Media

Classical Gasbags

Mavens moan about the decline of longhair music, but listeners are hitting all high C's

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While a handful of Don McLean scholars may still wonder what day the music died, classical music fans carry the answer around like a yellowed piece of sheet music. The music died today. And it was always better yesterday.

Recent evidence of the end: The Columbus Symphony Orchestra is "at death's door," according to an op-ed in The Columbus Dispatch (Ohio's Greatest Online Newspaper). The Shreveport Symphony Orchestra plans to move core players to a per-service pay model, leading a fan at shreveporttimes.com to accuse the city of treating musicians as "minimum wage servants" rather than as "professionals [who] will keep this city alive long after the established oil and gas money has died off."

In the U.K., after Royal Opera House Covent Garden Chief Executive Tony Hall announced plans to lure younger opera goers, Opera News Editor John Allison grabbed what eyewitnesses confirm was the very same quill Margaret Dumont used to write her last kiss-off to Groucho Marx and penned an editorial accusing the organization of "showing classic signs of mid-life crisis and going to unseemly lengths to get younger flesh on its seats."

As always, Canadians are hardest hit. When the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation announced it would disband its in-house radio orchestra, fans erupted, carrying signs that read, "No Kitsch! No Philistines! Don't Mess With Our Music!," and vowing to "rescue the great culture of your country."

The story is told with even more gravity, or at least more words, in books like Lawrence Kramer's Why Classical Music Still Matters (2007), wherein the author recalls the passion for longhair music that characterized his teen years and laments that despite increases in performances and attendance, "something still feels wrong; something still is wrong." Or Julian Johnson's heady Who Needs Classical Music?: Cultural Choice and Musical Value (2002), which employs an approach that "rejects the neutrality implied by the marketplace" to examine the consequences of the music's "current legitimation crisis."

As the caveats about ignoring or rejecting the marketplace suggest, reality tells a far less gloomy tale. Classical music enjoys more listeners than it ever has. Wikipedia lists more than 300 orchestras by state in the U.S., and judging by the handful of regions I know reasonably well around the country, it's still missing a few. The switch to nonphysical delivery of music appears to be helping Beethoven roll back over Chuck Berry: Classical downloads account for 15 percent of iTunes sales, compared to 3 percent of CD sales. Even traditional sales appear robust. This year's classical crisis follows a short-lived "has classical been reborn?" media hubbub that followed the release of Nielsen SoundScan's 2006 report card. In that report, sales of classical music were shown to have jumped 23 percent, or 3.6 million units, for the year. Classical CD sales have declined through the first half of this decade but at a substantially lower rate than overall CD sales.

And the performers? Those long-suffering pluggers figure prominently in narratives of decline—fresh-faced kids who ran up steep student loans on the assumption that a trombone degree was the ticket to a happy life. According to a recent study, even that questionable career choice is going unpunished by the market: Salaries for symphony musicians increased more rapidly than the pay for most other groups in the late 20th century.

It may not be fair to argue strictly from the numbers. Classical mavens are bowed down not by statistics but by a general sense of nonprofit struggle, of lost cultural cachet, of terrestrial radio stations that survive by treating the classical play list as elevator music, of elderly season ticket holders who balk at concert programs that include difficult "new" music by the likes of Olivier Messiaen (died 1992) or György Ligeti (died 2006), then complain about their favorite genre's loss of relevance.

But an interesting study of the symphony business (from which the data on musicians' salaries are drawn) suggests even some of these day-to-day frustrations among the white-tie music set could be addressed, or at least mitigated, by some of the market discipline the music's defenders want to reject. "The Economic Environment of American Symphony Orchestras," produced by the Stanford business professor Robert J. Flanagan for the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, studies the economics of the largest 63 American orchestras, focusing on the "performance gap"—the difference between ticket revenue and operating expenses, made up through donations, government support, and endowment draws. The performance gap has been growing since the co-op model of orchestra performance (in which musicians were paid out of the orchestra's net profits) died out at the beginning of the 20th century, but the study found managers are not willing to be as "tough-minded about costs" as their for-profit counterparts.

Frugality might mean Mahler's "Symphony for a Thousand" would have to get by with fewer than 1,000 performers, but it also opens up avenues of innovation. It is the small, unfamous student and chamber ensembles that perform works by new and local composers: Go to any pickup concert or new music festival, and you'll hear music that is less European, less male, and, if not more interesting, at least less familiar. Large orchestras that perform relatively daring programs, such as the Los Angeles Philharmonic under outgoing director Esa-Pekka Salonen, are rare, in great part because they are locked into rigid, unionized financial models.

Doomsayers might object that a nimbler/cheaper financial model and a greater mix of contemporary work merely replace Mozart with somebody banging trash can lids. This gets to the real assumption encoded in death-of-classical screeds: that fighting the future, ignoring necessity, and blocking innovation (while getting somebody else, preferably taxpayers, to pay for your rarefied tastes) are the way to protect a great tradition.

