Before I was sidetracked by our discussion of civility last month, I'd planned to write some on the latest doom-and-gloom regarding the future of classical music. (I don't mean to sound dismissive of the concerns, as I share many of them myself.) But what is the health of classical music, and is it really as old-fashioned as all that?
Greg Sandow, who blogs on the future of classical music, looks at the stats and sees an increasingly older demographic:
The classical music audience is now, on the average, more than 50 years old. There's a common belief that it's always been this old, but I've uncovered data that shows this isn't true….If the audience has been getting older for 50 years, then clearly younger people aren't coming into it.
His conclusion is not a sunny one:
This makes me think that the era of classical music is going to end. Not this year, not next year, maybe not in 10 years (though surely by then we'll see decisive signs of where we're going). But sometime reasonably soon, the era of classical music will be over….organized classical concerts, as we know them now, won't be very numerous, or at least won't be as numerous as they are now. Though they may well be replaced by other kinds of concerts—more informal, or also offering other kinds of music—in which classical music might be played. To be as precise as I can, I might say that the apparatus of classical music, as we know it now, will very likely fade away.
Terry Teachout looks at Sandow's prognosis and agrees. For some time classical music has been driven by the superstars, the Three Tenors type of salesmenship, but that can go only so far.
Audiences are attracted not by the stars, but by the show—that is, by dramatically compelling productions of musically interesting operas. If the larger culture of classical music were to be reorganized along similar lines, then concert presenters, instead of presenting a small roster of international celebrity virtuosos, might be forced to engage a wider range of lower-priced soloists, possibly including local artists and ensembles with a carefully cultivated base of loyal fans. Similarly, regional symphony orchestras would have to adopt more imaginative programming strategies in order to attract listeners who now buy tickets mainly to hear superstar soloists play popular concertos in person.
A major player in this situation, according to Terry, is the recording industry. As he's argued in other posts, it becomes increasingly difficult to justify the time and expense of attending live concerts when the definitive recording of that piece is available to download.
In the same way, he sees the continued trend toward specialization and segmentation; in other words, such things as an eventual move of the Met completely away from the Saturday matinee radio broadcast to the kind of satellite programming that they've already started to embrace.
Alex Ross, music critic for The New Yorker, offers this rebuttal:
But I question Greg's habit of equating the health of long-established orchestras with the health of classical music at large. What about opera? Over half of professional American opera companies were established after 1970. If you compare the state of opera today to the state of opera in the sixties, as Greg does in his orchestra posts, you see dramatic growth, not decline. The audience for opera is younger, and, according to the NEA, one quarter is under the age of thirty-five. [...] As for orchestras themselves, most have reported a small rise in attendance after several years of decline, and, with hard work, that trend should continue. Although big-city orchestras may not be selling out all performances, as Greg says they were in the sixties, they are also giving more performances than ever before; it was in the course of the sixties that they converted to fifty-two-week contracts. The New York Philharmonic, founded in 1842, had given 6700 concerts by the end of the 1962-63 season, and now it's closing in on 15,000.
Sandow sticks to the main point:
But still the numbers tell the same story. The average age of the classical music audience has been rising, almost precisely in the way the model railroad age has been (though over a longer stretch of time). Why shouldn't that just as clearly spell trouble for the concerts that our audience attends?
I tend to side with Ross on this, meaning that I'm cautiously optimistic. My concern is that as the demographic concern becomes more and more paramount, we're going to see a dumbing down of classical music - either the music itself, or the experience. It's not hard to see the trends already: if you've gone to a classical concert in the last few years, you've probably gotten used to the site of jeans, sweaters, even Reeboks, being worn by the audience. You've also heard programming that starts to mirror that heard on the radio: conservative, short, excerpts of works rather than the entire piece. All this in the name of appealing to the contemporary audience.
I suppose some classical music is better than nothing, but I would be sorry to see this become the norm in the future. It seems to me a good thing to have something to aspire to, something that requires you to better yourself in some way. Archbishop Fulton Sheen, in his talks about love, often speaks about one of the side effects of love being the desire to better yourself, to make yourself worthy of your beloved. In the same way I don't see anything wrong with dressing up in a tie and sportcoat and acting at least somewhat civilized for a couple of hours. Maybe you're not used to dressing up, perhaps you're uncomfortable at not being able to talk to the person sitting next to you. Tough. Classical music, more than most art forms today, affords the listener the opportunity of a transcendent experience; if it's worth attending, it's also worth making a little effort. If the music challenges you, if the experience requires a little discipline, that might not be such a bad thing. It simply mirrors the "anything goes" nature of culture today, of course, the gradual coarsening of society.
Classical music is more than just music; it represents some small part of our better nature, music that dares to show us a glimpse of the glories of God. As such, listening to it on your stereo, or via satellite may be pleasant (and it's better than nothing), but it isn't quite enough. It would be nice to think that there is some place where one can go for at least a little while to remove yourself from the madness of this milieu, where one can even dare to be "civilized." Alex Ross' analysis gives us guarded hope, but we also have to hope that it's not just whistling in the dark. So we look to the future, and what it brings us. Maybe we can do something about it, but even if we can't that still doesn't mean we have to like it.