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Lionel Basney

Who Killed Classical Music?

And can marketing magic bring it back to life?

Who Killed Classical Music?

Who Killed Classical Music?

Who Killed Classical Music?
Maestros, Managers and Corporate Politics

by Norman Lebrecht
Birch Lane Press, 1997
448 pp.; $24.95

The orchestra's work week begins with an educational concert in a suburban elementary school. The 27 players of the orchestra "core"—full-time, contracted musicians—wait at their stands for the children to arrive. Violins chitter at scales; horns peck at their adenoidal high notes. At the other end of the long multipurpose room, behind a folding partition, early lunch is beginning; there is an indistinct hubbub of talk and the odor of gravy.

The children file in, whispering, curious, well-behaved. The "concert" is really a lecture-demonstration, with the orchestra's young, female associate conductor giving the lecture. She has the children identify a viola and an oboe. She leads them in clapping exercises. "What does this kind of music remind you of?" she asks, wheeling toward the players.

At Mozart's Figarooverture, that shameless invitation to monkey business, the children grin at each other, bounce, crane in their seats, as if the music had switched them on. At the theme from Beverly Hills 90210 the applause begins before the music ends. At "On the Beautiful Blue Danube," written by Johann Strauss the Younger for the Vienna dancehall in 1867, the air is suddenly full of half-suppressed giggles. The children know this music, probably from Cartoon Express.

Some players grin back at the excitement, but for most of the period they seem detached and a little restless, leaving the occasion to the conductor. Such concerts are not what their conservatory educations prepared them for. They may or may not have anticipated that they would have to find and colonize a space in American culture as the condition of professional survival.

The American Symphony Orchestra League (ASOL) estimates that there are 1,600 orchestras in the United States, and yet for many of them—the ones between college ensembles and the Gibraltars of New York and Chicago—survival is the question. Many organizations are now living on a financial precipice, cobbling budgets together out of sponsorships and dwindling ticket sales to an aging audience. Even in sizable city markets, such as Sacramento and San Diego, orchestras have gone bankrupt. Strikes have paralyzed seasons for ensembles of all sizes—Philadelphia, Atlanta, Shreveport—strikes that ended leaving enormous inequalities in the profession: a base salary of $84,000 in Philadelphia, $18,000 in Tucson.

The orchestra's struggle comes amidst a swamp of troubles affecting American cultural life as a whole. At the time when the Walkman is celebrating its twenty-fifth anniversary, the entire recording industry is in recession: the classical music labels' share of a stagnant market shrank from 7 percent in 1987 to 2.9 percent in 1996. Not even the Philadelphia Orchestra, the first (in 1917) to make a classical recording, has a standing contract. Government arts funding is under suspicion. People organize such dubious events as the Congressional Sing-a-Long for the Arts (in February 1999), with Edward Kennedy and Peter Yarrow leading a few hundred NEA supporters in song on the Capitol steps.

At the center of the orchestra crisis are two mutually hostile facts. The first is that orchestras are expensive, especially in the full professional form. You must pay conductors and soloists, administrative staff, PR people, ushers, sound people, and roustabouts. You must support, or contribute crucially to the support of, a concert hall ill-adapted to other moneymaking uses. Above all, you must pay a standing roster of highly trained, mostly unionized musicians.

And here is the second fact: orchestras appeal to a minority of Americans. There are expanses of American landscape, topographical and cultural, where classical music has little or no acknowledged impact. At a runout concert in Carthage, Texas, an older man approached the conductor of the morning's educational session to say that he had never heard an orchestra before. From his point of view, the orchestra had always seemed a coterie thing, Eastern, elitist.

Yet the truth is he has heard orchestras all his life. They have been playing in the background of his favorite entertainment—popular recordings, Broadway musicals, movies, and television. He heard opera excerpts in Godfather IIIand Pretty Woman and in television ads for Circuit City and Oil of Olay. What is alien to him, in reality, is the concert ritual—the largely anonymous crowd in the darkened concert hall, the performers in formal dress, the presence of the cultural icon in the opus numbers and program notes.

