No, Classical Music Isn’t Dead

by Colin Eatock

ScreenHunter_619 May. 12 12.17Western classical music has generated a mountain of critical words: not just snarky reviews of specific performances and compositions, but also broader criticism of the genre itself. Of late, a small army of writers has stepped forward to declare classical music elitist, boring, passé, financially untenable, etc., etc.

I claim no personal exemption from this trend. A few years ago I wrote an essay called “What's Wrong With Classical Music,” that was, I believe, read pretty widely. My words were linked and re-posted on numerous websites, and were even quoted in a book by David Byrne (of Talking Heads fame) called How Music Works. Encouraged by the world's fascination with in my insights, I wrote a second essay called “What Else Is Wrong With Classical Music.” (This second essay was, frankly, a bit of a rant.)

Recently, I was contacted by someone who read my first “What's Wrong” essay, and who put forward a challenge. “I was wondering,” she began, “if you have ever considered writing about what classical music means to you personally or has meant to you in your own life. You cherish it, right? (C'mon, of course you do!)”

Yes, I do cherish it. All my life, Western classical music has been my “home” musical environment (with occasional forays into other musical realms). So in accepting this challenge, I feel a little bit like a fish writing about how wonderful water is – not an easy thing to do. Nevertheless, I'll give it a try.

When asked her views on modern art, Gertrude Stein replied, “I like to look at it.” So, in a similar vein, I'll begin by saying that what I like about classical music is listening to it. I love its melodic sweep, its harmonic sophistication, and its range of colours and timbres. I delight in its breadth of scale – classical music encompasses the grandiosity of a 100-piece orchestra blasting out a Mahler symphony and the intimacy of a solo pianist playing a Chopin nocturne. It can be as complex and intricate as a Bach fugue, or as direct and emotionally charged as a Verdi opera. And although classical music is often refined and polished, it can also display the raw power of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring.

I also enjoy the methodical and unhurried way that classical music tends to unfold – although it can also surprise you with a sudden burst of energy. I find pleasure in the way classical music generally lacks the attention-span-impaired haste of the modern world. And I like the elaborate, extended forms classical composers have devised that allow for the development of ideas on an expansive scale – much as a poet might construct an epic poem, or a visual artist might design a vast mural. (For those who like their music on a small scale, the songs of Franz Schubert can't be beat.)

Cultivating an understanding of classical music's large-scale forms demands patience and perseverance from the listener – and I like this, too. Classical music is not a “lowest-common-denominator” art form, designed to attract as many people as possible. Like some other complex musics – jazz, or Indonesian gamelan, or Carnatic music from India, for example – it does not apologize for being “difficult.” That said, there's also a repertoire of popular classics that offers easy, immediate appeal. I grew up listening to this music – Grieg's Piano Concerto, Mozart's Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, Ravel's Bolero, Handel's Messiah, etc. – and I still enjoy it.

The historical depth and richness of classical music is something else that I admire about the genre. I like the way it stretches back in time, establishing a cultural continuum with the past. The modern world's understanding of classical music is connected to the history of written music – which, in its current form, began about 1,000 years ago. (Before musical notation, we have only vague ideas of what Western music sounded like.) And while most of the “standard repertoire” was written between about 1700 and 1900, much of value was created both before and after this 200-year slice of time.

The second half of the twentieth century saw the rise of the Early Music Movement – performers and scholars dedicated unearthing older, forgotten repertoire. While these folks could sometimes be doctrinaire in their insistence on “authenticity,” (a term they have since disowned), they uncovered a vast trove of glorious music, from the Medieval through the Baroque eras. Performances by early-music specialists often ooze with an infectious love and devotion. The Early Music Movement is a good thing.

Classical music written after 1900 is a more problematic subject. The twentieth century was marked by increasingly strident efforts to make classical music modern – but the bolder the modernist composers dared to be, the more alienating their works became to their public. (I'm looking at you, Karlheinz Stockhausen!) By the end of the century, “contemporary classical music” had a bad rap. However, I believe that the situation is improving, with the emergence of composers who share and respect the musical values of their audiences.

