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Vignettes from the American scene

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 ( 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 Owens.

What is "classical music"? Most people will probably identify with modern dictionary definitions, like World Net Dictionary: "traditional genre of music conforming to an established form and appealing to critical interest and developed musical taste"; 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 January, 2004).

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 total recordings.

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.

Popular (including 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.

Soon knowledgeable 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 music.

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?

Frank T. Manheim © July 2004

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