Expense has married orchestras to social elites since the time of Haydn, whose symphonies were played by servants of the Esterhazy household. The most striking example in America, perhaps, is the outright ownership of the Boston Symphony in its early decades by a single wealthy, autocratic individual. The orchestra, someone wrote at the time, "is Mr. Henry L. Higginson's yacht, his racing-stable, his library, and his art-gallery." It was also his ideological weapon. Like his class in general, Higginson hoped to use classical music (and Beethoven as its prophet) as a bulwark against everything we have come to know as popular culture and popular democracy.

Hence, to quote the 1993 ASOL report, Americanizing the American Orchestra—you can feel the ideological anxiety pressing on the very title—"the image of the orchestra as an exclusive, arrogant, possibly racist institution that resists sharing the secrets and norms of participation . …" Hence the recurrent calls for orchestras to come down off their pedestals and mingle. Hence the concert in the elementary school on a late spring morning—the desire to find a new audience, the hope to educate it, or seduce it.

As an icon of "high" culture, the orchestra has prospered or faltered along with the rest of the arts in America. Until World War II, orchestras could depend on their clienteles, especially on Higginson of Boston and the Curtises of Philadelphia, whose devotion gave classical music its elitist air. After the war, there was a rush of hope that the GI Bill and the NEA would give art, for the first time, a truly democratic mass audience. The Ford Foundation initiated, with Danny Newman's Dynamic Subscription Promotion (DSP), a vastly influential theory of how to sell tickets to new customers.

But this rush of optimism stalled in the eighties. The NEA itself, mostly for political reasons, was ambushed for being elitist. The dynamism of DSP seemed to falter: after a whiff of Brahms, it turned out, consumers were more than likely to go back to theme parks and video games. Foundations and corporations remained willing to support the arts, as giving the community an atmosphere of style and creativity. The truth is, however, that by the nineties the corporation itself, not the local art museum or orchestra, had become the cultural icon of urbanity, sophistication, and power.

The fate of orchestras cannot be isolated from the movement of the culture as a whole. For many, the orchestra's survival is a question of how to sell a product that fewer and fewer people want to buy, a product, that is, whose cultural significance and necessity are less and less obvious. The market for paintings has boomed by turning paintings into commodities: a painting is an object, it will hang on your wall and appreciate in value. But a performance of Brahms is an event and an experience—a demanding, perhaps difficult participation in a deeply traditional craft, whose place in the consumer culture is unclear.

A controversial recent account of how classical music is sold nowadays is Norman Lebrecht's Who Killed Classical Music?Lebrecht is music columnist for London's Daily Telegraph and author of a Simon & Schuster Guide to 20th Century Music. His recent book provoked a squall in the classical music world and knee-jerk dismissals from eminent musicians like Charles Rosen, who counted Lebrecht's references to Bach (one) and Chopin (none) and concluded that he wasn't interested in music at all. But the squall arose, one suspects, because Lebrecht demystified things the music world would like to believe (and have the rest of us believe) are mystical.

Who Killed Classical Music?is the kind of book the title implies, an anecdotal, gossipy expose of juicy doings in the boardroom and in the green room. Lebrecht narrates the background of today's music business in the careers of people like Arthur Judson, manager of the Philadelphia and New York orchestras, a founder of Columbia Artists Management and CBS, an intensely autocratic agent who disposed of orchestras and conductors and made and broke careers at will. Lebrecht deals also with musicians, like the legendary conductor Herbert von Karajan, who built an empire of clients and drove fees up until (as Lebrecht says) "organizing a concert lost all contact with the realities of cost and expense."

But this readable expose has a sharp, serious thesis: "What is unhealthy is the wholly unpoliced relationship between private agents and public-funded institutions." This "relationship" amounts to "milk[ing] the donors" by arranging engagements and fees according to the agent's agenda, in the confidence that no accounting, not even market feedback, will ever be required. The money, after all, does not come chiefly from satisfied customers: the "life support of subsidy, charity, and sponsorship" will compensate bad music as richly as good.

