Thursday, November 19, 2009

Classical Music is Not Dead

"Men profess to be lovers of music,
but for the most part they give no evidence
in their opinions and lives
that they have ever heard it."
- Henry David Thoreau

Conventional wisdom suggests that classical music is dead. Public interest is at an all-time low with sales of concert tickets and recordings lagging far behind other entertainments. The few major orchestras that remain are programming 'audience friendly' concerts that feature film scores and the old (familiar) warhorses of the repertoire. Alas, the end is near!

Much of my adult life has been spent defending classical music as something meaningful – something that has purpose. Like the curator of a musical museum, I have tried to keep the dust from settling on great compositions by listening to, teaching, and performing them.

Pieces of classical music (and by 'Classical Music' I am referring generally to non-popular genres, not specifically to the Classical period of European music from the late 18th century) are like 'artifacts' of western history, culture, and religion distilled into sound. They are the most honest representations of sacred and secular thought and feelings. The best works manifest a mysterious phenomena, mediation between the temporal and spiritual worlds. Others are just beautiful, or joyful, or triumphant. I can not list all of the possible adjectives because music expresses that which transcends language.

Great classical music is more available now than ever before. There are thousands of beautiful recordings on-line. The world is full of amazing, charismatic performers. For ten dollars you can buy all of the Beethoven piano sonatas on CD and enjoy them for a lifetime. There no laws forbidding you from listening. There is no punishment for over-indulging. So what is missing?

Time and attention. Most classical music was written before the age of television. People had a different concept of time then. A long evening in the concert hall was a special occasion. Instead of waiting for a sonata to end, the listener would wish it could go on and on. Their attention also had a different scope. Classical music was enjoyed because the listener could focus on shifting tonalities and developing musical ideas over several minutes. That is how the composer gave the music 'form.' Musical memory was more persistent too. Audiences would leave after the premiere of a new work humming the tunes. Not now.

Music today, as a whole, is much more disposable. We do not invest much attention in listening because there is always another 3-minute song waiting to follow. Very few popular songs have engaging melodies and interesting harmonies. Music has stopped being about pitches, rhythms and timbres. It is about words and 'the beat.' Society has lost the ability to understand music that is not patently 'dumbed down' to the most common audience.

Not only does it seem like fewer people have any interest in classical music, but many actually make a point of criticizing those of us who do. Classical music has unfairly become a symbol for 'cultural elitism.' It should not be. Like the inner-city kid who wants to learn and is ridiculed by the other kids when he makes good grades, there is disdain for those of us who truly enjoy classical music. Hollywood makes a point of associating classical music with snobs and socially inept characters.

Maybe our modern lives are so hectic, fragmented, and over-saturated with popular music, there is too little time to indulge in something antique – like a classical symphony. Because classical music relies on subtle expression to evoke deep emotional responses, it is out-of-place in an impatient, superficial world. As a late baby-boomer, I have lived through the golden age of rock music and fully recognize popular music for its fun, commercial, and entertainment value. Here in Nashville, country music is king. But classical music can transcend the social/economic matrix that shapes listening habits and opinions. It can speak to all of us, universally, and across generations.

It can also be very exciting. Live music is (by its nature) ephemeral. During a classical concert the performers and the audience share a sublime intensity that is, at any split-second, both tangible and transient. Classical works are cleverly designed to engage the listener and hold them breathless, supported only by an invisible thread of sound. Even if the music is familiar, the listener feels a curiosity about how the orchestra will interpret a phrase, or how a soloist will execute a cadenza.

Maybe in a major metropolitan city with a fine professional orchestra, and an audience of wealthy patrons, there are enough ticket sales to support classical music. But across most of America this is simply not the case. Following a decline of interest in classical music comes the decline in economic support. Large professional ensembles struggle to pay their bills. Talented players end up in jobs that have nothing to do with making music.

The legacy of classical music is carried on by willing (and unwilling) music students and a few amateur adults. I play with several dozen other amateurs in a community orchestra. Not every note is perfectly in tune, nor every rhythm articulated with precision. For those music lovers who rehearse and perform solely for the joy of making music together, for those of us who keep our iPods loaded with Haydn and Schubert, classical music is still 'alive.'

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