Let me begin with the good news. Over the past decade, classical music—Western, dead-white-European-male music, if you will—has become more popular in America than ever. The evidence of this popularity is to be found everywhere. There are more composers, more performers, more new works being written, more new and old works being played, and more students studying to be performers. There are more symphony orchestras, more opera companies, more professional choruses, and more large music schools. Audiences for live concerts and operas have been steadily increasing for many years; it is also demonstrably true that the so-called revolution has resulted in the sale of extra millions of classical-music recordings to millions of music listeners both young and old. Along with all the purchases of CDs (and video cassettes and laser discs), of course, go sales of billions of dollars’ worth of new and newer hi-fi hardware, some of which at least is used to play classical music. Nor can the extraordinary reach of opera broadcasts on public television, and on various cable channels too, be ignored; broadcasts from the Metropolitan Opera are seen by millions of viewers in the United States, and now by millions abroad on their own government-run channels. Furthermore, the Met now has ambitious plans for gala pay-per-view television broadcasts, from which it is hoped that the company will draw large revenues. Even in the trend-conscious academy, the study of great music, not just as notes and sounds but as ideas and influences, has become the rage in all the most prestigious schools.
And then there is the pervasion of classical music as an integral part of the ambiance of our daily—and nightly—lives. What used to be derogated as elevator music has become classical elevator music; no visit to a pricey restaurant is complete without a sonic background of the Four Seasons of Vivaldi or any of several particularly familiar piano concertos of Mozart. Bach turns up frequently in television commercials, and has even been known to provide an accompaniment to scoreboard displays on televised baseball games. What is true in restaurants, commercials, and baseball games is equally true in department and specialty stores, and all manner of business offices.
Then too there are the commercial indicia of popularity. It may all be put crassly, but not inaccurately: never has more money been made from classical music by its practitioners, and out of music by those who arrange its commercial exposure. Performers’ fees, like ticket prices, are very high. The most famous conductors earn in excess of $1,000,000 each year; it is not uncommon for guest conductors to earn well in excess of $20,000 for each week they conduct. The tenor Luciano Pavarotti, it is said, can command a fee of more than $100,000 for a single concert appearance, and a favorite instrumentalist like Itzhak Perlman can receive $35,000 or more for each of his concerts. Columbia Artists Management, Inc., the largest arranger of classical concerts and media events in the world, seems a veritable paragon of year-to-year growth. Administrative salaries in the nonprofit organizations that solicit contributions from the public (as well as sell tickets) are high too: salaries of top orchestra managers (now called “Managing Directors”) often reach, with benefits, perquisites, and expense accounts, levels well above $200,000 annually.
In recounting all the good news, it would hardly be fair to omit the fact that over the past two decades even large American corporations have flocked to supporting orchestras and opera companies, and have in many cases taken great pride in associating their good corporate names with musical culture. In an even larger way, senior business executives have been, and are today, willing to sit on musical boards and contribute their economic expertise to the running of these cultural enterprises. In general, contributions to music, not just from business but from foundations and private sources, have been going up, and even the present recession has not noticeably reduced these gifts.
I have just defined popularity in market terms. Large scale of activity, wide availability of product, increasing level of expenditures, existence of powerful institutions, stable base of support: all these testify to the kind of success that comes only from providing a lot of people with what a lot of people want. Viewed in this way, I can do no better than return to the statement with which I began—undoubtedly, classical music is more popular today than ever.
If we go beyond this notion of popularity as an end in itself, and ask just what is now so popular about classical music, we begin to find bad news rather than good.
Should we then not rejoice? After all, something that is beautiful—by the most elevated criteria one of the enduring monuments of Western civilization—has become a part of the lives of countless people, filling their hours by beguiling their ears. Great music—and we can be in no doubt that, for example, Vivaldi, Bach, and Mozart are great music—has become diffused throughout much of American society and life. What more could music, and therefore those who love music, ask?
But if we go beyond this notion of popularity as an end in itself, and ask just what is now so popular about classical music, we begin to find bad news rather than good. What if we ask, not about the popularity of the constituent elements of music, but about the quality of their achievement and the health of their condition? What, in other words, if we attempt an artistic evaluation of the state of classical music today?
Perhaps the best place to start this evaluation is with new music. Here the situation is now, and has been for many years, in the highest degree hypertrophic: untold numbers of new works are indeed being written, and have been written, by untold numbers of composers. A remarkable percentage of these new works receive performances, and a remarkable percentage of the composers who write them manage to make a living out of pursuits—usually teaching—associated with composition. Alas, the result of all this activity, of all the grants for new music, of all the publicity surrounding its public performance, of all the passionate encomia new music receives not just as sound but even more as ideology, is—nothing. Absolutely nothing.
Merely describing the musical repertory—the pieces the best musicians want to play and the most musically committed audiences want to hear—says it all. The slightly less than 250 years from the rise of Bach to the end of World War II contains, with remarkably few exceptions, our entire musical repertory of choice. Even the exceptions—chiefly late Prokofiev and Shostakovich—now seem more than ever to have been fully rooted in the musical life of the earlier years of our century. Of the myriad of composers who have grown up since World War II, nothing remains but entries in our ever-larger musical encyclopedias, along with listings of compositions played once and, very likely, nevermore.
During this period of almost a half-century since 1945, there have been numerous highly touted developments in musical composition. In these years, we have seen and heard total serialism—the extension of Arnold Schoenberg’s twelve-tone method to all the parameters of music, including duration, dynamics, and timbre; compositions full of screeches, whistles, and roars, produced and reproduced on magnetic tape; chance music, in which the performer was called upon to be the composer as well; conceptual music (a close relative of chance music), in which written instructions for performance replaced any notes at all; the use of oriental chanting and instruments; minimalism, in which the ceaseless repetition of simple chords and rhythms served to produce works of extreme length and utter boredom; and most recently, I suppose, neo-romanticism, the notion that anytime a composer said, “Let there be melody and harmony,” lo, there was melody and harmony. The most famous names among the protagonists of these compositional schools have been such stars as Karlheinz Stockhausen, Pierre Boulez, John Cage, Philip Glass, and now John Adams; so far as their compositions are concerned, all their reputations, and all their long-lived careers, have not sufficed to put a single one of their works into the repertory of mainstream classical music.
