Jucifer: Hennin Hardine
Why Are You Doing It?


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The link is to the comments. Is that on purpose?


Duh. Thanks.

I saw that essay a few months ago, and I remember thinking it was surprisingly good. ('Surprisingly' because I'd heard of Heather Mac Donald before but never had any suspicion that she was interested in music.)

It is possible to point to certain great figures of the past and lament that we haven't got anyone of their stature today, but I think she is right to say that, in general, performance standards today are extremely high, and we are spoiled by the chance to hear the music played and sung better than the composers often did. And the sheer amount of music available to us would have astounded previous generations.

What I like most in her essay is her appreciation of period performance practice. Granted that there are various objections to be raised -- when Taruskin points out that we can't really experience old music 'authentically' because we think differently than our predecessors did, someone really should tell him to clam up -- I believe that period practice has opened up wonderful musical worlds to us, and I have great admiration for the effort. When so much of modern music and entertainment thrives on what is new, it is heartening to see people labouring carefully over what is old, and unveiling its beauties.

The one notable respect in which we are not living in a Golden Age -- and it is interesting that she passes over it in silence -- is in composition. The composers' guild has really fallen on hard times.

MacDonald got into a real "spitting" contest (as my prim grandmother used to say) with Greg Sandow over this essay. You can read Sandow's insistent (and sometimes ill-tempered) disagreements starting a couple of posts down on his blog here:


I must say reluctantly that I'm on Sandow's side, to the extent to which he is actually disagreeing with MacDonald. But the larger point, which Sandow acknowledges more honestly than MacDonald, is that it is simply impossible to compare the level of "support" for classical musical today in relation to the "support" it had in the 18th or 19th centuries.

Public performance of classical music (which is itself largely a modern development) is an immensely expensive undertaking. That it happens at all is proof positive that vastly larger numbers of people like classical music -- and are willing to pay to hear it -- than was ever true when Bach or Beethoven or Brahms was writing it.

So there's really no point in comparing the "place" of classical music in our own time with the "place" it had in Mozart's. MacDonald draws reassurance from such comparisons when the real comparison should be between the place classical music occupied in American public life in, say, 1950 and the place it occupies now. By any standard you want to apply, I think there has been a clear deterioration. There is no classical music on network television today, for example, but there used to be. And there is less on public television than there was 30 years ago. Fifty years ago, the average American could almost certainly have named at least one symphony conductor--whether it was Leopold Stokowski (gently caricatured in Bugs Bunny cartoons!), or Leonard Bernstein, or even Arthur Fiedler. Today not one NEW YORKER in 50 could name the music director of the New York Philharmonic. (It's Alan Gilbert, by the way.) In 1970 most well-informed people knew who Leontyne Price and Beverly Sills were. How many can name a currently active opera singer? (Luciano Pavarotti, being dead, doesn't count.)

Most orchestras and opera companies and music festivals right now are experiencing financial troubles, partly because everyone is experiencing financial troubles right now. That may or may not be a meaningful barometer of the health of classical music in our culture today. But I think that classical music as a component of cultural literacy has slipped perceptibly in the last half century, and that cannot be a good thing for its continuing vitality as an art form.

Although I see MacDonald's point, I have to say that overall I'm with Sandow.

On certain levels classical music is doing fine, but on others, not so well. I think that one could probably say the same thing about poetry, and maybe to a lesser degree about serious "literary" fiction. Classical music has almost no impact anymore in the popular culture; it's become a thing for specialists and oddballs. Perhaps there are a fair number of us, and we do spend money on CDs and concerts, but specialists and oddballs we remain.

I suppose overall my reaction is that she's right about what she's right about. For the individual listener, things really are very nice indeed. And of course recordings have everything to do with that. Never before the era of recordings has anyone who's very interested been able to hear, with comparatively little trouble and expense, almost anything he wants to at almost any time he might want to. And never before has anyone at all been able to compare virtuosi at a minute level of detail the way contemporary aficionados do, except maybe for a few very rare situations. Etc. Setting aside the question of whether recording is itself in the long run a bad thing, we're all happy with this.

I'm not so sure that her point about the availability of obscure works by (now) obscure composers, or obscure works by famous composers, is such a strong one. Granted, I haven't heard much of it, but the little I have heard makes me think we weren't missing much. I suspect there's a sort of "itching ears" syndrome among seriously addicted aficionados that values hearing anything new even if it isn't that great.

I don't think the problem of the aging of the audience is quite as bad as it seems. I think it's to be expected that there would be some tendency toward increased appreciation of classics as one ages. The older demographic is only a problem if those who exit at the top end aren't replaced by people entering at the bottom end. Pop music fans who really have a feel for music tend to discover classical music eventually. It does seem an open question, though, whether the rate of "conversion," so to speak, is declining.

