The Undying Art of Classical Music

Every fan of classical music must, from time to time, hear that odious maxim “classical music is dying.” The statement is rarely made by those who know or care anything about the genre, but it has now been repeated so often in popular discourse as to be regarded as an axiomatic truth rather than something up for debate. Second thought is scarcely given.

It is true that our major orchestras and opera companies have seen their share of hardships in recent years, and these flagship institutions are, for better or worse, what most people think of when they hear the term classical music. It is also, by and large, the negative—budget deficits, aging audiences, inadequate facilities, etc.—that most journalists tend to cover when they’re even bothered to write about it.

A decline in arts coverage by local newspapers, themselves often faced with financial setbacks, is no doubt partially responsible for this, I would say, mischaracterization as well. Several blogs and culture websites such as this have emerged over the last few years to fill this journalistic void, but this has merely added to perception of classical music as a niche genre rather than a mainstream interest.

Again, most of those beating the death drum seem to know little or nothing about the classical music world, but this ignorance seldom deters them from proclaiming, often quite boastfully, its impending demise (after all, when has ignorance ever stood in the way of having an opinion?). I suppose one shouldn’t complain given this fact, but it’s hard not to detect the slightest bit of smugness, even joy, within these apocalyptic premonitions.

One cannot help suspecting that this attitude stems from their own inability to understand or enjoy it. Listening to classical music indeed requires time, focus, and above all the willingness to be challenged by new experiences—all qualities we seem so reluctant to spare in this self-obsessed social media age.   With every short-term distraction available at our fingertips, it makes sense then that only a few would devote the requisite energy to so demanding an interest.

Some might also be put off by the air of stuffiness that classical music has acquired throughout the decades—something many musicians and conductors have fought to repel—, but this perception is ultimately unavoidable. Like all true intellectual pastimes, be it the study of high art or the pursuit of scientific understanding, learning classical music cannot be faked by a mere afternoon of armchair research. It requires innumerable hours of listening, study, and quiet contemplation—activities seldom celebrated in popular culture, but that nevertheless form the bedrock of all true understanding.

For serious musicians, this process is even more demanding. It will require thousands of hours of patient practice, instruction, and rehearsal, the result of which may be fleeting minutes of performance on stage. It can surely be said that for every hour of performance, at least 100 was spent in its preparation, and this equation is only multiplied with every additional player. Indeed, whenever you witness a professional orchestra at play, what you are hearing is doubtless the combined result of tens of thousands of hours of dedicated mastery, which, when done correctly, appears an act of effortless creation. One may never witness more concentrated passion than what unfolds on a concert stage.

So is classical music dying? Some clearly wish it so. It has often been the ambition of the vulgar and dispassionate to desecrate and profane that which they cannot possess for themselves. If this is indeed the case, however, classical music must be facing the single longest quietus in recorded history. Worse still—for the naysayers, that is—, the end doesn’t appear to be anywhere in sight.

Today, there is not a major city on Earth without an operating professional orchestra—over twelve hundred in the United States alone. There are, likewise, thousands of opera companies worldwide, which altogether mount tens of thousands of performances every season. It would be nearly impossible to accurately estimate the number of small and chamber ensembles throughout the world, though we may safely assume that there are far more of them, given their much smaller use of resources.

In the United States, there are roughly forty thousand music teachers employed in higher education with over three-hundred thousand students enrolled in college music programs in a given year. Numerous music conservatories pepper our metropoles from one ocean to the other. Orchestras, choirs, wind ensembles, and often all three, may be found in every public school system in the United States. If the younger generation is in the midst of a mass exodus from the genre, it seems no one has bothered to tell them about it.

None of this even begins to speak to the ineradicably deep ways in which classical music has affected our culture.

Adolph von Menzel - Concert for flute with Frederick the Great in Sanssouci - 1852
Painting by Adolph von Menzel: “Concert for flute with Frederick the Great in Sanssouci,” 1852.