While this attitude is a recipe for extinction, and helps explain why gatekeepers are dying out while the music they purport to champion is playing louder and stronger than ever, we shouldn't overlook its appeal, to both the left (which blames late capitalism for the loss of the music's purportedly once-central role in our culture) and the right (which blames multicultural philistines). You can rarely go wrong singing about a lost golden age, even when there's beautiful music all around you.

Tim Cavanaugh
is opinion Web editor at the Los Angeles Times.

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  1. “The Columbus Symphony Orchestra is “at death’s door,” according to an op-ed in The Columbus Dispatch (Ohio’s Greatest Online Newspaper).”

    This says far more about Columbus, Ohio than anything else. I used to live there and the town is, to put it mildly, largely bereft of culture. If it has nothing to do with The Buckeyes, religion or spring water with a mild beer flavoring it is not likely to survive for much longer. Columbusites who want culture generally leave after graduating from either high school or college. There are a few spots of culture on the OSU campus (mostly attended by students or faculty) but other than that culture has a tough time in Columbus, Ohio.

  2. Columbusites who want culture generally leave after graduating from either high school or college.

    Or after joining the Army. It’s all my fault. I’m coming back to you, precious!

  3. The Lincoln Center arts folks are reaching out to some new yorkers with mailings to try to fill the seats at the opera and symphony that are empty.

    Perhaps they should have done more to make classics more accessible to their customer base, instead of promoing it as high brow and snobbish for so long that they now are lacking fans.

  4. I, for one, LOVE classical music . . . as long as it’s being played by Bugs Bunny.

  5. Nothing old ever dies anymore, it just gets more retro.

    Every year as a society we get a little richer, the excess able to indulge new entertainments while yet sustaining the old.

  6. Classical music. . .like the Star Trek Fightin’ Song?

  7. Every year as a society we get a little richer, the excess able to indulge new entertainments while yet sustaining the old.

    Word.

    …like the Star Trek Fightin’ Song?

    LOL!

  8. Needs more theremin.

  9. Classical music? What, like Bon Jovi or Poison?

  10. I, for one, LOVE classical music . . . as long as it’s being played by Bugs Bunny.

    I’m partial to The Great Poochini, myself.

    Although if my local Symphony Orchestra did a tribute to Carl Stalling, I might actually support them.

    Classical music. . .like the Star Trek Fightin’ Song?

    It’s called, “The Ritual/Ancient Battle/2nd Kroykah”, philistine.

  11. If you listen to the gripes of the white-tie set, you’d think classical music was dead and buried.

    If you listen to our local radio show, “classical music” was written in the 1980s.

    I’m’a gettin’ old.

  12. I love classical music. The best part of the week is right after Saturday lunch – 12-1.30 Intermezzo on NPR, followed by a live broadcast from the Metropolitan Opera. Those two usually combine for the most relaxing time of the week. And sometimes, I get to listen to things that are very difficult to find, such as Philip Glass’s Satyagraha.

    That said, I don’t buy too many classical music CDs. The secondary market for classical music is so much bigger than for contemporary music – lots of used books and CDs stores offer stacks of music I want. In addition, the first stereo recordings of classical music (such as many of Wagner’s operas) have been moving into public domain recently, providing me with an additional source of classical music.

  13. I was kidding above–count me as a classical music fan, too. For me, I appreciate it from attempting to play classical symphonies as much as anything else (former French horn player).

    Of course, speaking of science fiction scores, the French horn was the dominant instrument in Darth Vader’s Theme and in Khan’s Theme. It’s the musical instrument of E-Vil.

  14. To repeat what i posted in response to the “global hip-hop” article:

    Metal still reigns over all!

    All others will continue to fade until such time as Metal, in an act of mercy and awesomness, stomps them to death with it’s boot! Death to high culture! Death to all! long live Metal!

  15. Classical music’s biggest advantage is not being controlled by the RIAA.

    I also might note that despite the meme that classical music is for the wealthy, you can get a top-notch classical CD for about an eighth of the price of a CD with the latest hip-hop noise.

  16. *does guitar solo and then kicks a nun*

  17. I also might note that despite the meme that classical music is for the wealthy, you can get a top-notch classical CD for about an eighth of the price of a CD with the latest hip-hop noise.

    True, but if I buy a a Geto Boys’ CD, I generally know what I’m getting. If I buy a CD of Grieg’s Peer Gynt Suites, unless I can sample it beforehand, it’s up in the air as to whether it will be a decent recording. Some classical engineers think it’s cool to close-mic the sheet music stands so we can hear the pages turning.

  18. The Lincoln Center arts folks are reaching out to some new yorkers with mailings to try to fill the seats at the opera and symphony that are empty.

