical music is always taken as a sign of being good at something, never as just enjoying it. This is the kind of message that the larger classical music community is in a much better position to send than its aspiring artists.

  2. Lorene says

    That’s a great post, i just started reading your blog today after coming across a forum post about you working on having classical music with high fashion.

    i’m a teenager and classical music is my passion i cannot let it die away, i must let my friends who listen to pop, RnB,Indie music ..etc to know and understand how classical music is really something amazing and cool, thankyou for inspiring me!

    i plan on opening up a website where i will merge opera with mordern fashion and many other things.

    I love this blog! Thankyou so much!


  3. ray says

    Where in classical music can you find anything that speaks to people so directly? Are you serious? Handel’s messiah certainly speaks to people in their 60s and 70s directly (and younger people too of course) – people certainly get enjoyment and inspiration from it – look at the messiah “sing alongs” where ordinary people in the audience take part themselves. I’ve played the organ in performances of messiah myself and its always gotten a positive reaction from listeners. What about beethoven’s ninth? That certainly speaks to a lot of people, the same way beethoven’s missa solemnis does to me – by comparison, “glee” is silly inane drivel. You seem to feel that, in order to “get the young audience,” classical music has to stop being classical music. That’s no “solution” – classical and popular music have different audiences – and more people like classical than you think. I’ve met truck drivers who told me they started listening to classical music on the radio while driving because they got tired of listening to what the non-classical stations were offering.

  4. says

    Lots of interesting points in your post but I am not sure the context is complete. I have not seen Glee but it is popular television entertainment, I am not sure it would be popular if it was put on in the local rock venue and people had to leave their comfortable arm chairs! It also seems to be re-inforcing stereotypes by having old people singing about how now they are old, their offspring don’t visit them – albeit contemporary stereotypes.

    However my main point is that there are country, folk, stoner, Tejano and MOR musicians, who we have never heard of, earning an absolute fortune in their specialised areas, with a dedicated following. In the 1970’s in the U.K., when only pop music had any real media presence, MOR acts like James Last and Manuel and his Music of the Mountains, were easily outselling most of these pop acts. Most young people’s music does not have any media presence either. There is a huge Goth scene, a revival of psych-folk, bluegrass and rock-a-billy; techno has split into numerous sub-genres, indie guitar bands, all of whom are ignored for the girl/boy bands, hip-hop and R & B.

    Cult televisions programmes like True Blood did not follow the route a U.K. series would have gone, e.g. a tie up between an up and coming boy/girl band, tabloid press and the t.v. show. Instead they went for the real thing. When there was an engagement party in the small fictitious town in Louisiana, they got a real swamp rocker to supply the music, C.C. Adcock. Unfortunately marketing and distribution is letting him down. His first highly praised album is now discontinued, and the song he played – Maison Creole – cannot be bought either, other than on an entire album in the U.S. only! These musicians are in the same position as classical musicians.

    The situation seems to me to be that all music is ignored except that which makes good television – e.g. Glee, X-Factor etc. – and what the media bosses think ‘the kids’ want. And these media bosses are usually middle aged anyway.

    There is a classical music station in Catalunya, Spain that only plays classical music. Not only that, everything – announcements, website and interviews – are in Catalan only – no Spanish translation. They know their purpose and market and seem to be successful. And they also promote Catalan musicians and composers. Maybe classical music needs to leave its international, jetsetting culture and return to a local culture.

    Classical music is not alone in this obsession with just a couple of high profile idioms

  5. ray says

    Aaron, no one objects to “elitism” when it comes to sports – no one thinks an amateur basketball plauer isd on the level of lebron james. Why should music be different? A pianist playing beethoven’s hammerklavier sonata or a symphony orchestra playing berlioz’s “corsair” overture is on a higher level than bruce springsteen – the music they’re playing is more difficult and demanding, and so playing it well requires training and professionalism. Yes, “glee” has people singing, but compare that to the king’s college choir of cambridge – its just not on the same level. If elitism isn’t a bad thing in sports, its not a bad thing in music.

  6. Jason says

    I love Glee. I’m also an early music tenor. I’ve trained for years to have a chance at something of a career in music. I like Glee the way I like Twitter or Facebook. It’s fun, it’s entertaining, but is it meaningful? What do I retain from Glee that compares in anyway to a performance of the St. Matthew Passion or Monteverdi Vespers or Bach’s Cello Suites?

