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Classical Music Is Not Dying

August 20, 2007

By John Steinmetz
"Sandow", ArtsJournal, 15 August 2007

Conversations about the death of classical music keep cropping up, as they have for hundreds of years. Here, sparked by recent articles and emails, is yet another response. I'm writing this to try to understand my own beliefs and assumptions. I'm hoping that you will help me improve the ideas. One of the chief concerns in the death notices is that respect is dimming for classical music's elaborate and nuanced language.

Classical music's approaches to harmony and melodic development empower the music to offer long and complex narratives that connect strongly with people's emotions, seeming to go to the heart of the human condition. Now, with classical music losing stature and status, some fear that this kind of musical narrative, and the very ability to construct such narratives, might disappear.

I don't think classical music is going to disappear. Too many people want to make it and hear it. But I believe that it is appropriate for classical music's kind of narrative to slip from center stage. In my opinion, our culture now has musical needs that classical music cannot meet. Classical music has moved off its pedestal to assume a place among other wonderful kinds of world music, contributing its voice to the global chorus while making room for fresh musical ideas to grow.

The change in classical music's status has happened because our culture has changed, as cultures do, and its musical needs have shifted. The shift reminds me of the change in physics in the early 20th century. Before that change, Newton's laws appeared to be universally true. But discoveries by Einstein and others made it clear that Newton's laws apply only to certain phenomena. The status of Newton's laws changed. We still can feel awe at Newton's achievement, we still learn his laws, and they still are very important, but we now see that these laws are limited in scope. Newton's laws are part of a larger picture.

If classical music's ability to speak for the human spirit once appeared unlimited in scope, now the music appears to have limitations. It may not speak for everyone; it may not speak about everything. We can still admire, appreciate, and love classical music, and support it, while also seeing that it does not quite fit society's current self-perception and that it ignores some important issues.

Here are a few ways in which classical music--the music itself, not its mode of presentation or its role in society--has, through no fault of its own, fallen out of step with current values. While humanity struggles to rethink our relationship with the rest of nature, classical music, with its focus on human emotion, is mostly silent about that crucial current issue. While our culture is working to shed old baggage about gender, classical music narratives often emphasize a triumph of "masculine" energies over "feminine" energies. (Even music theory uses gendered language like "feminine endings"-- see Susan McClary's wonderful books for more on this. In keeping with its predominant musical values, composers, conductors, and other power figures in classical music are still mostly male.) Recent thinking about community and interdependence does not fit well with classical music, which instead provides wonderful expressions of individualism while relying on hierarchical musical structures.

Classical music's emphasis on momentum--its special ways of mobilizing harmony toward a goal--biases it toward narratives about motion and development, and weakens its ability to provide other kinds of essential narratives.

Classical music, like any music, reflects the values of the culture that produced it. It's no surprise that it embodies some attitudes that now seem out-of-date while at the same time expressing values many people still care deeply about. Just as Newton's Laws say crucially important things, classical music still has a lot to offer.

Abiding human values dwell in that music, along with great richness and beauty. But classical music does not, and cannot, tell us the whole story of human experience or even the whole story of our own culture. It cannot live at the center any more because we are too aware of the multiplicity of culture; there is no center now.

In a culture of multiple streams, no kind of music can tell the whole story, so classical music will not be replaced at the center of culture by some other kind of music. Instead, our culture will foster many kinds of musical expression, including some new ones uniquely suited to current values, passions, and concerns. I'm sure that that our huge musical landscape will include many different approaches to classical music. As always, there will be obstacles and distractions, some of them quite formidable, but the human craving for music is so strong that people will figure out ways to deal with the problems.

Moving off the pedestal and moving away from the center of culture could actually help classical music. Because it no longer has to act as a cultural ambassador, and because it can shed any responsibility to be respectable and "great," the music can be free to show its full personality, including its crazy streak, its extremes and its looniness as well as its beauty and power. It can be free to emphasize its bewildering and exciting array of styles and approaches. It won't have to pretend to speak with one voice. It can appeal to more kinds of people. It can admit to being many things instead of one thing. What should a person do about all this? Well, love whatever music you love. Encourage musicmaking that is mindful, soulful, honest, lively.

Don't pretend that something's good just because of its category.

Whatever you love about classical music, do what you can to keep that quality alive and present in performances and recordings. If you want your favorite music to remain alive, then help to keep it lively.

This commentary was first posted in "Sandow", Greg Sandow's blog on ArtsJournal. 


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