Is Classical Music Dead?


Mahlerman gives us a tour d’horizon of the serious music scene in 2013, and he pulls no punches…

Or is it just dying, very slowly, and the priest is on the way?  Writing this in the shadow of the closure, after more than 90 years, of the HMV music chain (following Borders and Zavi), and the dumbing-down of BBC Radio 3 which continues remorselessly, it feels very much like the body has been measured, the oak has been cut to size, and we just have to nail down the lid and lower it into the ground.

But what is ‘classical music’, and is it the terminology that people struggle with?  Well, strictly speaking it is music written in the one-hundred years between 1700 and 1800, the Classical Period – which makes WA Mozart’s music ‘classical’, but rules out Gustav Mahler and Richard Strauss, and any composer that followed them.  So, do we need a re-brand of this genre?  ‘Art Music’ and ‘Serious Music’ both appear from time to time, but I imagine either or both would alienate more prospects than they would excite.  Leonard Bernstein struggled with this question more than 50 years ago in his now-famous Young People’s Concerts and Lectures, and the best that the great polymath could manage was ‘Exact Music’ which, though it perfectly describes what a composer does, it makes no allowances for the multitude of sounds that can emerge from the precise instructions that he inscribes, when thousands of interpreters try to make sense of the dots and dashes on the page.

I fear the anti-intellectualism against  classical music is a grave error, and evidence of it is everywhere.  Do you squirm when you think back to air-guitar Tony Blair cozying-up to Noel Gallagher at No10 in 1997?  Well think on to Dave ‘man of the people’ Cameron on Desert Island Discs a couple of years ago.  This intellectual giant would be happy lying in the sand drinking his luxury, whiskey, and reading his chosen book, The River Cottage Cookbook.  And the music to nourish his essence?   Among a gruesome list containing The Smiths, The Killers and REM, Benny Hill’s Ernie (The Fastest Milkman In The West) takes the palm.  Yes, he has a first class honours degree (PPE) from Oxford, but is there anything going on in there?  A soul perhaps?

Almost 20 years ago Classic FM was born, cutting ‘the classics’ into bite-size chunks and hiring a few jocks ( Anthony Burgess: ‘Electronic Lice’) to keep things moving, and a parasitic PR machine to get the message across – the message being, I suppose, that classical music is for everybody, and absolutely not  dependent, as many had claimed, upon the quartet of education, your financial status, your social class or the influence of your parents.  At the time, BBC Radio 3 had an audience hovering around 1.9 million, and I clearly remember that the suggestion put forward was that most of those people would soon be dead, or taking liquidised meals.  The then Managing Director of Radio Ian Trethowan described the station as ‘a private playground for elitists to indulge in cerebral masturbation’.   What Classic FM shareholders quickly discovered to their collective delight was that by chasing audience volume they were able to trounce R3 in the ratings, hitting almost 4 million within a few years – proving that they were able to ‘find’ a completely new audience for ‘digestible classics’.  But this was not the tragedy;  that was waiting around the corner.  The suits, the Tristrams, the hard-of-thinking at R3 decided that a rush to ratings was the way forward, and if that meant that baby and  the bathwater had to be jettisoned, so be it.  Baby in this case was what I remember from my distant childhood, The Third Programme, one of the many glories of the post-Reithian world that sought to ‘entertain, inform and educate’.  Formed in 1946 the programmes were usually pitched at a level slightly above the imagined level of the listeners, thus allowing them to be gently lifted and educated, something they (we) were quite happy to submit to.  The bastard spawn of The Third Programme, Radio 3, first saw the light of day in 1967 and very quickly the rot set in.  By 1970 Broadcasting in the Seventies  was published, laying out R3’s ‘target audience’ and what the future ‘content’ should comprise – this being completely counter to the Reithian principals that, until then, had prevailed.  Now the rot really set in.

Spool forward to the brittle 90’s and, under the aegis of Nicholas Kenyon, the introduction of ‘drive time’, a shameless counter-punch to the advance of Classic FM.  The American-born DJ Paul Gambaccini was poached from Classic FM, where he had presented ‘Music for Lovers’.  A handout titled ‘From Puccini to Gambaccini’ stated that his new programme would consist of ‘classical greats’ and that Paul would bring ‘his relaxed but knowledgeable style to the programme and take you on a stimulating journey through 500 years of the classics’.  Well, I’ll go to the foot of our stairs!  As the new Millennium dawned, the trickle down-market became a flood under the present Controller Roger Wright, and the likes of Natalie Wheen could be heard uttering inanities like ‘this is music that really hits the G-spot’.  I also heard, admittedly on the US Station KDFC, ‘That Mozart – what a guy!’.  Has the bottom been reached, I wondered?  No, was the short answer.

