The last time I wrote in this space about classical music — and the business of classical music — was the spring of 2002. At the time, I sounded almost, but not quite, optimistic:

I don't believe, even for a moment, that classical music is actually going to die; its audience may always be a minority, but there's no indication that it's shrinking.

Douglas McLennan, writing for Newsweek, sees no problem with the audience either. What's damaged, he says, is the infrastructure:

The art of classical music is broken. Though the business of music continues to have its ups and down — orchestras and soloists and chamber groups play on, and the money keeps coming in — the structure supporting the art itself has busted.

The problem is particularly acute with new music. It scarcely matters how enthusiastically the premiere of a new piece of music is greeted — there's no longer a reliable mechanism by which it can build a critical consensus that will bring it to a wider audience.

In other words, there's no buzz. What we think of as "the culture" has grown so large, so extensive, that it's now quite possible to be (or to appear to be, which may be just as important) some sort of cultural maven without a single reference to the music of the masters, and without serious support from the cognoscenti, there's simply no way to get new music into the hearts and minds of more than a piddling few. And new music is absolutely essential: there's no room for growth if people believe nothing worthwhile has been written since, say, The Rite of Spring. McLennan is even blunter:

[C]an you name even one work written in the past decade that's found a wide audience and joined the standard repertoire?

He's got me there. All the activity, and all the sales, seem to be coming from the Department of Crossovers, where things can pass for classical if they push the right buttons. And while there's nothing particularly wrong with wringing out a few sales in this manner, it detracts from the business of building new composers and (to a lesser extent) new perfomers.

For the person who really does believe nothing worthwhile has been written since The Rite of Spring, McLennan offers an explanation:

[T]he language of music got intensely conceptual and experimental in the 20th century, and many people lost the thread of the conversation. Once out, they found it difficult to rejoin, even after composers took a turn back toward more traditional shores. This is an argument that has found wide currency to explain classical music's current woes. Yet visual art took conceptual leaps every bit as daring and became more energized, not less. Classical music, on the other hand, took audience rejection of high-concept music as a sign it should retreat.

Perhaps this is because audience rejection, in this context, translates directly into fewer seats filled, and orchestras, even chamber ensembles, are painfully aware of revenue shortfalls.

So how do we go about rebuilding buzz? I wish I knew. I wish Douglas McLennan knew. But he titled his piece "Requiem", which isn't optimistic in the slightest. In the meantime, I'm sticking with what I said: there's no evidence that the audience is shrinking. It's just not growing. And in a nation with a growing population, that's bad news indeed.

The Vent

8 July 2003

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 Copyright © 2003 by Charles G. Hill