    Perhaps they should have done more to make classics more accessible to their customer base, instead of promoing it as high brow and snobbish for so long that they now are lacking fans.

    I don’t know about Lincoln Center, but last season for the Met it was impossible to get reasonably priced tickets for the Opera because they were sold out. I wasn’t about to drop $150 a pop to see Die Fledermaus.

  19. A local modern classical orchestra completely folded after a massive snowstorm here in March forced them to cancel their spring performance. They had spent all this time and money paying the players for practices leading up to the event, but they couldn’t recoup their costs because tickets had to be refunded. I was really upset about that for a number of reasons, one of them being that I was planning to attend that concert (the music of Bernard Hermann), not to mention they were a relatively innovative and fresh classical music orchestra.

    I don’t really have a point other than that their financial situation must have been very delicate and precarious to bankrupt the entire orchestra because of only one cancellation due to inclement weather.

    They were a pretty popular orchestra here, too, so I wouldn’t have chalked it up to disinterest on the part of patrons. Maybe just not as popular as they needed to be.

  20. I love classical music too, although it’s not the only type of music I love. My collection has room for Mozart, Branford Marsallis, and Henry Rollins. I don’t buy the “death of classical music” line. As a classical music fan, it’s far, far easier for me to find what I’m looking for on line. Before, I had to drive to one of the two music stores in town with a decent classical collection, and then I wouldn’t always find what I was looking for. Nor would I be pointed to new stuff that I might enjoy. Thanks to Amazon, I can access an embarrassment of classical riches from anywhere with a net connection, and find tons of information on what other interesting recordings are out there.

    I’ve never been to a symphony. For now, I’m perfectly happy to sit in the center of my surround system and blast Bach’s 2nd Brandenburg Concerto at 11. I would like to see a symphony someday, but my point is that it’s in no way essential to my enjoyment of classical music.

  21. I love classical music as well, though Houston’s symphony isn’t very good.

  22. Classical music? What, like Bon Jovi or Poison?

    I believe those now fall under the Jurassic Rock designation.

  23. season ticket holders who balk at concert programs that include difficult “new” music by the likes of Olivier Messiaen (died 1992) or Gy?rgy Ligeti (died 2006)

    This understates their deadness considerably. They both stopped making “new” music in the 1960s. The heirs to that “new”-ness continue somewhat profitably, and almost never at taxpayer expense (because socialites find their music difficult to sit still through between lobby conversations).

    “Classical” music’s doing fine. What the deadsayers are bemoaning is the fading of their makework pseudo-musical sinecures in comfy early-evening nightclubs financed by everyone who’s not allowed in them.

    Unfortunately, they’re wrong.

  24. More Cowbell!

  25. The only way to rationalize taxpayer subsidization of the arts (either directly through grant-conferring funds or through charitable deduction via the tax code) is to invent some faux “positive externalities” — so it’s no surprise that this is exactly what public art apologists do (“don’t be philistines,” “reject the neutrality implied by the marketplace,” etc.)

    The reason there are so many “starving artists” is, quite frankly, because most artists suck. And it takes very “artistic” intellectual gymnastics to conclude that sucking deserves a taxpayer grant. Yet that’s exactly what “public arts funding” malcontents do.

  26. The reason there are so many “starving artists” is, quite frankly, because most artists suck.

    While it is true that most artists suck (whatever genre or modality), it is not true that the talented/important artists make art that is (always) commercially viable. Patronage from the state has been an important aspect of art since the inception of the state.

  27. …a CD with the latest hip-hop noise.

    That’s classic. After all, they said the same thing about bebop in the ’40s.

  28. If you want death to classical music, you can always listen to bands that blend classical music with death metal.

    Seriously, there’s an entire genre called Gothic metal that usually has a male baritone or bass death vocalist and a classically trained female soprano. Add distorted guitars, a chorus and a string quartet and you have symphonic metal. A few of them actually manage to pull it off quite well.

  29. the French horn was the dominant instrument

    For sticklers only: it’s called simply the horn.
    Nothing French about it.

  30. The modern symphony orchestra was conceived largely as a state-funded vehicle in Europe, and it’s always going to be a sketchy proposition financially, due to the large number of players. That said, the form isn’t going away even with a total withdrawal of state support, though the number of orchestras would probably dwindle. The notion of paying players based on profitability is an interesting one, though.

    There’s plenty going on in the “classical underground,” but most of that music is scored for chamber ensembles, partly because of the stuffy connotations of the orchestral form, partly because chamber groups have a leaner sound and are better at handling highly challenging music without months of rehearsal, and partly because of the costs.

    Oh, and people might become entertainers in the hope of becoming wealthy, but no one becomes an artist for that reason.

  31. More Cowbell!

    Fewer clich?s!

  32. Of course, speaking of science fiction scores, the French horn was the dominant instrument in Darth Vader’s Theme and in Khan’s Theme. It’s the musical instrument of E-Vil.