Here is the respected rock-music writer Paul Morley on the horrendous Classical Brit Awards

‘….the idealogical sting, the madness, the beauty, the improvisational genius of it (classical music) has all been taken away ….the way it is presented on Radio 3, I often feel like I am on a long journey to my own funeral’.

So, what is to be done for what EM Forster, talking about Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony in Howard’s End called ‘ The most sublime noise that has ever penetrated into the ear of man’.  What we don’t  need are the presenters ‘with smiles in their voices’ on the recently renamed Radio 2.5 – the fawning, vacuous bootlicking of, say, Sean Rafferty; nor do we need the polished PR surface projecting above the waves, when an iceberg of trouble is invisible below.  What we need to face up to is that, as a nation, when it comes to art (and this is true in other ‘artistic’ disciplines) it is raw fear that is the dominating emotion.  Serious Classical (I can’t think of another word) music, as Stephen Fry reminds us, needs time and space.  You sit in your front room, or you take your seat in a concert hall, and you listen.  You sit down and you listen.  And if you are prepared to make that simple investment of time, music (especially the best of it) will take you on a journey inside yourself; music that because it is about nothing, is about everything.

Last year was a pretty grim one for both creative and re-creative artists.  Composers Elliot Carter, Hans Werner Henze, Jonathan Harvey and Richard Rodney Bennett are no longer placing dots and dashes on a manuscript; Evelyn Lear, Lisa Della Casa and the great Russian soprano Galina Vishnevskaya will no longer be offering us their indelible operatic roles; and the list of conductors and instrumentalists is almost upsettingly long – Paavo Berglund, Alexis Weissenberg, Maurice Andre, Charles Rosen, Ruggiero Ricci……there are more, and a dying civilization can ill-afford the loss.  The greatest, for this writer and many others, is the passing of the great German lyric baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, about whom I will post later in the year.  All dabblers can afford to invest just over two minutes of their lives; invest them here, in An Die Musik by Franz Schubert, and do not forget the incomparable pianist Gerald Moore.

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About Author Profile: Mahlerman

Mahlerman's life was shaped by his single mother, who never let complete ignorance of a subject get in the way of having strong opinions about it. Facing retirement after a life in what used to be called 'trade', and having a character that consists mainly of defects, he spends his moments of idleness trying to correct them, one by one.

12 thoughts on “Is Classical Music Dead?

  1. Brit
    January 20, 2013 at 11:31

    I can well believe the dumbing down of R3 – typical misplaced Beeb anti- ‘elitism’ which basically translates as self-loathing.

    But regarding the general O tempora o mores! theme of your highly entertaining and informative polemic, I’m more positive than you (I need to be, I’m younger). On telly we now have BBC 4 and Sky Arts which dedicate a lot of time to classical music (I think ‘classical’ is the inevitable term, whatever the objections), and then of course there’s the internet. Youtube and blogging – eg. your fortnightly posts – surely allows greater access to great music with great commentary – delivered at a time convenient to the user – than ever before.

    January 20, 2013 at 13:08

    Hmm. You con-o-sewers on top of the ladder may quibble, but for us “dabblers” on the lower rungs, the Classical period came to an abrupt end at Stravinsky’s notorious 1913 Rite of Spring concert in Paris when half the audience walked out in a rage. Since then, much of what has been written is simply inaccessible to the public. It marked the end of the era when Irish and Italian workmen were said to have been heard singing arias and the works of the great tenors as they laboured, or eagerly attended performances themselves if they could. It’s ironic you would refer to Lenny Bernstein’s career-long angst because just yesterday we attended a combined film/orchestra presentation of West Side Story, at which I was reminded how much unpleasant, unmemorable music he wrote.

    The debates about accessibility, atonal dissonance, mathematics-driven innovation, experimentation etc. have been going on for a long time (as with modern painting) and probably don’t need rehashing here. But I confess to gritting my teeth when I hear the likes of Stephen Fry tell me the fact that I consider much 20th century music to be an irritating cacophonous wasteland is because I never gave it enough time and space. I never invested a lot of time and space in Bach, Beethoven, Mozart etc., etc. either. They found a way to come to me. As I recall, it was much more a case of being surprised by joy than payback for discipline and effort on my part.