    America is getting older. Some of this so-called aging of the audience is completely expected as the average age in the country is getting older. People are also living longer. The fact that audiences are aging does not necessarily mean they are dying out.

    I increasingly think that classical music doesn’t generate as much youth interest because it is expensive and because the demands on professional 20-30 somethings today are radically different than they once were. Who has time now? Who can afford baby-sitters and $300 seats to the opera?

    I sang in an acappella group in college. It cost us literally nothing to put on a show. And you know what? It didn’t take a $100,000 graduate degree in music to sing acappella. Just a pleasing natural voice. Try hiring an orchestra and singers to put on a Mozart opera, or even a chamber concert. It costs thousands of dollars. You need specialists. You need people to make a time and monetary commitment that far exceeds Glee.

    It’s a different animal completely. But what I see is that when a quality product is presented at a reasonable price, people come out for classical performance.

    Why is it that every time someone sings a classical composition on America’s Got Talent they inevitably end up at or near the top? Get some kid or plumber or whatever and have them sing Nessun Dorma or O Mio Babbino Caro and the audience goes nuts. This, even though the audience probably knows nothing about the context of those pieces, or what they would sound like if sung by a real opera singer. Why indeed? If classical music doesn’t move people any more, why are they so moved?

  7. says

    Maybe I’m crazy , but from what you’re saying, it doesn’t seem to me that “Glee” is a threat to classical music. From what you’re arguing that “Glee” has that most classical concerts don’t- “diversity”, “Brains”, “participation”, “music that speaks to you”- the threat does not seem to be coming from “Glee”. The threat seems to be coming from classical concerts that don’t have these things. I feel like all of things you are talking about are GOOD things that would help classical audiences GROW. They’re all about reaching out to people, helping people feel included, touching peoples lives so they feel a part of something. I don’t think “Glee” always does this (it’s been a lot of pandering for ratings since the first season, honestly), but I feel like the only threat here is the threat of what’s going to happen if classical concerts don’t change. Because they need to.

  8. Amy Parks says

    This is a disappointing column on several fronts, mostly because you seem to base your generalized observations regarding classical music on what happens in high-profile concert venues. These are not the only places where classical music lives, and arguably aren’t even the most important. Classical music lives in schools, amateur ensembles, community centers, places of worship – anywhere that people have a love for the art and wish to take part in it. In these settings, there is plenty of diversity, as well as non-“hierarchical” performance opportunities.

    And while some of your concert-hall observations are accurate, others are surprisingly off target. I’ve seen A-list concert soloists sit in the section for the second half of the concert; I’ve seen orchestra members given opportunities to conduct, have their compositions performed, even program an entire concert. That said, hierarchy has its place here. As ray pointed out in his comment, it’s a natural element of any endeavor where skill and artistry matter.

    I’m equally surprised by your assertions on the music itself. There are plenty of smart, quick-witted, fast-moving, concise cultural references in current classical works (Michael Daugherty’s music comes to mind immediately). Choosing Mozart’s highly stylized, lengthy, period-centric operas for your comparison offers a deliberately skewed perspective. Even so, not every emotion can be conveyed in 20 seconds, and nor should it be. Faster isn’t always better, even in a society that’s constantly rushing to nowhere.

    Regarding “music that speaks to you”, I hardly know what to say. At the risk of stating the obvious, the answer is different for everybody. Maybe Mike & The Mechanics moves you to tears, but for others it’s Beethoven, Shostakovich, and yes, maybe even Mozart. The measure of a work’s power is not its simplicity or brevity, or whether it’s new, or if it has mass appeal. The masterworks that have endured for centuries did so for good reason, and while they may not reach everybody, there are still plenty of us who know their value. And they deserve better treatment than you’ve given them here.

  9. says

    Glee is just about the best testament I’ve ever seen to the power of pop. Your statement about how one scene just about killed you gets to the heart of it. Glee is taking music a lot of people thumb their noses at — not just classical aficionados but patrons of all kinds of “sophisticated” music, and certainly including myself — and using it to make enormously moving theater, more moving than I could ever have thought possible. Suddenly the pop songs one grew up with are enough make a grown man cry. That’s a phenomenon in my book.

