Saving Classical Music, which is what exactly?

Ever since the Music Council of Australia-hosted Classical Music Futures Summit held in July (and in all honesty probably since I was in high school in the early 1980s) I’ve been thinking about this issue of ‘saving’ classical music from its uncertain futures, rescuing this immense tradition from unthinkable oblivion and unthinking ennui.

And in all of my nearly 30 years of thinking about it, this notion of salvation has bothered me immensely. It’s the anti-evangelist in me, without doubt, but it seems to me that salvation is always transitory, conditional and even illusory. And the idea that salvation can be imposed upon a thing really only makes sense if the thing is a building about to be demolished, or a person on death row.

But let’s suspend our disbelief for a moment and accept that salvation can be offered, proffered and successfully accepted when we apply it to the entire field of classical music. What is it exactly that we are seeking to save?

On the one hand one can read treatises on what makes classical music different (and better) to other musical forms. Classical music is, according to these treatises, something characterised by a particular approach to musical discourse, a set of formal means of executing a musical argument. Music as essay, and possibly poem, but certainly not as novel or sitcom. The sonata (first movement) form is the pinnacle of music’s discursive achievements, according to this line of thinking, with the fugue receiving honourable mention and the rondo a certificate of participation.

Other conversations about saving classical music seem to define it as orchestral music, symphonic music, chamber music. In other words classical music becomes defined by its troups and ensembles: orchestras (symphonic, chamber and philharmonic) are in, as are string quartets, wind quintets and other established orchestral instrument sub-groupings. Grudgingly, ensembles including modern extensions of orchestral instruments are also part of this mix (vibraphone, bass clarinet, amplified orchestral instruments, etc.).

Classical music is is also often defined by reference to an attitude towards listening: audiences silent, eyes frequently shut, no moving during the performance (let alone moving about), usually (or optimally, depending on your age) engaging with a fresh interpretation of a well-known work.

So we have a definition emerging from these quite dominant public discourses about classical music that involves a restricted sense of presentation: the shape of the musical content, the instruments that can play that content, and how an audience should approach the content, all three aspects of music-making that are heavily loaded with expectation and judgement.

On the other hand, contemporary composers who see themselves participating in the classical music trajectory may have no interest in crafting their musical expression into the 18th century exposition-development-recapitulation form. These same composers may have a musical vision that includes instruments outside the western orchestral tradition. And these composers may be writing music that asks different things of audiences than motionless and mute reception.

If we define classical music by means of form, instrumentation and reception praxis then we exclude these contemporary musical assertions and experiments from classical music’s realm. But if we don’t define classical music thus how do we define it?

[Needless to say, saving something you can’t identify is unlikely to prove successful.]

So wedded are we to these three means of knowing when music is ‘classical’ that we refuse classical music its primary means of ‘saving’ itself: renewal.

So orchestras perform popular repertoire (accompanying Elton John, presenting concerts of Disney themes) and don’t see that as being part of their core business, even though it is certainly part of their core business plan. And small ensembles rely on (and spend the bulk of their marketing energy) persuading funding bodies, not audiences, to support their work. Large ensembles market themselves with images of blissed-out ticket-holders, and audiences endure rather than exult in performances of contemporary work (not being part of the ‘listen-to-this-fresh-interpretation-of-a-familiar-work’ discourse).

The classical music field is feeding the discourses that are choking it.

Meantime the notion of connection (that life-blood of artistic enterprise), the art event with current events, the audience with each other, the performer with the music, the composer with the audience, the musical moment with the moments that follow/precede the performance, and so on, and on, and on, comes a distant second to the notion of sponsorship, that lifeblood of enterprises engaged in selling a brand.

Don’t get me wrong: artistic enterprise should creatively engage with the cultural and commercial conditions in which it finds itself, but the pursuit of connection should always be part of creating the brand which can then be leveraged into sponsorship. Too often the pursuit of sponsorship curtails and constrains the connections the artistic enterprise can engage in. [Big assertions, too big for further exploration in this entry.]

So, how do we, how should we, define classical music in contemporary culture?

Option One: accept that ‘classical music’ is a museum art-form: ensembles recreate masterpieces from the past in a similar fashion to the presentation of bodies of centuries-old work by art museums. People come to marvel at the achievements of our forebears, at expressions no longer current but still resonant, at cultural icons that have paved the way for contemporary musical expression. A by-product of this marvel with include appreciation of the craft of performers dedicated to performing these works of history. This option is probably the closest to the status quo.