That the culture as a whole is declining--has declined--in the sense that you, Jeff, describe is pretty much beyond question. That doesn't necessarily mean that the classical niche won't continue to be large enough to sustain itself, but it's cause for concern.

Craig, I think HM did at least mention in passing the dearth of new (i.e. since 1920 or so) music that wins the hearts of sizable audiences. I think that situation has improved in the last 20-30 years, but the production of truly great art is so bound up with culture that I can't envision the appearance in our time or my children's time or even my grandchildren's time of monuments comparable to those that appeared between, say, 1700 and 1920.

The question, I think, is: can classical music live mainly off its past indefinitely?

Two of my children are trained and capable performers. Neither has any hope of being able to work full-time in music. Whether that situation would have been better 50 or 100 or 200 years ago, I don't know.

I haven't read Sandow's piece yet, btw. I didn't actually intend to spend 20 minutes writing this comment...

I've read Sandow's posts now, and I see he focuses on more or less the same thing I did: is it sustainable? And I have to say that Mac Donald (I hadn't noticed that her name is apparently spelled with that space) doesn't really address that.

True, there are different metrics one might use to assess the health of classical music today. When one looks at performance standards, ease of access to music (for those who are interested), and range of repertoire, things look rosy. As others have said, when one looks at audience size, "living tradition" (in the sense of new music being added to the repertoire today), and general cultural influence, things look worse. I don't know what will happen in the long term.

It is interesting to hear Jeff say that awareness of classical music and performers in the general population has declined since the mid-20th century. I did not know that. It is another casualty, I suppose, of the 1960s. Certainly nobody in my family (or even in my extended family) has the slightest interest in classical music, but I assumed it had always been a fairly rare (or, considering the average ticket price, an 'elite') passion.

Two other indicators come to mind. Is it significant that the major classical labels (EMI, Decca, Philips, DG) have become comatose? Most of the great recordings from the 1950s and 1960s are on those labels, but these days they hardly have a pulse, and seem to be surviving chiefly on re-issues. Second, we are going through a technological revolution in the way music is recorded and delivered to listeners, and I think this is the first time it has not been driven by classical music. In the past the push was always to higher fidelity, more glorious sound, longer playing times. This time it is different. The technology seems to have been developed without even thinking of classical music. In the early days, iPods played a gap of silence between tracks, which of course was awful for multi-movement classical works. To this day the metadata schema used by iTunes, etc. is notoriously unfriendly to classical music.

So I am a little more dour today than I was last week.

The article was too long for me to read.

I was thinking that maybe people aren't as interested in classical music because attention spans aren't what they used to be.

Heh. I almost didn't make it through the article myself.

Actually I guess you have some insight into the making-a-living aspect of it, too, as someone who takes the occasional classical gig though your main interests are elsewhere. Didn't you say a while back that classical performance was coming to seem less worth it to you, because of the extensive rehearsal time relative to dollars? I may be misremembering...

You're remembering right...I definitely feel and have felt that way. But my view is sort of a skewed one, since I pretty much only play(ed) "new" music, a.k.a. music by local/regional composers, plus occasional modern masterworks such as Quartet for the End of Time or Pierrot Lunaire. And that stuff generally has the highest rehearsal time-to-pay ratio of most any music I could think to spend my time on. There was/is more to it than that for me, but the money thing was part of it.

I have friends who make a living "doing" classical music, but...there are only a handful of people I know who can make their livings exclusively via performing. The friends I mention do a combination of performing, recording (movie, movie trailer, commercial, & videogame soundtracks -- this is the realm of the "session" musician), and teaching. Some are able to compose for money as well. So it is definitely possible, but it's not easy.

It's interesting that the article paints a rosy picture of the state of classical music regarding virtuosity of performance. I think that's true, and it's great to be able to hear such great renditions of such great music. But while it is of course a pleasure to hear technical achievements in music, I have more often thought of it as a negative than a positive. Before the availability of essentially perfect recordings of, well, everything, it seemed that there might be room for musical risk-taking and for more widely varied interpretations. Now I feel like the living art of music in the classical world is kind of like Keanu Reeves in Little Buddha. Very handsome and glittery but not really doing anything.

In the balance, I think it probably is a boon for most listeners, but I don't think it's good for the art.

The point about the iPods is very good, too. How can you get people to listen to Mahler when current technology thinks the smallest musical unit is the "track"?

I don't mind "track" as much as I mind "song." "Track" is sort of neutral, but "song" implies a sort of atom. "Holds thousands of songs!" "25 free songs!" As if there is no other unit of music.

This marks me as a bit of a philistine, but I'm impatient with the rarefied niggling over subtle nuances of performance. Does it really matter that much most of the time? Obviously I don't think so, and I know, this is like saying all wines taste the same or something (but then I've always had my suspicions about extreme wine connoisseurs, too.) Anyway, that's by way of saying I pretty much agree about the effects of the existence of perfect recordings.

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