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February 20, 2006

Book 2.0
Episode 1: Starting Again

(This is the first episode of my second version of this book on the future of classical music. It's the beginning of the introduction to the book. Like the older episodes, it's an improvised first draft, and will very likely be revised, maybe extensively revised. But I trust it's a draft of something tighter and more focused than the last version -- a draft of a book that starts by asking (much more directly than the first version ever did) what's wrong with classical music, and then goes on to say how I think the problems might be fixed. See the outline at the left for more details.)

This is a book about the future of classical music. It's a necessary book. Not, maybe, necessary for me to write, though I've made a specialty of this subject, and find myself getting hired to write, speak, teach, and advise about it; certainly I've got a lot to get off my chest. But someone, surely, has to write a book like this. Classical music is in crisis; nobody knows whether it can survive. And there are burning questions to be answered. Is the classical music audience getting older? Will it die off, and not be replaced? Can we find a younger audience? And why, exactly, should we be having a classical music crisis? Has our culture degenerated? Is it now too shallow -- too noisy and dumb, too frenetic, too careless -- to support cultivated musical art? Or has classical music just fallen behind the rest of the world, and gotten out of date?

These are big questions, and I can imagine that four kinds of people might get caught up in them. First, of course, would be people who work in the classical music business, who have to care, because their careers depend on it. Though it’s not just their careers. Anyone who knows them knows that they love classical music many of them, especially the ones with high-level jobs in classical music institutions, could make more money doing something else and if the classical music world really does collapse, they’ll very likely be heartbroken. (The musicians, I’d think, would keep on playing, but not without any chance of ever making a living.)

And then next on the list come the warm and often gentle people who go to classical concerts, and of course to the opera. They’re mostly in their fifties, sixties, and seventies, and in everybody’s worst-case scenario they’ll soon enough vanish, leaving concert halls empty. Many of them, I suspect, love classical music even more than the professionals do; certainly their love can be achingly pure. Not all of them see very deeply into the quality of each performance they hear, and they might not care all that much what happens behind the scenes; but they do love the music. They’re also, at least in my experience, the people in the classical music world who worry most about the lack of any younger audience, maybe because they’re the ones who most clearly see, at all the concerts they go to, that they themselves are getting older, and that younger people just aren’t showing up.

And third come people who like classical music well enough — they might listen to it on the radio, and maybe they’ll buy classical CDs or downloads — but don’t go to classical concerts. (Though they might bring a picnic basket when the New York Philharmonic plays free concerts in Central Park.) They’re one big part of that elusive new and mostly younger audience that the classical music world is looking for. There’s even a fancy term for them: “Culturally aware nonattenders.” But why aren’t they attending? If they like classical music, why don’t they buy tickets to hear it live? There are many answers to that (studies have been done), but what’s most stimulating is simply to ask these people why they don’t go to concerts, something that’s easy to do because everybody in the classical music world or certainly everyone 50 and under has friends like this. I’ve talked, just for instance, to one of my downstairs neighbors, an old friend of my wife’s, a woman in her 40s, who loves to listen to classical music at home. And while her reasons for not going to concerts are revealing, and even more so her thoughts about what might get her to attend (concerts should be shorter, start later in the evening, and be more informal), I was especially struck by how much these questions intrigued her. She herself thinks that something not quite right is going on, if New York is full of classical concerts and she’s not drawn to any of them.

And so this book would be for her, just as much as for my colleagues in the classical music business and the good and loyal people in the classical music audience. There’s also one more constituency I’d aim at, and that’s anyone interested in the current state of our culture, meaning especially (but not at all exclusively) scholars and cultural theorists, along with civilians who like to read about culture and cultural theory, everyone, in short, who might care about the long-term meaning of everything I’m talking about. No matter why classical music might be threatened whether it’s because culture is rotting away, or because classical music has stagnated what’s going on is an ongoing, large-scale, long-term cultural shift.

Part of that shift, of course is the rise of popular culture. There's a lot written about popular culture, about its meaning, worth, and ascendancy (including, recently, Stephen Johnson's wry and important book Everything Bad is Good for You, which insists right in the face of everything many people in the classical world believe that popular culture, far from being dumb, is smart, and getting smarter). But there's much less written about where classical music fits in this ongoing shift, and too much of what does exist is more or less worthless, because the writers don’t know much about popular culture, assume that it’s junk, and then have a laughably easy time proving classical music’s crucial cultural worth by showing that, guess what, classical music isn’t junk. (There have, though, been some terrific critiques of the classical music world’s exaggerated sense of its own importance, and, most important, its idea that classical music has timeless value purely on abstract musical terms, and stands aloof and alone, unaffected by the shifting winds of cultural change.)

So I’m writing this book for all of these people, all the four groups I’ve mentioned, plus anyone else who wants to come along for the ride, even if they don’t know anything about classical music. That, I know, is going to be a tricky balancing act to address both the concerns of people inside the classical music world and the curiosity of people outside it, to speak equally to heartbroken (and sometimes angry) fans and to skeptical nonattenders, to cultural theorists and to people who passionately love classical music but might not care about cultural theory. But I think I can manage that, and, best of all, I think that simply by trying I’ll give the book some extra verve.

