Classical music: dead or alive?

January 30, 2014

A few days ago, Slate ran an article announcing the death of classical music. It was a badly written article. It opened with some sensationalist statements written in a kind of faux-cool journalese that’s calculated to provoke and turn off most classical-music lovers, and it continued with a whole bunch of facts and anecdotes strung together without any attempt to link them or bring them to an actual conclusion.

The article, in short, wasn’t really worth notice. And yet lots of people in the classical music world went ballistic. Some very smart people have spent serious time calling for refutations, and even writing them.


The great Claudio Abbado conducts the Berliner Philharmonic Orchestra in 2001, proving that classical music is alive. Oh, wait, Abbado recently passed away, so this proves that classical music is dead. Such logic abundantly proves my own competency to be a classical music journalist.

Why? Because this is an easy target. This is low-hanging fruit. If you’re a thinking person, it’s child’s play to blow holes in an article like this. And if doing so creates the illusion that you’re standing up for classical music, well and good: it makes a feel-good moment for everyone who thinks the same way. But I don’t really see the point.

I could, of course, be accused of sour grapes, since plenty of us spend lots of time trying to write articles based on actual observation and research about this field and usually get far less response — which itself says something about the success of a sensationalist approach. For a writer, the lesson in the age of digital journalism is to keep it cheap and easy: keep writing about Yuja Wang’s tight dress, or nine-year-olds singing opera arias, because that’s what people (even all you classical music fans out there) actually want to read. But if you’re really looking to defend classical music, follow Internet Rule 1 and don’t feed the trolls. The message that Slate’s editors are getting from all this response is that the piece was a very good idea.

I don’t think, though, that my reaction is as much sour grapes as it is eye-rolling to the vehemence of the reaction. Look: classical music is facing a lot of challenges. So is journalism. When I say this about journalism, people tend to agree with me. When I say it about classical music, to a classical music fan, it’s as if I were a traitor.

Meanwhile, yesterday the Metropolitan Opera actually admitted, in the New York Times, that ticket sales are declining. This is one of our flagship institutions, and Peter Gelb, its general manager, was supposed to be reversing the downward trend in ticket sales. Yet: he’s not (and if he’s saying it in print, you can imagine that the picture is pretty bad). Many people will take this as a reason to blame Gelb, but that’s not the whole story. This is a general, nation-wide trend among large classical music institutions. Yes, there are exceptions. Yes, savvy stewardship is helping some organizations weather the storm. But in general, classical music institutions are facing a pretty challenging future. I can say this and still love Verdi, and Britten, and all the other composers whose work continues to enrich my life. I don’t think that facing facts amounts to a betrayal — indeed, I think the organizations that are doing best are the ones that are most clear-eyed in their assessment of what’s really going on.

To those who spend time refuting the Slate piece and making a logical case for the idea that classical music continues in ruddy good health: emotionally, that probably feels great, and I agree that it’s wonderful that there are more CDs than ever, and more performances than ever. But the economic model is at question here: are people going to be able to earn a living playing classical music the way they could two and three decades ago? Yes, plenty of musicians have always struggled and pieced together freelance work to build a life in music, and orchestra jobs have always been hotly contested, but now we’re talking about the biggest institutions, the wealthy ones, that are reporting trouble. (The parallels to journalism are strong all the way down the line.) I have no doubt that classical music will continue, and prevail: Beethoven and Mozart and Brahms will be heard and played and loved fifty years, a hundred years hence, and young musicians will continue to be drawn to their work. But those young musicians, more and more, are the ones asking questions about what kind of careers they can hope for — and coming up with new answers. Just as young journalists are.

(I even go so far as to question whether the goal should be to keep all of our old institutions alive. In the business world, there are venerable companies and there are new companies, and some old companies that did well for a long time eventually close, and new ones come along to replace them: this indicates a normal, healthy business climate. To attempt to ensure the future of every single institution with a long tradition, simply because it has a long tradition, would be counterintuitive in the business world, and yet that’s what some of us in classical music seem to be asking for. Maybe some 100-year-old orchestras will close, and maybe they’ll be replaced by some other kind of orchestral ensemble that’s better equipped to deal with the 21st century. To me, that sounds like a good thing, and I confess to a bit of regret that we didn’t get to see, in Minnesota, what might have happened had the locked-out musicians of the orchestra continued to develop their own independent model — though of course I’m glad that the musicians are now getting paid again, which is the happiest outcome for them).

What I haven’t seen in refutations of the Slate article so far (though I admit I haven’t read any of it very carefully because, frankly, the whole thing makes me itch) is a question about the piece’s basic premise. What does it mean to say that classical music is dying (“circling the drain,” to be precise) — or to say that, on the contrary, it has a steady heartbeat? Both of these are emotional statements. Both, indeed, could be equally true. Of course classical music is not dying – it’s being performed and recorded everywhere. Of course classical music is dying – even the Met can’t sell tickets.

These assertions have no real meaning, make no difference, and only cloud the picture. And the sound of a herd of classical music fans moving in lockstep, echoing conventional wisdom and cliches about how this music is greater than any other and is just fine, just fine, just so healthy, makes me want to run, fast, the other way. One thing that I deplore about this field in particular is the way that conventional wisdom is elevated, cherished, put on a pedestal, freeing people from the need for actual thought, or research; instead, they gleefully pile on with platitudes (“Oh, did you have to go hear ‘Bang Bang?’” people say of a Lang Lang concert, chuckling at their own cleverness. Not just one person. Ten people, and that’s just to me).

So I say to all of you: take heart. Classical music isn’t dying. I also say to all of you: some people will write bad articles, and that doesn’t signal the death of journalism, either. But for those of us who love the field, let’s think of more productive ways to marshall our intellectual resources than shooting fish in a barrel and congratulating each other about it afterwards. Indeed, such a vehement reaction looks suspiciously like protesting too much, and could lead an intelligent reader to suspect that the Slate article, poor as it is, might actually be onto something.

Anne Midgette came to the Washington Post in 2008, when she consolidated her various cultural interests under the single title of chief classical music critic. She blogs at The Classical Beat.
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Carolyn Hax · January 27, 2014

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