    To comment on an auxiliary point, a relative of mine recently saw Cosi Fan Tutte at a regional theater. “Beautiful music,” she said, “really dumb plot.” Just so. But a quick Google search reveals program notes calling Cosi “deceptively complex” and its libretto “stellar” so forth. Wouldn’t it be interesting for an opera company to say, “this is a dumb plot that’s not really interesting enough for 21st century listeners, but here’s why you can’t miss this performance anyway?” They might get people like my relative back more often if she didn’t feel like she was being lectured to and having her intelligence insulted at the same time. Fortunately the music itself is so redeeming.

    And if I could throw a third comment out to Aaron – you might be interested in an article that came out in Chamber Music America in the last few years that someone showed me once. It was the reflections of the woman who ran the amateur chamber music at Mannes extension for 25+ years. She had exactly the same sort of goals in mind that you do and put them in motion, and eventually felt driven out by the “apers”. I am sorry I can’t give you more exact details on the article but maybe you can find it, or some other reader here can help.

  10. a curious reader... says

    Ray, I respect your comments but completely 100% disagree and it boils down to the fact that art is not competition, as is sports. Also, I dont think anybody here is comparing Little Johnny who has been playing the guitar for several years to a professional musician and by using Bruce Springsteen as an example you’ve only hurt your argument because I can simply replace the name Bruce Springsteen with Jimmy Hendrix and say: “no, Hendrix is regarded as one of the best guitarist of all time.”

    I mean, in all seriousness, what’s the difference in Paganini and Hendrix? Both play on exceptionally high levels and could wow crowds with incredible playing of their respective instrument; but to say that Paganini was on a higher level than Hendrix because of his schooling is completely absurd. Maybe that’s not the best exmaple…what about Slash and Paganini?


    Both are amazing in their own right, but to say that Paganini is a better musician because he is in the classical tradition is simply, not correct.

    If pop music were “easy” and trained “professional classical musicians” are better then why doesnt the entire classical music industry start playing pop and make millions of dollars? Because pop/rock/rnb/whatever isint easy. Period.

    Greg has written more on this and I hope that you take the time to browse the archvies to find a post relevent, but it’s the elitism that began to hurt classical music in the 60’s when the culture shift was happening — it’s not good classical music, and is only good in sports because there is a winner and a looser and when the “elite” loose, it’s called an under-dog story.

    There are no loosers in art.

  11. Bill Brice says

    ray, your sports analogy is a good one. But consider this: The largest and most enthusiastic followers of any spectator sport (I’m guessing) are those who have actually played the sport at some point in their lives. Anybody who spent many childhood hours playing pickup hoops or sandlot baseball watches the professional teams with a “deeper” involvement. Which is why I think a lot more amateur music-making — community-level as well as in the home — would go far to generate new generations of music lovers.

    Actually, that’s been my biggest criticism of many existing governmental approaches to the issue — NEA, in particular: That they focus so strongly on promoting the “big name” musical organizations. I wish they’d put most (or all) their resources behind the less glamorous, community organizations.

    To pursue that a bit further, why don’t more of the “big name” orchestras sponsor amateur orchestras? (I avoid the term “youth orchestra” because, as many have observed, diversity is a desirable component of the solution). The sponsorship would involve providing or funding a conductor and rehearsal space, and coaching sessions from orchestra members.

  12. Gerard says

    I’m sorry, but this smacks of lowest common denominator.

    When that happens, we lose sight of quality and turn to quantity for answers. The bean counters win.

    Is the point that ‘classical music’ get the same numbers (audience, interest, attendance, income) as Glee?

    Don’t you realize that by adopting Glee’s ‘philosophy’ (quantity over quality) in the end, there will not be any classical music left?

    Be careful for what you wish.

  13. Megan Browne Helm says

    I am a music teacher and although I don’t watch “glee” regularly, I catch it from time to time on Hulu so I can relate to my 4th and 5th graders and help them make connections. We do a Compare/Contrast activity every week where I juxtapose two performances of the same song and we talk about similarities and differences in the performances, as if we are critics. We recently saw Gene Kelly’s Singing in the Rain scene V. the Glee version. Kids need to know where those references come from. They loved Gene Kelly, almost as much as Gwyneth Paltrow.

