The classical condition

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I recently took part in a short exchange of views about the current state of classical music with the author of the always-enjoyable Classical Conditioning blog. I have the sense that we are living through a kind of golden age of classical music (and, ask any of my friends, cheery optimism is not what I’m normally noted for). But so many people, including my esteemed interlocutor at Classical Conditioning, are concerned that the future for quality music-making is uncertain.

I’d like to write in more detail about this, beginning with a justification for my bullish statement about a golden age, above (which will, I should say now, include a degree of necessary qualification). This was something that I intended to do anyway (as ever, when I have time) but in the meantime, I thought that this would be a good occasion to invite some responses from the people who read these pages (few though you are, though precious by dint of your rarity).

There are two main strands to this blogging-conversation. One  is the question of commercial viability for orchestras and other musical bodies. Classical Conditioning’s writer is a young and – I hope – up-and-coming musician who sees limited prospects for a viable career in the field. Bankruptcies for orchestras, even long-established and world-famous ones, are not uncommon. Those that remain afloat do so in choppy waters. Apart from wishing Classical Conditioning’s writer every success (and extending this to the countless others in a similar position – with their aim of providing sweet music to us sweet-music-lovers, they deserve our regard) I don’t propose to say much more on this strand. Not only am I ill-qualified to comment on the financial arrangements of music-making outfits, but it should also be noted that the commercial environment for orchestras on either side of the Atlantic is rather different. We here on this side of the pond are used to state subsidy for the arts, which enables, to take the example I know best, a city such as London to sustain half a dozen world-class orchestras, as well as two major opera houses and dozens of venues of various shapes and sizes. I don’t doubt for a moment that most of our music practitioners and administrators would protest that government support is inadequate, but it is there nonetheless and, for those that receive it, significantly ameliorates the money-worries that they face. As I understand it, though public subsidy for music is not unknown in the USA, it is limited in comparison to that in many European cities.

The second strand of this conversation concerns what musicians and concert-planners can do to attract and maintain their (paying) audiences. On this I have much to say. When this topic arises, it generally assumes that the people staying away from concerts do so in their droves because the classical music milieu is in some way off-putting, unengaging or even downright snobbish.

Since my teenage years, I’ve attended classical concerts.  Even though I come from a family with no tradition of attending such events, I’ve never found the classical concert hall in the least bit unwelcoming. As a young man, I found attending pop music concerts far more intimidating. In consequence, when I hear that those charged with presenting classical music concerts are seeking ways to make to their music-making more approachable, and are concerned about being seen as stuffy and elitist, well, I wonder. When, for example, people say to me that they are unsure of when to applaud, I simple tell them to wait for other people to clap first. If you’re hearing a piece for the first time, there can surely be no shame in not knowing when it has ended, and, if it takes you a few seconds before you can join in with the acclamation, be assured that no-one is watching you. No one will say “you know, that fellow in row D, wasn’t there on the dot when the Sibelius Five finished” (and of course I choose the Sibelius fifth for good reason – those who know the piece will understand immediately, the rest of you, off to youtube, and be grateful to me afterwards for introducing you to one of the great symphonic masterpieces).

My point here is that so many of the supposed social agonies threatening  the unpractised  concert goer are illusionary. All new experiences, whether attending a concert, an art exhibition or a football match can be a cause for trepidation and there’s no harm in the organisers of those events being aware of this, and taking steps to minimise discomfort in the neophytes. But you can, surely, only go so far without changing the very basis of the experience.

Classical music should be approached with a degree of seriousness. I don’t mean to suggest that a recital should be conducted in an atmosphere of po-faced reverence (though you might adopt this approach for the Beethoven late quartets), but it should be recognised that the music requires commitment and concentration from the audience. Don’t for a moment assume, though, that high-mindedness necessarily precludes the possibility of having an emotional – or even a fun – experience. The challenge for the classical music establishment is to walk that fine line: to avoid appearing stiff and cold, while indicating that what is on offer is something rarefied.

A couple of years ago I had a conversation with a young colleague who was bemused by my interest in classical music. I asked her whether she’d ever attended a concert. She replied that she had, once, been given tickets to something (an orchestral concert, she couldn’t recall any details other than that) by a friend’s parents who were unable to attend themselves. She and her friend went along. She enjoyed it well enough, she told me, but got bored after the first ten minutes. “There was nothing to do,” she said. “It was weird just sitting there and listening”.

Now this young woman I know to be intelligent, resourceful and imaginative, and I’m sure could be nurtured as a regular concert-goer. If she were willing to be taken under an enthusiast’s wing and persevere a little, I’m certain she could get a great deal out of “serious” music. But she has many other interests in her life (some of which she takes very seriously) and in all likelihood would feel that an interest in classical music is not something that she needs to develop. Fair enough. I feel the same way about 19th century ceramics and gymnastics. But if classical music wanted to endear itself to my young friend with her current attitude, it would have to change its nature so fundamentally that it would cease to have any attraction for us aficionados.

This, I hope, will be a long conversation. Do please have a go in the comments.

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Posted in Classical music
6 comments on “The classical condition
  1. T E Stazyk says:

    Interesting and thought provoking and I like your optimism. I’m sure the classical condition varies according to country and even within countries so it’s hard and dangerous to generalize. The big unknown, is whether the level of appreciation for classical music across society is declining. There is a lot of anecdotal evidence that supports both a yes or no answer.