I find that listening to a program of new classical works is like panning for gold: you get a lot of sand, and very little gold, but the nuggets make the search worthwhile. Here are some living composers who are worth checking out (with links to their music on YouTube): Steve Reich, Arvo Pärt, Michael Torke and Joan Tower. Composers like these give me hope for the future of classical music.

Nowadays, the classical music of all eras is readily available through recordings – and the perfection that's possible in a recording studio has had the beneficial effect of raising the bar for live performances. Yet while listening to an orchestra in the comfort of your own home is a fine thing, I believe that classical music is an art form best experienced live. In this regard, we live in the best of times. Virtually every city of any size in the Western world has a symphony orchestra – probably also an opera company and other classical ensembles. Moreover, classical music has spread beyond the boundaries of the Western world, principally to such Far Eastern countries as Japan, Korea and China. This phenomenon is one of the best things that has happened to classical music in the last century.

What makes live performance so special? In the case of opera, the advantages of the live experience are readily apparent: it's a theatrical art form. But there is also a subtle theatricality to live concert performances, as well. The flourish of a conductor's arms, the sweat on a pianist's brow, the intricate signals a string quartet uses to co-ordinate a performance – and of course the shared experience of being in a large room with other people who are also listening – these rituals are intrinsic to a classical concert.

Also, there's often a sense of tension in a live performance that can't quite be replicated in a recording. This is because the challenges have been resolved by the time a recording is made available to the public: any faulty passages will have been cleaned up. But in a live performance, the question of whether or not the performers can pull off a challenging work is always hanging in the air.

The best performers are the ones who rise to the occasion, and who thrive on performing before an audience. And the best are also capable of enriching a performance with their own musical ideas. Yes, it's true that musicians must first master the notes on the page. However, this is not enough: classical music is very much open to interpretation. A purely literal performance of a classical work is a pretty dull thing – and performers are expected to have enough insight (and ego) to put their personal stamp on the music they play.

For this, too, we live in the best of times. Nowadays, there are plenty of excellent classical performers giving brilliant performances all over the world, and conservatories turn out more of them every year. Some people are suspicious of virtuosity – and I would agree that virtuosity for its own sake can be artistically vacuous. But intelligent, musically purposeful virtuosity is a very exciting thing. Moreover, I'm always impressed by the discipline and rigour that are a necessary part of any fine classical musician's training: years of practice inform every note they play or sing.

In past times, some extravagant claims were made about classical music: it is universal and timeless, uniquely standing above the contingencies of ethnicity. This is nonsense, of course – like any other kind of music, Western classical music is very much a product of its place and time. And it's even been argued that classical music is somehow a moral force – that people are somehow made better by listening to it. This is, I think, a highly debatable proposition.

So it's not my wish, in writing these words, to argue for the superiority of classical music, or to attempt to cast aspersions on any other genre. (I must admit to an exception: my remark about “lowest common denominator” music in paragraph eight was aimed at the pop music industry.) I have no doubt that many of the claims I've made on behalf of classical music could be made for other kinds of music, as well.

As I mentioned at the top of this essay, recently, there's been talk of the decline of classical music – of aging audiences, cuts to music education, declining financial support, and the like. And at least one writer, invoking a tired rhetorical cliché, has declared it “dead.” (See here.) No, it's not “dead” – but yes, the imposing edifice that classical music has built for itself does have structural problems, which I discussed in my two “What's Wrong” essays. (In writing this third essay, I am not trying to “unsay” anything I said in the first two.) Fortunately, there's also much that is right with classical music. The art form has many strengths, built up through centuries of cultural achievement. It's not about to roll over and die.

* * *

Colin Eatock is a Toronto-based composer and critic. He is the author of two books: Mendelssohn and Victorian England and Remembering Glenn Gould.