Sadly, so complete has been the failure of all these new compositions that they have dragged down with them one of the true bright spots of twentieth-century music—American compositions of the 1930s, 1940s, and early 1950s. The objections of both musicians and audiences to the prevailingly amelodic and perversely dissonantal characteristics of the European music of the post-World War period—and of the American music from the mid-1950s on written under this European influence—have placed even the great achievements of (to name only a few) the Americans Roy Harris, Samuel Barber, Howard Hanson, Walter Piston, William Schuman, and David Diamond under the cloud of what is derisorily called “modern music.” The only exception to this summary rejection of American music has been Aaron Copland, and even his position in the repertory now seems ever more exclusively based on his easy-to-take ballet scores, rather than on his concert music. And what is true of these well-known American composers whose work is now in a condition of desuetude is vastly more true of such immensely gifted later composers as (again to name only two) Andrew Imbrie and William Bergsma.
A special word is in order for the condition of new opera. Here, in this most problematic and expensive of musical forms, there have been two “stars” since World War the English Benjamin Britten and the American Philip Glass. Yet Britten’s two most successful works, Peter Grimes (1945) and Billy Budd (1951), go back at least forty years; none of his later works, very much including Death in Venice (1973), has been anything more than a succès d’estime. In the case of Glass’s several works, only Einstein on the Beach (1976), his collaboration with the director/designer Robert Wilson, has managed to stick in the memory, vastly more for Wilson’s staging than for Glass’s music. Elsewhere with Glass, the Gandhi pageant Satyagraha (1980) and the incredibly static Akhnaten (1984) seemed more like tableaux mortes than flesh-and-blood operas. The current hotshot, of course, is John Adams, whose Nixon in China (1987), a collaboration with the avant-garde director Peter Sellars, appealed to an audience of “cutting-edge” dance and theater types; as always with trendy new music, the missing element in the audience was music lovers.
Though new operas are commissioned and usually performed by the company doing the commissioning, by far the largest number of opera companies in this country—including the giant of them all, the Metropolitan Opera—concentrate their efforts on the standard works by the same few composers that have always made up their repertories. The winners, now as before, are the most-celebrated operas of Mozart, Verdi, and Puccini, and, of course, “Cav and Pag”—Cavalleria rusticana and Pagliacci. The way these winners are sold, by small opera company after small opera company, is vulgar in the extreme: every opera, whatever its particular plot and mood, is described as an exciting story of love and intrigue, guaranteed to keep the audience at the edge of their seats.
From composers and their compositions, it is but a short jump to performers. Here a sharp distinction must be drawn between Americans and Europeans. Early in his career, it seemed that the meteoric rise of Leonard Bernstein would pave the way for a new generation of American masters of the baton. But despite the existence of Bernstein as a role model, the number of American conductors leading major American orchestras remains vanishingly small: David Zinman in Baltimore, Leonard Slatkin in Saint Louis, Gerard Schwarz in Seattle, and, in opera, James Levine at the Metropolitan. Elsewhere, the list of conductors, in place or appointed, is totally European (or, in one case, Asian): New York (Kurt Masur), Boston (Seiji Ozawa), Philadelphia (Wolfgang Sawallisch), Cleveland (Christoph von Dohnányi), Chicago (Daniel Barenboim), Los Angeles (Esa-Pekka Salonen), and Washington (Mstislav Rostropovich). In San Francisco, the American-born Herbert Blomstedt is entirely a product of European musical life, and in Pittsburgh Lorin Maazel, though trained in this country, made his initial conducting reputation entirely abroad.
At least in our best orchestras, symphony musicians are now remarkably well paid; in these major ensembles, annual incomes of more than $50,000 (with benefits extra), and with substantially more for solo players, are the rule rather than the exception. And yet there is everywhere a feeling of discontent with the orchestral player’s lot. Conductors are in general not highly respected; management is often seen as the enemy, plotting to get more work out of the musicians, with diminished job security and worsened working conditions. Though orchestra players now live well, their job satisfactions seem low. They resent the routinized nature of their tasks, and they have little feeling that they are making great music. One telling sign of their discontent is the small amount of time the finest orchestral players now give to the study and playing of great chamber music—not for money, but for their own pleasure. All in all, membership in an orchestra is now seen as a dead-end street—a well-paid job, to be sure, but a dead-end anyway.
Among singers, the story is rather more encouraging. Since the nineteenth century, American vocal artists have found it possible to make national and even international careers; one thinks of such past greats as Rosa Ponselle, Lawrence Tibbett, Richard Crooks, Richard Tucker, and Leonard Warren. In recent years, one thinks immediately of Leontyne Price, Sherrill Milnes, Samuel Ramey, and now Thomas Hampson. Less famous American singers are busy, and actually much in demand. But despite their justified successes, it cannot be said that any American singer since World War has placed a personal stamp on any single role in a standard European opera, let alone on any great opera composer’s oeuvre. Whether one thinks of Verdi or Puccini or Wagner, the commanding interpretations—the interpretations in which the singers place their mark on our perception of the characters they portray—remain those accomplished by such European singers of the fairly recent past as (again to name only a few) Maria Callas, Tito Gobbi, Hans Hotter, and Elisabeth Schwarzkopf.
