Reversing the Decline in Classical Music
By Frank Manheim

I'm a research scientist by training, as well as a lifelong musical activist. I early learned that to deal with any problem you have to first understand it - or the chances of solving it are poor. So let me first try my hand at defining what the "decline in classical music" means.

Classical music is strong, as strong as it's ever been - in our leading conservatories of music. It rides high in most university departments of music, though a number have suffered attrition or branched out into fields other than "serious music". We have fantastic soloists, ensembles, and orchestras. Classical is strong in prize-awarding organizations and music competitions, and of course in our major symphonies and opera boards.

Where classical has declined is in sales of recordings (<3% of CD's), and it's virtually not a participant in the online music transfer trend. It's declined steeply in education, where music classes have totally disappeared in many systems, and school orchestras have become rare. It has declined in radio and TV programs, and many classical music stations have disappeared. With this is a decline in newspaper reviews (except in the Washington Post). Amateur music competence and performance has declined, and there is also a retreat of classical music in churches,with many moving into electronic/soft rock directions.

So the MUSIC ESTABLISHMENT is strong, but its ties to AUDIENCES AND MUSICALLY ACTIVE PERSONS have grown systematically weaker. Many of us agree that without new strategies leading to a turnaround, classical will continue to decline, since the younger generations are dominantly rock based and have little exposure to classical. So NAXOS's initiative is important, because the time to find and act on recovery strategies is while there is still a critical mass of classical music skill and activity in place.

Leonard Bernstein was one of the few music leaders in the past 50 years concerned about the divide between the music establishment and the audience. Already in a book of 1964, Bernstein said the gulf between musicians and audiences was not just an ocean "but a frozen ocean". This view implies that at least a large share of responsibility for the current trends lies with the formal musical establishment. People who remain in denial of this insight don't offer any hope for change.

Why did that gulf emerge? Nikolaus Harnoncourt, a noted early-music pioneer, pointed out in a book translated in 1988, that music audiences have always demanded a "truly vital contemporary music". But, he asserts, "today's [serious] music satisfies neither the musician nor the public, both of whom reject a large portion of it" (that's why he moved to early music). He's saying that contemporary "classical composition" in the last 60 years has been dominated by an inward or peer approval orientation. Contemporary composers were supposed to follow their inner muse and what was musically correct, not care whether audiences understood them or not. Most current conservatory students will probably agree that composition that appeals to wider audiences will tend to be stigmatized as pandering to low popular taste, rather than being "interesting", "deeper", and artistically more meaningful. We can argue about the merits, but audiences are voting with their feet. In summary, without music that speaks to audiences today the marvelous musics of the past alone cannot sustain an effective classical culture.

If we accept these concepts it means that no amount of attractive packaging of older classics will stop the decline. We have to have new, exciting contemporary serious music that will both attract audiences, amateurs, etc., and entrain younger talents. These concepts may seem radical to some. I am not suggesting a revolutionary assault on the musical establishment, even if there were agreement. Nor do I have a solution to what "meaningful new music" means. I just say we have to have it. What I suggest as a first step is to expand discussion and debate about current music establishment philosophies, entrain a larger group of musically-motivated people, hopefully including dissidents within the establishment, and then identify new initiatives (and I wouldn't mind them being a bit revolutionary).