I hope, too, that I can establish the value of classical music, in terms that both insiders and outsiders can accept, and without needing to take down popular culture in order to do it. To do this, I'll have to talk about the position of all the traditional high arts in our current culture, another contentious topic that needs to be better understood. And I'll also have to talk about music itself, which will be a relief, after all the theoretical talk about culture, not to mention everything I’m going to have to write about classical music’s financial distress. What, in any case, would a book on music be worth, if it didn’t have any music in it? (Maybe I should even write a piece of music I’m a composer, after all and distribute it along with the book, to demonstrate exactly what I think music should be.) I trust, by the way, that I can write about classical music non-technically, so I won’t lose uninitiated readers, and maybe in doing this break down the unfortunate notion that classical music is by nature complex, and can’t be understood without special study. Maybe, by the time the book is done, I’ll have given people who don’t know classical music a better idea of what it’s about and maybe I’ll also give old-line classical music people a better idea of what pop music is. Even if I just manage those two things, I’ll be happy.


But now, I think, I’d better state my own beliefs (which in any case keep sticking their heads out as this introduction unfolds). I’d better give my own answers to the big questions I posed at the start. So here goes. Essentially, I think the game is over. The classical music business won’t be able to exist much longer in its present form. That doesn’t mean that classical music will disappear (though some of our classical music institutions orchestras, opera companies, and the rest, including some name-brand groups might well collapse). But I think classical music will have to learn to understand itself in a new way. It’ll have to transform itself both externally, in the way it presents itself to the world, and internally, in the way that it’s taught, played, analyzed, and composed.…

And you'll just have to come back for the next episode -- due on March 6 -- to see why I think all this.

I promised to make all six episodes of the earlier version of the book available online. I couldn't get to that until, with this episode, I'd launched Book 2.0. Now that's done. So I can turn my attention to those six old episodes, and build them a permanent home. Note added February 28: This effort is now underway, and you should see the results shortly.

I've also decided to keep these new episodes online longer than the old ones. In Book 1.0, each episode stayed online for just two weeks. I'm not yet sure exactly how long I'm going to keep the new ones available, but at the very least I'll keep two episodes up at a time. That way you'll have four weeks to read each episode I post, and at all times you'll be able to read the episode that came before the present one.

If you’d like to write a comment, may I ask you to put it at the end of the current episode, instead of here? More people will see it that way. And it will contribute to the always lively new discussion that emerges whenever I post a new episode. If you put your comment here, it will appear only at the end of this episode, the one you’ve just been reading. And that will isolate it from the current conversation. Thanks!

My privacy policy: I’ll never share my subscriber list with anyone, for any reason. I send all e-mail to my list myself, without routing it through anyone at ArtsJournal. And I send all e-mail with the names of the recipients hidden. All subscribers have their privacy protected at all times. Further: if you e-mail me about the book, I’ll consider your e-mail private. I won’t quote it in any public forum without your permission. Comments you post here, though, of course appear in a public forum, and thus can be freely quoted by me or by anyone else who reads them.

Posted by gsandow on February 20, 2006 3:55 AM


Hi Greg.
Looking forward to reading your ongoing contributions to this perplexing question. Don't know what you've got in store, but I wonder if, amongst the many questions to resolve, you've considered what I consider to be a diminishing ability to listen to acoustic music. I've written a blog-lenght start on the subject (here - Classical Music Unplugged
), should you feel inclined to delve into this sort of area. {please excuse the first glib reference to your blog - it was intended to sound provative - but not necessarily to provoke you)

Thanks for the comment, and you raise an Interesting point. But then on the other hand, there's been a great upsurge of acoustic music in pop during the past couple of decades, marked most notably by the popularity of "MTV Unplugged" in the '90s. I remember Mariah Carey doing that show in the early '90s, with really complex acoustic arrangements of some of her songs, involving more than 20 instruments, if I remember correctly, including a harmonium. (I know I'm remembering that one right.)

Though of course the ultimate pop acoustic sound is just one singer, with an acoustic guitar. We could get into complicated discussions of live vs. amplified live vs. recorded sound, but the current pop audience, or large niches within it, are completely comfortable with this version of an acoustic aesthetic.

Posted by: guthrytrojan at February 20, 2006 12:44 PM

Mmm. I realise that acoustic instruments haven't disappeared entirely - that's partly why I chose the title I did for my blog article. But my point is that people only hear these so called, 'acoustic concerts' via an amplification system - so they are not hearing acoustic sound, but amplified acoustic sound, which as I explained is idealised and stylised and quite another thing from the actual acoustic experience. To the many people these days,[unamplified] acoustic music is alien, demanding and unappealing.