Our instrumentalists have hardly fared so well as our singers. Our only analogue to Leonard Bernstein in his role as a conductor has been the pianist Van Cliburn. This once-young Texan, trained entirely in this country, rocketed to stardom with his unexpected victory in the 1958 Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow; by this triumph he inherited the mantle of the leader of the American school of piano playing from the tragically short-lived William Kapell, who had perished in an airplane crash in 1953. But it was already unsettling that the chief critical praise lavished on Cliburn emphasized not how he sounded like an American pianist—steely fingered, sharp-rhythmed, and clangorous in tone—but how his playing was a throwback to an older European style, riper, richer, and more romantic, i.e., less materialistic. But Cliburn’s great start quickly took him in the direction of becoming a popular entertainer, of no influence over his fellow pianists and other musicians. And since Cliburn, only Murray Perahia among American pianists has made a truly important international career—and Perahia’s career is almost entirely the result of his long residence in London.
Among string players in America, the great names that came forward in the 1960s and 1970s were the Israeli violinists Itzhak Perlman and Pinchas Zukerman; though both are American residents and trained here, they seem additions to American musical life rather than constituents of it. Much the same can be said of the Japanese violinist Midori, a successful concert artist before her teens and now, about twenty years old, seemingly at the top of her career. Of the most successful string players now in this country, only the American cellist of Chinese parentage, Yo-Yo Ma, seems a truly functioning part of our musical life.
For many years, American music lovers were justly proud of their great orchestras. In the 1920s and 1930s, Leopold Stokowski’s Philadelphia Orchestra and Serge Koussevitzky’s Boston Symphony Orchestra were of world-class stature; in the first half of the 1930s, the same could be said of Arturo Toscanini’s New York Philharmonic and then, a bit later, of Toscanini’s Symphony. Though the Philadelphia retained much of its beautiful sound under Stokowski’s successor, Eugene Ormandy, much of the musical excitement engendered by Stokowski was soon dissipated; the Boston Symphony’s unique combination of brilliance and depth of sonority did not survive Koussevitzky’s supercession by Charles Munch in the 1940s. Only George Szell’s Cleveland Orchestra of the 1950s and 1960s joined the class of immortals, and indeed to date it has been the last American orchestra to do so.
In this age of the cheap American dollar, the Metropolitan is now a prime tourist attraction.
As a whole, American orchestral life over the past two or three decades, and very much continuing into the present, has been a sad story of a rough-hewn efficiency in performance, achieved at the cost of tonal refinement, ensemble precision, individual character, and musical vitality. Zubin Mehta’s long tenure at the Philharmonic, now fortunately concluded, seemed disastrous in its coarseness and vulgarity, both for the orchestra itself and for the Philharmonic’s core audience. The Philadelphia, under Riccardo Muti during the 1980s, almost completely lost its hitherto jealously guarded tonal profile. The Boston Symphony, giving one routine performance after another, has ceased to be a factor on the international scene, despite its supposedly charismatic leader, Seiji Ozawa. Of the greatest American orchestras of the past, only the Cleveland under Christoph von Dohnányi manages to sustain a deserved reputation for interesting programs played in an interesting manner.
In the world of opera, I can only speak of the Metropolitan and the New York City Opera. In this age of the cheap American dollar, the Metropolitan is now a prime tourist attraction. Many, if not most, performances are sold out, and good seats for any performance, at whatever price, are hard to come by. Its shop and mail-order sales are booming, and the Met’s house magazine, Opera News, now under the strong editorship of Patrick Smith, has no less than 12,000 subscribers. Furthermore, with the excellent players Levine has brought in, the Met orchestra has become under his training a force to be reckoned with not only in the opera house but as a distinctive ensemble ranking with the best orchestras in the world today. The result of this new-found power of the Met has been a spate of artificial-sounding Met opera recordings, conducted by Levine, appearing on the German Deutsche Grammophon and the Japanese Sony Classical labels. Because of its ability to record, the Met is able to engage on a long-term basis the most successful singers in the world, including Luciano Pavarotti and Placido Domingo. But all this activity and prosperity cannot hide the fact that the Met’s performances are in large measure undistinguished vocally, without any permanently redeeming value provided by the Met’s growing indulgence in gargantuan and costly new productions. Although Levine insists on conducting the most important works and new productions himself, the level of conducting on most non-Levine nights at the Met—despite an occasional visit from someone like Carlos Kleiber—is remarkably uninteresting. When Levine is on the podium, his conducting often seems narrowly self-indulgent: for example, his infatuation with slow tempos went far to destroy the Met’s Ring cycle of the past several years. Though the Met will indeed be doing a very few new works in the coming seasons, the rules of safety and sameness in repertory, direction, and performance all combine to make the Met a dull, albeit deluxe, company. And as serious listening to the weekly Met radio broadcasts proves, even safety and sameness cannot guarantee minimally acceptable performances in terms of security of intonation and solidity of vocal production.
By contrast, the New York City Opera now gives the impression of fighting for its life. Left in uncertain artistic condition by Beverly Sills when she turned the company’s general directorship over to conductor Christopher Keene, the City Opera is saddled with the New York State Theater, an inconvenient and acoustically unattractive place in which to perform opera. Its long-term financial problems, which had some years ago forced a serious rearrangement in the dates of its seasons, have hardly been eased by Beverly Sills’s triumphant entry onto the Metropolitan Opera board; here, her main task will likely be fund raising for the Met, but not for the New York City Opera, the company which so many years ago gave her operatic birth and for so many years sustained her career. City Opera performances, despite the best efforts of Christopher Keene and a host of other dedicated people, remain very much in the shadow of the Met’s vaunted opulence. The City Opera’s recent ventures into new opera—one thinks immediately of Anthony Davis’s X, Dominick Argento’s Casanova, and Jay Reise’s Rasputin—have hardly borne fruit. Of all the City Opera initiatives in the past few years, only one—but a big one it was—seemed to make its proper mark: the strikingly well-received production in the fall of 1990 of Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron, a central work of pre-World War modernism that the Met should have done long ago but has sedulously avoided these many years.