    A girl went out on a date with a trumpet player, and when she came back her roommate asked, “Well, how was it? Did his embouchure make him a great kisser?”

    “Nah,” the first girl replied. “That dry, tight, tiny little pucker; it was no fun at all.”

    The next night she went out with a tuba player, and when she came back her roommate asked, “Well, how was his kissing?”

    “Ugh!” the first girl exclaimed. “Those huge, rubbery, blubbery, slobbering slabs of meat; oh, it was just gross!”

    The next night she went out with a French horn player, and when she came back her roommate asked, “Well, how was his kissing?”

    “Well,” the first girl replied, “his kissing was just so-so; but I loved the way he held me!”

  33. Seriously, there’s an entire genre called Gothic metal that usually has a male baritone or bass death vocalist and a classically trained female soprano. Add distorted guitars, a chorus and a string quartet and you have symphonic metal. A few of them actually manage to pull it off quite well.

    The two best albums I know of in this genre are “At Sixes and Sevens” by Sirenia, and “Beyond the Veil” by Tristania. Very over the top and silly–and ridiculously enjoyable. I especially recommend the Sirenia album. Both of these bands have gone downhill on their later albums, unfortunately.

  34. ed,

    We called it simply the horn (like sailors going around Cape Horn–“We’re goin’ ’round the Horn”), but that’s not descriptive enough for a lay audience.

  35. Pig Mannix with a thread win for the most tasteful fisting joke ever.

    %^)

  36. We called it simply the horn (like sailors going around Cape Horn–“We’re goin’ ’round the Horn”), but that’s not descriptive enough for a lay audience.

    The (French) Horn is for pussies. Real horn players play the natural horn.

  37. “Classical” music’s doing fine. What the deadsayers are bemoaning is the fading of their makework pseudo-musical sinecures in comfy early-evening nightclubs financed by everyone who’s not allowed in them.”

    What does this mean?

  38. CMS,

    Well it’s obviously a matter of taste, but it sounds like noise to me. Sorry if I’m not cosmo enough to stand above the fray and opine that nails on a chalkboard is music if some people think it is.

  39. Sorry if I’m not cosmo enough to stand above the fray and opine that nails on a chalkboard is music if some people think it is.

    Not a John Cage fan? [snorts] Elitist. 😉

  40. ClubMedSux,

    You’d need some serious embouchure to handle the natural horn. It’s hard enough with four keys.

  41. If it has nothing to do with The Buckeyes, religion or spring water with a mild beer flavoring it is not likely to survive for much longer.

    So the choice is either corn subsidies (conservatives) or classical music subsidies (liberals)? While I personally find beer flavored water an abomination, I can’t bring myself to shed any tears over the lack of taxpayer funded musicians.

  42. For sticklers only: it’s called simply the horn.

    Nothing French about it.

    I thought those were Freedom Horns now.

  43. Not a John Cage fan? [snorts] Elitist. 😉

    Back in the days when I was working the night shift, I managed to get our department’s radio stuck between a classical station doing a Charles Ives feature, and a disco station. Much to the dismay of my co-workers, I found the results fascinating, and listened to it all night. I bet Ives never imagined people dancing to Atmospheres! I thought it was great!

    Yes, I was taking lots of drugs in those days….

  44. Pig Mannix,

    I wish you could’ve recorded that.

  45. I remember Tim Cavanaugh! Now where did I leave that strawberry butt-lube?

  46. ChrisO – You’ll have to try Epica’s newest CD then. They’ve lost some of their edginess but the amount her vocals have matured makes up for it several times over.

  47. First of all, Cavanaugh, while I don’t necessarily disagree with the gist of your article, that Stanford report is not exactly the gold standard of studies, despite having impressive names like “Stanford” and “Mellon Foundation” in the title. Probably the quickest way here is to cut and paste an intelligent comment from a discussion on a musician board:

    “Without dismissing the report entirely, I just want to point out that this is essentially the same report that the Mellon Foundation’s so-called “Elephant Task Force” commissions every few years. They get the report they’re looking for every time, because they (and associated groups like the League of American Orchestras) supply the bulk of the information, and more importantly, they define what they want studied. …there have always been strong concerns among orchestra musicians that the task force exists to seek out statistics that will support orchestra managements that want to claim the sky is falling and slash organizational costs in response.

    In particular, this Stanford report, while I don’t doubt its independence and scholarly pedigree, seems like it’s basically attempting to analyze a non-profit industry using for-profit business criteria. For instance, the idea that orchestras should choke off salary growth because it’s impossible to grow worker productivity the way giant for-profit corporations do shows a real lack of understanding of cultural business models.”

    I also want to say, the Columbus Symphony shutting down really *is* a tragedy; I know by reputation that this group was really quite excellent. Such organizations take decades to build, and it’s frustrating to see a board charged with caretaking that legacy throw it down the toilet. It all comes down to competent management.

