Classical Gasbags

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


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 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.