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.
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.
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.
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.
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.