Classical Music, it is said, is on the decline. Supporters of this pessimistic perspective point to declining record sales and the dozens of orchestras that have closed their doors in recent decades as harbingers of the collapse of a tradition that is centuries old. And while one might be prompted to concede that there is something to their argument, there is another side to the coin, as well.
The problem that classical music faces––and has always faced––is that its institutions are remarkably expensive. In the renaissance, princes would show off their affluence by hiring groups of singers collectively known as “chapels.” These musicians often cost the princes a majority of their immense household budgets, giving us an idea of just how prestigious a role music played in society. In the eighteenth century, it took the wealth of enlightened European rulers to maintain professional orchestras. The problem classical music faces, however, is the same that music in general has slowly been coming to terms with in recent decades: changing technologies have forced the music industry to change the way it does business. Listeners are turning to new online services such as Classics Online or iTunes, while sales of CDs drop. It is also noteworthy, that classical music radio stations have an astonishing 15% audience share.
When the New York City Opera folded in the Fall of 2013, critics across the U.S. lamented the imminent downfall of the entire art form. In his New Yorker article, William Robin formulated an excellent rebuttal: “The doomsayers also like to cherry-pick a few crisis-ridden institutions and use them to generalize about the art form itself. Classical music is the sum of all its institutions, performers, and listeners, plus a thousand-year-old cultural lineage”. As the often-quoted musicologist Charles Rosen eloquently said, “The death of classical music is perhaps its oldest continuing tradition.” Its downfall has been proclaimed countless times in the last century, even during its so-called “golden years.” Having held a steady market share of around 3% since the 1980s though, the prophecies of the art’s immanent collapse have been met with more and more suspicion. The music-journalist Alex Ross even patronizingly called the whole discussion a “non-topic.”
Leonard Bernstein was one of the most iconic musicians of the twentieth century. As a composer, conductor, and pianist, the Harvard educated musician is remembered particularly for his musical “West Side Story” as well as his recordings of the Symphonies of Gustav Mahler. In 1973, he was invited back to his alma mater to hold the annual Charles Eliot Norton Lectureship––a series customarily consisting of six lectures. Bernstein titled his after a work of Charles Ives: “The Unanswered Question.” As it turns out, the question that leads Bernstein’s lectures is “whither music?” He concludes that “a great new era of eclecticism is at hand,” and believes that the future of music will be multifaceted. Over 40 years have passed since Bernstein’s lectures, and in retrospect, it turns out that he was correct.
Like all human traditions, classical music will continue to thrive so long as the people continue to cherish it. Functioning essentially as a nonprofit enterprise in the economy, many great orchestras, ballets, and opera houses rely on a variety of sources of revenue, including grants, like those from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). Last year, the NEA had a budget of over $138 million, and supported over 70,000 concerts. Working together with the Bureau of Economic Analysis, their research showed “that 3.2 percent—or $504 billion—of current-dollar GDP in 2011 was attributable to arts and culture, more than the travel and tourism industry or agriculture.”
For classical music to continue to thrive, it is always necessary to have a listening audience. By educating young people about music, the audiences of tomorrow are built. In his TEDx Talk, British conductor Benjamin Zander shows that music has its own syntax, and that musical languages can be understood by anyone listening. Known for his remarkable ability to help people “realize their untapped love for music,” Zander knows what it means to build an audience for the future of music. At the piano, he demonstrates the poeticism in Frédéric Chopin’s e-minor prelude by comparing it to Hamlet: the music builds tension and dramatic suspense by withholding a harmonic resolution, much like Shakespeare prolongs the epitasis before the catastrophe of his play. The listener feels continually deprived of a release of his anticipation. And if one believes Chopin’s prelude to be the musical incarnation of a melancholic soul, then the metaphor gains that much more meaning.
Bernstein, Leonard. The Unanswered Question: Six Talks at Harvard. Kultur Video. DVD.
Robin, William. “The Fat Lady is Still Singing.” The New Yorker, January 29, 2014.
Ross, Alex. “The Orchestra Crisis at 110.” The Rest is Noise, September 14, 2013.
Vanhoenacker, Mark. “Classical music in America is dead.” Slate, January 21, 2014.