High Anxiety

Emotions are running high.

That’s what I thought when I read the reactions of two writers I know, to the piece in Slate that I commented on here, at the end of last month. This was the piece that exaggerated classical music’s troubles, with a title, graphic, and perky one-liners, all of which said that classical music wasn’t just troubled, but was actually dead. You can read my reaction to see my own view, which is that classical music is plainly not dead, and that we need to be far more precise in talking about what its problems really are.

But the two reactions I want to talk about now are far more aroused than mine was. To show how aroused — how deeply emotional — they are, I’ll simply offer quotes, without for the moment trying to evaluate the substance of what the writers say.

So here we go. Here are quotes from one of these pieces, a post called “The Fat Lady is Still Singing,” written by William Robin on the New Yorker blog.

There is a creepy bloodlust to the doom-mongering of classical music, as though an autopsy were being conducted on a still-breathing body.


…classical-music concern-trolls toss poorly aimed barbs. Critics blame the business (“It’s a charity case!” “Ticket sales will never account for all of its costs!”) and the culture (“Why all the abstruse rules of conduct?” “Why can’t I wear shorts?”) without having a clear grasp on either. There seems to be a deeper savagery at work, one that maniacally insists that a functioning industry reflect on itself, as though orchestra managers and opera intendants were oblivious to their own problems. “Listen to me!” the pundit demands, shaking classical music by its shoulders. “I have the stats. You’re dead.”


What supports these jeremiads is the implicit idea that classical music is an aberration in the United States, something to be regarded with suspicion.

“Creepy bloodlust.” “Classical-music concern trolls.” “‘Listen to me!’ the pundit demands, shaking classical music by its shoulders.” “Jeremiads.”

The other piece is Andy Doe’s “Mark Vanhoenacker, I Have a Bone to Pick With You,” from Andy’s blog Proper DischordIt quotes 32 excerpts from Vanhoenacker’s piece, and then objects to them. That’s a lot of quoting.

And the tone, again, is quite heated:

Your Slate article “Requiem: Classical music in America is dead” is poorly-researched, badly argued, and, well, wrong. There’s so much crap in it, the only way I can think to deal with it is line-by-line, so here we go.


I’ll exercise my democratic right to bitch-slap your ill-informed cultural opinion back to the feebleminded pitch it came from.


This is empty rhetoric, and you should be ashamed of yourself.


…thoughtless “think” pieces like yours.


[W]hen something isn’t statistically significant but you still decide to mention it, you might as well say “I am talking bullshit”.


Oh shit. Old people are getting out more. We should certainly put a stop to that.

If only young people came to concerts, you’d be moaning about how it struggles to retain anybody’s attention.


Of course there are, you idiot.


If you’d looked at the standards of performance or the number of conservatory graduates, you might see that the actual music is doing fine. You didn’t bother, though, did you?


Every one of this article’s 1,300 words is bullshit.

I think I’m one of Will’s mostly unnamed targets. First because I have a leading role in these discussions, and secondly because at one point he mentions something from my blog, my link to Yvonne Frindle’s study of classical music covers in Time magazine (scroll down from the start of the post to find it), which showed that in past decades Time put classical music on the cover more than it does now.  

Here’s what Will wrote:

But Time covers and “Modern Family” should not be the benchmark for success in the wide expanse of the American cultural landscape.

A little cryptic, I think, since “Time covers” parachutes into the piece from nowhere. Why they’re mentioned is never explained. (“Modern Family,” by contrast, refers to something Will quoted from Vanhoenacker.) But to anyone who recognizes the reference (not that this might be very many people), it most likely points at me. [ [This isn’t right, as Marc Goelhoed gently pointed out in a comment. Vanhoenacker, in his piece, mentions Yvonne’s study and not my blog, so Will can’t be assumed to be referring to me when he mentions its result. Maybe my own sensitivity to criticism might be a reason why I made this mistake. I’d still think, though, that Will had me somewhere in mind at other points.]

I’m mentioned by name in a few of Andy’s Vanhoenacker quotes, because Vanhoenacker interviewed me for his piece (not that I’m responsible for anything he wrote), and quotes me. Andy doesn’t take issue with me by name, but he does dispute some of what I’m quoted as saying, so I guess I figure in his piece, too.

anger blogBut that’s not an issue now. In a later post, I’ll look at what Will and Andy say. Today, I’m fascinated by their tone. So angry!

So very angry, in fact, that it’s worth asking where the anger might come from.

Here’s one thought. I wonder — and of course I’m speculating — if behind the anger lies anxiety. Will and Andy say they think that classical music is healthy. So why should the Vanhoenacker piece — a wisp of journalistic hyperbole, something that’s here today and gone tomorrow — bother them so much?

I wonder (and again I’ll stress that I’m speculating) if these two fine people might be scared in their hearts that classical music really isn’t in such good shape, that it might really be threatened. And that this is why they react so strongly to something that I’d think isn’t worth worrying about.

Andy does say, at one point, that he thinks writing like Vanhoenacker’s  makes it more likely that other writers will write negative things about classical music. Or, more specifically, that, in part because of pieces like Vanhoenacker’s, “the closure of an orchestra gets a lot more press than the launch of a new one.”