    Yes, the model for funding orchestras and all arts is increasingly ineffective, not helped by the economy. Social media doesn’t help because of the demand it puts on peoples’ time and the importance of homogenized culture to the social media. Classical music involves a personal, intellectual and emotional engagement that can’t be shared in sound bites. That’s another issue–an attention span of more than a few seconds/minutes is necessary.

    Another problem is that the model of evening performances in a hall, while a fantastic way to experience the music, is becoming increasingly irrelevant to many modern lifestyles.

    Another anecdote is that at least in the past movies were a vehicle to acquaint people with classical music (e.g., remember Slaughterhouse Five, Barry Lyndon) but now movie sound tracks are generic and loud.

    Lastly, there is also the tendency today of people to insist on being non-eclectic–i.e., if you like hip hop you can’t like classical music because you are a Neanderthal. That’s not true and there are many young musicians who don’t seem to draw sharp lines between musical genres.

    So like you I’m optimistic, but it is definitely worth thinking about better funding and education models.

  2. G.H.Bone says:

    Thank you for your comment. There are lots of interestring points that I’d love to respond to, but since I’m away from home and using a very clunky laptop, I need to keep things fairly brief at this stage. Your remark about the evening performance in a hall becoming irrelevant, reminded me that Glenn Gould was convinced that public concerts would soon be a thing of the past. As recording and reproduction technology improved, Gould argued, people would be able to create the perfect concert in their own homes (using graphic equalisers, and selecting from multiple performances of the same music, they would even become a kind of co-creator with the musicians who made the original recordings). Why, then, would they want to go to the inconvenience of attending a concert?

    Well so far, Glenn has been proved wrong. So far.

    Oh, and as for Barry Lyndon. If memory serves, it makes use of the tune from the slow movement of Schubert’s E flat trio, D929. Kubrick did mankind a big favour by introducing so many people to that particular masterpiece.

  3. Jill London says:

    This is a fascinating discussion and one so close to my heart. Classical music is still hanging in there despite everything. Most classical fans are pretty quiet about their passion, it doesn’t have the suffocating, unrelenting nature of pop music (thankfully) and quietly persists. We are told that ticket sales for certain artists (!) have never been so good, even outstripping sales for big name pop stars. The fan base is there but I think the programme is key, some pieces are just more popular than others and I think that must play a part in furthering the appeal of classical music.

  4. G.H.Bone says:

    Thank you for your comment Jill. It is a conundrum. Programming is, of course, key, as you point out. Finding the right formula that gives the people what they want (which is often music that they are already familiar with) but also ensures that lesser known pieces get an airing must be a real headache. Back when I began my serious concert-going, programmers liked to place a “difficult” piece in between two pieces of standard repertoire. The “difficult” piece was often a contemporary composition, or even a first performance. For example, you might have the Overture to the Marriage of Figaro and the Eroica Symphony, with a piece by Alexander Goehr or Luigi Dallapiccola in between. I wonder whether the new piece ever “stuck” with more than a very small portion of the audience, or whether they just sat polite but purse-lipped through it waiting for their interval drink. For my part, I liked the opportunity to experience something new. This sugar-coat-the-pill approach to programming seems less common now, however.

    But this is all very well in large well-to-do cities such as London, where adventurous programming can bring in good audiences. It is rather more difficult, I’m sure, in towns where there are fewer bands, and fewer venues and so programmers would tend to stick more to the tried-and-trusted as the business model just wouldn’t permit too many half-empty houses.

    I hope you’re feeling a bit more cheerful about blogging, by the way.

  5. JDB says:

    You raise some interesting and important ideas here, GHB. A couple of initial thoughts from my end:

    1) One thing that would go a long way toward ensuring continued interest in classical music performance is cultivating an interested audience and to that end, children should be exposed to classical music in some consistent way. I don’t know what the state of music education is in public schools (in the American sense of public schools) in the UK and the rest of Europe, but it’s pretty woeful here in the US. Music and arts budgets are often the first to be trimmed or, indeed, eliminated altogether when finances are stretched. Clearly there are other ways for children to experience classical music outside of schools–in my own case, my love of classical music stems from the fact that my mother is a pianist and music educator…the point is that I was steeped in it at a young age. Can you imagine how many more music lovers there would be today had YouTube and the various social media existed when Leonard Bernstein staged all of his Young People’s Concerts in the 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s?

    This lack of exposure brings me to my second thought:

    2) There will always be, as you note, a population of people who view classical music as an elite enterprise. What they haven’t been exposed to, what is unfamiliar, what they think they don’t understand, is elite. I would want them to know that one can have intensely emotional and rewarding experiences listening to classical music without necessarily understanding everything about it, if that makes sense. (When I started my blog, and indicated in the first post that the initial emphasis would be on classical music, a friend of mine–a good one!–told me he considered my blog elitist, and that if I wanted more readers I should consider dumbing it down a bit. I haven’t done so…at least I hope I haven’t).

    I suspect I’ll have some more thoughts soon.

  6. […] less accessible – programming, is a tough job, and an extremely important one. I’ve been sticking in an oar or two to this debate […]

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