    The landscape *is* littered with orchestra’s that have folded and not been replaced with anything approximating the former group- Tulsa, Savannah, Sacramento, and soon to be Shreveport all spring to mind. When a professional group folds and is replaced by part time amateurs, it’s a bit of a stretch to claim that it doesn’t represent a downward trend. However, it also illustrates that local forces are the big story, instead of broad claims about an art form in decline.

    What I do agree with in the article is that there is more to measuring the health of the art form than by symphony orchestras growing or dying. New organizations do spring up; but like smacky points out, the smaller, more nimble ones are also less able to deal with temporary setbacks, not having the large endowments that more fossilized institutions have.

    Nigel Watt- wtf? Houston has a great orchestra.

    Number 6- no stereo system can match a good orchestra in a good hall. Though you don’t have the hacking and coughing of a live performance 😉 Plus there is the live aspect- I mean, you still pay to see Rush even though you have CDs, right?

  48. As an admitted classical music snob – or more technically:* a snob who looks down at anything after the death of Rimsky-Korsakov, I am still willing to listen to most other kinds of music (“Country”, “Rap” & “Disco” are not music.)

    I see no reason why those who are not classical music fans should have to subsidize what I like.

    *The contemporary usage of “classical” has come to include Plainsong, Renaissance, Baroque, Roccoco, Classical and Romantic music.

    PL: The French Horn is a wonderful instrument. It is my favorite among the brasses. (But there is more music written for trumpet and thus more trumpet virtuosi. I’d kill to get into a Wynton Marsalis concert.)

  49. Elvis-I do indeed pay to see Rush. Part of that is the visceral experience of a live show. Part of it is that there are few opportunities to see a genuine virtuoso at work. Since I’m a drummer (sort of), it’s worth the price of admission just to watch of the greatest drummers who ever lived do his thing.

    I definitely would like to check out a symphony, or even a smaller ensemble. As it turns out, an apparently well-known cellist, Matt Haimovitz, is playing at a small venue best known as a lesbian bar next month. I may have to check that out, if only to be able to say I’ve seen a classical cellist play at a lesbian bar.

    One other note-I think I know what you are saying about live sound. I once listened to a classical pianist practice on a full-sized grand Steinway in an otherwise empty room. I remember thinking two things. First, “Holy crap! Grand pianos are LOUD!” The second was, “Oh…so that’s what Fur Elise is supposed to sound like!”

  50. | June 19, 2008, 1:10pm | #
    season ticket holders who balk at concert programs that include difficult “new” music by the likes of Olivier Messiaen (died 1992) or Gy?rgy Ligeti (died 2006)

    Joe Queenan, I believe, said that there were plenty of young classical musicians coming up, but few new composers. He also mentioned Iannis Xenakis, who died in 2001. Xenakis lived an interesting life:
    http://music.guardian.co.uk/classical/story/0,,2001405,00.htmlhttp://music.guardian.co.uk/classical/story/0,,2001405,00.html

  51. Aresen, you forgot Gregorian chant. You’re right about the over broad “classical” title, but it can be useful shorthand. I suspect that someone who likes Bach is more likely to listen to Anonymous 4 do Hildegard von Bingen than a P Diddy fan.

    Also, your “Rimsky-Korsakov” rule means you’re missing out on Vaughan Williams and Villa-Lobos. For shame.

  52. i only listen to deathklok

  53. BP

    I realize my Rimsky-Korsakov rule is arbitrary and there are some later pieces – even Stravinsky – that I like. It’s more a rule of thumb.

    I did forget Gregorian Chant. “Classical” has become the generic term. I’m ok with it.

    Hildegard von Bingen is much overblown. I think the current fashion for her work is more a feminist thing than a genuine belated recognition of an early musical genius. Personally, I find I cannot readily distinguish her pieces from each other.

    [Ouch! Argh! Ouch! Smacky, don’t hit so hard!]

  54. It has been a wonderful evening, and what I need now, to give it the perfect ending, is a little of the Ludwig Van.

  55. it’s worth the price of admission just to watch of the greatest drummers who ever lived do his thing.

    But Max Roach never played with Rush, what are you talking about…do you mean Joe Morello? Martin Atkins? Rat Scabies? Tony Allen? Stewart Copeland? Zakir Hussein?

    When did a great drummer start filling in for that perfectly talented, but hardly exceptional guy they used to have? (Pert or something wasn’t it?)

    [/sarcasm]

    Seriously…when I was 16 it was very educational as a drummer to learn all the Rush songs lick for lick, but the guy is no Jaki Liebezeit.

    PS. I’m more smug than you, yeah, I’m talking to you too Aresen.

  56. For the non-drummers in the room…that was a parody. There is nothing in the world more silly than the “best drummer in the world” debates (they make the “best guitar player” debates seem like intellectual high ground.

