November 27, 2012 at 6:04 PMThe New York Times had an interesting Sunday Dialogue this week: Is Classical Music Dying?
I'm not entirely thrilled with the way the question is cast, I mean, Are Newspapers Dying?
But never mind, I'll take a stab at the question, which asks us to consider this particular article, in which the writer argues that the younger generation "must be weaned away from the cacophony of rock and the neon glitter of 'American Idol'-type TV shows. Instead of dragging children to concerts, where they squirm with boredom, rent some old movies featuring soundtracks of classical music…"
I'm sure more than a few people, young and old, would take exception to that. I also don't think it would work.
If there is a problem with the "younger generation," it is something that is not their fault: many received no musical education because it has been routinely cut from the curriculum in schools across the United States. They never had the opportunity to play in an orchestra or band, or to sing in a choir.
Perhaps a better way to frame the problem is not that classical music is dying, but that musical literacy is dying. And yes, it is possible to sing a song or even strum a guitar to a pretty high level without it, but musical literacy actually improves ALL kinds of music, not just classical.
What is musical literacy? It involves fluency on an instrument or with the voice, the ability to read music, and a basic understanding of music theory. At higher levels, it involves a knowledge of things like the physics of sound and harmony; the ability to compose melody, harmony and fugue; an understanding of various instruments, etc.
The best pop musicians, the best songwriters, the best guitar players -- they tend to be those who can read music, understand chordal progressions, have a high level of technique on their chosen instrument (including voice), and have overall discipline regarding their art. They also consider their art to be an art, recognizing its depth.
No doubt, people can press a few buttons on a synthesizer and make a "song." But that doesn't make an appreciation for a song, it doesn't make them understand why one thing works and why something else doesn't work. People who are musically literate tend to lose their taste for music that uses the same two chords for the entire tune, or a melody based on three notes, or a long improvisation that never changes chords, etc. They see through "autotune." They aren't satisfied with the stagnant nature of a synthesizer sound. There are many subtle things that make music a success or a failure, and I daresay they are a mystery to most people.
The best way to engage kids (for that matter, anyone) in classical music, and also to enable them to recognize good music in any form, is through participation. Teach them to play instruments or to sing, and start very young. Provide opportunities for older people to do this as well. Taking children to a couple concerts or renting some old movies does something, but not much if it's not part of an overall music education program. We teach people to write when we teach them to read, and we have them read and study many, many books. We don't just read them a good story out loud and then congratulate ourselves for "exposing" them to good literature.
"Weaning" people from rock 'n' roll is ridiculous and unnecessary. We don't need to wean people from any kind of music -- we need to engage them in it.
I do believe that music is the key but I also think it's how we promote classical music. I mean we are not all deaf or blind right. Then why would people pay millions to see mediocre or tone deaf artists that can't produce quality music? I mean my friends were so amazed by violinists that play "storm" on youtube and always tell me how good they are until I play for them. They immediately realize how easy it is.
It's no longer how good you are but how good you are at marketing yourself. I guess classical music needs to catch up with the fashion somehow? :)
Music is perhaps more fluid than other arts, subject to multiple influences, changing constantly over time - consider, for example, how wrongheaded it is to treat "Classical" music as monolithic, as though Vivaldi, Beethoven and Stravinsky were all the same.
Popular music - that is, music made and sold to satisfy the mass market - is abnormally subject to fads and trends, in part because it is intended to be sold to the widest possible audience, and becomes a matter of marketing, not art. The present situation seems to me to be full of glitzy packages of alleged music, assembled not by artists but by engineers, and packaged for sale, not least via the variously spectacular videos, aided by nudity, eroticism and whatnot. History tells us that this is a temporary embarassment, eventually as dangerous as the Charleston is these days, or the scandalous intimacy of the waltz somewhat earlier.
Whether much of this has the quality to survive remains to be seen - consider the flood of music from the 1960's, and how little of it became part of any musical canon.
