IS CLASSICAL MUSIC? WHO LISTENS TO IT?
Vignettes from the
Frank T. Manheim
The term, "classical
music" did not yet exist in the
1913 Webster Unabridged Dictionary.
Music critics and writers into the 1920s
like the American Henry Finck and the
French epitome of broad culture, Romaine
Rolland, widely read in America, spoke
only of "music". The British
writer, Constant Lambert, before he
died at an early age, created a stir
by claiming that what we now call "classical
music" was in decline (Music
Ho, 1934). He too didn’t call it
by that name.
By 1934 the term, "classical
music", had come into use in America
to distinguish "serious" music
from popular styles that were burgeoning
on 78-rpm shellac records and AM radio.
In the 1930s and 1940s classical radio
reached huge audiences by today’s standards.
Metropolitan Opera broadcasts
began in 1931 and NBC’s radio orchestra
broadcasts reached millions of regular
listeners. According to Pegolotti’s
biography of radio and early TV host,
Deems Taylor (2003), a few of Taylor’s
broadcasts reached audiences of 8 million.
A 2004 report of the
Arbitron Company lists 299 "classical
radio stations" out of a total
of 13,898 U.S. radio stations (http://www.arbitron.com/downloads/radiotoday04.pdf).
The national leader in listeners in
2003 is said to be the commercial, 24-hour
classical station, WGMS FM (103.5)
in Washington D.C. WGMS’s following
of over 500,000 weekly listeners was
built in part by its charismatic (and
quirky) former morning host, Dennis
What is "classical
music"? Most people will probably
identify with modern dictionary definitions,
like World Net Dictionary: "traditional
Oxford Concise Dictionary: "Music
generally regarded as having permanent
rather than ephemeral value. ‘classical
music’ is used as a generic term meaning
the opposite of light or popular music.
Another meaning is music
composed roughly between 1750 and 1830
(i.e. post-Baroque and pre-Romantic)
which covers the development of the
classical symphony"; and Merriam-Webster:
"Of, relating to, or being music
in the educated European tradition that
includes such forms as art song, chamber
music, opera, and symphony as distinguished
from folk or popular music or jazz".
Definitions and music
are changing. Billboard Magazine,
which tracks sales of musical recordings
in America, put a 23-year old baritone
named Josh Groban at the top of its
"classical music" division
in January 2004. Groban interrupted
his conservatory training at age 21
when his first recording, sponsored
by Canadian music popularizer, David
Foster, hit platinum (1 million records).
Groban is among a new
trend of "classical crossover"
tenors that include the Italian, Alessandro
Safina, Briton, Russell Watson; and
Greek, Mario Frangoulis. The crossover
group, Amici Forever - The Opera
Band is now No. 2 on Billboard’s
classical division. The classical crossover
artists sing classical numbers in audience-pleasing
style, often with electronically enhanced
or lush orchestral accompaniment.
Next after the above
genre of recordings are a string of
movie scores "Freaky Friday,"
(Walt Disney Pictures), "Seabiscuit,"
(Universal Studios Home Video), "Finding
Nemo," (Disney), "Pirates
of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black
Pearl," (Disney), "Rugrats
Go Wild," (Nickelodeon Video), "Bruce
Almighty," (Universal Studios),
and "American Wedding ",
etc. (Billboard Magazine, early
The point is that "core"
classical recordings (Beethoven, symphony
orchestras, etc.) are getting stiff
competition. Groban alone now probably
outsells most of the more traditional
classical recordings together. That
does not deter a strong core of classical
music lovers. Moreover, the fact that
classical recordings are among the least
expensive recordings available in any
genre (especially on the NAXOS label),
is attracting first-time classical experimenters.
Billboard classical division record
sales in 2003 made up 2+ percent of
Let’s consider what
really sets "true" classical
music apart from popular music, folk
music, or church hymns. Drawing from
various standard sources, I think it
safe to say that classical music is
or is supposed to be "through composed".
That means it should incorporate original
music development through its length.
It is normally addressed to people with
either a cultivated taste, or seeking
deeper content in music than would be
normally gained from popular styles.
country) and folk music, or hymns can
attract a following by catchy words,
familiar musical patterns or effects,
fragments of melody or rhythm. They
are commonly enhanced by the personality
of a performer and/or high amplification.
Great musicals often have passages that
one could call "classical".
Their setting and intent put them in
an intermediate category.
Labelling a composition
"classical" doesn’t guarantee
inspiration or permanence. Classical
music may inspire audiences from beginning
to end. Dvorak’s New World Symphony
left the audience at its New York Philharmonic
premiere in 1893 exhilarated and ecstatic.
Or a piece may please only its composer
and perhaps a few aficionados. And that,
of course, is one of the problems being
increasingly discussed these days.
I want to close this
essay with an intriguing vignette about
one reason why older styles like baroque
and early classical "classical
music" have increased in relative
popularity on American classical radio
stations. The 24-hour FM classical radio
station, WCRB (Waltham MA), earlier
followed a fairly standard classical
format. But the decline in listenership
that affected many stations in the 1990s
in the U.S. led WCRB’s management
to make consumer surveys and make marked
changes in its programming.
long-time listeners filed complaints
on the station’s web site, first about
the loss of the playlist. Then they
noted that vocal music, J.S. Bach, music
of the great romantics (Brahms, Tchaikovsky)
and even Beethoven were disappearing.
Moderns had gone well before. Now there
were short, rarely heard early Haydn
and Mozart symphonies, many baroque
works, and even pieces by rarer early
classical composers like Sammartini,
Hasse and Johan Stamitz.
What happened? Had
sophisticates taken over the station
to indulge their special historical
tastes? Just the opposite. The manager
discovered that motorists clogged in
traffic queues in the greater Boston
area wanted to relax with classical
music. But stormy Beethoven symphonies,
or emotional flights by romantics like
Schuman or Brahms were not on the preferred
list. Commuters said no to the contrapuntal
complexities of J.S. Bach. Even the
human voice could be stressful. It proved
to be the transparent textures, simple
melodic structures, grace and harmonious
resolutions of baroque music and early
classicals that provided the preferred
atmosphere. This was especially true
for listeners who were new to classical
The station manager
eventually created special commercial
software that programmed classical music.
He did away with the playlist that could
reveal his programming design. The station
finally removed its interactive listener
forum from the web, because more knowledgeable
listeners continued to give the manager
grief – but added little to the numbers.
WCRB is an extreme
case. Boston station, WGBH, retains
strong connections with developed music
culture in Beantown. But listener opinion
now counts far more than it did 25 years
ago, even with more sophisticated stations.
No programming with the astounding popularity
of the British ClassicFM group has emerged,
but as more American managers listen
to the voice of the audience, interesting
developments may lie ahead. Can U.S.
stations learn from the ClassicFM experience
and retain the enthusiasm of aficionados
while attracting newcomers to classical?
T. Manheim © July
from the Audience