For some years now, all these signs of decline in American musical (and operatic) life have been quite clear to all but those optimistic souls who make their meager livings by praise. The answer to this negative perception has been—in addition to various attempts by powerful arts advocates and apparatchki to kill the messengers—to concentrate attention on supposedly authentic modes of performance. Through this device, it was hoped that two inconvenient and highly disturbing facets of contemporary musical life might be elided and thus obscured: the lack of new music and the lack of interesting new performers.
This new way of performing old music has drawn sustenance—inspiration seems too honorific a term—from the rediscovery of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century composition so characteristic of our own century. This unearthing of past musical treasures was important, under the name of neo-classicism, for the creative efforts of such estimable composers as Igor Stravinsky and Richard Strauss. At the hands of such distinctive personalities as the English old-instrument-builder and theorist Arnold Dolmetsch and the magnificent harpsichordist Wanda Landowska, this reclamation unearthed a forgotten genre of masterpieces, and thus enriched our musical vocabulary and sensibility; even the poet Ezra Pound and his friend the violinist Olga Rudge, through their work on behalf of the music of Vivaldi, deserve credit for some of this achievement.
But what started as an artistic crusade by immensely gifted individuals had become, by the 1950s, what might be called the “Business of Baroque”; what increasingly seemed to count was not the quality of the music being rediscovered and performed, or the distinction of the way it was being performed, but rather the worship of musical quaintness and the cultivation of stylistic difference for its own sake. By the 1960s, it had become unfashionable in intellectual circles to play Bach on the piano; even Glenn Gould’s marvelous recorded performances of Bach were chiefly admired for how little the instrument he played sounded, at his hands, like a flesh-and-blood piano.
What started as an artistic crusade by immensely gifted individuals had become, by the 1950s, what might be called the “Business of Baroque.”
The 1970s and the 1980s saw the growth in England of orchestra-sized ensembles dedicated to playing not just Bach on period instruments and in period style but Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven. At first the leader in this pursuit was the very drab and unexciting Christopher Hogwood, leading a pick-up group appropriately called the Academy of Ancient Music. Soon Hogwood was succeeded by the rather more sparky Roger Norrington, leading yet another pick-up group labeled the London Classical Players, and making a great impression, at least on the critics, with fast, light, and inflexible performances of all the Beethoven symphonies. Everywhere there were cries that this was Beethoven as Beethoven heard his own music: so applauded was Norrington’s approach that he even applied his talents to the Symphonie fantastique of Berlioz. But as the réclame settled, as by now it most certainly has, Norrington’s performances stood revealed as made up of equal parts scrawny and out-of-tune strings and pinched and aggressive winds and brass. In New York, an important sign of the times was the abysmal failure both with public and press in its initial season of the Classical Band, our own version of the authentic-performance phenomenon led by the English baroque specialist Trevor Pinnock.
The ups, and perhaps now downs, of the movement to play old music in such a way as to make it sound new-old, have not been without their influence on the academic study of musicology. On the one hand, the professoriate has leapt into the study of (to use Hogwood’s appellation) “ancient music.” Theses, dissertations, and published articles and treatises on proper performance style of music written before 1775 or thereabouts have been pouring out of the educational mill. Furthermore, this concern with how the music written around and before the time of Bach and his sons should be performed has moved forward into the nineteenth century. Not just Mozart but Beethoven, too, has become fair game for musicology. In particular, a thriving scholarly industry has been established in the study of Beethoven’s sketchbooks; in this study, particular attention is given to the use of watermark analysis to date the paper on which these sketches were written, and thus to establish the chronological order of the sketches in order to reveal the process of composition. Now all the analytic techniques of musicology are being applied to later music, in particular to Chopin, who has gone in intellectual estimation in only a few decades from rejection as a vapid salon composer to acceptance as the worthy subject of rigorous scholarly-musical analysis. Similarly, a new Verdi edition, closely associated with the musicologist Philip Gossett of the University of Chicago, is laying claim to the establishment of a truly scholarly text, and a proper style of performance, for these core operas of the Italian romantic tradition.
But there is much more going on now in academic musicology than the mere study of how notes should be played and sung. Musicology has become very much a part of semiotics, with such words as “signifier” and “signified” liberally strewn over the newest studies of famous composers. Furthermore, the new rage in musicology is called cultural studies—the placing of music squarely in the politics and sociology of its creation and the condition under which it became available to the public. Taking over from what used to be called the sociology of knowledge, these new musicologists are not content with discussing the origins of great works of music in their own terms, but go beyond what composers thought they were writing, musicians thought they were performing, and audiences thought they were hearing—and, especially, what patrons thought they were supporting—to see the past of this art in the light of radical contemporary notions of economics and gender.
Thus in Music and Society: The Politics of Composition, Performance, and Reception, published in 1987 by the august Cambridge University Press and edited by Richard Leppert and Susan McClary, one finds such articles as “The Ideology of Autonomous Art,” “Towards an Aesthetic of Popular Music,” “Music, Domestic Life and Cultural Chauvinism: Images of British Subjects at Home in India,” and “Music and Male Hegemony.” In “The Blasphemy of Talking Politics during Bach Year,” Susan McClary, described as “Associate Professor of Musicology and a member of two research centers (Center for Advanced Feminist Studies and Center for Humanistic Studies, for which she was Acting Director, 1985-86) at the University of Minnesota,” explains (or rather explains away) the achievement of Bach in the following manner:
[A]t the same time that this music shapes itself in terms of bourgeois ideology (its goal orientation, obsessive control of greater and greater spans of time, its willful striving, delayed gratification and defiance of norms), it often cloaks that ideology by putting it at the service of an explicit theology. The tonal procedures developed by the emerging bourgeoisie to articulate their sense of the world here become presented as what we, in fact, want to believe they are: eternal, universal truths. It is no accident that the dynasty of Great (bourgeois) Composers begins with Bach, for he gives the impression that our [emphasis in the original] way of representing the world musically is God-given. Thereafter, tonality can retain its aura of absolute perfection (“the way music goes”) in its native secular habitat. This sleight of hand earned Bach the name “the fifth evangelist” . . .
