We can’t all, and some of us don’t

The new year has brought a renewed spate of gloomy forecasts for the future of classical music. Just among the heavy hitters, Greg Sandow warns, Terry Teachout concurs, Alex Ross demurs, and Kyle Gann opts for Apollonian detachment. As far as I’m concerned, they’ve all got it right. Sandow et al are correct in saying that classical music is in crisis, but really, classical music has always been in some sort of crisis, artistic or economic; Ross et al are correct to say that there’s good news out there, but again, there’s always been some sort of good news out there. And Gann et al are correct to say that limiting your focus to mainstream classical music means ignoring a lot of less easily categorizable musical activity; again, nothing new there (after all, the opposing sides in the Querelle des Bouffons remained undistracted by the composition of the enduring masterpiece “Yankee Doodle” on the other side of the Channel).

That’s a deeply dissatisfying answer, isn’t it? We want somebody to be right, and everybody else to be wrong. Now, in the interest of full disclosure, my own opinion probably falls somewhere in between Ross and Gann—Sandow’s analysis of an aging audience, which is based mostly on orchestral concert attendance, is balanced by what I see as entrepreneurial energy in chamber and new music groups (some of them pretty far removed from what we would consider as traditional classical music), and I think that digital technology is changing the rules of recording and distribution in a way that alters that economic landscape in favor of performers. And yes, symphony orchestras are going to feel an economic pinch, but, given their institutionalized fundraising, that doesn’t mean they’re going to disappear, particularly the big ones—consider the Boston Symphony’s $300 million endowment.

The thing about predictions, though, is they’re equal parts expression of faith and factual extrapolation; in other words, I don’t consider myself to be right, just (uncharacteristically for me) optimistic based on what I can see. The point is, one’s opinion as to the future course of the arts depends as much on aesthetic personality as it does on analysis. I’m not saying that arguing one way or another is necessarily a sign of sophistry or cynical calculation—far from it. But our aesthetic personalities aren’t imposed from without by force of logic, they’re something that all of us who care about artistic values construct for ourselves. That personality affects not just how we perceive art, but the state of the art as well. You’d be correct to say that music as we know it is not long for this world, but that’s always going to be the case: music (like the rest of the arts) is continually in flux, constantly innovating, constantly reacting, constantly adapting to the twists and turns of history and technology—it’s a creative endeavor, after all. Whether you view that perennial change as good or bad is up to you, but not to worry: both views can be artistically fruitful.

Example: British composer, conductor, critic and wit Constant Lambert. Over the past few years, Lambert has become one of my favorite composers, and I think he’s one of the most fascinating musical figures of the 20th century. He’s a bundle of contradictions: a musical classicist who gave serious recognition to jazz (particularly Duke Ellington) long before anyone else did, a contibutor to progressive journals whose comments could reveal casual racism and anti-Semitism, a prodigy who managed to survive into productive adulthood and then destroyed himself with drink and iatrophobia. (If anyone out there ever asks me to write a musical biography, be prepared for a Lambert pitch.)

Back on topic: one of the main features of the artistic persona that Lambert adopted was to present himself as the last of a dying breed, a poignantly witty witness to the decay of the Western musical tradition. And you have to admit, the artistic results were well worth it. Compositionally, Lambert projects an infectious, dynamic melancholy that’s a rich combination of elegiac Romanticism and brittle, jazzy modernism; as a critic, he wrote one of the all-time great musical jeremiads, Music Ho! (Haven’t read it? Head to the library—best I can tell, it’s shamefully out-of-print.) The subtitle is revealing: A Study of Music in Decline. But the book is hardly sad; the musical analyses are lapidary and incisive, and the writing itself is unfailingly lively. Obviously, Western art music hasn’t died out in the years since 1931, but Lambert’s pessimism on that count crucially fueled his artistic activity, which remains engaging and vital a half-century after his death.

It’s a touchy chicken-and-egg problem: does pessimism (or optimism) fuel a person’s particular artistic values, or are those values shaped by the person’s predisposed outlook on life? (And what about avoiding conflict by putting tough questions in a large enough perspective that one can instead muse on the complex process of developing a personal aesthetic? Hmmm….) I think there’s also an interesting study to be made comparing decline-and-fall narratives across topics and media; a lot of the ones I can think of off the top of my head, from Jeremiah to Gibbon to Waugh to Auden, are far more vigorous than you’d expect from the subject matter. (Check out Nik Cohn’s Awopbopaloobop Alopbamboom, for example, a late ‘60s eulogy for rock-and-roll that has more energy and point than almost anything else ever written on popular music.) Nietzsche once tried to pin this idea down, in the final version of The Birth of Tragedy:

Is there a pessimism of strength? An intellectual predilection for the hard, gruesome, evil, problematic aspect of existence, prompted by well-being, by overflowing health, by the fullness of existence?

No doubt, for some artists, there’s a bigger charge in channeling Cassandra than Pangloss. Do I take their gloom-and-doom with a grain of salt? Sure, and I’d bet they’d do likewise if I tried to let the sunshine in. But it’s the salt that brings out the flavor.

Update (1/29): Alex Ross has a post on upward trends in the classical recording business that’s filled with good links.


  1. All very well put, Matthew. I hope I don’t sound blandly optimistic in my posts on this subject. I just don’t think that any kind of death is imminent, and the outlook is encouraging so long as organizations take an imaginative and energetic approach. I’m amassing a large amount of data that I will post soon. The flaw in Sandow’s approach is that he equates classical music with the American symphony orchestra. This is a chronic problem. Let’s talk about the situation with opera houses, or, as you say, new-music ensembles. In 1960 the market for live opera or for new music was extremely limited, confined to a few major cities. Now it’s enormous. The growth is off the charts and proceeding apace. And those audiences are much, much younger than the orchestra audiences.

  2. I would hardly consider you (or Greg) bland; if you were, I’d have stopped reading. I do think you’re right, and I’m wildly curious to see the data you’ve got. (I did a half-hearted search across the Web for some statistics over the holidays, but overeating takes its toll.) Something I hadn’t considered about the changing demographic was how much of some of the current pessimism has been fueled by classical music’s lower profile in the mainstream media—and, if there’s a younger audience that’s being missed by orchestra-centric surveys, whether that profile might rise again, as those in the next generation become editors and program executives. Not that it’ll ever reach Van Cliburn levels again. (Congratulations on the book, BTW—at least someone in the arts is boosting their productivity!)

  3. Thanks, Matthew! It turns out the median age for the opera audience is 48, which, I confess, isn’t shockingly younger than that for orchestras (55 to 60). But 25% of the opera crowd is under the age of 35, which is certainly encouraging. We’re in a vicious circle in some ways: media neglect feeds insider pessimism, and insider pessimism, frankly, breeds more media neglect. But the audience itself continues to surprise the doomsayers. Some of the most amazing statistics are coming out of the new-music scene in LA. More to come….

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