But that surely simplifies how things really work. On one hand, it gives writers too much power, by assuming that, all by themselves, they can create a sweep of opinion that might not have been there before, something with no roots in anything but what writers say. And at the same time, I think Andy underestimates writers, by assuming they can be so easily led.

It’s true that the conventional wisdom in current media is that classical music is in trouble. But the reasons for that — whatever they are — have got to be more complex than writers thoughtlessly believing what other writers say.

My wife, Anne Midgette, the classical music critic for the Washington Post, wrote a blog post a week ago saying much of this better than I do. I’d urge you to read all of it, but here are some quotes: 

The [Slate] article…wasn’t really worth notice. And yet lots of people in the classical music world went ballistic. Some very smart people have spent serious time calling for refutations, and even writing them.

Why? Because this is an easy target. This is low-hanging fruit. If you’re a thinking person, it’s child’s play to blow holes in an article like this. And if doing so creates the illusion that you’re standing up for classical music, well and good: it makes a feel-good moment for everyone who thinks the same way. But I don’t really see the point.


[M]y reaction is [about] eye-rolling to the vehemence of the reaction [to the Slate piece]. Look: classical music is facing a lot of challenges. So is journalism. When I say this about journalism, people tend to agree with me. When I say it about classical music, to a classical music fan, it’s as if I were a traitor.


What does it mean to say that classical music is dying (“circling the drain [a quote from the Slate piece],” to be precise) — or to say that, on the contrary, it has a steady heartbeat? Both of these are emotional statements. Both, indeed, could be equally true. Of course classical music is not dying – it’s being performed and recorded everywhere. Of course classical music is dying – even the Met can’t sell tickets.

These assertions have no real meaning, make no difference, and only cloud the picture. And the sound of a herd of classical music fans moving in lockstep, echoing conventional wisdom and cliches about how this music is greater than any other and is just fine, just fine, just so healthy, makes me want to run, fast, the other way.

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  1. says

    What this proves is that music is an emotional subject. Look at how pop music fans, jazz fans, even gamelan and sitar fans, I suppose, express themselves. Getting emotional about music is fine, to my mind. (The recent explosion over the New York Times critic’s applauding the Met’s retiring some of its moth-eaten productions amused me greatly.) I am very happy about all the new ventures in classical music (or most of them, anyway). And when didn’t classical music have new ventures? And when weren’t they passionately debated?

    While I’m writing this, I’m listening to a great CD of Bach’s B-minor Mass, and last night I enjoyed a well-attended Philly Orch. concert of Bach, Strauss, and Mahler. Yes, the audience contained many who were even older and more infirm than I, but I noticed a few young sprouts here and there in the crowd.

    I think Ms. Midgette hits the nail right on the head.

    • says

      Maybe it’s so emotional because we maintain a deeply held set of beliefs about classical or other favorite music. For that reason we might consider how musical preferences are similar to religious or political beliefs. As Greg pointed out to me recently, classical music seems to be its own cause (and avoids social or political issues). These comparative lenses can yield important theoretical clues (perceptual shifts) for bridging classical to pop culture. When is music a spiritual experience? When is music a political experience? If millennials are attracted to social activism, how/when might we reframe classical for them as political rather than spiritual?

  2. says

    Frindle’s post on “Time” covers is mentioned in the original “Slate” article, which is likely why Robin felt free to do so in his own blog post.

    • says

      He’s free to mention anything he wants, but his references to things have to be understandable. This one wouldn’t be to anyone who read his blog post without reading the Slate piece first. Maybe, though, I should blame an editor for the lack of clarity, assuming the blog post have one. This is the kind of thing, in my experience as both writer and editor, that editors are supposed to catch.

      But it was certainly careless of me to assume that Will’s Time reference came from reading my blog. Thanks for pointing out where it actually came from. Very careless of me, since I’d read the Slate piece. Shows some sensitivity on my part to what I take as criticism. Good to be aware of.

  3. BobG says

    Classical music isn’t dead. But new music that wants to be played in the classical venues simply has never taken hold with the larger, older, and fading musical audience (and I am among the older fading ones). The lack of a generally accepted new music is what has caused the decline in interest and audience. If we want to hear Beethoven sonatas, Spotify can supply quite a superior list of performances and we don’t have to go out to get it anymore (yes, I know live performance is always better). The excitement for classical music would come from new music, but this music simply fails to get the attention or the interest of the same people who see new movies, watch new TV shows, and go to the art museums and art galleries to see the new works. Classical composers, with their undisguised contempt for listeners who didn’t like their work, alienated several generations of musiclovers. It turned out not to be a zero-sum game. The loss of listeners is real and seemingly irreversible.

    • richard says

      Then you have folks like me who don’t go to concerts that don’t have mostly music written in the last 100 years.

      • BobG says

        It sounds like you are saying that you are among the many who have stopped attending traditional classical music concerts. That makes you part of the problem!

        It’s fine for you to go only to concerts with new music, and I’m sure many readers of Greg’s blog will agree with you, but are there enough of you to fill Carnegie Hall and Avery Fischer Hall and Zankel, and all the other venues, night after night, week after week, month after month?

        I think the answer is no. And that is why people speaking loosely declare that classical music is dead.