What Else is Wrong with Classical Music

by Colin Eatock

Music Last year, in my essay “What’s Wrong with Classical Music,” I discussed the causes of the marginalization of classical music in the Western world today. That essay approached the topic from the outside, examining the reasons why people who don’t like classical music are put off by it. In this “sequel,” classical music is approached from the inside. To do this, I’ll take a more subjective approach, addressing those aspects of the classical music world that I personally find troubling.

I’ve been around the classical music block – as a composer, critic, scholar, educator, booking agent and administrator. As a result, I find that my own “issues” often differ from the concerns of people blissfully unaware of what lies hidden behind classical music’s façade. Yet even though some of the things I find problematic might not be readily identified as problems at all by many others, they have an adverse effect on classical music in the world today. I believe that if my various concerns were successfully addressed, the changes wrought would be beneficial in subtle yet far-reaching ways.

Fixation on the Canon

In the hyper-canonic world of classical music, there are only a few dozen composers who really count. All the rest – those composers you can’t buy a plaster bust of – receive little or no attention. I don’t have any great quarrel to the composers who have been accepted into the pantheon: Bach, Beethoven and Brahms wrote some wonderful music. However, I do question the idea that the formation of the canon was, as some people believe, a “natural” process caused by “the cream rising to the top.” (To accept this idea is to place far too much faith in the universe’s propensity for justice.) And I do have a quarrel with the idea that the composers who have somehow risen to the top are the only ones worthy of the world’s interest.

There are, to be sure, advantages to this star system. By focussing narrowly on a small number of composers and works, commonly shared tastes are cultivated, and a securely large audience for popular repertoire has been built up: a core audience for a core repertoire. Few musical organizations would dare to present a concert season that contained no widely acknowledged masterpieces by great composers, fearing box-office death. But they know they can rely on a handful of famous composers and works to sell their tickets.

On the other hand, fixation on “greatness” leads to repetitious programming. It’s also alarmingly unimaginative: for people to unquestioningly accept, holus-bolus, a repertoire based on decisions already well established in their grandparents’ day smacks of cultural sclerosis. One exceptional corner of the musical world – where a process of re-evaluation and enrichment took place throughout the twentieth century – is the early-music movement. But even the early-music specialists are losing their sense of adventure nowadays, and are settling into a core repertoire of their own.

Dining at McDonald’s

The classical music world has become predictable and homogenized in other ways, too. Throughout the Western world, just about every major city has a symphony orchestra, and probably also an opera company. As well, there will surely be a few choirs and chamber-music societies presenting annual concert series, and parade of pianists playing recitals. But how many cities are home to truly distinctive musical institutions that you couldn’t find anywhere else?

I’m thinking of Le Poisson Rouge in New York, where classical music is presented in a club setting. And I’m thinking of Les Percussions de Strasbourg, a unique percussion sextet from a French city that isn’t Paris. In my home city of Toronto, there’s Opera Atelier, one of the few “period” baroque opera companies in the world; and the Esprit Orchestra, dedicated exclusively to contemporary orchestral works. But these, alas, are the exceptions. Often, traveling from one city to another to attend performances only serves to underscore the cookie-cutter sameness of classical music’s institutions. You might as well stay home.

Liberate the Third World

Did you know that there’s a First, Second, and Third World of classical music? The First World countries are those that can claim the canonic composers as their patrimony: Germany, France, Austria, Italy and Russia hold pride of place as the nations that “own” almost the entire canon of Western classical music. Second World countries include the USA, the UK, Japan, and those nations on the European continent that lack “A-List” composers (such as Holland or Switzerland). All these countries possess fine orchestras, opera companies, etc., and have made themselves economically significant to the classical music business. Whereas the First World is essentially a closed club that exists for historical reasons (like the British Commonwealth) nations can buy their way into the Second World.

Then there’s the Third World. Included in this category are a large number of countries where classical music has a presence, but not enough of a presence to matter much to the rest of the world. If all classical music performances ceased in Armenia, Chile or New Zealand, few people outside these countries would care or even notice. Because I myself am a classical music devotee from a Third World country (Canada), I’m perhaps more acutely aware of this problem than someone who lives in a more “important” nation might be. From where I stand, the classical music industry looks highly centralized, dominated by a handful of foreign countries.

The problem with this model is that it marginalizes so much of the world’s artistic activity, by arbitrarily dividing the classical music world between places that matter and places that don’t. This isn’t just arrogant and unfair, it’s also musically impoverishing for everyone. How many people around the world – even those who take an active interest in contemporary classical music – know the works of the brilliant Canadian composer R. Murray Schafer? And what else is being virtually suppressed in other “obscure” parts of the world?

Criticizing Criticism

It’s well known that the newspaper business is in trouble: when the New York Times finds itself threatened with insolvency, things must be pretty bleak. And one of the things that cash-strapped editors seem quite willing to do to cut costs is lay off the classical music critic. While there are some people in the music business whose antipathy for critics might tempt them to say “good riddance,” I would argue that the decline of newspaper criticism this is a bad thing.