    Another one of my favorite ways to get them hooked on Classical Music is to show them evidence of the art form in popular cutlure. We have smart boards in our classrooms so as a motivational, 5 minute reward at the end of class I show them the Halleluia Chorus flash Mob viral video or one of my favorites, the 2008 Gustavo Dudamel video of the Argentinian Youth Orchestra at Proms. The kids love to see the young players, in athletic wear, spirited and excited. The crowd goes wild. They perform the dance scene from West Side Story and twirl their brass instruments and dance around. That is the future of classical music. One student (and I teach in the inner city) said he saw a promo for the Gustavo Dudamel movie. I hope he checks it out in theaters.

  14. Jill Dew says

    Don’t forget that “Glee” refers to “glee club”. Glee Clubs always perform modern music. If a high school has a glee club, they usually have a more formal ensemble that is reserved for more classical music — at least that was the way it was in my youth. Perhaps the formal ensembles have fallen by the wayside, I don’t know.

    As a voice teacher who works with teenagers and adults, I don’t object to “Glee” on grounds that the performers appear to have excellent techniques — no yelling or straining of their voices. The belting is a mixed belt, which is much easier on the voice. I wish they wouldn’t stick their chins out quite so much, but for the most part they do very well.

    As for lamenting the death of classical music, imagine my dismay when I started teaching voice and discovered very few people were interested in singing opera! lol I have learned to teach them what they think they want to know, while subversively exposing them to better singing. I’ve been teaching for over 25 years now, and 97% of my students have drunk my Kool-aid — they just had never been exposed to classical music before but always seem to love it when I make them learn a piece by Giordani (“Caro Mio Ben”).

    I’m not so worried.

  15. says

    Really excellent article and a good exchange of opinions – Aaron’s comment on the aping of a classical professional ethos at the amateur level and its consequences particularly apt, in my experience. Since Gustavo Dudamel is referenced, I think it apropos to take a close look at El Sistema in Venezuela (beyond the media hype) and what it has done to bridge cultural and class divides. Yes, there is an inherent hierarchical elitism built in with foregrounding the symphonic classics in the pedagogy, but the sheer mass participation of youth networked across the country in the national nucleo system has turned it into a populist movement with youthful audiences and a variety of music education opportunities from instrument building to regional folk music that are attached to the main program of producing large numbers of classical players. While its translatibility outside of Venezuela is still in question (witness NEC’s decision to put the brakes on the Abreu Fellowship expansion efforts), the success of El Sistema in Venezueal as a culture changer is undeniable.

  16. says

    I think you’re probably right in that people who’s aesthetics are being framed by Glee might have a hard time engaging with the classical establishment (although I’m not convinced that Glee is any different from other zeitgeist-y music machines, like American Idol). I would like to respond to some of your points, however.

    Glee’s multi-racial/able casting is nothing more than superficiality. The show’s story lines and big numbers overwhelmingly focus on the show’s white leads, and the show has a troubling habit of presenting big set pieces in which one of the characters reprimands another for stereotyping, while the show engages in those same stereotypes. This current season, the new overweight character’s condition for joining the glee club was…a package of Cadbury Creme Eggs (“They’re out of season, so you’ll have a hard time finding them in stores.”).

    Which is not to say that the classical music world has done any better. But if the strategy is to become more like Glee, I’d rather just give up now.

    I think you’re absolutely right about changes in the pacing of drama, but I don’t think it’s helpful to compare opera to television. I think a more apt comparison is to silent film, which likewise features outsized, stylized acting and a glacial use of dialogue. As technology and culture have changed, the pacing of films has changed. It’s always going to take a little bit of maturity to be comfortable enough with one’s culture to begin to explore other cultures and the culture of the past. In other words, it would be torture for many 12 year olds to sit through a silent B&W film, but many of these same people might enjoy them later. I’m less concerned that the style of Classical and Romantic opera have fallen out of fashion than by the fact that there is nothing to replace it.