Well, maybe. But it's worth asking whether what you say is really true. Is it based on real experience with the people we're talking about, or is it a hypothesis? A reasonable one, I'd add, but still a hypothesis. I think a lot of people play the guitar at home, for instance, or have friends who do, or play the piano, or hear marching bands. And I'm not sure that for me, at least, the experience of hearing (lightly) amplified acoustic music in a club has quite the effect you describe. I haven't noticed that it seems amplified or stylized, any more than classical music does on a good recording. If the miking is done well, you just get a more audible version of the original acoustic sound, complete, very likely, with the sound of fingers moving on the nylon strings of a guitar. An example from a record might be "You Had Time," an Ani DiFranco song, which starts with a lot of apparently improvised solo acoustic piano. I don't know what the difference would be between hearing this on a record and hearing a Beethoven piano piece. And if she plays this part when she does the song live, I'd think it would be even less idealized, because you'd see her playing it.

Posted by: guthrytrojan at February 22, 2006 3:47 PM


I have a different starting point. Classical music is not “in crisis.” It’s actually thriving and ubiquitous. It is everywhere, including telephone hold lines, children’s cartoons, movies, subway musicians. Classical CD sales are holding their own and internet downloads of classical music are booming.

Look more deeply and the signs are even more positive. When was the contemporary music scene more vibrant and exciting than right now? When was the last time a young composer (Osvaldo Golijov) was given a festival at Lincoln Center to which tickets were practically unattainable? When was more new music performed at Carnegie Hall than in the past two years - and to good audiences? What was comparable in some imagined Good Old Days to not one but two Ligeti festivals this season at major venues?

Orpheus and St. Lukes are both orchestras which grew up and flowered in the past twenty-five years. Did they replace some larger number of similar orchestras that died out? I know, this is New York. But there are numerous chamber music series around the country that have similarly grown up and flowered in the same time frame in San Francisco, Chicago, Harrisburg, La Jolla and elsewhere.

And conservatories! Have they waned in recent decades? No, there are more first-class conservatories now than when you and I were students.

So I don’t think classical music is in crisis. The way classical music is presented may be in crisis, and I agree with you that many of our major classical music institutions are under major strain. Whether they “collapse” or not remains to be seen, and I think will depend on how well they adapt.

But this is not unique to classical music. There has been a technological/informational revolution in the past decade that has posed challenges to traditional ways of doing things in every field you can imagine. So I think you have to see the challenge to classical music presentation as part of this larger context.

This doesn’t make the challenges less daunting, but it places them in perspective. It also leads me to a more optimistic and less cataclysmic frame of mind than in your new introduction. But I wait eagerly for later chapters.

Thanks for all of this, Richard, and for your optimism! I should add that Richard Weinert, who sent this comment, runs the Concert Artists Guild, and has done a lot to move that organization into classical music's future, by helping the organization to choose very youth-friendly winners in its annual competition, and then presenting them in performances at clubs. Richard is definitely part of the solution to classical music's problems.

But I'll stick to my guns. My bratty answer to Richard might be, yeah, sure, we've all gone to classical concerts that seemed to be thriving. And probably the Tsar in Russia gave fabulous parties in 1916. Nobody could tell that the revolution was coming just a year later.

But a more serious answer might go like this. Yes, conservatories are thriving, and so are youth orchestras, for that matter. Orchestras are now younger than their audience. There's no shortage of young classical musicians, in other words, and that's a source both of hope and wonder in our present situation. Still, I teach at Juilliard (and at Eastman, too, this spring), and for years I've noticed that these young musicians worry about whether there will be jobs for them (a different thing, please note, from the traditional worry about whether they'll beat the competition to get the available jobs). They also tend to say that none of their friends like classical music, and often they feel isolated.

As for Golijov, and other exciting events, these might be easier to find in New York than elsewhere. And even here, we're having problems. Golijov is sold out? At the Met, there were acres of empty seats, I'm told, for Falstaff and Romeo et Juiliette. The Romeo opening was barely more than 60% sold, I hear. And it was a new production!

What happens to classical music if the major institutions fall apart? I'm not so hopeful. Of course there will be musicians and smaller institutions who'll keep on going, but it'll be much harder for the musicians to make a living. Which then might finally put a dent in conservatory attendance. If there's no way you can support yourself once you get out.....I think a lot of classical music employment depends not just on mainstream institutions, but on the presence of mainstream classical music in all its forms. Those Golijov events -- I bet that most of the classical musicians involved in those make most of their living playing standard rep. If the institutions that do things the old way disappear, I don't know that there's anything around -- anything with money, anyway -- that can pick up the slack.

Posted by: Richard Weinert at February 23, 2006 1:04 PM

Hi Greg.

Obviously my views must necessarily be an hypothesis to some extent, but it's one which I've gleaned from direct experience of working with others. For example, at the moment I'm engineering a classical music solo piano recording. At the start of the sessions, the producer {who one might expect to know better] asked if I could make the sound 'a bit more stereo' - by which he meant that he wanted to hear the high notes on the left and the low notes on the right. Anyone whose ever listened to a real piano in a real acoustic - without having their head glued to the sound board - will know that such expectations in no way reflect a real acoustic experience.