    I have been playing drums for 40 of my 43 years and I can think of no possible valid metric for quantifying good drummerness.

    Likewise, music snobbery is an important aspect of the music industry, but in the end the best music is the shit you like. The only valid criticism I can think of is people who don’t try out new (to them) stuff simply because it doesn’t fit into their previous experience of what music is supposed to sound like.

  57. Aresen,

    Any thoughts on Machaut?

  58. A good place to start to delve into drummer geekdom…

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gn9fkAGwJcM

    Check out the comment thread, and be sure to follow any links they provide…

    christ!

  59. This is as usual a good article by Tim, but let me add a few words about classical music sales that Tim either forgot or failed to mention. Unlike their nonclassical counterparts, many classical recordings comprise hundreds (and I mean hundreds) of the same works, and the combined record sales of such warhorses as Beethoven’s 5th or Vivaldi’s Four Seasons may well exceed those of many a rock album. Add to this the number of children who are introduced to classical music through music lessons or playing for school bands and orchestras, or the vast cohort of adults who are not necessarily record buyers but still enjoy a good number of familiar classical tunes, and you see how mere sales numbers most likely underestimate the actual popularity of classical music.

    And it shouldn’t come as a surprise that those who bemoan the “lost” relevance of classical music today are usually the same ones who have a snobbish attitude towards pop music and culture in general. (No, I didn’t have you particularly in mind, Aresen.) For those of you who care, at the turn of last year I defended contemporary music and culture against snobbery here and here.

  60. Neu Mejican,

    Let me jump in and say that the stuff from that period (Machaut’s) doesn’t do it for me. Most of it sounds like plainchant, with a capital “P.” Josquin kicks ass, though.

    Aresen,

    I guess this somewhat contradicts what I just said, but I don’t think the current fascination with Hildegard is just feminist puffery. In fact her music is pretty extraordinary for its time, especially when you compare it with the plainsong of Perotin and Leonin.

  61. BakedPenguin,

    I’m with you on Villa-Lobos, but Vaughan Williams? WTF? VW wrote only one work worth revisiting, that Thomas Tallis fantasia, and we all know where that tune came from. With the exception of Britten contemporary British music sucks (unless you wanna count the Beatles).

  62. contemporary British music sucks (unless you wanna count the Beatles)

    You just outed yourself as a cranky old fart with no taste.

  63. Gavin Bryers?
    Brian Eno?

    I mean, come on…

  64. Not to mention The Go!Team.

  65. Neu Mejican,

    Ah, so that got your goat, eh? Ok, let’s look at contemporary British composers. Besides VW we’ve got Elgar, Holst and Tippett. Sure, they wrote a few good ones, but you seriously wanna argue they’re as good as Britten or even Purcell? And then there are second-raters like Bax, Cyril Scott and Kenneth Leighton, so perhaps you can enlighten me on the excellence of British music that I’m apparently too cranky to appreciate.

    Oh, and it looks like I’m over a dozen years your junior, so you might not wanna bring up the age issue. Old boy.

  66. Eryk & ChrisO – Good to see some symphonic metal fans lurking about. Being a fan of both genres, I really like the combination when done correctly. For me, I think Tristania’s “World of Glass” is a much better album than “Beyond the Veil”, but definitely a bit downhill after that. Nightwish is good stuff too, but since the vocals have gone more in the poppy direction from the operatic style, not so much – still very good, as it’s really in the writing, but… As for the best metal/classical combination, for me that’s Therion, especially “Gothic Kabbalah”. A bit over the top and you (or at least I do) have to overlook the mystic lyrical stylings. But musically – very much an integrated whole where the classical aspects are not an afterthought (where many metal bands end up trying to do the classical thing), but an integral part of the song construction.
    -Karl

  67. Neu Mejican- Notice I said one of the the greatest drummers. Besides, you forgot to mention Buddy Rich. Drummer Foul!
    Also, Jeff Watts, Elvin Jones, Terry Bozzio…etc etc.

  68. NM

    I’m not familiar with Machaut.

    (I said I was a snob, not a knowledgable snob. 😉

    With regard to H von Bingen, I’ll agree that her music is good for its time. I think she deserves recognition. (although she appears to have been a vigorous self-promoter. Sort of a Maria von Trapp of her time.) But I honestly cannot think of a single work of hers in terms of a memorable musical phrase. And that’s why I think, at least in part, that her reputation has been overblown for the sake of making her a feminist icon.

    Returning briefly to post-RK music, I feel that what has been described as “serious” music – as opposed to “popular” music – has become far too academic and self-absorbed. It almost seems to take a perverse pride in being hard to listen to. Which is why you will never hear Phillip Glass at a 4th of July concert. (And why I’d bet that a sizeable number of Americans [my guess: 10%+] would think that the 1812 Overture is an American piece.)