    I’m not ignoring the many important and worthy 20th/21st century operas that have gained traction, but many of these productions have retained the turgid theatrics of the operas of the past. A couple years ago, I attended a Portland production of Cavalli’s La Calisto, and it seemed like it could have been written yesterday. Little repetition of libretto, plenty of opportunity for slapstick…There’s precedent out there for contemporary opera composers to close the gap between opera and every other form of dramatic expression that we have in our culture.

    I literally have no idea what you’re trying to say in your paragraph about participation. I can think of no greater expression of coordinated musical talent than an orchestral concert, save a jazz ensemble concert or a chamber music concert.

    While I think it would be stupid for the classical music world to look to Glee for inspiration, I’m not that worried about it because Glee poses much less of a threat to classical music than it does to pop music. Glee covers/singles are the equivalent of articles from they flood the market with cheap, shitty copies of real content from real content creators. Glee teaches kids to engage with music in a more superficial way. Contra “ray” in the comment above, there’s plenty of pop music that rewards serious, engaged listening; music with raucous themes worthy of Beethoven and musical colors at the level of Berlioz. What Glee teaches kids is that these details don’t matter, that any version of a song is roughly equal, and that their over-processed pap is music.

    I can’t answer that last question you threw out–but that’s because I have no idea what a person in their 60’s-70’s wants from music; I’m not even able to legally drink! All I know is that other people persuaded me that there was something of value in classical music, and in the course of looking for that I’ve found music that speaks directly and immediately to me. I allow for the possibility that the same might happen to someone later in life. If you can’t, you might consider making a career change.

  17. jsland says

    For some reason I have always wondered what Beethoven or Mozart thought “Classical Music” might be. Since they were called “composers” perhaps they believed what we call “classical music” to be just composed music -written down according to rules of theory and harmony, rules broken as the art evolved, written today or yesterday as the case might be. And maybe they contrasted the kind of musical work they did -“music composition”- with popular entertainers and folk musicians who like Irish fiddlers carried on a tradition, or like bar bands, put together good drinking songs with the instruments at hand, or were ordinary folk who whistled while they cooked and fed babies, wove cloth and planted seed in the fields. Maybe Beethoven and Mahler weren’t as afraid as modern “composers” are to quote pop tunes, reference folk melodies and try new and popular rhythms. Maybe they weren’t as afraid as ours are to comment on the politics of the day either. The last time I looked, folk, rock, and pop tunes are not musical compositions written within the framework of a theoretical harmonic tradition, written to reveal the newest worlds and uses of sound, so that each piece reveals some particular human feelings by its very structure rather than by the use to which its put.

    I think that “classical music” today is what was once called “composed” music. Classical -as in art- was an era, and we’ve made a big mistake to use the word every time we talk about composed music. Composed music isn’t a style, it doesn’t come from one era only or have a single form. I could love baroque form, hate romantic and still be talking about composed music. If a musician writes a composition by weaving together quotes from pop tunes within a formal structure and played by the instruments of a rock band that is written down and repeatable, it is still a “composition”. A composition written for a movie or TV show is no less composed than music for an opera. If its music can stand on its own -if it’s ‘great’- then it’ll last the test of time and people will listen to the music without the film or TV show, like some of the dances from Prokovieff’s “Romeo and Juliet”. Reams of baroque dinner music, and hours of bad opera have never lasted longer than a one evening gig. Single tunes from an opera might later make a “pop hits” list. But all of them are composed by a single person working within the theoretical body of western music theory, history and harmony. All of them are ‘composed”. But not all of them talk to us like the Alambra, Winchester Cathedral, the Pyramids, your City Hall, the new OCAD building, Hundertwasser’s apartment houses, and on and on. The greats – the elites -draw us so we want to go back and look and listen again. Like the work of Einstein and Keppler, Newton and Aristotle. Some people have made a contribution that leaps over the local and goes global.

  18. Jesse Hopkins says

    Glee is a flash in the pan to current classical composers like John Williams and Danny Elfman. Glee isn’t even going to last as long as Grease, which youngsters don’t know. But they know John and Danny. They’re just as much classical composers as any composers. Hell, you think as many people know Glee as Beethoven or Mozart? Classical wins. Fads are always temporarily in the lead, but they always fade. Classical is the shark of music. Perfectly evolved and adapted to its environment. Everything else is a mutation that will die a quick death. Even Sinatra, Elvis and the Beatles have a shorter shelf life than classical pieces. Classical’s in it for the long haul.