There are very few souls on Earth who wouldn’t instantly recognize the opening of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite, or the “Hallelujah Chorus” from Handel’s Messiah, even if they couldn’t name one of them. When pried further, most people tend to know more classical music than even they would have thought. Johann Sebastian Bach, Samuel Barber, Hector Berlioz, Georges Bizet, Luigi Boccherini, Frédéric Chopin, Aaron Copland, Claude Debussy, Paul Dukas, George Gershwin, Edvard Grieg, Gustav Holst, György Ligeti, Modest Mussorgsky, Jacques Offenbach, Carl Orff, Sergei Prokofiev, Maurice Ravel, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Gioachino Rossini, Camille Saint-Saëns, Johann Strauss II, Richard Strauss, Igor Stravinsky, Giuseppe Verdi, Antonio Vivaldi—all are familiar to our ears (and many more), even if we don’t realize it.

Many a bride has unknowingly strolled up the aisle of her wedding to the music of Richard Wagner and then back down it again, one spouse richer, to the music of Felix Mendelssohn. Unnumbered graduates have taken their hard-earned diplomas to the stately marches of Edward Elgar. These are only some of the most obvious examples of classical music’s invisible, yet ubiquitous presence in our culture. But there are countless more—from bumblebees to black swans to a mighty solar eclipse—that conjure very specific classical works from our memory. Ask yourself this important question: has any other musical genre held so wide a reach or left so deep an impression in our collective consciousness?

The music of composers like Richard Wagner and Igor Stravinsky formed the stylistic bedrock for the most iconic film scores in history (in fact, it could be argued that the music of John Williams, which tends to fit squarely within a neo-Romantic idiom, is the most widely recognized of any living musician). Minimalist styles pioneered by such 20th-century composers as Steve Reich and Philip Glass have become so prevalent in modern music that we barely notice them anymore. Sampling, phasing, electronics—techniques used widely throughout the musical world today—all originated in the stately domain of Western concert music. Even the 12-tone scale by which all Westerners define tonality is an invention of classical music. These glories are not behind us: they are a living, breathing part of our musical culture.

Renowned pop stars have teamed up with respected composers to create entirely new sounds, as did Kanye West with Caroline Shaw and Radiohead with Steve Reich. The singer Taylor Swift was so moved by John Luther Adams’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Become Ocean that she donated fifty thousand dollars to the orchestra responsible for its commission, the Seattle Symphony. Can an entire genre really be dead when even our biggest stars can see its value and seek to further its livelihood?

It is one of the most egregious failures of modern arts journalism that the success of classical music is determined solely on the attendance of a major orchestras and opera companies. Would any rational person suggest the comparable decline of printed media as evidence for the death of the written word? The answer is, of course, no. Like any vocation, the institutions of classical music are simply struggling to find their place in a changing world.

Their attendance will rise and fall as it has with each passing generation. Interest will wax and wane as new leaders look for inventive ways to draw in younger audiences. And economy will continue to play a role, as it always has. This does not mean now, nor has it ever, that classical music is dying. There are those of us who say it never will.

Not long before his death, the venerable composer Steven Stucky recalled overhearing this platitude uttered shortly before a performance of Johann Sebastian Bach’s demanding Christmas Oratorio. “Yeah right,” he reflected. “Tell that to the men and women singing. Tell the men and women playing (of whom I was once one) that it doesn’t matter. Tell those whose lives were changed that it didn’t really matter.” He concluded, “’Classical’ music is the sound track, the lifeblood of Western Civilization. It will die when it is no longer needed.”

For what it’s worth, I believe that classical music will be around as long as there are ears to hear and hearts to receive it. You are free to disagree, but then do not be surprised when you are rightly mocked and disregarded by those of us who have taken the time to learn this craft you so cavalierly dismiss. Life is too short and the work is simply too important to give you the time of day.

But, perhaps, instead of mocking classical music and gloating over its institutions’ current travails, you might try giving it a listen instead. There are countless great places to start and never a better time than the present.  The road may be long and demanding, but its riches will be worth the journey.

This seems like a more productive use of time, at least. Because, like it or not, classical music is here to stay.

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