  69. Aresen,

    I’ll grant that Hildegard probably engaged in a fair share of self-promotion, as she was (and still is) well known as a Renaissance woman. I’ll also grant that her music lacks a particularly memorable phrase. But I must dispute (again) your assertion that her reputation is due less to her music itself than to the sinister feminist forces at work. First, you should keep in mind that melody (or, as we understand it, memorable tunes) wasn’t given as much importance back then as it is today (more on this shortly). Second, and more importantly, no doubt Hildegard’s gender–and, I’d like to add, our fascination with history–has given her additional appeal, but the same can be said of Beethoven’s deafness, Van Gogh’s insanity or Keats’ early demise. An artist’s life and personality are inseparable from his or her creations, and vice versa, and just as an extraordinary biography enhances our artistic appreciation, the art itself must be extraordinary first for our appreciation to follow suit. So yes, Hildegard’s gender has likely boosted our estimation of her works, but this is not despite their excellence but because of it.

    And I understand your apathy to post-RK music. Of course there are exceptions–Britten and Shostakovich wrote a good chunk of damn terrific tunes–but yeah, a lot of post-RK stuff is indeed too academic and self-absorbed. That said (and I suppose you already know this), being hard to listen doesn’t mean being dry or even unmemorable. Bach’s Chaconne or Beethoven’s last piano sonata is by no means easy music, but many a serious music lover does “enjoy” and can recall by heart every bar of both works. And I’m sure I’m not the only one who can do the same with Prokofiev’s 7th piano sonata or Coltrane’s various 10-minute renditions of “Impressions,” but not with many of the more “pleasant” works from the Baroque, Classical or Romantic periods. Tonality doesn’t necessarily lead to pleasure.

    Now we return to the issue of melody. It’s very easy to dismiss modern music because so much of it actually is pretentious nonsense, but here a little look at history is instructive. The Baroque period was in fact highly formal–“academic,” if you will–as shown by its heavy use of counterpoint. The Classical era sought to loosen up the formality a little but still retained the sonata form. It really wasn’t until the Romantic period when the cumbersome sonata form was was abandoned (for the most part) and the emphasis shifted to intensity of expression and, yes, melody. So one could argue that the formal or “academic” nature of modern music is in fact a return to times past, not to some dry, faux-futuristic university setting, only with the inevitable changes that accompany the progress of history.

    This isn’t to say the difficulty of today’s music is to be applauded: Music, after all, should be emotional first and intellectual second. (I believe Ravel said the same thing once.) But you’re missing out on a lot of good music if you fail to see that not every modern composer engages in the empty pretensions and bombast of Boulez or Sorabji (as you may well know, the 1812 Overture is guilty of these offenses as well, though it’s certainly of the “fun” kind), or that Schoenberg and Webern actually have much in common with Hildegard and Gibbons. Hopefully this post will persuade you to try out a few more works of worthy post-RK music.

  70. i only listen to deathklok

    LONG LIVE METAL!

  71. “I mean, you still pay to see Rush even though you have CDs, right?”

    There is indeed value in live performance. Personally, I’d pay to see Rush driven off a cliff, I wouldn’t wait for the DVD.

  72. NP

    I think we’re in agreement, although talking past each other to a degree.

    Your knowledge of post-RK music is far more extensive than mine (and probably of “classical” as well.)

    There are quite a few “modern” pieces I find enjoyable, but much that I detest. Some of what I detest could even be called “melodic”. “Difficult” is not the same as “unpleasant”. However, when I hear some CBC announcer gush about Alan Houvanis (sp?) or Arvo Piert (sp?), I want to smash my clock radio.

    If I knew I was going to be around to collect, I’d wager that 200 years from now more people will be listening to John Lennon’s music than Philip Glass’. Which sums up my view of music and all art: An artist’s first duty is to entertain, after that, he can show off his virtuosity.

    I don’t like every composer of the “classical” period, either. Brahms, with the exception of a few works, is particularly annoying. (And Brahmsophiles are even more so.)

    1. I’d wager that 200 years from now more people will be listening to John Lennon’s music than Philip Glass

      No one is going to be listening to John Lennon’s music 50 years from now, let alone 200. In the year 2070 no one is going to give a damn about the popular music from 100 years before. Just as today no one listens to the popular music from 1910.

      1. Allow me to correct my math. Make that 60, not 50, years from now. Or make it the year 2060, not 2070.

        Any way you slice it, like the vast majority of the products of popular culture, the rock music of any particular era will die out once the generation that grew up with it (and perhaps the following generation) pass on.

  73. A dead thread most likely, but in case NP/or Number 6 looks back.

    NP,

    Can’t believe a man of such slight years has already turned into a old crank… oh well.

    But seriously, I was poking fun at you because you seem to want to provide “pop music” some status (based on your previous posts on the topic), but then dismiss one of the most productive pop music scenes in the world out of hand while also dismissing their crop of current “classical” composers. The Beatles are a pretty out of date benchmark in discussions of contemporary British music.