  19. Larry Chandler says

    You need to get out more. You might see many young people at concerts. Here in Utah whole families attend both the professional and university recitals. Many teenagers attend. There are mixed media recitals (a percussion and painting performance is scheduled for later this January).

    Young people can’t afford major orchestras or the opera (and with live opera performances at movie theaters, you will see people who are not just old attending). But small venues do attract a diverse crowd.

    Incidentally, the New York Philharmonic’s broadcast recently with Lang Lang (who is young) showed a diverse orchestra. Perhaps not many African-Americans, but quite a few Asians.

    Classical music is changing, as is theater. Young people will go if the orchestras program interesting works. And Glee is a terrific show.

  20. Bill Brice says

    When the adherents of classical music start defending the faith with predictions about which musics will survive “the test of time” and which will not, I start rolling my eyes. I agree that The Beatles are likely to still have an audience years after we’re all under the sod… but, so what? When we were excited about their every new release, back in the late 60s, were we excited because we were sure they would “last”? — well, for me, at least, that just wasn’t a real criterion. And I doubt there was a lot of discussion on the “will it last” question around the premiers of Beethoven symphonies or Mozart operas. What they had in those days — and what successful pop music has in our own time — was an enormous self-confidence in the immediate “now” power of the music.

    It’s up to future generations of music lovers to decide for themselves, collectively and individually, what to keep and what to forget. Yes, worthy — even great — works do get lost in the scuffle of history, as the early-music movements do occasionally reveal for us. And, yes, plenty of mega-hits have quickly diminished as they receded into history.

    I guess what I’m saying is that pious pronouncements that “this symphony will survive the test of time” just isn’t a persuasive way to draw in an audience or to compete with the direct appeal of a really great rock hit. When I hear that pitch, I almost feel like I’m being asked to enjoy a tofuburger and a glass of kale juice with my Mozart.

  21. Joan says

    It just struck me how little “Glee” has to do with musical structure, complexity, variety, skill, and mastery. Read the comments on Youtube after Glee video postings. If there were no musical means to describe the way an adult, passionate, self-controlled, kind, creative, and thoughtful person approached and solves life’s difficulties, beauties and grief, then it would have to be invented. Musical composition. Glee? It’s wonderful, like, you know? we’re like, we care, and government sucks, big time, and so does that jerk, bitch, over there, and I really luv you, right? Faithful, like forever, till you get old, like 25,and the baby comes, right? Like, who is he to talk, right, I mean, really?

    If most of us in a democracy and the leaders we elect can’t think and debate difficult ideas in words, which is the most ELITE skill of all the verbal arts, how can we expect anyone to tolerate the elite in music?

  22. ray says

    Curious reader, the reason most classical musicians don’t turn around and do popular music is because they don’t want to. I’m an organist and I play classical music – if I wanted to play gospel and pop music I certainly could. Its much easier and less demanding – I’ve had to do it once in a while, but that’s not the music that speaks to me, so playing it holds no real personal interest. I suspect most classical musicians feel the same way – at least the ones I know do.

  23. ray says

    Also, curious reader,I can’t see putting jimi hendrix on the same level as paganini – paganini was playing written music (his own) and jimi handrix was just making something up, which again is less demanding. And plenty of operas have silly plots, but if the music is great ebough, it doesnt matter.

  24. Kayla says

    I think there are two sides to all this. I’m 18 and just out of school, and love both classical and some contemporary music, and I do like Glee.

    Classical always has required a high level of skill and depth, and so there needs to be some “hierarchy” or we would just end of with a bunch of people wanting to make megabucks with very little talent. I think the amount of hierarchy can be too much at times. There needs to be more support of the newbies. It is expensive to be in the classical industry. I am studying to be a classical singer and composer, teacher etc, and it is expensive.

    As far as the relevance of the music, I think we need to balance new stuff with old stuff. There is so much great old music, with more and more new music coming out. I think some classical music could be made more relevant, by presenting it in different ways, in the right contexts of course. I’m not about to upset purists by saying they should use electric guitars for a staged opera. But there are people who bring Shakespeare and other old entertainment and refresh it for a younger audience. It can attract them to the real thing.