And then Susan McClary concludes her long article by putting all her cards on the table:
. . . I would propose the age-old strategy of rewriting the tradition in such a way as to appropriate Bach to our own political ends. Just as Renaissance mannerists justified their subjective excesses by appealing to principles of ancient Greek theory, so each group since the early nineteenth century has found it necessary to kidnap Bach from the immediately preceding generation and to demonstrate his affinity with the emerging sensibility. My portrait of Bach presented earlier clearly exhibits characteristics of the post-modern eclectic, of the ideologically marginalized artist empowering himself to appropriate, reinterpret, and manipulate to his own ends the signs and forms of dominant culture. His ultimate success in this enterprise can be a model of sorts to us all. In actively reclaiming Bach and the canon in order to put them to our own uses, we can also reclaim ourselves.
One of the most interesting aspects of the current trends in musicology is the extent to which it has invaded music criticism. In this century and in our country, music criticism has been the essentially journalistic coverage in venues large or small, popular or elite, of developments in music composition and performance. As the specific gravity, not to mention the attractiveness, of new works dwindled and then vanished, music criticism found itself increasingly focused on performance. And as by the end of the 1960s, traditional performances, along with traditional performers, more and more resembled each other, music criticism began to appear an exercise in making pointless distinctions between identical products or an exercise in nostalgia, in which current performances were held up against past recordings and invariably found wanting.
To some extent, the authentic-performance movement, by bringing a new (though really old) musical product into view, did provide critics with something new to write about. But because the authentic-performance movement was so much a creation of academic and quasi-academic thought rather than of autochthonous musical impulses, writing about it, even in the daily press, increasingly required musicological training and a musicological bent: of the two, the bent was by far the more important. And so music critics found themselves writing Sunday think-pieces on ornamentation in baroque music, as advocated in the latest academic treatise, or perhaps a music-magazine article discussing Brahms’s style of piano-playing, as demonstrated on an almost inaudible Edison cylinder recording made by the composer before his death in the 1890s.
Here is the bringing up to date of great music with a vengeance, as if all music were present politics.
Perhaps more significantly, a trend has emerged of late in the bringing into musical journalism of the concerns of the cultural studies so beloved now of the new wave of academic musicologists. An outstanding example of this new attempt to write about music by writing about something else very much not music is the spate of articles in The New York Times by the University of California music professor Richard Taruskin. This past April, Taruskin questioned the place in the repertory of such beautiful Prokofiev works as Alexander Nevsky (1939), the Cello Sonata (1949), and the Seventh Symphony (1951-52)—because they were composed, and officially supported, during the Stalin terror. Then in June, Taruskin claimed that Tchaikovsky’s music, seemingly so admired and beloved, was actually under a critical cloud in that “[a]ll of the prejudices commonly directed against woman composers have been directed at him.” Taruskin’s article then asks, without adducing any evidence to the contrary, “. . . is there any other explanation save latent homophobia for the amazing progress of that notorious tissue of hearsay concerning Tchaikovsky’s death (pederastic affairs, threatened exposure, suicide at the behest of some old school chums) in the musical press and even in the scholarly community . . . ?” Here is the bringing up to date of great music with a vengeance, as if all music were present politics.
Underlying this turn to the musicological discussion of performance practice and the bringing into music of the new cultural studies, is an appalling constriction of the market for music criticism and, not surprisingly, a loss of any conviction on the part of the critics themselves that there is anyone out there actually reading them. The death of major American music magazines, those dealing both with live performances and with recordings, is now complete; the last to go was the once-distinguished monthly Musical America, which has now become what is delicately described as a consumer-oriented trade publication. The space given to daily music-reviewing has in many places become exiguous; even The New York Times, long the last courageous holdout against the pressures to limit the coverage of classical music, has drastically reduced its coverage in recent years of debut recitals and concerts given in smaller halls, while at the same time devoting more space to pre-concert booster pieces.1 The once-proud Washington Post, for many years the home of the redoubtable critic Paul Hume, has now come very close to being a newspaper without influence in the musical world. Time and Newsweek now rarely cover classical music, and then only when something of presumably piquant interest occurs.
And then, despite all the glorious numbers, there is the continuing and worsening problem of the musical audience. Perhaps more people indeed are going to classical-music concerts and operas, but even this brute assertion seems hard to take at face value, given the total unreliability of attendance figures so characteristic of arts institutions, arts advocates, and arts poll-takers. However many people there actually are in the seats, and however many people say they want to, and do, attend concerts and operas, the fact remains that audiences everywhere are increasingly unsophisticated and uncommitted. Subscription series offered to the public have fewer events on them each year; mini-series are popular, and with their popularity goes the fractionating of musical experience, as fewer people hear an extensive representation either of the work of the musicians they are hearing, or of the works that constitute the repertory of great music. Then, too, the young seem curiously absent from musical events, and the audience that does come is ever grayer and will, if not renewed, inevitably disappear.
It is precisely this absence of the young from live classical events that seems most ominous for the future. The music of choice for the upwardly mobile Yuppie young is “easy-listening” music: the stupefying docilities of New Age sounds, the less distinctive forms of minimalism, the more emotionally flattened forms of jazz, and especially the sewing-machine inanities of the lesser baroque composers. Indeed, it is hard to avoid the impression that what appeals to the young about the classical music that does in fact interest them is not this music’s contrast and variety, not its attempts to storm the heavens, but rather its sameness. It seems clear that what is precisely so attractive about the baroque music now so much in fashion is its unending surface patterns and repeated, and only slightly altered, harmonic and rhythmic sequences.