To your second point {"I'm not sure that for me, at least, the experience of hearing (lightly) amplified acoustic music in a club has quite the effect you describe"} - I would say that the fact that you've not noticed any change in sound indicates that the engineer has done a good job rather than that the sound is not idealised. 'The Sound' is always idealised to the extent that it represents one single perspective from among an infinite variety of different perspectives. The sound of any acoustic instrument changes as one moves around it in the same way as something looks slightly different depending on the angle and the light in which it is viewed. The differences are subtle, but they are nevertheless different. Once it's amplified - even a little bit - the sound is immutable. And yes, I agree, it is so on recordings too. That's the craft of audio engineering and that's just the point!



Posted by: guthrytrojan at February 23, 2006 2:56 PM

I think a good place to start looking for positive changes is with Rob Kalikow and his "What Makes It Great" series. He offers serious musical learning in a way that welcomes and informs both experienced and novice listeners and is -- wonder of wonders -- fun to hear. His sessions are informal, interactive and instructive. After he talked about Bartok, I found myself listening to other 20th century music and enjoying it more. He makes me feel a little more hopeful about building -- or keeping -- audiences for music.

Isobel, I agree that we need to talk about classical music more effectively. It's something I've addressed a lot in my blog. To see what I've said, go to the link to my blog above and on the right, and search for entries using the keyword "press release." I've found Rob Kapilow to be very effective, but I worry some that he addresses largely the structure of classical music. I suspect that he's most effective for an audience that already knows the music, and that a new audience might require a different approach. I could easiliy be wrong, though!

Posted by: Isobel Osius at February 23, 2006 5:06 PM


This is a great subject and I'm looking forward to seeing where you go with it all. As a fan of classical music, both recorded and in concert, and as someone who works in the marketing side of the industry, I have a vested interest in classical's future. Here are a few questions that I've thought about, although admittedly not in great depth:

(1) Classical music audiences may be betting older, but were they ever really “young?” I’ve heard it argued that overall, most people to come to classical music until well into adulthood.

(2) Was classical music ever meant to be “popular?” How many “regular” people got to hear a Beethoven symphony when it was first performed? Before Beethoven’s time, I think that most composers were in the employ of the nobility or perhaps the church. With the rise of the recording industry in the mid 20th century, not to mention the amount of per capita leisure time, classical music grew, but to compare the industry to pop culture might be a bit of a stretch. Did classical ever really compare in sales with the likes of Glenn Miller, Sinatra, Elvis, the Beatles, Madonna, etc.? Although I’m not 100% sure, I doubt it, despite the occasional breakthrough album (maybe things like Van Cliburn doing Rachmaninov, Glenn Gould doing Bach’s Goldberg Variations, or Gorecki’s 3rd Symphony a few years back). A friend of mine just suggested to me that opera at one time was perhaps popular enough to draw comparisons with today, but I'm not sure. I sometimes think that one might try plotting the sales of classical music (in recordings especially, but also in concerts) alongside the recorded music industry in general. I wonder if there would be a parallel: growth in the middle of the last century, particularly with the LP (and radio), then a plateau, then a revival with the arrival of the compact disk, and now a decline with uncertainty about the future (this is just a quick sketch, I know, but I wouldn't be surprised if someone has already done this). Although classical music is declining, I wonder if it's still bigger than it ever was prior to the middle of the 20th C. Some would argue that it reached an unforeseen level of popularity and, perhaps, got too big for its own good. I mean, how many recordings of Beethoven’s 5th symphony do we really “need” and how often does one need to hear it in the concert hall? Some might argue that classical music, at least in terms of the warhorses, has gone well beyond its saturation point. Segue into…

(3) A serious problem, it seems to me is with new classical music in particular. Despite controversy over particular pieces at the time, there was a lot of music written in the 20th century, moreso in the early half to be sure, that still gets “regular” play in the conert hall and on recordings --- Bartok, Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Bernstein, and others come to mind. Who are the “big” names writing now? Even the ones who are somewhat known --- Ligeti, Glass, maybe Gorecki, and a few others come to mind --- are hardly household names. Classical may imply "old" but I think that up until the last half of the 20th century, it tended to renew itself with new works. I don't think that's really happening anymore. I say this, by the way, as a fan of much modern/contemporary classical music, while simply recognizing its almost complete lack (or sometimes even antagonism toward) popular appeal.

I welcome any thoughts you might have. Thanks for exploring a subject near and dear to my heart!


Thanks so much. You raise very thoughtful questions, which I’ll try to answer briefly. Longer answers, I trust, will come in later parts of the book.