    The singers on Glee are talented and I love musical theatre and some pop stuff, and Glee is introducing many songs to young audiences that they never would have heard before. If they are anything like me, the songs they have never heard before, they will search out the originals. In some cases the Glee versions are better.

    Music in the charts is 90% full of talentless trash, but you can see how often it changes. Classical music does need to move a bit quicker I think, and start reaching more people by making it more relevant, while still keeping the standards the same so we don’t end up with a Selena Gomez of the western art music world. People like Danny Elfman, John Williams, Hans Zimmer, etc., are doing what modern composers need to do, while still reaching people, they have a lot of skill.

    I do get annoyed with many classical-crossover artists, though, who are trying to be more relevant, but have not been properly trained, and are singing to audiences who have no idea what they are listening to and are just like “whoa, they’re amazing”. It irritates me. So it is a fine line between relevant and loss of standards.

    That’s my spiel :)

  25. ray says

    Brian, the beatles don’t have an audience NOW – the people who like their music today are mostly people who liked it when it was new and they were kids – hearing it now brings back old memories. Its the same way with elvis presley – in addition, kids liked their music in no small part because grown-ups despised it. 1O years from now, glee will be in the same position. Things that strain to be “hip” and “trendy” don’t last long – remember tv shows like mod squad, or then came bronson, or miami vice? No one wants to watch those shows now – they were “current” in their time but now they’re hopelessly outdated. Remember the movie “fame” and its signature song “turn the beat arooooound?” Who cares about that now? Again, its outdated, just like popular songs from the 1920s. Compare that to handel’s messiah, which in chronological terms is so much older and yet

    doesn’t sound “old.”

    Great works of art have the power to transcend their own time and appeal to people decades or even centuries later – lesser “art” doesn’t.

  26. ray says

    Kayla, just how would classical works be “refreshed?” By rearranging them for rock bands? That wouldn’t work. And “making it move faster” – you mean playing the music faster? That’s not feasible either – besides, in the average symphony, the quicker movements are fast enough already. Altering the character of the music would destroy it – its not worth bringing a “hip” audience in if that’s what it would take.

  27. says

    Just a brief comment about the show: I watch Glee at times, as it’s a show I have a love-hate relationship with for reasons I won’t get into at the moment. Some of my (classical music) colleagues really enjoy it, and others don’t get it at all. But here’s the weird thing, at least from here: nearly every high school student I know, and my own three children, ages 21-28, absolutely despise it. So it’s interesting to me that it’s such a hit.

  28. xMaddox says

    Just wanted to chime in:

    One other thing worth mentioning is the different ways one connects with music when they themselves are performers/performing vs. being in the audience.

    One is a much more active engagement than the other, but also from a very different perspective and understanding of what is happening.

    I would contend (conceit???) that the best way to delay the ever-slowing death of Western(ish), European classical music is to make everyone better musicians, at least on a macro level. Not everyone needs to understand the nuances of timpani mallets but perhaps having a basic knowledge of the big picture items – say, the development of (western european classical) music – and how that connects to what people are doing/listening to now could be a viable strategy. Or at the very least, give people the tools to critically think about the music that they do consume – why do I like this band’s singer over this band’s? how does this band manage to get a retro sound? how does this band make such catchy songs that I identify with?

    So back to the performer/audience dynamic, I think it’s just as important for the people listening to the music, just as much as the performers, to have their own critique and analysis of what they’re hearing (seeing/feeling/not hearing/not seeing).

    We all do not have to be musicians in order to be musical/ly educated.

    Why do you think people don’t have these critical tools, for the music (and movies, and TV shows) that they already like? In my experience, plenty of people have them. Including, just for instance, rock critics, most of whom never had any musical education to speak of.