Music criticism in newspapers serves a vital function: it helps to maintain a public space for classical music. The mass media plays a substantial role in defining what is important in society – and if classical music coverage were dropped from newspapers (as it has already been dropped from television and radio in some places), this music would become culturally invisible to all but the initiated. Some would argue that criticism has simply migrated to the internet. To be sure, the internet offers exciting possibilities, but it lacks the authority that daily newspapers can still wield. Anyone can publish anything on the internet, but newspapers are a different matter.

Yet at the same time, when I read much music criticism, I can’t help empathizing with the newspaper editor who wonders what the point of it all is. In comparison to many other arts – theatre, film, visual art – in which conflicting aesthetic ideals openly strive with each other, classical music seems to aspire to a kind of pristine issuelessness. And the gossipy scandal-mongering that helps other arts writers spice up their columns is largely unavailable to the classical music critic: scandals in the classical music world tend to be tepid affairs, and are quickly hushed up.

As a result, classical music critics tend to fixate on small details of performance: the soprano was slightly below pitch in her upper register, and the trombones were too loud in the third movement. So what? If critics want to contribute to a meaningful and lively cultural discourse (and to keep their jobs) they’ll have to find more to write about than flat sopranos and noisy trombones.

Musicologists Aren’t Helping Much

It’s tempting to compare those who devote their lives to musical scholarship to Nero fiddling while Rome burned. However, there are two noteworthy differences: Nero could play a musical instrument; and he was at least aware that Rome was burning.

In my explorations of musicology (as a latecomer to the field), I’m continually struck by how disconnected from the real world musicologists are. They present papers at conferences, to each other. They publish in journals that are read almost exclusively by other scholars. Often, they are not much interested in musicians currently appearing before the public, or in the works of contemporary composers (unless their area of specialization is new music.), and they have little impact on the classical music world.

There are exceptions: for instance, Philip Gossett is a musicologist at the University of Chicago whose research into Rossini operas has helped to bring forgotten gems back into the repertoire. And there are still a few musicologists who can produce books aimed at a broad readership. But generally, the concert-going public has little contact with musicology’s concerns, and even people who live and work with music professionally – performers, composers, journalistic critics, etc. – rarely pay much attention to what’s going on in the field. Occasionally, musicologists utter token protests at this state of affairs; often, their comments are framed as complaints against an uncaring world, rather than something they themselves are responsible for and could try to fix. But deep down, many musicologists are quite content with their cloistered status.

“Arts Administrators” – Who Are These People?

There are too many arts administrators in the classical music business who have not studied music formally; nor do they possess an unschooled enthusiast’s love of the art. Perhaps this seems like an unfair complaint: why would a fundraiser need to know anything about the structure of Beethoven’s late string quartets; and what use does a publicist have for the workings of Wagner’s leitmotifs? Their jobs are to raise money and promote concerts.

However, it’s a tenet of marketing that success is founded on knowing your product, and having a having a buyer’s understanding of what you’re trying to sell. Furthermore, there’s a vital connection between knowing and caring: there’s a tendency for people to know about things they care about, and care about the things they know. How are we to take seriously people who claim to care about something they actually know very little about?

Oh, but they do care, the administrators will insist. They are dedicated, and work long hours, often at pay-rates below what they might earn in the private sector. Perhaps – but it’s not always clear if their commitment is to art or to their own upward mobility in a glamorous and prestigious profession. Many administrators of the don’t-know-don’t-care variety tend to drift away from classical music after a few years, possibly finding work in areas where their interests honestly lie. That’s good for them – but they’re just as often replaced by a new batch of eager opportunists.

It would not be so very hard for musical organizations to find and hire more people who have paid their dues: conservatories and university music departments produce thousands of graduates every year, many of whom can’t find work in the music business. In my experience, the best administrators are those who both know and care. May their tribe increase.

What’s Right with Classical Music

It’s been said that the first duty of a critic is to criticize. But to criticize, in the fullest sense of the word, means not merely to say what’s wrong with something, but also what’s right with it. And there’s much that is right with classical music.

In a recent essay in City magazine, “Classical Music’s New Golden Age,” Heather Mac Donald argued that classical music fans are living in the best of times. “More people listen to classical music today,” she states, “and more money gets spent on producing and disseminating it, than ever before.” She also notes, “We occupy a vast musical universe, far larger than the one that surrounded a nineteenth-century resident of Paris or Vienna.” And she’s right: today, performance standards are generally high, concerts are daily occurrences in most large cities, and everything from Gregorian chant to the latest contemporary works can be downloaded with a few keystrokes. What more could we want?

We could want this glorious abundance to matter to more than a small group of initiates. We could want more adventurous concert programming, and less repetition of done-to-death masterpieces. We could want more variety in our musical institutions. We could want classical music to be more open to music from all over the world. We could want musical scholars to make meaningful contributions to the culture at large. We could want major events in classical music to be front-page news. And we could want the music business to be populated by knowledgeable, dedicated people. Classical music had all these things 100 years ago. It would be a fine thing to get them back.