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Music in Challenging Times — An Opportunity

Back in the 1930s, American radio – that is, American commercial radio, which is all we had – knew that listeners were amenable to paying attention to what they were hearing and nothing else. A long attention span was assumed.

Commensurately, the airwaves were full of classical music – a phenomenon I pondered in my most reviled book, Understanding Toscanini (1987). (Reviled because I foresaw the swift marginalization of classical music, but never mind.) I wrote:

“As Toscanini’s celebrity attested, culture’s new audience, tutored by Will Durant, H. G. Wells, the ‘University of Chicago Round Table,’ and Billy Phelps of Yale, feasted on great music. Radio offered the Metropolitan Opera and the NBC Symphony on Saturdays, the New York Philharmonic and ‘The Ford Hour’ on Sundays: as of 1939, these four well-known longhair broadcasts were said to reach more than 10 million families a week. Additional live broadcast concerts and operas, and portions of ‘serious’ music emanating from network studios, had diminished since the early thirties. Still, an average Sunday afternoon gave New York City radio listeners perhaps three ‘light classical’ studio concerts and as many studio recitals in addition to the Philharmonic broadcasts; an average Sunday evening added three or four more live concerts and recitals in addition to ‘The Ford Hour’; and the weekday schedule might include more than a dozen live broadcasts of hinterlands orchestras, studio orchestras, and studio recitals.”

An audience study conducted in 1939 showed that in cities (population 100,000 or more), 62 per cent of college graduates “liked listening to classical music in the evening.” For town of 2,500 and under, and farms, the percentage was 49.

You could also tune into Abram Chasins, whose “Piano pointers” on CBS and “Chasins’ Music Series” on NBC – commercial radio, ambitiously masterminded by William Paley and David Sarnoff — were workshops for amateur pianists.

That was then and now is now. And yet I read that a new survey of public radio stations shows that listeners are keen to find distractions from COVID 19. And for some time youtube has been discovering an appetite for “long form” content: two hours of talking and more.

I also read that in Germany’s minister of culture, Monika Grutters, has recommended an expenditure of  50 billion euros ($54 billion) for Germany’s “creative and cultural sectors.” She says: “Our democratic society needs its unique and diverse cultural and media landscape in this historic situation, which was unimaginable until recently. . . artists are not only indispensable, but also vital, especially now.” 

At a moment when America’s performing arts institutions are challenged not merely to continue to function but to function in new ways, PostClassical Ensemble – the “experimental” DC-based chamber orchestra I co-founded 17 years ago with the wonderful Angel Gil-Ordonez – will undertake a series of videos exploring the role of music in society. We’ve tentatively christened it “PostClassical: More than Music.”

This initiative comes easily to us, as our programming has typically focused on music as an instrument for mutual understanding and human betterment. In fact, our library of two-hour WWFM webcasts, inimitably hosted by Bill McGlaughlin, is our starting point in this new venture, in which we are partnered by the film-maker Behrouz Jamali and the enterprising journal of politics, government, and culture The American Interest.

Our two most recent projects, before the virus changed everything, were An Armenian Odyssey, at the Washington National Cathedral, and Furtwangler in Wartime, via WWFM. The former explored the power of music to forge inspirational cultural synergies. The latter explored the power of music to “bear witness” during World War II.

We begin posting our new “More than Music” videos today with “Deep River: The Art of the Spiritual,” in which we are joined by PCE Resident Artist Kevin Deas.

Forthcoming programs will include “Shostakovich and the State” (with Solomon Volkov), Arthur Farwell and the “Indianists,” “The Russian Gershwin,” and “Dvorak and America.” The topics at hand are “What is the role of culture in a nation’s life?” and “Who is an American?”

For decades, conventional wisdom about the airwaves has been “classical music radio stations don’t want talking” and “avoid the unfamiliar.” 

If that is ever to change, now is the time. 


  1. Anthony Princiotti says

    I still see the American professional classical music community struggling with a profound lack of awareness of the extent to which this art form (and much of what’s attached to it) is a cultural outlier at best. Truly effective advocates for its survival remain far and few between, and too many of those responsible for engaging in this advocacy seem to have little more to offer than well-worn clichés that do as much harm as good.

    If I was asked why a person who’d never heard of, say, Schumann’s 2nd Symphony should go hear a performance of it, I might talk about how, in spite of the notion that “madness” and artistic creation are linked, how the creative process can be a tool for restoring an internal sense of order, and that Schumann, seeking to recover from a crippling bout of depression, embraced the sublimely coherent music of Bach as a sort of balm and poured what he’d gained from it into his symphony, in many respects nursing himself back to health (albeit temporarily). I’d essentially be talking about the music as another expression of universal human concerns, not as an abstract entity.

    I think the “talk vs. don’t talk” debate within classical radio circles often misses the mark. I think we should talk – in fact I think it’s all but essential – but we have to know what we’re talking about, we have to have interesting things to say, and we have to be good at saying it. Didacticism or Silence strikes me as a false choice.

    By the way, I greatly enjoyed “Understanding Toscanini”. Cheers.

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