Option Two: accept that ‘classical music’ is an attitude: serious work (even when witty) presented to an audience wanting to engage with seriousness on serious matters (even if they laugh from time to time). This option is quite like the status quo, but by defining via degrees of seriousness this option allows for non-traditional presentation formats (things can be quite serious when the audience is standing up, for instance), non-traditional instrumentations (a shakuhachi is no laughing matter), and compositions that present their musical arguments in non-traditional ways.

Option Three: accept that ‘classical music’ is a sound, much the way ‘lounge music’ is a sound, or ‘folk music’, or ‘heavy metal’. Without doubt (and without education) members of our society can recognise these sounds from one another. This is also very much like the status quo, although ensembles and composers that classify themselves as part of the classical music field might not always be participating in or producing a classical music ‘sound’, and this creates a difficult-to-resolve tension. On the plus side, audiences will be confident about their participation in the same way that they are when they buy tickets to an Eagles or Rolling Stones concert. This degree of confidence is also useful when listeners use musical sounds to construct their own identities (and, in less academic/sociological terms, their own iPod playlists).

Option Four: accept that ‘classical music’ is a practice, like yoga. Truly casual participation in classical music yields a pleasurable experience, but one that is inferior to a more sustained engagement, in much the same way that a casual participation in yoga gives feel-good results without long-lasting effects; it’s fairly self-evident that the more you put into yoga/classical music the more you will get out. This is also similar to the status quo, but those of us in the field of classical music might not like to admit it. Conceptualising an art form as praxis, even for the audience, makes our art seem hard and uninviting. Oh wait, that is the status quo.

Further on option four: budding rock musicians can pick up a guitar, learn 4 or 5 chords and start writing songs straight away, while budding classical musicians probably need more than a decade of tuition and practice before they will be part of the classical music creative conversation; there is literally a lot of practice involved in the praxis of classical music.

Are any of these options (and there may be more than the four I’ve put forward) worth saving? Or is what we want to save, when we talk about saving classical music, something else, something beyond these options and definitions?

And if it is, let’s talk about that, and get on with the business of building a future for the thing we really believe in.

11 thoughts on “Saving Classical Music, which is what exactly?

  1. Is there any reason why we have to choose only one option, one recipe or one career path?

    I wonder whether the solution for regenerating what we currently call “classical music” lies not in considering the issue from a “one size fits all” global perspective but exploring single local environments, taking into consideration relevance, community and the character of individual musicians.

    • Not only do I not think that choosing a single option is at all a positive thing, I’m convinced the options I outlined are not the whole picture. Recipes and career paths are a little outside the scope of this particular enquiry: what I’m saying here is that if you don’t know what it is you want to ‘save’ (preserve, maintain) then it is very hard to know which part of the cookbook to turn in order to find the right recipe (and I suspect the recipe won’t have been written yet). And the career path of individual musicians is far beyond the scope of a single genre these days (in most cases) so that’s really the business of musicians to determine for themselves.

      I love your act local language! But what is it that you currently call “classical music”? THAT is what I’m interested in here!

      • Apologies for straying off topic 🙂 That said, I loved the way you picked up on the recipe imagery in your reply!

        If we are “saving” anything, I wonder whether the root of this quest is actually preserving jobs and/or the creation of new ones as opposed to “rescuing” whatever is defined as “classical music”?

        I like word “renewal” when applied to the industry in its broadest sense. For me, this means the genre assuming greater relevance in local communities.

        As for the question “what is classical music”? Maybe there is no absolute answer as the definition varies according to individual listeners and musicians.

        Your post is going to keep me thinking for a long time – thanks!

  2. There are some interesting aspects in all of the options mentioned, but I find option 3 the least interesting. What is summarized under classical music is a huge family of sounds, which have few things in common. Option 1 contains a true core, but considering classical music as an ancient art is probably the sure way to its extinction. Interpretation is the medium to put the old scores to current life and, opposed to cover versions of pop songs the original by the composer is not available for say pre-1920 stuff.

    While the practice aspect (option 4) is obvious for me, I consider it not main purpose, (»hey, I can endure a whole Bruckner symphony and find it edifying«), but a just a side-effect of the attitude aspect (option 2), which is my favourite.

    Either a refinement of this, but possibly a different option 5 is, classical music is a sort of self-chosen religion. Its followers are a rather closed group, assembling when masses take place in distinguished atmosphere. It is serious work, to persuade a non-follower to join. Of course in music there is no need for exclusiveness and many musicians excel in widely different areas.