Performers everywhere are aware that in order to gain the attention of the audience, it is necessary for them to do ever more, not just with the music, but to the music. Subtle musical gestures, whether made by instrumentalists, singers, or conductors and orchestras, now have little effect; the music can no longer be allowed to speak for itself and to make its points by clarity, refinement, and structural rigor. Instead, each note must be emotionally milked, each tempo made either much too slow or much too fast, each dynamic made either much too loud or much too soft, each contrast of mood made sharper, and the climax of each phrase exaggerated. Sadly, all these attempts at exaggeration have merely served to further deaden audience reaction, producing, as in the case of Zubin Mehta at the New York Philharmonic, a sense of tiredness and ennui. In a more fundamental sense, the very harmonic code of Western music—the tonal system —now seems to have lost both its power with unsophisticated audiences to shock and its former ability with audiences both knowing and unknowing to compel attention. Faced with this aural vacuum in their listeners, performers now find the key to success in fancy garb, clothing men in ruffled shirts and women in louche pants suits; among young performers, moussed hair is rapidly becoming the coiffure of public notice for both sexes.
It is difficult to know exactly what has caused the current weakened condition of the audience. Doubtless there are several factors at work: the destruction of classical-music education in elementary and secondary schools; the shift in colleges and universities away from the old, unjustly maligned music-appreciation courses to supposedly rigorous, scholarly courses in music history, theory, and analysis; the calamitously large availability of meretricious pop music, enforced in its circulation by engulfing peer pressure and the unresolved psychosexual yearnings of parents come to maturity in the 1960s; the immense competition for what is now so crassly called the “entertainment dollar” among music, opera, ballet, theater, film, and television.
It is difficult not to feel that the real life of classical-music lovers now takes place in the privacy of their homes.
There is also the current vogue for multiculturalism, the artificial, wholly ideological, and ultimately patronizing urge to advance the cultural products of others at the expense of one’s own. In music, this trend has very much weakened the position of the classic masterpieces, in effect forcing a wholesale redefinition of just what one is allowed to call by this term. Doubtless much of the liking for what is now called “world musics” comes from the disaffected young, anxious to break what they see as the shackles of home and nation. In my own experience, the most avid proponents of multiculturalism are those who are paid to promote this cause by public and private funding bodies eager to win publicity and a high reputation for being “politically correct” and on the “cutting-edge” of art. A recent example of this organized attempt to reconstitute the body of culture—in this case, great music—is to be found in Public Money and the Muse, a book published this past spring by the American Assembly, a public-policy group headquartered at Columbia University.2 In this book, funded by the Rockefeller and foundations, Gerald D. Yoshitomi, executive director of the Japanese American Culture and Community Center in Los Angeles, writes (in a chapter on “Cultural Equity”):
All of our children must hear the music of the world’s great composers played by outstanding symphony orchestras; yet we must also broaden our standard definitions of who is to be included in that “great composers” list.
In one sense, though hardly a helpful one, Yoshitomi is right: it is much easier to expand the definition of the word “great” than to produce great art.
It is difficult not to feel that the real life of classical-music lovers now takes place in the privacy of their homes as they listen to the enormous variety of great music available on recordings. Compared to live concerts, recordings are inexpensive; listening to recordings in one’s living room is correctly perceived as both a safer and a more comfortable activity than venturing out at night into the center cities where the great concert halls are still located. On new recordings, through splicing and other kinds of doctoring, performances can easily be made to give the impression—though only the impression—of perfection; by comparison, live concerts, by their very nature, are often technically messy affairs. And then, for more knowledgeable listeners, there is the enormous overhang of recordings from the past, made newly available on in quite extraordinary-sounding transfers. These new-old recordings do indeed provide music lovers with some of the greatest, i.e., most moving, vocal and instrumental performances of which we can have any knowledge. With the scales thus loaded against new performances and performers, it is no wonder that true music lovers are now so rarely to be found at live concerts.
Given the present importance of records in our musical life, a sad word must be said here for the present condition of classical recording in the United States. responsible through Victor, its predecessor company, for the recordings of Enrico Caruso made in the first two decades of this century, and then, under its present name, for making Arturo Toscanini and Vladimir Horowitz—among many others—available to millions of music lovers, is now owned by Bertelsmann, a German conglomerate; Records, responsible for the wonderful recordings of—again among many others—the Budapest Quartet and Bruno Walter—is owned by Sony, the Japanese electronics and media giant. All the other major record labels available in this country, including Deutsche Grammophon, Philips, Angel, and London, are owned in Europe. The result of this foreign ownership is, quite simply, that the major decisions about what is to be recorded of American music and musicians are made abroad, to satisfy commercial criteria, also determined abroad.
Isuppose that the best place to wind up this dreary story is with the institutions and the patrons that make possible the existence and presentation of classical music in America. Classical music has always been a money-losing activity, requiring massive contributions, not to pay the stars but to support the intellectual and artistic infrastructure that has undergirded the Western tradition. Now, despite the massive sums being taken out of classical music by its most successful practitioners, this art is more than ever dependent on contributed income. It is contributed income that in large measure makes possible all the the nonprofit institutions of classical music: these institutions include not only orchestras and opera companies, but also performing-arts centers, music schools, colleges and universities with music departments, and public television and radio.
What can be said about the present condition of these institutions, institutions devoted either wholly or in part to presenting music, or to training its practitioners? So far as the presenting of music is concerned, it might be helpful in this regard to look at what is going on in New York City, which is still, despite its present shaky social and financial condition, America’s cultural capital. Here in New York one need do no more than look at Lincoln Center, the exemplar of all the attempts made in the 1960s and thereafter to centralize the performing arts in new buildings containing adequate and sometimes luxurious facilities and providing through their community status easy access to old and new funding sources both public and private.