(1) Age of the audience. An older audience isn’t a problem, as long as it’s big enough to sustain the field. And, as you suggest, it would always be replenished by younger people who reach what we might call classical music age. But an aging audience, unfortunately, really could be a problem, because that would mean that the audience wasn’t being replenished, and at the very least was shrinking. And in fact statistics from the NEA do seem to show that this is happening. That said, I’ve never been able to find any evidence for the common belief that the classical music audience has always been old. This seems to be conventional wisdom, and possibly not much more. What evidence there is, in fact, may go the other way. In a 1937 study of American orchestras, the composition of the audience wasn’t a focus. Still, surveys were taken at two orchestras, and they showed an average audience age of 28 in one of the places, and 33 at another. There’s no record in any detail of how these surveys were taken, so much more work needs to be done. It’s significant, though (or at least I think so), that the authors of a book about this study express no surprise at these findings.

(2) Was classical music ever popular? Obviously a question with comforting implications. If we agree that classical music never was popular, then it shouldn’t matter if it now has a small audience. But I think the question is something of a red herring. It really doesn’t matter whether anything have a small audience. Ferrari doesn’t sell many cars; acerbic pop music genres like grindcore don’t sell many records (at least by the standards of the pop charts). What matters is whether the audience, of whatever size, is large enough to sustain whatever enterprise we’re talking about. And there’s every indication that the classical music audience is shrinking. Ticket sales to the core subscription concerts of the 10 largest American orchestras, for instance, have been declining — enough to bring gasps to some people who’ve seen the figures — since at least 1990. (These figures have never been published.) Funding has gotten harder to get, too. This said, the question of classical music’s popularity is complicated, not least by the difficulty in comparing a “popular” audience in 1815 or 1715 to the much different mass audience of today. Still, the concept of classical music (as an art set apart from anything popular) dates only from the first third of the 19th century, and what at that time was considered “popular music” (a term that actually was used) included Liszt, Paganini, and anything that happened in an opera house. And a lot of music we now call classical (Handel operas, Rossini operas, Mozart symphonies) was composed and performed in circumstances that seem closer to pop music than to the classical concert halls of our present era. That is, the music was performed for profit, and the audiences reacted noisily, talking during performances and applauding whenever they felt like it, right in the middle of the music.

Note also the change in the position of cutting-edge art in classical music, which doesn’t have to be popular to make an impression. When Wagner was the leader of the avant-garde, anyone with an interest in music took a position on him. Eventually (by 1900 or so) he became wildly popular. Then, a generation down the road, when Schoenberg was the avant-garde leader, he mingled with artists in other fields, and every artistic person took an interest in what he did. By the 1940s, Virgil Thomson could talk about an “intellectual audience” that showed up at concerts in New York when important new works (or at least 20th century works) were being done. And now nothing like any of this exists. With very few exceptions (Philip Glass and Steve Reich in the ‘70s), there’s no new classical music that draws any audience outside the field. Maybe that’s turning around with composers like Golijov, but it’s been a very long drought.

(3) The record industry. I’d love to have the figures you wonder about, Sam. And many people would agree with you about the sales bump caused the introduction of new formats. But one big factor in the evolution of the classical record industry has been the increasing distance of classical music from the center of our culture. Whatever sales of classical records might have been in the 1950s, just about every major record company had a classical division, and while these classical divisions were expected to be profitable, they didn’t have to make a very large profit. And (something very important) profits were measured by sales of the entire classical catalogue, taken as a whole; individual projects were allowed to lose money, as long as the whole endeavor was profitable. This was a matter of prestige, among other things. It would have been unthinkable not to record classical music. But now classical music has much less prestige, and classical recording has retreated to a very tiny niche. (Pop sales, moreover, are much larger since around 1970 than they ever were before, which makes classical music comparatively less important to a record company, even if the number of records sold might not have changed.)

(4) New music. One of the most important things we can talk about, in my view. The disappearance of new music as a central classical music activity is an artistic scandal, I think, and a sign that the field has grown stagnant. Things are probably improving now, but my gut feeling is that not until at least half (and maybe more) of all classical performances are works by living composers, classical music won’t be healthy. Certainly that was the situation when most of the masterworks of the repertoire were written.

Posted by: Sam at February 24, 2006 1:41 PM

Hi Greg,

Good to see you reworking this material. I had an impression that too many ideas were asking for too much prominence at the same time in Book 1.0. It's easy for me to state after the fact, so forgive me.

This dynamic of our culture is irrevocably changed. "Things are never going to be the way they used to be" is the reality many of us art types still are not comfortable with. Culture, being an entity of the living, by necessity must endure redefinition. That we can discuss and muse over different possibilities will help in that process.

Thanks! And of course I agree about the first version....

Posted by: Bruce Jackson at February 25, 2006 8:12 AM

Greg, thank you for identifying these four categories in the world of classical music. I had not seen this taxonomy until your book2 blog appeared. Instead, I’ve observed over a long period just three types of classical musical audiences: (a) insiders who are performers of various genres in classical music, (b) their audiences who can recognize and applaud the traditional elements along with compeling innovations, as long as they are within accepted cultural mores, and, (c) outsiders who, for example, might attend a music festival picnic and buy similar performances on a CD.

