Thursday, January 10, 2008

Relevance of classical music...

...Apparently not diminishing


  1. Frank, arguing the diminishing relevance of classical music in today's younger-skewing culture hardly seems new ..... there were similar arguments being made when I was a teen in Pennsylvania, back in the 70s, and field trips included concert nights in Philly, to hear Ormandy and the Philadelpha Orchestra (and theater nights in Bucks County) .....

    Some of the pop music we listened to, back then, recognized the relevance of classical music ..... with top hits by Deodato (Strauss/"Also Srach Zarathustra"), Apollo 100 (Bach/"Jesu, Joy of Man's Desire") and Emerson, Lake & Palmer (Copeland/"Fanfare for the Common Man") .....

    But what abour CONTEMPORARY classical music ..... I noticed many of the references in the article you cited were made to composers of the first-half of the 20th century, or older ..... besides Phillip Glass, is there a modern composer out there who has the capacity to excite new, young listeners and demonstrate the continued vitality and relevance of classical music?

  2. Anonymous9:25 AM

    I doubt it, Jeff, anymore than there is a modern artist who can truly excite folks who know nothing of Rembrandt. There is a reason the classics remain, well, classic.

    I think there is more hope than realism in this article. Two years ago we took our beloved twelve year old son to Tanglewood in the hope the little terrorist would broaden his decidedly limited tastes. The "family" program was almost all modern and therefore torture for him. But what was really depressing was that 95% of the audience was clearly over forty.

  3. Hi, my name is Jen. I posted on the relevance of classical music today. I am interning with Frank. I recognize that the issue certainly isn't new but as a teenager with some interest in classical music,I can see some truth in Anthony Tommasini's theory that classical music is too "weighty" and too long for my generation to enjoy as much as a pop, or rap song for example, which arguably doesn't necessarily require an "independence of mind".

  4. Don't blame the kids.

    If they grow up around it, they'll be exposed to it and might eventually like it.

    My father listened to the Met Opera radio broadcast every Saturday for his entire life. My mother was a classically trained pianist who taught piano and was on the boards of orchestras, and so forth. We grew up in a household where all music—not just classical—was listened to and enjoyed.

    In terms of contemporary classical music, it may not be as "pop" as it once was—but then, was it ever, really? Mozart's era was about the last era in which pop and classical music were the same thing; his operas were sung on street corners by amateurs, they were so popular.

    I find the attitude expressed in the comments to be the same sort of attitude that has always said "there is nothing new under the sun, and it's all getting worse." (Reminds me of your own excellent coined phrase, Frank, the pornography of despair.)

    In fact, there's a lot of great new music being made, performed and recorded—more than ever before, in fact. But if you don't seek it out, it's true you're not likely to trip over it. Don't blame classical music for that, though; blame yourself for not going looking for it, and for not playing it where your kids can hear it.

  5. I think I agree with you, Art. There is very little we can do to encourage teenagers to take an interest in classical music if they don't already have at least a passing acquaintance with it from an earlier age. Like most other art forms, it is essential that we are exposed to them from an early age. Reading being a prime example. Very few adults are avid readers who grew up in homes without books.

  6. Anonymous8:35 PM

    Sounds like a strenuous work-out in the gym. Art, why should I have to "go looking for it"? I don't have to go looking for pre-20th century classics. They are all around me and regularly outsell and outdraw the contemporary stuff. They look for me and they will grab kids a lot faster than most contemporary stuff. Granted an appreciation for all great music requires effort and, sure, exposure in the home gives youth a head start, but even among those already attuned to classical music, I doubt more than a small minority of elite aficionados would agree that "there's a lot of great new music being made, performed and recorded—more than ever before, in fact".

    It's a bit analagous to architecture. You can preach about and admire all kinds of wondrous things modern architecture has done, but how many ordinary folks will you convince to go on cathedral tours of Chicago and Toronto?

  7. Peter, I do sympathize—but only to a point.

    But your attitude does seem to exemplify, however, exactly WHY classical music is being lamented about in this thread: if everyone felt that way, then it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. And then the kids don't hear the music, etc. etc., and let's go around in circles again.

    If it's too much bother to do a little bit of work—and in these days of the internet, doing a little bit of research is ridiculously effortless; just check out BBC 4—then you get exactly what you expect, and you have created exactly the situation that you are complaining about.

    Someone's unwillingness to do even that much work just tells me that they don't really care about it at all, but are just voicing an opinion without really knowing or caring what they're talking about. Which of course is their right. As it is my right to disagree. *shrug*

    As for the comment of mine you disparage as being the province of elite afficionados, as a matter of fact it is simply statistically true that more new music is being recorded, written, and performed than even before. That's because recording is easier than ever before, the new technologies make dissemination and creation easier than ever before, and make it easier than ever before for aficionados, elite or otherwise, to get in touch with each other about their shared interests. Of course this is hardly limited to new music, but is true for just about any "special interest group" who cares enough to put some time into it.

    The "ordinary folks" argument is simply you typical anti-elitist argument in a nutshell, and again it's a self-fulfilling prophecy.

    The main reason why orchestras don't program more new music, it is true, is because their subscription ticket audience mostly likes to hear the classics, so they program the classics, but if they never program the new music, then the audience doesn't ever hear the new music and learn to like it, and they can't even have a chance to learn about the new music because they never hear, so of course all they want to hear the classics, and around we go again in a nice bit of circular reasoning. Talk about a vicious circle!

    So, again: don't blame it on the kids. Blame it on ourselves.