The system does produce commercial successes, arranged by "music" agents like Mark McCormack, who began by turning golf and tennis into television events. A prime example of such success is the "Three Tenors" phenomenon, in which the trinity of Domingo, Carreras, and Pavarotti bellow through a program of crowd-pleasers in football stadiums and sell ten million CDs. It is the Michael Jordaning of classical music. But—as sports commentators are beginning to point out—the superstar phenomenon is a sickness in sports, because it detracts from the excellent practice of the art in favor of the idiosyncratic showoff. The same phenomenon has the same consequences in music.

Nor will the local opera company benefit from the whirlwind entrance and exit of the superstars. Yet our faith in such events is implicit. The late Samuel Lipman, the distinguished pianist and publisher (until 1994) of The New Criterion, once criticized orchestras' reliance on superstar conductors by remarking that such conductors were seldom good musicians and invested no time in "their" ensembles anyhow. He was accused, in response, of wanting no one to come to the concerts.

At which point Lipman presumably threw up his well-trained hands. Yet the stupidity of the response to his criticism is instructive: the obvious alternative—hiring a good musician who wouldinvest time in the orchestra and thereby, slowly, perhaps over decades, build an audience—never came to mind. It was ruled out without a thought. The question of good or bad music, that is, simply is never asked.

"It's all a matter of marketing," the business manager of a midsized orchestra told me—of finding the right demographic niche, of finding the product the people there want, of tailoring the product to suit them.

Here is a second point at which the fate of orchestras touches the movement of the culture as a whole: the panacea of marketing seems simply inevitable. It is how we "sell" everything to ourselves, even education, even religious faith. Marketing is a faith deeper in us, probably, than Christianity itself.

Orchestras began to be marketed, in the recent sense of the term, during the rush of sixties optimism. Multiplying niches and finding music suitable to them seemed a way of reaching a larger audience. Orchestras now routinely play "pops" and "family" concerts, "casual classics," and educational programs more frequently than the staple programs of classical works.

But marketing also means giving the orchestra a marketable image, and here the process has taken two routes. The first responds to the call to come off the pedestal: publicity photos catch the players taking their violins to the beach, the conductor (in evening dress) conducting with two airplane handler's flashlights in his hands. Even the classical staples are programmed as evenings of "Romance and Candlelight" or "Puccini and Passion."

The second route marketing takes is to sustain and capitalize on the old elitist claim for classical music's inherent spiritual superiority. Conductors are caught in dramatic poses, faces rapt and distant; the program is stenciled with words like "Hope," "Rebirth," "Triumph," and "Serenity." This imagery focuses exclusively on the conductor and the celebrity soloist; they make up (as Christopher Small says) the priesthood of this sacred ritual. The orchestra musicians—who are, in fact, making the sounds that underlie these ecstasies—are not present in these pictures at all.

The marketing impulse also inspires educational outreach, and to this wholly prudent and humane project we will return in the end. But there is a deep flaw in the principle that "it's all a matter of marketing," a flaw that was caught by Bradley Morison and Julie Dalgleish a decade ago in a fine study of audience-building for the arts. Art, they observed, has its own agenda, which cannot be altered or ignored by the marketer without destroying the art. It is "inherent in the end goal itself," wrote Morison and Dalgleish—that is, in finding the orchestra an audience—"that the audience. … participate for the right reasons." Otherwise, whatever happens in the concert hall, the music and its meaning are not being shared.

You do not have to equate Beethoven's Ninth with the gospel (as Higginson of Boston did) to see the problem. Marketing is not a value-free enterprise; it changes the thing it sells. If the item for sale has no "commanding reality" of its own (to quote Albert Borgmann), the marketing changes will not matter. If it does—if it is an art, or a moral stance, or an instance of charity, or the gospel itself—then marketing cannot change it without destroying the enterprise it meant to support.

But what is music's "commanding reality"? What is crucially significant about the tradition of Western art music, this two centuries' worth of sonatas and symphonies? Are the supporters of orchestras trying to sell us something we do not need?

Like other desperate apologetic enterprises, the defense of classical music is susceptible to winds of enthusiasm and revelatory visions. A recent example that gathered some notoriety was the "discovery" that listening to classical music (specifically, to Mozart) helped schoolchildren do better work.