The dynamics of performer and audience do integrate the hold on tradition even while making changes, within certain limits of taste. However, in case of the outsider, vitality might come from the pleasure of displaying a CD from the event.

I enjoy each rehearing of Glenn Gould’s Goldberg Variations. Another favorite right now is Shostakovich, Symphony No. 5, Mstislav Rostropovich cond., London Symphony Orchestra. What I value is the unique self-expression of traditional materials, adapted by these brilliant individuals.

My core concept here is that the aesthetics of global classical musical culture consists of performers and their audiences dynamically sharing that which is holistic, evolutionary and balanced by community taste. Musical consumers who are on the periphery may not be participating as directly in the aliveness of the music so much as by the possessing artifacts of the cultural event.

Again, thank you for your analytics. I expect to learn more from your work.

Warm regards,

Posted by: jimmybbb at February 27, 2006 2:25 AM

Hi Greg,
Thank you for the important work you are doing. Her are some thoughts and sources tp look at.

Somewhere on the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition website the assertion is made that the modern/contemporary music of the 50s -70s turned audiences away in droves. I think there is some truth there in part. In any event many composers have woken up to this reality.

Film music - a bridge between classical and pop culture???

My website, wesleyfishwick.com lists some articles that explore theological/philisophical aspects of the role of the artist in society.

As a classical pianist ( did it - left it- have come back to it) I know I was trained to shoot for the big carreer. Now I realize there has only ever been so much room at the top. However, there are tons of opportunities to perform and medium to large audiences to listen. Classical music also con serve as treatment for the physically & mentally/emotionally ill and the dying.
Claudia Arrau also discuss the spirituality of the concert venue.

One would also need to look at the decline of classical music in Russia after state sponsorship was removed. Then, again, a look at Canada where the art form is promoted with great vigor is a good idea as well in Canada the media focuses on classical music rather than ignoring it as it does in America.

I'm sure you know that Bernstein, before his death, predicted the current decline and the reorganization of regional orchestras.

The removal of music programs from public education has also had its role in this demise.

I have many musical friends in the Detroit area that gather to play chamber music and/or listen to others. This core group will continue to exist and perhaps the art form will flourish and wane in a cyclical manner for many centuries.

Looking forward to reading more of your excellent prose!

Thanks for all this, Wes. I tend to think the decline is more than cyclical. There's been quite a large-scale diminishing of classical music's role in our culture ever since the '60s, or even before, measurable in many tangible ways. (Media attention might be the most obvious.)

Atonal music has definitely turned audiences off. The mistakes made about it are legion -- not communicating enough to audiences about why the music was written and is being played, but maybe most of all, not realizing that the music may never be popular, and shouldn't be forced on large audiences.

I tend to think that music education, or rather its delcine, is a result of the larger decline of classical music, not a cause of it. But this is something I'll take up in the book.

Posted by: Wes Fishwick at February 27, 2006 6:35 AM

Hi Greg, I am a 6th grade band teacher and have made a stunning discovery. I was thinking of a new theme for our band program for our Spring Concert and came up with the idea of "Legends of Music". I thought it would be cool to present a concert of classical themes by the masterwork composers. I pulled together several pieces which included excerpts of famous melodies from Beethoven's 5th Symphony, Dvorak's New World Symphony, and Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture. I also gave them a watered down version of Khachaturian's Sabre Dance. I also, let them pick out classical melodies to present as solos duets and trios. I have to say, it is one of my most successful ideas because the kids absolutely loved the tunes! It really showed me that there is something timeless about the great classical compositions even if they are presented in small excerpts. Who knows? This exposure to the great themes in music may blossom in the minds of these young students. This is why I don't think that classical music will ever die out. These great themes are unforgettable.

Rhonda, thanks for this. It's marvelous that classical music has such appeal. Studies show that many people who never go to classical concerts do actually listen to it. In any case, I think what stops people from taking a more active interest is the way we present the music, not the music itself. If we were more personal and less formal, I think more people would show up. In any case, congratulations on having such success with these kids!

Posted by: Rhonda Martin at March 2, 2006 12:22 AM

Los invito a examinar la posibilidad de hacer su página en varios idiomas o por lo menos en español.

"We invite you to consider the possibility of making your page available in various languages, or at least in Spanish."

I'm very flattered to receive this suggestion from Orlando Barbosa, who's the General Director of the Orquestra Filarmonica Bogota, in Colombia. Unfortunately, my own command of Spanish allows me only to understand his e-mail, and nothing more; I'm not even able to respond to him in his own language. Nor do either I or ArtsJournal have the resources, at this point, to hire translators.

But I do want to note that the Orquestra Filarmonica does link to ArtsJournal from its website. And of course I like the idea of my book appearing in other languages. So, just on the offchance that anyone out there can translate my work, and would like to do it, especially if you can translate the book into Spanish, please contact me! I'd be happy to post a Spanish version of my episodes. I can't offer any pay, unfortunately, but then I'm not getting paid myself for writing this…

Posted by: Orlando Barbosa at March 3, 2006 1:10 PM

Greg, I think you're doing a great service to ask the questions you do without coming down in favor of a simplistic answer or solution.