Well, we already are doing this (to glammorize classical music and musicians...and am sure it is made with good intentions to reach a larger public and be up to our time) but sadly, this is why many people are no longer interested in older or ordinairy musicians and orchestras who can still produce extraordinairy music.
Perhaps we need to find ways to do "a show" without implying the musicians. Maybe the symphonic evenings need livelier people to present the works performed or do a mix between liked classical repertoire and crowed pleaser music. But we can't ask a performer to entertain while playing a difficult concerto... I mean, it's music not a circus!
And Laurie has the most important point... musical education!
While these artists did not stray from a focus on the performance of classical music in its own right and in its own terms, they certainly straddled the boundaries of what we might call today a kind of pop spectacle.
This certainly might have had something to do with their celebrity status with the general public, and indeed may have attracted many people to classical music who otherwise wouldn't be interested.
Until there's another genuine Paganini who comes along, I don't think it makes sense to make a calculated attempt to make classical music "popular" just by doing popular things.
You've all made the point - education, education, education. And if we can solve the problem of education to increase appreciation of classical music, maybe (just maybe) we can also solve some of the world's other problems (such as intolerance, bigotry, ignorance, hunger, war, etc.).
I'm not sure it's reasonable to expect young people to want to see classical music, just like it would be a little odd for a 50-year-old to be stuck on Britney Spears or Justin Bieber.
Consider the letter-writer's opening remark:
A schoolboy recently asked me if Richard Wagner was a pitcher for the Yankees. At that moment I feared that classical music in America was doomed.
I consider that a rather silly statement. Schoolboys don't need to know Wagner. In fact, I still haven't decided whether his music is genius or just sucks.
I find the argument for some kind of superstar-savior to be rather fatuous.
Popularity is one thing that classical music should perhaps not envy. Ever watch "Here Comes Honey Boo Boo" or "Jersey Shore" on TV? Neither have I.
I think it would be advantageous for the classical music community to consider alliances with visual and performing arts; drama, dance,graphic arts, photograph and video. Adapt to the new reality rather than decry the loss of what once was. I'm not thinking of the pit orchestra; but something more on the lines of a split screen.
Many of the "best" pop musicians meet none of those criteria: case in point, Sir Paul McCartney, who can't read music, plays a great bass, but isn't known for that, et al.
Also, this premise assumes that punk or rap or hip hop or garage rock or other kinds of looked down upon by many in the classical music world, lack merit. I'd suggest that attitude is partly responsible for "death" of classical music. Perhaps classical music needs to be redefined. If Brahms sonatas as not relevant,perhaps that's because music has evolved over the centuries.
If so-called contemporary classical music were to get more respect from the classical music audience (who hasn't seen symphony goers turn up their collective nose at a Ligeti piece, for instance) then classical music would have a greater impact in the mainstream and may attract younger audiences.
The classical music world needs to reassess itself and need look no further to assess blame.
On the nate, I was encouraged to see that the NY Phil is planning to re-invent the concert hall for the future in its upcoming rehab of Avery Fischer Hall.
Music education and literacy can give people a wider basis for appreciating and engaging in all kinds of music in their lives. And those people who are so interested in music that they form a garage band are going to find a lot more success, armed with more ability and more knowledge. The idea that a rap musician and a pop musician must, by definition, be uneducated in music, is insulting.
The best musicians tend to have enough curiosity and respect for music to become educated and practiced in it. For example, McCartney was a fan of classical music from early in his life and attended performances -- it undoubtedly affected the way he composed music. Later in life, McCartney aspired to write symphonies -- interesting that he was drawn to that. Was his inability to read a hindrance or limitation? It's certainly an arguable point.
Take a close look, and most of the best musicians of any genre are literate, and their literacy is a great asset.
Sure, classical music always has had and always will have its ups and downs. But overall, as long as there are human beings, there will be a certain percentage of us, no matter how small, who will recognize and appreciate and be moved by the transcendent emotional impact of this exalted musical genre.
And if this is true, it will never die - even if we can't find another Leonard Bernstein.
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