Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Sketching (or rather rambling on) the Trajectory of Classical Music

There has been a lot of blog-talk on the internet concerning the ebbs and flows of what people call "classical music," which is really more a reflection of the business of classical music as reflected in ways of measuring its popularity in financial terms. Writers look at the musical world from where they sit, and watch it march by and change, while they, either seeking to participate in the moments of "upswing," or trying to make their case for viable alternatives to "tradition," attempt to find something that resembles temporary truth.

The problem is that there are so many exceptions to all rules in the world of creativity, particularly musical creativity, that it is impossible to see the musical world from one spot. We live in a world where people try to chronicle history as it is happening, and that same desire to chronicle events that might one day be considered historical, is at play in the people who write about music.

I'm just as guilty as the rest of the bunch. I see musical history through a slightly different lens from anyone else because of my experience. You see musical history through a slightly different lens from anyone else because of your experience. Norman Lebrecht sold a lot of books because of his observations from his insider position, and falsely (but eloquently) pronounced classical music dead. He was talking about the classical music business as he knew it.

Classical music as I know it is not dead. It is something that takes up the majority of my time, heart, and soul. There are just as many young people who have feelings about music that are similar to the feelings I have as there were when I was a young person. The fact that there are now exponentially more musicians than there are jobs for them doesn't seem to deter them from being musicians, even if they don't end up doing it for their livelihoods.

I used to bemoan change. I used to insist that people don't play "the way they used to." Now I entertain the idea that maybe people who try to play the way "they used to" are, perhaps, not being true to who they are as people. We have been fortunate as a culture (and I do believe that it is correct to talk about the musical culture in the collective sense, even if not everybody participates in it) to have recordings and films that show us music making that is truly great. It is certainly possible (given ample instrumental technique) to try to imitate what we experience as musical greatness--to attempt to capture the surface of what Milstein does, or what Heifetz does (I say does, because while we listen and watch it is happening in the now for us), what Richter does, what Arrau does, what Fritz Wunderlich does, and what a long list of other great musicians do. What is not possible is to imitate the life experience and the particularly musical intelligence, hard won through discipline and struggle, that serves as the backbone of what blooms on the surface.

I personally don't want the struggles of the past. I don't want to deal with the narrow-minded attitudes and loss of personal as well as musical freedom that musicians who were Jewish had to contend with during the first half of the 20th century. I don't want to deal with attitudes that women, both as performing musicians and as composers, were inferior to men (with a few exceptions held by the more generous). I don't want to deal with narrow-minded attitudes towards race that still get in the way of cultural development, but have improved a great deal in the world of classical music during my lifetime.

There have always been people who know how to treat classical music as a commodity. There are recording companies like Naxos that have taken advantage of the global market for classical music, and have done extremely well--expanding far beyond even their wildest dreams. I watched it from the beginning. I have seen it change. I haven't heard anybody complain.

There are people who buy their classical music recordings the way they buy designer clothes, shoes, or purses. It all has to do with the promotion. Those people have always been there: buying Rampal and Galway flute recordings in the 1970s and 80s, buying well-marketed recordings (sometimes even "crossover" recordings) of Yo-Yo Ma and Thomas Hampson, as well as a whole stable of attractive and competent (and often very good) performing musicians who make a lot of money from appearing as soloists. There are always people who will go to the "symphony" for the enjoyment of the whole experience: dressing up, going with friends, hearing something they might know, or something new, and seeing other "like-minded" people to schmooze with. Audience schmoozing is one of the side benefits from going to concerts, and I believe that it always has been. And there are audiences everywhere--not just in big cities, where many of the cultural critics live.

So where am I going with this? My contention is that "classical music" isn't making a comeback because it never died. My contention is that "classical music" is getting better because we have more access to more music than we ever had before, and we have more access to it immediately and for free, thanks to the internet. The self-discipline that goes into "growing" musicians of merit is something that not everyone has, but for the people who have it and have the desire to learn everything there is to know about music we have resources that were unimaginable to previous generations. The Petrucci Library is now up to 43,000 pieces of music (I just noticed that the Suk Meditation of the Old Chorale, Opus 35a was just added, and just in time too. My old copy has practically turned to dust)). There is also a 104-page book on singing by Pauline Viardot that I am excited about reading. Thanks to YouTube, we have, among other more obvious applications, a way to listen to traditional music from parts of the world that I never knew had extremely musical cultures. It is even possible to find musical inspiration in a post office in Ghana! (thanks, Daniel)

I could go on, but I have a rehearsal. This morning we are reading a pile of new-old music for a concert in March of music written by women. There is enough music available now (from many eras) that we get to pick and choose! Now that's progress!


Anonymous said...

"Norman Lebrecht sold a lot of books because of his observations from his insider position, and falsely (but eloquently) pronounced classical music dead." Nietzsche procalimed God dead too, and lapped up a little notoriety for a while. Neither was particularly correct, because there was no way to prove their assertions. But as with some avant garde music too, it was and is for some all about making the momentary scandal to get some "face time" in the press. For myself, the answer seems to simply go along, enjoying the wonders of the classics -- to include the newest classics as well -- and ignore the naysayers. This is why your blog is important, because among those publicly putting their voice on the record, your voice in being heard -- as it happily erodes the silliness from a nobody like Lebrecht. Keep blogging!

Elaine Fine said...

Thank you so much for this comment.

Rachel said...

Great point -- classical music isn't dying; it's just going through a reinvention. We're between musical periods and it's fascinating to dream about where we'll be in the future.