  8. What I don't understand from this exchange is, 'at what point were we blaming the kids?'

    I cited examples of kids embracing the classics, in one form or another, whether it was in the traditional venue of the concert hall or on 'American Top 40'

    Peter's getting his kiddo out there and exposed ..... but exposed to what? and to what effect? ..... and is that his child's fault, or the music's?

    Jennifer makes a good point for making the classics accessible, especially in regard to programming that suits a younger style (not taste, but style) of listening and appreciation .....

    So, who's blaming the kids?

  9. Anonymous6:49 AM

    Art, Jeff:

    I'm not blaming the kids (although I would like to) and I am aware I am skirting the borders of nostalgia and grumpy-old-manism. Art, the kind of family you grew up in is a blessed one and I am envious, but I think it comes from much more than parenting techniques transferable to all or the raw number of hours exposed to serious music. We may not be talking about mass popularity a-la-Timberlake, but my undertanding of the article is that it is addressing more than just the innately talented who grew up among accomplished professional musicians. I have no trouble with the notion that parents should try harder, but most parents today are as cut off as their kids and so the whole exercise starts to ressemble a call for parents who never studied Latin to push Latin lessons on their kids. It is not easy or even always desirable for parents to doggedly push skills and aptitudes when there is no support in schools or among peers. Just ask immigrants determined to teach their kids the mother tongue.

    When all is said and done, the hard truth is that, no matter how prolific, most modern classical music and modern art is inaccessible and, if not openly self-indulgent, at least divorced from the lives of the listeners. Yes, it takes work and discipline, but for most folks that process starts with a spark of intrique or even wonder that fuels the desire. You are much more likely to get that from Tchaikovsky, Beethoven or Mozart than from Stravinsky or Copeland.

    It's not unlike modern literature. If I have to read one more novel that probes the endless emotional depths of the author's psyche, I'm going to take out my gun. I want brilliant, artful prose combined with a ripping good read that speaks to my life and its challenges. And yes, I want to be seduced, not dismissed sniffily for lacking in complexity or not trying hard enough. So shoot me.

    (BTW, Art, I think the overlap of the popular and classical is much later than Mozart. Italian workmen were singing Puccini in the streets a hundred years ago and parents were terrified of those sexy, daring Strauss waltzes.)

  10. Peter, my last question was not directed at you, but at Art, who kept telling us not to blame the kids .....

    But I would like to visit that BTW of yours ..... I agree that the overlap of the popular and classical is much later than Mozart ..... in fact, we have something that Mozart, Puccini and Strauss did not have - the cinema, which may have delivered more classical music into more popular consideration than any other medium ..... and not just the movies - what would early Warner Brothers cartoons have been without classical music?

  11. Well, this comment thread certainly proves we don't need me here. I think I'll just let Jen do the posting from now on.
    But I will make a comment on the topic. When I was in high school, I could regularly hear on the local classical music station and also at Philadelphia Orchestra concerts works by contemporary composers that were definitely not old-fashioned, but just as definitely accessible to anyone with an open ear. Ormandy played a piece by Ned Rorem when Ned was only in his 30s. I remember hearing the John La Montaine piano concerto (which won a Pulitzer, I think). This was music that was traditional in the best sense: It worked within the framework of tradition, but expanded the range of that tradition as well. The switch to playing works by composers of "challenging" music not only turned off audiences, but a lot of performers as well. I love the music of Charles Ives and Carl Ruggles, but composers like that are born, not made - and they're always a little off by themselves. What classical music needs, quite simply, is composers who write music that audiences like to listen to, not music that critics or theorists or scholars insist is great whether we like it or not.

  12. Anonymous6:38 AM

    Succinct and pithy, although can we completely dismiss Art's point about the importance of effort and training? Frank, it would be great if you could do a post on how your first love, poetry, is taught in the schools today and whether you think there is a similar "turn-off" factor by too much focus on the modern. I'm far from an expert, but I have a sense that, when it comes to the arts, kids today are often caught between completely untrained teachers going through the motions and culturally isolated, passionate experts too anxious to skip the basics and jump to the more difficult and inaccessible modern. Just to give a very simple example, my wife teaches in a private grade school and several times a year the bulletin boards in the halls are festooned with the poetry of young students who have obviously been told just to "express themselves". without any rules on form. If the subject is, say, winter, you get things like this:

    "Snowflakes tickling my nose,"
    "Boots cluttering the hall."
    "I love winter!"

    Of course everyone oohs and aahs at the brilliance while I giggle meanly and privately, but then I feel sad that the kids are being deprived of a voyage of discovery through rhyme and meter that might truly grab some of them and send them on their way. Am I a hopeless dinosaur?


    Thanks for the post and I am sorry if I sidetracked everyone from your original question. Yes, I believe modern rock/rap, especially non-stop through an Ipod, ends up being just numbing background that creates an impatience with, and resistance to, more demanding stuff. How can we expect one overexposed to chariot races and gladiator contests in Roman Circus's to invest the time and effort needed to master the beautiful strategic artistry of baseball or curling?

  13. At my school - I attend an area private school - we have at least one major poetry unit a year. In 9th grade we used the Norton anthology "The Making of the Poem" to study and learn to write villanelles, sestinas, and odes among other forms. We learned that the best way to further our own writing was to work within the parameters of a rhyme scheme and meter. We were allowed to break the form but only if we did so in an elegant and/or creative way. We studied modern poets and older poets who wrote in the same forms. I for one can say that the way I learned about poetry did not result in an aversion nor was I ever encouraged to write something like:
    "Snowflakes tickling my nose,"
    "Boots cluttering the hall."
    "I love winter!"