As America’s premier presenter of the performing arts, Lincoln Center houses the New York Philharmonic, the Metropolitan and New York City operas, and the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, in addition to the New York City Ballet and the Vivian Beaumont Theater. I have discussed above the current state of the Philharmonic, and the Metropolitan and New York City operas; it is significant that just this past May the City Opera publicly discussed the possibility of leaving the Lincoln Center umbrella and moving its performances at some point in the future to an old theater on West Forty-second Street. The City Opera’s reasons for such a revolutionary departure from the philosophy and practice of the way the musical arts are run in New York are many, and likely include competition from the vastly richer Metropolitan Opera,3 scheduling pressure from the New York City Ballet, with which the City Opera shares the New York State Theater, and a mounting dissatisfaction with the facilities and acoustics of the State Theater itself. It must be mentioned also that the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, directed for many years by the charming and musically gifted pianist Charles Wadsworth, was not long ago put under the direction of the cellist Fred Sherry. It was widely suspected that the reason for Wadsworth’s replacement by Sherry was a desire for concerts that would appeal in style and repertory to the young rather than, as in the past, to the graybeards that form the backbone of the chamber-music public. Yet Sherry’s tenure apparently failed to achieve its goals, and he too is now gone, leaving the Chamber Music Society rudderless.
But more important is the increased concentration of Lincoln Center on the independent production of public events. Though its constituent groups largely determine their own policies, Lincoln Center has always been something more than the sum of its constituents. In the past, Lincoln Center had mostly contented itself with the winter “Great Performers” concert series at Fisher Hall and with the highly successful summer “Mostly Mozart” series, also at Fisher. Of late, however, Lincoln Center, founded to be a showcase of the high performing arts, has begun to feel the hot breath of demands that it be socially and politically relevant to what is going on around it in New York City. High culture is not a very popular idea around the rhetorically populist administrations of Governor Cuomo and Mayor Dinkins. In this time of financial insecurity and raised taxes, the publicly funded arts must be seen to reach out to the entire public, not just to an elite suspected of being both undemocratic and rich. The implication is clearly that if the arts—and in this case classical music—cannot so reach out, then so much the worse for the arts and for classical music.
And so Lincoln Center has set about a massive campaign to recast its image. Under the rubric of “Serious Fun!” it has introduced summer theatrical presentations, constituted (though as yet with little success) so as to reach the new-life-style public sympathetic to the spicy delights of the aesthetic avant-garde. With maximum fanfare, it has introduced jazz presentation as a Lincoln Center department, to the enthusiastic praise of the once-staid New York Times. Indeed, a July full-page Lincoln Center ad in the Times said it all: out of the nine attractions featured only three—“Mostly Mozart,” “Live from Lincoln Center,” and “Great Performers” —could be called classical attractions. Six of the presentations Lincoln Center chose to feature had nothing to do with high culture at all—“Midsummer Night Swing,” recommended as a way to “Come dance with us beneath the summer stars”; “Serious Fun!”, described in a quote from New York Newsday as “the most ambitious commissioning program in the history of Lincoln Center”; “Lincoln Center Out of Doors,” described in a quote from The New York Daily News as “an outstanding array of events presented in the open air”; “Classical Jazz,” described in a quote from The New York Times as “The most important jazz program in America”; “More Jazz,” described, again in the Times, as “promis[ing] to give jazz its proper place in the American artistic pantheon”; and finally “Community Holiday Festival,” described simply as “free performances [that] capture the holiday spirit.” And as if to give teeth to the new Lincoln Center image, William Lockwood, the long-time head of programming for the “Mostly Mozart” and the “Great Performers” series, has now resigned; informed opinion has it that those responsible for Lincoln Center policy are requiring that Lockwood’s replacement must “be more than a classical-music person.”
Six of the presentations Lincoln Center chose to feature had nothing to do with high culture at all—“Midsummer Night Swing,” for example, recommended as a way to “Come dance with us beneath the summer stars.”
Public television and radio seem ever more concerned with the twin problems of money and ratings; unfortunately, money is not easily available for classical-music broadcasting, and the audience for classical music on television and radio, though perhaps sizable in absolute numbers, is only a small fraction of the audience of tens of millions that now constitutes the only acceptable criterion of media success. In this connection, the devoting by of three prime-time evening slots this past winter to the Peter Sellars productions—or rather distortions—of The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni, and Così fan tutte, was an ominous sign, in their unabashed appealing to a young, new, and classically unsophisticated audience. On radio, public broadcasting, for all the excellence of the work being done by small stations serving areas of low population density, seems to be giving up its attempt to present serious and extended classical-music concerts in metropolitan markets. Like public television (and like Lincoln Center), public radio appears to have decided to make its pitch to the new trends of gender, ethnic, and sexual multiculturalism; in this shift, classical music can hardly avoid being the loser.
In this discussion of today’s musical institutions, it is hardly possible to avoid the problem of music education. Colleges and university music departments across the country, along with music schools, are now turning out thousands upon thousands of graduates each year. As performers, these graduates are facing what is at best a bleak job market; in the better symphony orchestras, there are quite frequently hundreds of applications for each opening. Solo careers, especially for Americans, are practically non-existent. The plain fact is that more musicians are being educated than can possibly find employment; the pressure to find positions for them is one of the major factors in causing the proliferation of performing groups, all competing with each other for an ever-less-committed audience. It is also true that music schools are now drawing an increasing percentage of their students—often, I might add, the best ones—from the Orient. It remains unclear exactly what the motivation for this enormous influx of Asians into our music schools is. What is certain is that, given their limited acquaintance with Western culture, they have special educational needs, needs that are now being ignored. As for musicology graduates, they now find themselves thrown into a hiring world in which tenure-track positions in general are declining, and that for white males hardly exist.
The last element in the current cultural situation of music to be considered is patronage—who pays for music, above and beyond what is taken in at the box office. This patronage has four components: government, corporations, foundations, and individuals. The lines between these components are not always clear, for each component exerts major influence on the other three, and contributions from one tend to draw contributions from the others.
