There has been a storm of insightful posts recently about the decline or lack thereof of classical music, by Matthew Guerrieri and Alex Wellsung, as well as A.C. Douglas taking on Greg "Every silver lining has its cloud" Sandow. Sandow's position on the decline of classical music is well-known in the blogosphere, and it boils down to the fact that classical music no longer enjoys the prestige in the mass media that it had in the 1950s. Norman Lebrecht frames the situation in a similar fashion.
I've never weighed in on this debate in any significant way, for various reasons, but mostly because I think, rather presumptuously, that the work I do at Time Out Chicago and Slate concretely illustrates why I think that an art form that has existed for ten centuries is still relevant. That implies that everybody's seeing in my work what I do (and, um, reading my work), which is an extreme assumption. What follows is my framework for why classical music still matters, why the old models of relevance no longer apply, beginning with the myth of a monolithic "classical music."
First off, the term "classical music" covers an awfully wide territory. Symphony orchestras, chamber orchestras, chamber music (another enormous term), opera (ditto), contemporary music (ditto X a million)—all of these have their own idiosyncratic audiences, without a great deal of overlap. To claim that all of classical music is dying because fewer people are going to the orchestra—Dubious proposition No. 1, let's call it—is like arguing that all grocery stores will close if people buy less of General Mills' cereal. Opera fans very often don't go to chamber-music concerts, fans of bel canto opera don't go to the premiere of a new opera, those who do go to the opera's premiere may turn up in the audience when the composer has a work played by the orchestra, and so on. It's simply unfair to lump all of this activity into one category, and then claim that the entire sky is coming down.
Dubious proposition No. 2 is that because popular music is so popular that it will squeeze out classical music. An inverted version of this is that arts-minded people go to art museums, but not classical concerts. Both suffer from the same lack of understanding. Despite the camps the classical world is divided into, very few people outside the ultra-attentive base today only listen to one style of music, or go to one type of event. The overlap between audiences is large, much larger than the naysayers would like to have us believe. Perhaps the largest area of this crossover appeal is contemporary music, which we now know many indie rock and progressive types have taken a shine to. Opera draws the high-society element, which no democracy can live without (you have to have something to aspire to), and the members of that class have other interests, as well.
Dubious proposition No. 3 is that there's only one way to measure success. The frequent claim is that classical music isn't in the national magazines, isn't on TV, either public, broadcast, or cable, and that classical CDs are essentially vanity projects with little to no commercial appeal. That's true, but the world which those benchmarks of success mattered has vanished. It's gone, and it's not coming back. What we need to do, in this new media age, is throw out the old measuring sticks. The circulations of Time and Newsweek are dropping, and their ability to set an agenda falling in tandem. (They haven't cared about classical music for some time, either: In Alan Rich's essay collection So I'm Told, he writes of how his Newsweek review of the premiere of John Adams's Nixon in China was killed for a piece on Bruce Springsteen. )
TV today is largely reality TV shows, despite the success of The Sopranos. That's a well-written show, I understand, and so was HBO's Six Feet Under, which I recently became addicted to on DVD. There isn't much classical music on TV, but how much music is there, period? If there's anything to learn from the Metropolitan Opera's entry into the HD movie theater world, it's that there is some serious cash to be made there for opera, and that the executives who doubt it misunderstand their audience to an enormous degree. Another example is In Search of Mozart, Phil Grabsky's 2006 documentary. It ran for a sold-out week at the Siskel Film Center, and has been brought back three times. It's the Film Center's highest grossing doc this year. Put the music on TV, and see what happens.
This thread really picks up a head of steam when we take into account the Long Tail phenomenon, which posits the existence of a market at the entire length of a sales curve. In this digital age, the old notions of blockbuster sales for a few Britney Spears discs breaks down, and up pop more and more sales for ever more idiosyncratic products. Classical music can't help but be one of them. A friend of mine started a new classical music-critic job recently, and was told to write for "a 27-year old who's getting tired of hip-hop." Today, it's easier than ever for people to expand their horizons as they age. Maybe people's tastes don't change, and maybe the staid baby boomer generation, which clings tenaciously to the belief of the Rolling Stones signifying rebellion, is the template. I'm doubtful.
That's the nuts-and-bolts aspect of the argument, roughly, so now let's think about the intangible element. What does classical music give us that we can't get elsewhere? Is there anything unique to it? I'll leave aside whether orchestras deserve the subsidies they get, since that's institutional and not aesthetic, as well as whether classical music is deeper than pop. They're different languages with different goals, and you might as well argue whether it's better to read novels or newspapers. (They both fill out your world.)
When we listen to classical music, we are hearing the thoughts and emotions expressed by someone in the past. It could be 1827 and Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, it could be Rossini chuckling as he writes La Cenerentola, it could be Bach at the organ, or Leonin and Perotin painstakingly and rudimently working out the way to embellish a line of plainchant. Listening to the recreation of their creations puts us in direct contact with the cares of that era in a way that is unavailable to us otherwise. Reading the literature and philosophy comes close, but is far more literal than music. Looking at a painting, we have to make sure it has first been restored to something like its original state and that we're absorbing what its creator intended.
But with music, we are intensely, intimately there. As time passes, the same amount of time that passed in 1749, we share an experience that was shared by our ancestors. We become part of Western civilization. The experiences brought into classical music by Asian and Latino composers enrich Western listeners by putting them in contact with those cultures. I can understand some of what Shostakovich felt in 1936, and I can understand some of what Tan Dun experienced in 2006. This is unique, and the fact that musicians today are recreating what their predecessors recreated only reinforces its uniqueness.
Now, it's not necessary that everyone understand Napoleon's imperial designs in order to appreciate Beethoven. Classical music isn't a history lesson. It's a way of bringing that history alive inside our heads. We store up these moments when the music swept us away, and can imagine someone else being swept away by Berlioz's Requiem, or Tosca, or humored by The Barber of Seville. They become war stories we trade with our friends, and pass down to those younger than us. Sometimes it gets ridiculous, with the insane members of the classical fanbase going to more and more arcane extremes, but it's positive, at its root.
For us today, classical music is an impossibly large museum of the thoughts and emotions. The depths of sorrow and misery at they have been represented throughout the centuries are inside it, as are the absolute peaks of ecstasy. Those expressions are being added to every day by today's composers, who seek out new ways to represent those feelings in sound. To suggest that classical music is dying is to say that human feeling is dying. There's enough evidence lying about that that isn't true that it shouldn't need refuting. It shouldn't be necessary to refute the death of classical music, either.
Photograph Wide Open Spaces by Kathleen Welker