Are we in the middle of the Golden Age of Classical Music?

Here in the U.S. we have the perception that classical music is dead or dying. On some level that maybe true, on another, not at all. Even I have succumbed to the rhetoric that classical music is on its way downward. But after reading a great article by Heather Mac Donald, “Classical Music’s New Golden Age,” I am forced to reconsider.

The article is quite lengthy, but well worth the time to read and digest its point. Mac Donald argues that never in history has the world had so much interest in or access to classical music. The article begins with a story about Hector Berlioz, where the great composer mentioned the lack of quality in musicianship in his Memoires:

“As the maverick French composer tours mid-nineteenth-century Europe conducting his revolutionary works, he encounters orchestras unable to play in tune and conductors who can’t read scores. A Paris premiere of a Berlioz cantata fizzles when a missed cue sets off a chain reaction of paralyzed silence throughout the entire sorry band.”

After comparing Berlioz’s situation to that of today, her point progresses by stating that more people attend conservatories than ever before in music history, which I have read elsewhere is true. The issue at large is how audiences have responded to classical music within the U.S. But the reality is the global classical music scene has grown while audience participation has fallen here in the states. Conductor James Conlon referred to this as the American paradox:

“But however vibrant classical music’s supply side, many professionals worry that audience demand is growing ever more anemic. Conlon calls this imbalance the “American paradox”: “The growth in the quantity and quality of musicians over the last 50 years is phenomenal. America has more great orchestras than any country in the world. And yet I don’t know of a single orchestra, opera company, or chamber group that isn’t fighting to keep its audience.” The number of Americans over the age of eight who attended a classical-music performance dropped 29 percent from 1982 to 2008, according to the League of American Orchestras (though attendance at all leisure activities plummeted during that period as well, including a 36 percent drop in attendance at sporting events).”

Later in the article, Mac Donald quotes Conlon again:

“The arts fell out of U.S. schools in the 1980s; all the music is gone,” James Conlon observes in Living Opera. “Now we have a generation of adults who make money, accomplish what they think is the fulfillment of life, but they’ve never had any contact with the classical arts—neither music nor literature. For me that’s a national disgrace.”

Whether you believe Conlon’s notion of cultural America, there is absolute truth in what he says about the arts in schools and people’s interest in classical music in America. Today, society is more interested in ridiculous nonsensical entertainment like Lady Gaga, Justin Bieber and Jersey Shore rather than understanding a cultural past and exanding upon it. American pop culture prefers a pot filled with chicken stock versus a delicious stew, like New Orleans’s Jambalaya.

Despite the criticism about cultural interest in classical music, it is important to note that a similar issie was present during the time of Beethoven and Brahms. Society during Beethoven and Brahms’s time considered music of the past “old-fashioned” and outdated always seeking the current musical trend. Sound familiar? By today’s standards, Johann Sebastian Bach is considered a music genius.  However, it wasn’t until Felix Mendelssohn rediscovered the music by Johann Sebastian Bach did the world truly recognize his genius. Perhaps we can blame Mendelssohn for bringing “old” music back from the past? Mac Donald didn’t point this out in her article, but Mendelssohn may have triggered today’s fascination with studying music of the past.

“But the greatest difference between the musical past and present is what we might call musical teleology: the belief that music progresses over time. That belief had consequences that many contemporary listeners and musicians would find shocking. Throughout much of Western history, older works held little interest for average listeners—they wanted the most up-to-date styles in singing and harmony. Seventeenth-century Venetians shunned last year’s operas; nineteenth-century Parisians yawned at the elegant entertainments written for the Sun King. Composers like Bach, today viewed as cornerstones of Western civilization, were seen as impossibly old-fashioned several decades after their deaths.”

Today, there is a classical recording for just about any style of music from any time period. Young musicians are eager to become the next famous violinist, pianist or conductor. Composers haven’t stopped writing new music, but are instead absorbing other musical styles and creating new musical languages every single day. Just listen to the music of Michael Daugherty, Tan Dun, or Osvaldo Golijov.

Classical music has never had some many distinct voices, amazing players and been so easily accessible like it is today. One other point that was made by Mac Donald is the fact that interest in hearing chamber music has grown. Music industry pundits often view the classical music downfall from the vantage point of the orchestra. But chamber music ensembles are plentiful and many of the young composers focus on writing music for smaller ensembles versus large orchestras.

There are many other great points in the article, I encourage you to read it. For the full story, visit www.City-Journal.org.

This post was cross-published on Examiner.com.

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