Is classical music dying?
While it may depend upon what we mean by “classical”,there has been concern among the cultural elite that the symphony no longer holds its position of cultural importance.
Case in point: while the LA Philharmonic opened the acoustically excellent and architecturally interesting Walt Disney Concert Hall two years ago, it has continued to have “family friendly” nights in order to boost its sagging attendance. Given the availability of pre-concert tickets at a Sunday afternoon showing, it seems attendance levels are returning to their “pre-WDCH” levels.
Now, the New York Philharmonic has hired Alan Gilbert, a relatively unknown conductor, to be its music director. Gilbert is only 40, an infant by classical music’s standards.
More importantly, probably you haven’t heard of him or the decision. Even if record sales and attendance levels are constant or improving, the New York Philharmonic and classical music remain irrelevant to the mainstream culture of America.
But it wasn’t always this way:
In an age of short cultural memories, it is noteworthy how wide-spread an outpouring of regret attended the death of a seventy-eight-year-old opera singer who had retired from the stage nearly 30 years before, especially a singer who was poorly represented by her records, few of which were made when she was in her prime.1 This means that relatively few of the people who mourned Sills’s death could have had any real understanding of why she became famous in the first place—yet they mourned her all the same.
The reason for their sorrow was to be found in Sills’s obituaries, all of which devoted much space to describing her regular appearances on such popular TV series as Tonight, The Carol Burnett Show, and The Muppet Show. These appearances won her the affection of millions of people who would otherwise never have heard of her. Taken together, they may well have been the most consequential thing she ever did.
Sills was not the only American classical musician of her day to reach out to a mass audience. Leonard Bernstein did the same thing, albeit in a more sophisticated way—but his message was the same. Among the first Young People’s Concerts that I saw on TV as a child was a program about American music. At the end, Bernstein introduced an ordinary-looking man in a business suit who proceeded to conduct the finale of a work he had written. The man, Bernstein explained, was Aaron Copland, and the piece was his Third Symphony, one of the permanent masterpieces of American art. Young as I was, I understood the point Bernstein was driving at: the making of classical music is a normal human activity, something that people do for a living, the same way they paint houses or cut hair.
The lack of people like Sills and Bernstein has led to the death of “middlebrow” culture. And while some critics might rejoice at that, Terry Teachout pointedly reminds them that middlebrow culture helped drive box office revenues. He concludes:
This condescending attitude is part of the “entitlement mentality” that has long prevented our high-culture institutions from coming fully to grips with the problem of audience development. Too many classical musicians still think that they deserve the support of the public, not that they have to earn it. One of the signal virtues of America’s middlebrow culture was that for the most part it steered clear of this mentality. Its spokesmen—Bernstein foremost among them—believed devoutly in their responsibility to preach the gospel of art to all men in all conditions, and did so with an effectiveness that our generation can only envy.
Is classical music dead? Probably not, but it has a long way to go before it is relevant once again.