Nevertheless, it is possible to make some general comments about the present state of these components. At the federal level, government support for music has peaked, and is in all likelihood now dropping; by destroying the so-called “Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval” of grants and by causing the Congress to shift funds from to state disbursement, the recent scandals at the National Endowment for the Arts have hit serious music particularly hard. Furthermore, over the past few years the NEA itself has made increasingly stringent demands that its serious music grants be spent for “new,” “exciting,” “innovative,” “cutting-edge” programs, all with increased attention to the encouragement of ethnic minorities and such formerly “underserved” areas as rural communities and inner cities. The states, suffering from severe budget crises, have taken advantage of the general loss of prestige for the arts produced by the scandals to cut their own subsidies; the cuts in New Jersey and New York State, for example, have been draconian, not so much causing institutions to go out of business as forcing them to popularize their offerings in the hopes of bringing in a larger paying public. Multiculturalism, too, is now being urged upon government funding sources, and this recommendation—I have mentioned above the ukase from the American Assembly—cannot but fall on political ears quite happy to appeal to organized gender, ethnic, and sexual constituencies.
One assumes—or rather one is repeatedly told—that corporate funding of music remains at much the same level as in the recent past. But it must always be remembered that corporate funding exists not for the sake of music (or the other arts) but for the sake of the image of the corporation. It will be remembered just how generous the oil companies were in supporting public television during the years of oil shortages and consequent high oil prices; though this support has largely disappeared with the decline of the OPEC we are still witnessing the presence of the cigarette industry in arts patronage as a way of ameliorating its very bad public-health reputation. Large corporate cultural grants go exclusively to high-image programs, a category that includes, in New York, both the Metropolitan Opera and the Next Wave Festival at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Whatever the object of support, the requirement is not that the programs and institutions helped by corporations hold out the promise of being self-supporting; it is rather that they promise maximum publicity to the sponsor, and that the publicity be demonstrably targeted to politically, socially, and economically influential constituencies. In the case of small programs and institutions, corporate funding is low, and cannily calculated to spread the minimum amount of money around to the largest number of recipients.
Following the lead of colleges and universities in the past four or so decades, musical institutions are now seen by their boards as businesses, to be run with financial considerations first in mind and art second.
Foundation patronage of music continues to be important, though it must be made clear that great foundations, despite their equivocations and denials, are no longer interested in ongoing support of classical music. Increasingly, foundations, if they concern themselves with music at all, are more interested in capital drives than in operating grants. A corollary of this policy is a disinclination to keep on supporting the same serious musical activities year after year: more than ever, variety is now the spice of foundation life.
And so the discussion naturally comes down to individual patrons. Gone are the days when such figures as Henry Lee Higginson at the Boston Symphony for several decades before World War 1, Otto Kahn at the Metropolitan Opera in the 1920s, Clarence Mackay at the New York Philharmonic also during the 1920s, or, somewhat later, Mrs. Lytle Hull, again at the Philharmonic, would take major responsibility for the survival of institutions to which they had devoted their lives. Now musical boards are increasingly populated by people who represent either corporate funding sources or powerful community interests, or who for some reason are thought to be able to go out and raise money from others. There are in this matter no statistics available, so far as I am aware; but the widespread impression in the musical world is that, apart from the great institutions, individual gifts from board members are down, and that in order to get these gifts at all much more is required in the way of accurate balance-sheet projections than of musical excellence. Then, too, following the lead of colleges and universities in the past four or so decades, musical institutions are now seen by their boards as businesses, to be run with financial considerations first in mind and art second. It must be said too that hanging over this entire discussion of individual music patronage is the shift in the criterion for giving from the serious taste of the giver to the expectation of some popularity to be gained by the giver in the media and from the public recipients of his largesse.
Good news and bad news: an enormous human activity, performing much wonderful old music for great numbers of people, performing new music only under pressure and then to persistent failure, with everything done at great financial expense and with uncertain prospects both for the existence of sophisticated audiences and for financial survival. We should make no mistake: the issue before us is the survival, not of the classical music of the past (for great art can be preserved to come back another day) but of the place classical music has occupied in the cultural life of the West over the past two hundred years and perhaps more. During that time, classical music was the transmitter, through its preternatural beauty, of some of the major values of the West. Some of these values, like religion, truth, love, heroism, and honor, were communicated through a collaboration between great music and the extra-musical words and symbols carried by and made more powerful through the music. Others of these values, like order, clarity, complexity, rationality, the worth of individual creation, were communicated more abstractly by the music in the very process of making its greatness manifest.
“All art constantly aspires towards the condition of music,” Walter Pater wrote in the latter half of the century that believed art to be the successor to religion as the true salvation of human life. The classical music that we have celebrated has been for us the culmination of our civilization. Unrenewed, properly honored only in private, forced to justify itself to every demagogic politician, editorial-page writer, corporate mogul, and foundation executive, classical music now stands, for the first time in the modern world, on the periphery of culture. No matter how great the worldly success it may enjoy, no matter how high the hype that can be purchased, no matter how large the paying audience can be made to seem, classical music is today in deep trouble. It is not clear whether we can do more than bear witness.
- To keep the record straight, I should add that I have myself written one of these upbeat articles, on the 1991 Waterloo Music Festival, of which I am the artistic director.
- Public Money and the Muse: Essays on Government Funding for the Arts, edited by Stephen Benedict; The American Assembly/Norton, 288 pages, $22.95.
- Just how much richer the Metropolitan Opera is than the New York City Opera is shown by a well-founded story that the Met, at a time when the City Opera is concerned with raising year-to-year operating funds, is considering a several-hundred-million-dollar endowment-fund campaign to be undertaken in the coming years.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 10 Number 1, on page 13
Copyright © 2022 The New Criterion | www.newcriterion.com