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by Frank T. Manheim

The Pace of Classical Music Reform Increases in the UK and the USA

Classical music’s decline stimulates greater outreach to audiences but a real turnaround needs more.

The most important stimulus for increased outreach to general musical audiences by professional musical establishments has been concern about the decline in classical music’s influence (see a previous article).

The magnificent musical traditions inherited from the past: symphony orchestras, operas, ballets, and conservatories of music are expensive. They can only be supported or justified in terms of funding if they serve the public.

Pragmatically motivated initiatives are important. But from a conceptual viewpoint they may play second fiddle to increased numbers of motivated musicians and music activists willing to challenge the music establishment. I personally want to experience a reversal of the decline in Classical music in my lifetime. It’s a long shot but not impossible.

The importance of new music that speaks to audiences today.

Notwithstanding the beauties in older music, I believe that a critical means to revitalize classical music must be new music that speaks to today, but also speaks to audiences. In the absence of exciting new music, I recently traveled 600 miles to attend a world premiere of the assumed lost Boris Goudenow (1710) by baroque composer Johann Mattheson at the Boston Early Music Festival. It was a huge hit – nearly three hundred years after its composition. It couldn’t have motivated nearly three years of effort in retrieval from Armenia and production, nor captivated both musicians and audiences, and induced travel by my wife and I if composer Mattheson’s objective had been largely self-actualization or demonstrating his originality to peers (although surely both were achieved). Mattheson – a newly discovered major talent, was clearly motivated to communicate with audiences.

As in previous centuries of evolving styles, effective music in the 21st Century will probably express an internal desire by composers to communicate, at times stretching for effect, but using a musical language understood by audiences. The test of new music meeting the challenge of a turnaround may well be whether it can attract young people – because they’ll be the key element required to turn the tide and confound the cynics regarding the future of classical music.

I know of no compositions after 1950 by accredited contemporary composers except Leonard Bernstein (West Side Story) that have aroused significant or sustained interest among American young people. And as regards Bernstein, his more popular musical flyers were widely deprecated by musical leaders and influential writers in his time.

Composers with "attitude" don’t engage audience gratitude.

I explored in a previous article the lingering effect of futurist philosophies. These ideas – rejecting methods and musical language familiar to audiences - stoked the revolution in the arts in the early 20th Century. Their legacies lingered on and built walls between the professional music establishment and audiences. article

It will surely sound odd and even offensive to some musicians to hear professionals' prerogative to define standards for their compositions questioned. But the historical reality is that when composers composed for patrons or audiences, compositions like those of Handel, Mozart, Beethoven, and Schumann not only engaged audiences of their time. Their works have crossed time barriers and today even reach new cultures like those in Japan and Korea.

On the other hand, once composers set their own standards – beginning in the early 20th Century, an unbridgeable gulf grew between them and audiences – even though the latter could often be intimidated into paying lip service to official opinion. Aaron Copland, an early enfant terrible in the avant-garde movement of the 1920s, "simplified" his music and created popular works for twenty years after the onset of the Great Depression (1930). However, even during this "popular period" he insisted on the autonomy of the artist, and rejected the idea that he "composed for audiences" (What to Listen For in Music, 1939). Copland understood the huge divide between composers and the public, and even recognized that some music lovers thought that the "ultramodern composers" were perpetrating frauds: "The first thing to remember is that creative artists, by and large, are not out to fool you."

The cost of academic isolation for poets and musicians

In an article that created a national stir, the American poet, Dana Goia, pointed out that in the 20th Century, academic poets had essentially killed poetry as a popular medium ("Can Poetry Matter?", Atlantic Monthly, May 1991). They did this, said Goia, by professionalizing poetry, building walls of artificial constructs, specifically rejecting communicative forms from the past, e.g. rhyme, and essentially converting a communicative art to an arcane discipline practised largely within academic circles. Interestingly, Goia is now Chairman of the U.S. National Endowment for the Arts.

Early 20th Century composers were on track toward achieving the same type of isolation for classical music. They did this by embracing any kind of musical creativity except traditional forms and conventions that would communicate with audiences. Some were motivated by political ideals, whereas others’ goals were purely philosophical-artistic.

The record is crystal-clear: that some of the most highly esteemed composers were quite prepared to sacrifice mass audiences. Pierre Boulez proposed to "burn down the opera houses" and John Cage thought that "Americans should have no problem doing without expressive emotional music like Beethoven". Both gained the highest levels of esteem in the intellectual cultural world with their views. However, the public attraction and commitment to the great music monuments of the past (e.g. symphonies, etc.) was too great for these leaders to carry the day, so concessions were made by the music establishment – even by Boulez - to public tastes. Music performance came to incorporate earlier classics for the audiences, and contemporary music primarily for music reviewers and the cognoscenti

In a previous article on the role of futurism in music, I talked about how, in spite of the evolution away from more extreme rejectionist artistic expressions, there still remain today prejudices against the taste or capacity of audiences to render valid opinions on musical quality. article

Articulate exponents of the formal establishment, such as reviewers for the Evening Independent, the New York Times, Washington Post, et al, still hold the media high ground. To be fair, increasing mentions of problems in paradise occur among writers for the prime media, e.g. Robert Maycock’s article: "Is Classical Music Really Headed for Extinction" (Evening Independent, April 26, 2005). However, discussions within the establishment about popular alienation from classical music sound a bit like referring to the Irish famine in terms of a shortage of potatoes, without mentioning that people were starving.  

Let’s now briefly list selected developments that have emerged in the past five years, besides the Knight Foundation report and individual events affecting symphony orchestras. One can conclude that the UK leads the USA in terms of significant musical breakthroughs for reform.

