Evolving, Not Dying

Classical music: is it dying, shrinking, undergoing a metamorphosis, or what? Edward Rothstein, former head music critic and current critic at large at the New York Times, writes today that

[t]he sounds of a dying tradition are painful, particularly if the tradition’s value is still so apparent, at least to the mourners, and still so vibrant to a wide number of sympathizers. . . .

That is how I often think of the Western art-music tradition — the classical tradition — these days, and though I once tended to whine about its problems with cranky optimism, now even a stunning performance seems like a spray of flowers at a funeral.

His meditative piece is prompted by Lawrence Kramer’s Why Classical Music Still Matters, which i have yet to read. Rothstein points out that “. . . traditions do come to an end. The reading of ancient Greek and Latin — once the center of an educated person’s life — now seems as rarefied as the cultivation of exotic orchids.”

But there are plenty of people (well, some people) who read those ancient languages; not far from where I live there is wonderful orchid grower. Neither Latin nor orchids are dead. All over the world, there are those who take delight in listening to and, most importantly, playing “classical” music. Yes, a certain approach to what we call classical music, or art music, has lost its centrality, but being marginalized is different than being dead.

Things do change. The distinction between art and non-art music, and the notion of “great art” itself, is a largely Romantic concept. As are the conventions, developed in the nineteenth century, of “great music” composed by “great masters,” performed by “great artists,” in temple-like spaces in which the audience sits in reverential silence while the music is performed on a stage.

As a cultural ideal, this Romantic concept is dying. But how dominant was it ever, at least in the United States? How long a tradition are we talking about?

Let’s look at symphony orchestras as an example. The New York Philharmonic didn’t become fully professional until 1907, according to an online video interview with Ted Wiprud, the orchestra’s education director. Exactly what he means by “fully professional,” I’m not sure. Perhaps that everyone got paid? Or that during the season, the work was full-time? For the NYP didn’t provide full-year employment until 1964, according to Alan Kozinn of the Times. Back in 1950, according to an interview with Ralph Gomberg, only the Boston Symphony employed its musicians year-round, made possible, I understand, by its Tanglewood season. Searching the web, it’s hard to find reliable data on that. For example, Chris Durham of the AFofM writes,

During the 1964-65 season, only three orchestras–Chicago, New York, and Philadelphia. Philadelphia had 52-week seasons. New York was the only orchestra whose entire membership was employed for 52 weeks. Chicago and Philadelphia had two tiers with lesser weeks (50 and 47). Today, 20 orchestras have 52- week seasons.

No mention of Boston there. 1930 saw the first year-round orchestra in Britain (the BBC), according to Boris Tschaikov. And this article says it was the late 1960s when the first Canadian orchestra offered a 52-week contract. More research will turn up more detail. My point, though, is that the supposedly-dying “classical music tradition” is a short one. As Rothstein points out, music from roughly 1785-1915 forms the core of the classical canon. The great symphony orchestras, which we think of as the central institutions of the tradition, are relatively young. The NYP formed in 1842, the same year as the Vienna Philharmonic, a self-governed cooperative of opera-orchestra musicians. Boston followed in 1881, Berlin 1887, the Concertgebow 1888, Chicago 1891, Munich 1893, and Philadelphia in 1900 (all according to Grove Online).

Interestingly, these great institutions developed into their present form as the common practice period came to an end, and it was not until about 40 years ago that they really began to function year-round. Employment conditions are not necessarily relevant to a discussion of cultural importance and value, but to those of us who are working musicians, and who teach those with professional ambitions, they are indeed important matters.

In addition to the esoteric “art music” of the 20th century, there was a creative explosion in other forms of music. Jazz, Broadway music, and rock in the U.S., so much of which is central to the consciousness of even art musicians. There is tremendous meaning and nuance of emotion to be found within those genres. Rothstein quotes Kramer as writing about classical music that, “No other music tells us the things that this music does.” But it is deeply true to me that Frank Sinatra at his best singing Cole Porter, and Billy Holliday singing about anything, take me places no classical piece does. The mix of vulnerability, pain, tenderness and strength in Judy Garland is as unique and potent as any classical singer, and more eloquent and moving than most.

And that’s why we find composers like Roger Bourland, the new chair of music at UCLA, writing about Rufus Wainright and Edith Piaf and country music, treating it as respectfully as Schoenberg. 20 years ago, I had lunch at the house of a rising young classical pianist in Paris. He was listening to Pink Floyd, and said, “this is the future of music, not serialism.”

In Greg Sandow’s most recent post, he briefly discusses John Seabrook’s book Nobrow, “which argues that the distinction between high and popular culture doesn’t have much force for many people any more.” Greg is one of those contemporary classical-music composers and critics who take popular culture (especially “semi-popular culture,” as he explains) seriously. And he challenges those who dismiss non-classical music to make their case referring to particular albums and songs. “I could be a brat, and say that all I’m asking is for people who reject popular music to show that they actually know something about it.”

The “classical music tradition” has always been in flux, and has never been as stable or as truly central in (American) life as many of us imagine it to be or have been. And the distinction between high and popular secular art is an essentially Romantic concept, not an eternal truth.

I see a tradition evolving, as it has always been doing, not dying.

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