    I understand why the emphasis on an ever-narrowing repertoire of predictable “Classical Favourites” irritates you, especially when it excludes sublime things like the Schubert/Fischer-Dieskau combo and many, many wonderful minor/secondary songs and works. I also agree that some training and effort in an era of so much popular schlock is needed for a generation inclined to dismiss even Strauss waltzes summarily as “crap”. But, Mahlerman, the genesis of the problem is the same as with the visual arts. Composers and musicians decided about a hundred years ago that the failure of the general public (or even the musical clerisy) to understand and appreciate their works showed a dullness in the feckless, lazy public rather than any problem with their creative brilliance. We just weren’t clever enough to grasp their angst.

    An interesting phenomenon seems to have been going on at the sub-Classical level for the past several years. A lot of renowned theatre companies over here have found themselves in tough because of cuts to their public (and perhaps private) funding. Many seem to be trying to fill seats by turning to reproductions of the great Broadway musicals of the 30’s, 50’s and 60’s that haven’t been seen for decades, and in many cases the results are spectacular. We happen to be great fans and have seen quite a few of them in Maine, NYC and Stratford (our Stratford). Not only are they showing the public just how good the music, dancing and lyrics of those shows were compared to what followed, but they are doing them so well they are grabbing the audience’s emotions and making them soar from the beginning. I’ve been a fan all my life, but I assume many in the sold-out audiences haven’t, and yet everyone seems to be swept away excitedly to an aesthetic Nirvana for a few hours. Isn’t there a lesson there?

    January 20, 2013 at 14:22

    The old Third Programme had its problems – for example, there was a time in the 1960s when it had to share its airwaves with something called Network Three, which made time, in its early days at least, for programmes on subjects like pigeon-fancying, cycling, and bridge (the card game not the composer). But in spite of this the Third managed, at its best, to present music well and to put it beside other material (talks, drama) that together made it, for this listener at least, an education. What we have now is a shadow of what there was, mainly for the reasons you mention, Mahlerman – especially the replacement of informed commentary with inappropriate presentation styles and the assumption by many of the producers and presenters that their listeners are thick. The internet helps a lot, as Brit says, but it can’t replace the informative context that radio can provide.

    January 20, 2013 at 16:38

    I understand there’s a move towards getting more children playing classical instruments at school. And there’s still a BBC Young Musician of the Year contest – perhaps it could become the next X-Factor? Or, perhaps (thinking of Gaw’s previous post) in their efforts to be ‘alternative’ people will start flocking to ‘music appreciation’ classes (or listening to Melvyn Bragg’s In Our Time). What goes around comes around, the hipsters of the future may well be aficionados of classical music.

    And I don’t think that classical music is dying, but it is evolving. Many people don’t enjoy sitting in a stuffy concert hall, on an uncomfortable seat watching a man waving a stick in front of the stage. There are new approaches, like the less formal concerts at Village Underground in Shoreditch, where people don’t have to sit still. This may open up the world of classical music to the masses rather than maintaining it as the preserve of the high-brow intelligensia.

    January 20, 2013 at 17:54

    I had an idea that this subject, a bit more edgy than the usual stuff from the top rung of the ladder (sorry Peter), might bring forth some interesting comments – and it has begob. Yes Brit/Susan – there are now many ways of ‘consuming’ good music, and now that I have cancelled my sub. to Gramophone magazine, and removed R3 as my default radio station (in favour of two US internet stations), I have in effect voted with my wallet and my finger. Yes PW, I too miss the ‘informative context’ that, to my knowledge, only radio at its best can provide. I agree with you Peter, that much that has been written since 1913 is pretty indigestible – but surely this fact has to be balanced by another, which reminds us that the last four Sibelius Symphonies, almost half of the output of Maurice Ravel, including both piano concertos, and much of Rachmaninov, was penned during this turbulent period? And that is before you include two great Englishmen, and a handful from your country, whose tonal music my mother would have loved – Samuel Barber, Roy Harris, Aaron Copland – and Bernstein. Can’t think of a work from the musical theatre that I would place ahead of West Side Story, but if I could it would probably be by any one of half-a-dozen American wizards, one still with us, Sondheim. What about Richard Rodgers, Harold Arlen, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin and Jerome Kern? Oh yes, and a certain gentleman that I posted on some time ago in They Left Early – George Gershwin. The famously austere Arnold Schoenberg was, bizarrely, a tennis buddy, and George begged the older man for music lessons. Schoenberg’s often quoted reply was apposite – ‘I would only make you a second rate Schoenberg, and you are such a good Gershwin already’.