  1. Businessman John McLaren launches Masterprize (2001), a composition award in which 50% of the decision on winners was to be made by listening audiences. The Masterprize gained unexpectedly large response and continues.
  2. ClassicFM Radio. The stunning achievement of 6.5 million listeners per week to an all-classical radio channel has no parallel anywhere in the world to my knowledge. The most widely listened to classical radio program in America is the commercial WGMS Classical station in Washington D.C., with a claimed listenership of up to 700,000. Publicly supported classical radio in the U.S. continues to decline.
  3. London Symphony. The dynamic organizational, programmatic, and outreach innovations of recent years include development of the Symphony’s own recording productions. I haven’t yet found parallel developments among major U.S. symphonies. However, a sea change in American symphony management has taken place since the Knight Foundation Report came out. Drew McManus is a young Turk who writes his Adaptistration blog on symphony management in the widely read Arts Journal web site. McManus claims that until recently most American symphonies’ management model remained stuck in 150-year old autocratic structures based on single patrons or sponsors.
  4. The key feature of the web site in which this article is included, is its meritocratic diversity of writers and opinions, and open nature of the discussions. With 70 + reviewers of CDs as well as other topics reaching 9,000-16,000 viewers per day, and a lively chat site, this music lover’s Mecca is the antithesis of the controlled nature of most large-city newspaper music writing. It is also more democratic and open than most U.S. web sites, which tend towards thematic content but have few meaningful opportunities for exchange of views. For example, Classical Archives claims the largest number of classical music files on the web "33,909 full length classical music files by 1,881 composers". However, a few authors dominate writing, and there is a subscription fee. With notable exceptions like New Music Box most of the myriad U.S. web sites offer mainly specific information on specialty interests. An increasing number of individual bloggers have sites, but opportunities for visible interaction like that on the site of the emancipated freelance cultural writer, Zachary Lewis, are not common.

  5. Terry Teachout- American music reviewer for Commentary magazine.
  6. Nonconformist music and culture writer, Teachout, has gained national stature. He doesn’t duck specifics about realities of the current music world and provides unconventional historical vignettes. In his current article, "Romantics Return" (July-August 2005) Teachout discusses late modernist dismissal of tonal music, asserting that history has left behind Pierre Boulez "who famously declared in 1952 that ‘any musician who has not experienced … the necessity for the dodecaphonic [twelve-tone] language is USELESS. For his whole work is irrelevant to the needs of his epoch." Teachout goes on to describe the first in a six-volume series of critical studies of modern American composers who created significant new work without abandoning traditional musical forms and procedures: Walter Simmons, Voices in the Wilderness: Six American Neo-Romantic Composers, Scarecrow Press, 2005.

  7. National Public Radio awards for new ideas to increase communication with audiences regarding classical music
  8. In late 2004 an award of $500,000 was announced, to be administered through Minnesota Public Radio. The amount was not large, but the theme is a first.

  9. Small town newspaper reviewers. Many years ago double bass virtuoso Gary Karr said that some of the best music writing in the U.S. came not from the big city newspaper critics, but from small-town reviewers. Currently, small-town reviewing has suffered along with major paper counterparts by generally reduced coverage of classical music. However, in towns where music activity is vigorous, I have seen some of the most colorful, lively music writing to be found anywhere. The following example is by Kitty Montgomery in the Daily Freeman, Rhinebeck, NY, in 2003:
  10. "If cellist Paul Katz and the Cleveland String Quartet are the centaurs of the classical music world - half fiddle, half man - the women of the Cavani Quartet are its maenads.  If you need to brush up on your Greek mythology, these were the wild women whose annual civic duty it was to rip apart the wine king Dionysus after a long day's riot.  In concert for the Rhinebeck Chamber Music Society at the Church of the Messiah Sunday afternoon, the Cavani, divas all, surpassed their ancient sisters in passion and mystery, rending hearts, then restoring them more whole.

  11. NAXOS Records.

Naxos’s inexpensive classical recordings set new standards for the industry, and bucked the trend for declines in classical recordings by American firms. However, the current web site, does not continue the earlier magazine and other musical features.

Next steps

The serendipity of the above developments makes guesses about specific future events hazardous. More younger musicians and musically knowledgeable activists can be predicted to join the movement for innovation and reform. Greater communication among activists could lead to initiatives of larger scope. I would hope that more young newspaper critics would cultivate audiences and local music resources, speak with candor about what they hear – and become activists in the community – not just passive arbiters of opinion. Dean Robert Freeman at the University of Texas College of Fine Arts, the initiator of the famed Eastman School of music curriculum that stresses community interaction, could initiate a cooperative movement among forward-looking conservatories.

The influence on the U.S. of new Scandinavian and Baltic-trained conductors has yet to be determined. Major breakthroughs in terms of classical MP3 and other downloads are not yet in evidence. I often wish for classical videos and DVDs in fitness centers instead of the tiresome pop offerings to accompany pumping iron and treadmills. I’d like to hear more string quartets emulating rock, more rock groups toning down and trying their hand at classical repertory, and a string quartet working up some of the more than 125 string quartets by turn-of-the Century American composer Fidelis Zitterbart Jr, languishing in the basement storage area of the University of Pittsburgh Library.

I see highly promising potentials for compositional prizes awarded to school-aged musicians - with winners picked by peer musicians and audiences in performance, not by professional musicians based on scores. During my time as a music program manager in Falmouth, Massachusetts our Association commissioned a composition evoking the musical history of Cape Cod from a 14-year old musical prodigy. The only limitation was time and accessibility to our local audiences. The work produced was spellbinding – beginning with winds and waves in prehistoric time, and continuing through Indian cultures, pioneer hymns, etc. Statistics says that more young geniuses should emerge. Let’s put them to work!


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