  29. says

    After reading your post, and having suspected something was afoot from a recent high-school concert’s new ‘Glee’ segments, I hunted up that show and watched the pilot. Some comments …

    1) I have never seen local highschool kids so pumped on choreography; prior to this there was some attempts at the aerobic workout steps of the pop divas, but this was a solid attempt at a broadway style narrative dance, and even though the group ranged in abilities and stage-shyness across the board, there was an exhuberance that was contageous. The audience was completely taken in. I would learn later they re-enacted a scene from the pilot episode, but that’s what kids do, they copy and emulate, they “try on” roles, and with Glee, part of that role is a tolerance and celebration of each other. This I think is a Good Thing. In my youth there was a touring church-group cast called Up With People who did the same sort of show; we rockers all thought they were a cult, but our parents loved them :)

    2) this is a television show. its purpose is to sell, to sell lunch boxes, magazines, DVDs and CDs, to sell to Values And Lifestyles profiles, to create and sell caricature ‘personalities’ to populate the swag and magazines, to market identities for the kids to “try on” as they search for their adulthood. In this way the show is dangerous because the values it portrays are cliche and shallow and while the kids will outgrow all that as surely as they will outgrow the (soda)Pop Culture it markets, it will rob them of their own sense of who they are and where they come from. This is nothing new from Hollywood, just business as usual; their job is to make you watch actors live faked lives, and make you pay to do so.

    3) the music they portray is not in service to the higher ideals of humanity, it is the pap pop that fills the HMV and awards shows and sells eyeballs to advertisers, it is carefully honed and autotuned and bass enhanced not to maximize our loftiest goals, but to exploit our base instincts for maximum profits. It is musical fast food, a McMusic Happy Meal teachign the kids that a career in music can be just as lucrative and fun as a career in any fast-food industry.

    4) while similar to ‘Fame’ that grew out of the post-disco dance-craze days, ‘Glee’ takes the Teletubbies psychology strategy which says people are less interested in the day to day of those they aspire to be in adulthood than they are with a character they can readily and immediately identify with. It is instant gratification that can be realized within their own school; while the actors are in reality far older, more expertly coached and more earnestly trained than any normal highschooler could hope, the goals their heroes attain, as with the Tubbies, appears doable, realistically attainable, and so in the same way my rocker-friend school chums bought electric guitars and drumkits, these kids give it a shot.

    So what is the lesson for classical music, or even for classical theatre and dance? The lesson to take from Glee is the reframe of the IMAGE of the Glee Club; pay close attention there. What was pure-geek dullsville is transformed into the coolest hip, it out glams cheerleaders (who are portrayed as shallow buffoons who fall) and it out trumps sports (portrayed as vile cruel pack-dog bullies) which in itself is a massive fashion shift.

    But notice: they did NOTHING to change the music or the dance steps, it is still Up With People, it is just FRAMED as cool, it is GIVEN street-cred and PRESENTED as noble, all these things ‘endorsed’ by the scripted dawning acceptance by ALL the ‘important’ alpha-apes.

    That’s your cue, that’s The Secret of Glee. Until it is the coolest of cool to KNOW the chorales of Beethoven, until it is enviable to play the viola (as the kids in El Sistema say it is now in Argentina), until the ideals of Classical are envied, then you won’t have their attention.

    And as Hollywood well knows, you can’t sell anyone on anything until you get their attention.

    In lieu of that, I do offer this ray of hope: its my observation that the kids who ARE schooled in the classical traditions are able to ace this pop-culture thing and amaze their peers. Kids who know the trad afro-cuban beats of their ancestors, who know the lyric and harmonic richness of western classical, who know the rhythmic propulsion of celtic or gypsy, these kids DAZZLE the Glee-comers and with the Glee now having given those kids the venue in which to shine, well, it has to have a spin-off benefit.

    You pour out these judgments as if they couldn’t possibly be wrong. But could they? Are you describing — when you talk about kids’ response to Glee — something you’re afraid of, or something you know to be true? By, for example, studies of kids’ actual relationship to the show. Remember my earlier post about the British suburbs, how Britain’s intellectuals were certain they were alienating places. And then, when sociologists actually took a look at how people lived there, the suburbs turned out to be lively communities, and not alienating at all.

  30. Dave Irwin says

    Greg, I direct a band for over-fifties who want to learn an instrument or renew their performance. I’m impressed with the way they attend Florida Orchestra performances, and jazz bands at hotels on the beach. The band gives them a door to music that they couldn’t get any other way.

    We are presenting a multi-generational concert in April which will include middle schoolers, high schooers, college students, and the New Horizons band. Our most senior member is a fine trumpet player who is 93!

    Nice, David. These people are in the prime classical music demographic — the familiarolder audience — but there’s nothing wrong with that.