You've got a great knack for laying out the situation and making it interesting and compelling. Good job!

As for the information revolution and concert (non)attendance. As a highly trained classical musician myself, I am continually appalled that I can't take my 5-year-old son to orchestra concerts because they cost so much. One concert last month cost me over $200 for tickets and babysitting (for my 2-year-old) while my wife and I took my son to the concert). Our seats? Stratospheric. The orchestra? The Hartford Symphony.

It was a great concert (Bugs Bunny on Broadway), that was the perfect introduction for a 5-year-old kid ... because it linked great music (and the spectacle of the event) to something he already knew: Warner Brothers cartoons.

When I was a kid it cost me $8 to go to an orchestra concert. I went to every concert there was when I was in junior high.

Could a kid do that today? Not at these prices.

And, that brings in the info-revolution angle, too. This revolution does not play by different economic rules than the rest of society. In other words, if you want to drive away customers, raise prices. Simple.

Meanwhile, with $0.99 songs (including entire movements of classical repertoire) on iTunes, how can expenseive orchestral (or even chamber music) concerts compete? Listeners (customers) make a complex, somewhat unconscious, cost-benefit analysis: iTunes = cheap, easy access to music any time. Concert going = expensive, one-shot listening experience requiring trek to and from hall.

As many have already pointed out on this page, the music we're talking about is never going to go away. It's so intrinsically moving and powerful, it will continue to be rediscovered for eons.

However, giving people barrier-free access to the optimal experience of this music (for the first time perhaps) is something that current classical performing institutions don't do as well as pop-music juggernauts. And, through no fault of theirs, are squeezed out of the options list for most non-classical-loving listeners.

Yet, even attempts to exploit technology like Podcasts on iTunes show a certain naivetee on the part of classical institutions. For example, I was happy to see that the Boston Symphony had begun offering podcasts on iTunes.

Only after subscribing to their podcast promsing to deliver Beethoven's 9th and having it instead deliver a boring, badly produced reading of liner notes by a musicology professor from B.U. did I discover that the BSO has no clue that people want immediate un-fettered access to the music

What the BSO offered instead was mediated, administrative, well, stuffiness that makes it seem that the music itself is not worth putting before our ears (or that it's too good for that).

Every orchestra and chamber group in the country ought to put free podcasts of their performances on iTunes right now. It's virtually cost-free to do so. That act alone would do more to boost classical music in the culture than any grant from the Mellon Foundation.

Alas, timidity, unfamiliarity, mistrust and an unfortunate attitude that the music is "the product" and should not be given away, will probably keep this from happening.

- Paul Smith

Paul, thanks so much for your thoughtful -- and passionate! -- comments. I agree with all of it. I've heard the BSO podcasts, too, and was struck just as you were with how academic they are. For a taste of something different, you might want to look at Geoff Edgers' audio piece on Schoenberg , on the Boston Globe website (go here and scroll down to the Schoenberg graphic). Even better, listen to "The Ring and I," an introduction to Wagner's Ring cycle broadcast on WNYC, New York's public radio station. That might be the best presentation of classical music to a modern audience that I've ever run into.

Posted by: Paul Smith at March 3, 2006 1:52 PM

Greg, you write

I tend to think that music education, or rather its delcine, is a result of the larger decline of classical music, not a cause of it. But this is something I'll take up in the book.

Clearly, it's a chicken and egg situation Nevertheless, the declining audiences (and increasing average age of those audiences) for traditional classical music presentations may well be more a result of cutbacks, resulting from financial pressures, than you are acknowledging. Many arts programs were cut--with much remorse-- over the last 35 years as the result of financial exigency, rather than as the result of declining interest in classical music. A school system near where I live in central Indiana has just announced enormous cutbacks in arts instruction, sports, and physical education, all as a result of financial problems. Don't you think it's reasonable to expect that the generation of kids in that district who won't have an instrumental music experience will be less likely to develop an interest in non-pop music?

Virtually every adult I know who is deeply involved with classical music also plays or sings as an amateur, or used to. It's an analogous situation to professional sports. What's more boring, for example, than golf on television? That's what I always thought, until I took up golf. Then it became fascinating. When I stopped golf due to back problems (and being horrible at it), it didn't take long before it was boring again. Now I know there are a lot of people who occasionally watch football, etc., who didn't play it growing up, but I imagine it's a safe bet that the vast majority of regular viewers, and especially of holders and users of season tickets, played football at least occasionally as kids.

Do you know if there are studies that show the correlation between having played classical music at one point in life and attendance at classical concerts? I bet it's pretty high.

That said, great project, to which I will be offering comments regularly.