  6. Worm
    January 20, 2013 at 17:56

    Fantastic writing here MM. My main gripe with classic fm is their constant urging by syrupy voiced women purring orgasmically that you should ‘chill’ and ‘relax’, which unrelaxes me no end as I hate music this beautiful being treated not as art but simply as a relaxation product, to be played in the background but not actually listened to

    January 20, 2013 at 18:53

    1. I wonder whether musical instruction in the lower grades hasn’t fallen off. I find it interesting in watching old Warner Brothers cartoons to notice what a range of musical references the children were thought to be able to recognize–mostly folk songs, but also some classical. My 6th grade class was taken on a field trip to hear the Cleveland Symphony at Severance Hall; this was in the days of George Szell, though I do not remember whether he was there to conduct it or what they played.

    2. American radio stations have call signs begin with W east of the Mississipi and K west. Peter Schickele played on this pattern by inventing the classical radio station WTWP: wall-to-wall Pachelbel. One does or did get an awful lot of baroque on US classical stations, in part I think because of the number of short pieces that are easy to fit in.

    3. Years ago in The New Republic someone argued that the problem was that the groups that listened to classical music had ceased to play it. As one who can play no instrument and can hardly carry a tune, I really can’t say.

    January 20, 2013 at 19:31

    Cameron “whiskey”: unpatriotic bastard.

    John Halliwell
    January 20, 2013 at 19:51

    Terrific post, Mm, and terrific commenting! I was going to mention my discovery of the Third Programme by way of some knob twiddling in the late fifties, but ever-sensitive to the danger of wandering into double entendre territory, I shall resist. Suffice to state that Vaughan Williams (hiim again!) was worried about the way things were going in 1956:

    ‘May I give one warning to the BBC Governors? If they persist in giving the public what it is supposed to want, that same public may one day turn on the Governors and demand something better, and the Governors will not be able to supply it. Then, indeed, BBC music will die a well-deserved death. To all of us, audiences and performers alike, the Third Programme has been of inestimable benefit. Let me repeat, it has been the envy of the world. Is something worthy, something splendid, something which we should be proud to claim as unique in the world, to be sacrificed for the sake of the kind of standardised entertainment which is already being mass-produced in every country? Surely we can do better than that; surely we should defend to the last this service which maintains the highest standard of art and scholarship in our midst.’

    My six-year old granddaughter attended her first concert the other day. It took place at the Bridgewater Hall and featured the magnificent BBC Philharmonic in Britten and Beethoven. She didn’t like Les Illuminations but loved the Pastoral Symphony. She admitted to coughing a fair bit in the second movement. My suggestion to her mother that daughter should have been thrown out at the end of the movement was not regarded as an act of encouragement to go back.

    January 21, 2013 at 18:06

    Well Mahlerman that was deeply depressing. And probably horribly true though I’m out of touch with R3 these last few years. It does seem entirely appropriate to take ones ‘cerebral masturbation’ to the internet, the home I understand of most of the more purely physical version. An awful gag I know but if you don’t laugh you’ll likely cry.

    January 21, 2013 at 21:49

    Just saw this here in Germany, via a link by Neue Musikzeitung:

    Replace BBC Radio 3 by the names of various ARD radio stations (MDR Figaro and NDR Kultur being the worst examples and WDR 3 the most recent one for dumbing-down). Classic FM by Klassik Radio. Classical Brit Awards by Echo der Stars (yupp, they avoid the term “Klassik” now!).

    Then take aside the references to certain politicians and some other particular details, and the article applies to Germany as well. The match is so perfect that it makes me shudder.

    But doesn’t the real headline here rather be “is radio dead”?

    Concerning the term “classical music”: It is in Germany now routinely used as substitute for “serious music”, a term considered no longer suitable. Rightly so I think. There is an urgent need for “education” and “outreach” due to the horrendous clichés which are so intimidating that people simply do not dare in and see/hear by themselves. Trouble is how often this is misunderstood as a need for dumbing down. This almost first of all applies to the broadcasting organizations, and it is meanwhile my (perhaps radical) opinion that they are rather murders than supporters of “high culture”.

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