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.

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Posted by Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.


  1. Well, I wish to make a shallow and self-serving comparison: Classical is to music what Anglicanism is to churchdom. Apparently insignificant, chock-full of crazies and disenfranchised nerds, always on the verge of death, but always bubbling so close below the surface that once you know about it you wonder why no one else does.

    Is Classical dying? Always, just like anything best, like Classics departments and microbreweries.

    Yet, and I speak mostly from familial experience, never have there been more students enrolling in collegiate and graduate music performance programs. Never have there been better artists, or technologies to make instruments and music halls. Finding cheap and interesting concerts is more possible for us than at any time in history, I presume.

    Fair enough that all such programs have to be subsidized since they can’t survive on their own unless they are the Mozarteum or the ROH. But it’s always been an elitist form of entertainment. When at its best an elitism with popular appeal, but without the snobs of Vienna et all who would financially prop up court composers (good and bad), it seems most efforts would have been for hoffbrau tunes.

    My iPod isn’t killing Classical, it has a lot of Tallis Scholars and Beethoven on it that I got offa iTunes isself. And a lot of weird obscure recordings are available for CHEAP on iTunes, stuff that people like me can’t really find elsewhere.

    And Classical almost single-handedly provides the heart-beat of every other genre; could there be some unapparent pyramid effect that props up classical retrospectively? Financially? I don’t know.

    There, that’s my grossly oversimplified critique of the death of Classical music. Perhaps increasingly it will be universities and conservatories who bring us the best and affordablest concerts and even recordings.

    One thing seems clear, the number of people willing to try their hand and, thus, live as starving artists indicates that the number of artists should be reassuring to us.


  2. P.S. I think this dying Classical phenom is more American than European, where the Beethovens and Tchaikovskys are the heart of national and patriotic music.

    The Beatles sort of are to England that same front of the 20th century. America seems to lack such a Classical representation since Copeland may be great but he didn’t outshine whoever would be the Beatles equivalent to Americans.

    Sousa died a self-made millionare in the 30’s. Was he a sell-out?


  3. […] CSO concerts last year seemed well attended, but Mere Orthodoxy things (music) classical is on the wane. […]


  4. Surfsnell,

    Obviously, “dying” is a loaded term–dying where, and in what respect? I have no fears that classical music performances will disappear, which is partly why I linked both articles. The first is much more “bullish” on the state of classical music.

    I’m also intrigued by your claim that it’s “demise” is an American phenomenon. That’s not something I’ve ever considered before.


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