Eric, thanks for this. You're right about the funding cutbacks, and I need to take those into account. That said, I'm still suspicious of drawing too close a cause and effect relationship between the decline in (classical) music education and the decline of the classical music audience. I don't know of studies about the correlation, or possible correlation, you mention. I wish there were some. I do know, anecdotally, that when I've led conversations with loyal audience members at major orchestras, a recurrent motif is people saying very emphatically that they don't know anything about music. It's then delightful to see them going on, sometimes, to make very cogent comments. But I take their disclaimers seriously. Maybe some of them, even many of them, took music lessons on some instrument when they were young, but that hasn't left them feeling that they know very much.

And as I e-mailed Eric, I'd be wary of establishing a cause and effect relationship in any case. Both music lessons (or some other experience playing classical music) and attendance at classical concerts could be caused by the same thing. We could theorize that there's some demographic background that inclines people toward going to classical concerts, and that music lessons come with that background, rather than causing the concertgoing, or being necessary for it.

In any case, there are younger people now starting to listen to classical music online (12% of all iTunes sales are classical, many, according to someone who used to be in charge of classical music on iTunes, to younger people). Most of them, we can guess, have never played classical music.

And then we have other musical genres, some of them pretty thorny, which found audeinces without anyone needing any special training or background. Bebop, when it started in the 1940s -- when all the beats started listening to it, of course they didn't have any jazz education. Likewise the vogue lately for world music, or the development of punk, or alternative rock. People don't listen to Radiohead's very substantial music because they'd played anything like it in their garage bands.

So at the very least, there's some other factor at work, which I'd guess is cultural resonance. You react to a style of music because it says something to you about who you are, and what's going on in the world around you. Whatever messages like that classical music may have, they're muted, and also very rarely discussed.

Which isn't to say that music education of some kind wouldn't help. Of course familiarity helps people get used to anything new. It just can't be guaranteed, in my view, to reverse long-term cultural trends.

Posted by: Eric Edberg at March 29, 2006 8:29 PM

This comment caught my eye:

"Who are the “big” names writing now? Even the ones who are somewhat known --- Ligeti, Glass, maybe Gorecki, and a few others come to mind --- are hardly household names. Classical may imply "old" but I think that up until the last half of the 20th century, it tended to renew itself with new works. I don't think that's really happening anymore. I say this, by the way, as a fan of much modern/contemporary classical music, while simply recognizing its almost complete lack (or sometimes even antagonism toward) popular appeal."

I beg to differ. I find there to be a simply overwhelming amount of music being composed and recorded (not as frequently performed, unfortunately). It is actually hard to keep up with. No, the composers are not "household names," but it seems downright ridiculous to me to claim that the art form is not "renewing" itself. Like this writer, I am "a fan of much modern/contemporary classical music", and there are a handful of "young" (by composers' standards) living composers that I keep an eye on.

And to Greg, kudos for getting the ball rolling on this topic. My question for you: have you studied in depth the inner working of college/university music departments? I'm currently completing a study where I will argue that public schools' resources have been appropriated so heavily to their degree seeking students as to preclude widespread participation in music by the general student body. It was certainly the case where I went to school, but it's difficult to get a feeling for what goes on nationally/internationally. Any ideas?

My take: the art form is being renewed, yes, because new music is being written. But the renewal might not be taking root, because even terrific new pieces that both musicians and the audience like don't become part of any stable repertoire. And composers aren't treated as first-class citizens of the classical music world.

As for universities -- I don't know about this. I think, though, that I'd qualify the statement about widespread participation in music. Shouldn't that be widespread participation in classical music? Surely college kids are forming bands and making dance music on their computers. I might also wonder whether college kids in any great numbers really want to participate in classical music, which might explain in part why there might not be many opportunities

For what it's worth, one of my Juilliard students this year got her undergradujate degree at Harvard. She says there were many students performing classical music, but that the student body as a whole wasn't interested in these performances.

Posted by: Stefan Kac at April 2, 2006 11:22 AM


Thanks for your reply. I should clarify: yes, I'm talking about participation in classical music, presumably among kids who played in band in high school and want to stay involved somehow (not necessarily performing publicly). Where I did my undergraduate work, the practice rooms were closed to anyone who was not registered for a music department course. I occasionally met students from other departments who were frustrated by this. As Eric Edberg wrote, a large chunk of our audience is going to be people who are not just passive listeners but active participants in music making. But when schools like mine close off their vast resources to the rest of the school, this can only be harmful to the situation. I've also seen a more desirable situation at another school I attended where the practice rooms were unlocked and unmonitored. The general student body was more involved and music majors were looked at with admiration rather than contempt. I'll leave it at that as my entire spiel would take up too much space (hence the study-in-progress). Thanks.

Stefan, thanks so much for the clarification. I can see both points of view. Practice rooms are scarce. Even in conservatories. Serious music students need them badly. Juilliard students just about fight over them.

But then just as you say, music departments shouldn't close themselves off from the rest of the university. I'll be very curious to see your study. Please let me know when it's finished!

Posted by: Stefan Kac at April 3, 2006 9:02 AM


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