    So, sure there are plenty of good British composers…many, many, of whom are much better than the Beatles (who did nice work 40 years ago) and many of whom are working in more “serious” than “popular” genres…

    The British music scene has been very productive in the last 40 years and puts out great music on a regular basis. To provide you with a list would be pointless. From your comments it seems that your taste is very pedestrian, so you would likely not recognize the talents that would show up on that list anyway.

    Number 6,

    Notice I said one of the the greatest drummers.

    Since this was always all about getting my pedant on…no you didn’t…you said

    “it’s worth the price of admission just to watch of the greatest drummers who ever lived do his thing.”

    But I see that “of” there, so I believe your intent was to include a “one”. I was just poking fun anyway (I really did learn all Peart’s licks as a kid, so clearly I have no animosity for his style).

  74. Aresen,

    or Arvo Piert (sp?)

    Arvo Part…with those two little dots over the “a”

    I love his stuff for the level of emotion he manages to squeeze out of a few simple notes. But he is not for everyone.

    He is, however, the most popular “classical” composer currently working, last time I saw any numbers on it.

    Maybe he’s just too liturgical for your atheistic worldview…

    Machaut is worth checking out, but if you don’t like Part, you may find him not to your taste.

  75. and NP,

    When I say this… From your comments it seems that your taste is very pedestrian…I am not meaning to say that your taste is worse (or better) than mine…really…but

    I

    am

    more

    smug

    than

    you.

  76. Aresen,

    I agree with you that Paul and John will outlive most of the more “serious” composers working today, but I still think you should be more open to some of the music that’s been alien to you. Your dislike of Brahms is a case in point. Who else since the 19th century has expressed and probed so much without going such interminable lengths? (Obviously I’m not just talking about his waltzes or Hungarian Dances.) You should start with his late keyboard works, and if they don’t appeal to you then you can at least say you tried.

    And I can’t believe I’m seconding what Neu Mejican said, but a lot of Arvo P?rt’s music is actually quite enjoyable, without the usual minimalist shtick. Try sampling any of his choral works (I’m not too fond of his orchestral stuff myself), and maybe you’ll find something you like.

    Neu Mejican,

    If you lightened up a little, you would’ve noticed that my inclusion of the Beatles in that sentence was clearly tongue-in-cheek. And I meant “contemporary” in a broad sense, i.e., post-RK, and obviously classical, as this is a thread on classical music.

    And sure, they’re plenty of good British composers, if by “good” you mean competent and thoroughly professional. But, again, name me one British composer that will be mentioned alongside Purcell and Britten centuries from now. You’re free to speak up for these composers–I’ll admit that I do listen to some of ’em once in a while for the sake of discovery–but to me life is too short to be wasted on justly obscure materials.

    As for the British pop music scene, of course I know there have been more worthy British acts than pleasant fluff like Coldplay. But let me return to my earlier reference to the Beatles. After all is said and done, what people remember the most about music is great tunes. Much as we may decipher and discuss the cultural and socioeconomic impact of the Sex Pistols (whom I actually love) and the Clash, they will eventually be judged on purely musical value after they and their most die-hard admirers are laid to rest and make room for the next generations of bands and fans. I may have mentioned the Beatles facetiously, but I have no doubt that their music will outlast that of the Smiths, Blur, Pulp or Oasis, their most annoying imitators. This is also why they will eventually outlive the Stones, though I do admit that the latter are the greatest rock ‘n’ roll band.

    And finally…

    I

    am

    more

    smug

    than

    you.

    You didn’t have to spell it out for me.

  77. The ignorance of Cavanaugh is not even matched by the insipid comments his empty piece of half-informed filler produced.

    Then again — readers get the writers they deserve.

  78. Excellent article, but I don’t agree with
    the statement that only orchestras like the
    LA Phil. perform unusual and interesting programs.
    In fact, many of the top US orchestras do this. For example, James Levine and the Boston symphony have been doing challenging music by
    by such composers as Elliott Carter and Charles
    Wuorinen among others, Marin Alsop, first
    woman music director of a major US orchestra
    is a committed advocate of new music, and
    so are Paavo Jarvi in Cincinnati,Michael
    Tilson Thomas in San Francisco, Christoph Eschenbach in Philadelphia, Franz Welser-Most in Cleveland, Robert Spano in Atlanta, and
    other conductors. The notion that our
    orchestras are stodgy,hidebound institutions,
    hopelessly stuck in the past,is a myth.
    The old favorites by Beethoven, Brahms and
    Tchaikovsky etc, are still popular, but this
    hasn’t prevented a wide variety of new music being heard, and the revival of interesting
    rarities from the past. There’s greater diversity than ever before at concerts, and
    going to them has never been more worthwhile.

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