    I‘m afraid, that the public image of classical music consists to a huge portion (mostly late-romantic) orchestral music with slight extension to those operas, which the famous arias refer to. The chamber music repertoire is neglected, which I find especially strange, since it is much cheaper to stage and also simpler to find the co-players, should one want to give it a try oneself.

    What does not work – at least for me – is the attempt some radio stations resort to: cut great works into small snippets (»you just heard the Adagio from Vivaldis violin concerto«) and spice it with other stuff (»… from the soundtrack of the film…«) supposed to result in a meal easy to digest. CD albums like »relax with Bach« fall into the same category. I can‘t image the Schubert quintet sliced that way, but since each movement already takes substantial time, nobody bothers to try anyway.

    To counter extinction, classical music nevertheless needs to attract new audiences. Concertos for children are a good first step, to introduce the sound. The most promising approach I see is, to teach children an instrument, preferably an orchestral instrument, and get them playing in a youth orchestra. The group feeling helps that they do music long enough to get infected and orchestra rehearsals also provide insights into the musical substance, not achievable by the more convenient listening to the music while reading the full score.

  3. What an interesting discussion! We use terms like ‘classical music’ and ‘classical art’ as if there’s general agreement about just what they are, but as your discussion shows, explaining them is like trying to wrap up a parcel of water.

    As an Asian historian by trade, with a limited knowledge of the Western classical tradition, it makes me wonder whether you could apply some of these categorisations to what’s known as the Indian classical music tradition [as an example].

    Those steeped in the Western tradition often forget that there are vast numbers of people whose notions of ‘classical’ music are quite different to those of the West. Sometimes I think that is quite forgotten when discussions of classical music take place. Asian instruments/singers might be brought in almost for curiosity value as an adjunct to conventional western categorisation, but only on terms negotiated on behalf of Western music.

    I suspect a degree of complacency and exclusivity about all this, in spite of the excellent suggestions above to draw children into the appreciation of beautiful music. Maybe a definition is just too hard!

    • What a wonderful comment! I especially love the notion of wrapping a parcel of water as an analogy for this project (!). but you’ve also opened up the whole western v the rest of the world can of worms!

      Certainly in terms of government support the only classical musics that get taken particularly seriously here in Australia are those of the Western art music tradition, and other kinds of European music traditions (especially those with non-orchestral instruments in the mix) don’t get a look-in either.

      I would imagine that most people debating how to ‘save Classical music’ in Western societies have a fairly strong awareness of other classical traditions, even while using the term ‘classical’ in the vernacular sense in their own dealings. The operatic traditions of China and Japan are extraordinary, and yet the funding of ‘opera’ does not presuppose the presentation of these traditions….

      Maybe, here in Australia, the day will come when the dominant art forms of Western Europe aren’t taken as the default intention of the terms ‘classical’ and ‘opera’, but for now that is what most people think the terms refer to. And when that day does come either arts funding (government, corporate, individual) will need to be massively increased or many of the musical institutions around the country will cease to exist. Good thing? Bad thing? No value judgement intended.

      There are certainly people who wish to preserve the western art music tradition from what they see as contamination and dilution, and this is part of their mission to ‘save classical music’. This impetus, I agree, comes from a position of exclusivity, but I’d argue there’s nothing overly complacent about it…. As I’ve said above, I think this notion of imposing salvation is completely silly.

      Meantime, I certainly didn’t intend for this post to be about drawing children into the appreciation of beautiful music. Nothing could be further from my intent, in fact! Part of my life’s mission is to make the making of music (or “musiking” as the wonderful Christopher Small put it) more accessible to children, most especially in the sense of giving children the skills and permission to make their own. Classical music (of any tradition) does not necessarily have anything to do with this creative engagement with music’s possibilities. The idea of children appreciating beautiful music brings to mind a passivity no child should find themselves subjected to, in my opinion!

  4. To extend Denis’s comment, I wonder it you need to look beyond the field of music for a definition, or perhaps, rather, a description, of the term “classical”.

    I lecture in cultural history, particularly visual art history, where the term is often loosely applied to anything from the zeniths of ancient Greece and Roman civilisations, and to anything inspired from them. Yet it’s very much a Western European concept, again, superimposed in the 19th/20thC, no doubt to fit the worldview of the English/Germanic cultures (and probably the French) who were very busy at the time carrying off these cultures for themselves. It’s probably why “classical” music often accompanies documentaries on ancient Greek temples and sculpture, (despite the fact that documents from the time suggest the music to sound anything but “classical” to our ears).

    What I”m trying to say is that we tend to associate the term “classical” with more than music, and maybe that needs to be taken into account when discussing its definition.

    Just a thought.

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