This fairly innocuous suggestion has led to very large claims in Don Campbell's The Mozart Effect(the title phrase is a registered trademark of Don G. Campbell, Inc.). Campbell argues that music is a "holy" thing that can make us healthier and smarter. He draws from assorted religions, the old "new paradigm shift in medicine," and a 60-page catalogue of "miracle cures." Music can increase our IQs, relax our muscles, raise our endorphin levels, and even make us feel romantic. Who knew?

To object to Campbell may be to elicit the same response as Lipman got, that one is depriving Mozart's defenders of ammunition. But Campbell is a marketer, chiefly of his own successes, and one wants to say, again, that you can cheapen your product so far as to make it not worth buying.



Musicking: The Meanings of Performing and Listening
by Christopher Small
Univ. Press of New England, 1998
232 pp.; $17.95 paper

Christopher Small's Musickingis a far more serious effort to show what music is for and why it is, or might be, consequential for us all. Music, Small argues, really exists only as an activity, "musicking." And he has a generous, perhaps unwieldy, notion of what this entails: "To music is to take part, in any capacity, in a musical performance," and by "any capacity" Small means any—"by performing, listening, by rehearsing or practicing, by. … composing, or by dancing," or by designing the program, running the electrical cord, or taking the tickets. Music is practice, and music's meaning is, therefore, to be found in entire social ways of making music.

This thesis launches Small on an extended description of art music's present culture, specifically of the circumstances of the standard orchestra concert and the "theme park" (as he says) of symphonic classics. All this, he argues, produces an image of music as an eternal order of masterpieces independent of the very social facts (such as money and power) that make this brand of musicking possible. The practical corollary is obvious: the ASOL itself is urging orchestras to be less formal, less hidebound, about their presentations.

Small wants to go much further than this. "Musicking," he suggests, is an instance of the "great performance art" by which human beings sign their participation in the web of relationships that makes life possible. For his conception of this web, Small turns to Gregory Bateson's vastly influential reflections on the interconnections of physical and mental life. But "musicking" in this sense has an evil cousin: it is the Platonic order of classical masterpieces whose referent is not the great web but "the crudely instrumental and exploitative relationships that western societies have adopted toward the rest of the world."

Small, unfortunately, has backed himself into a corner: is (as he says) "all musicking valid," or just some? Small is in the corner, that is, that attempts at relativism often produce: without some criterion of judgment, he cannot defend even the freedom his relativism was meant to establish.

His response is a familiar, perhaps inevitable, one for a relativist: to adopt a neutral-sounding term as the key to his argument and then, tacitly, to give it evaluative force. Small's crucial term is "relationship": all musicking mimes relationships—this is why it is all valid—but, in the end, only "healing" relationships will do. Some people will not be free to like the music they like: the bourgeois audience rejoicing in its Beethoven symphony is not, after all, participating in the great web.

To do him credit, Small faces up to the practical consequences of his argument: he closes his book by asking (as the great Marxist critic, Georg Lukacs, once asked), "Was even Mozart wrong?" Yes, Small responds, Mozart was wrong; his music embodies "power," and "I myself have not the slightest desire to hold power." Yet this is far too crude; there are many kinds of power, and no reason why all of them should be incompatible with freedom, community, and the great dance of nature. Indeed, nature dances very powerfully sometimes, and the power of Bach is often such as to bring people together.

Small turns to Bateson for help in explaining our intuition that there is something morally and perhaps spiritually crucial about music. What this something is is very hard to say, precisely, though if we could, and if we could show that Beethoven has this quality above all, we could use our answer to defend (and not, as Small does, to attack) the place of the orchestra in society.

The Aesthetics of Music

The Aesthetics of Music

The Aesthetics of Music
by Roger Scruton
Oxford Univ. Press, 1997
530 pp.; $21.95 paper

This is roughly what Roger Scruton sets out to do: to say, clearly, what is morally crucial about music. His The Aesthetics of Musicis an imposing work, difficult to summarize, rich with musical examples and with reflections on such matters as human freedom and the nature of time. (It is also a delight to read, written in that elegant plainstyle often encountered in British academic prose and almost never in American.) Scruton does not describe performances but music itself. Late in the book, he pauses to look at the opening of the last movement of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony—how for 35 measures one theme begets another, "burst[ing] through every rhythmic and melodic pattern [the music] first establishes, constantly enlarging the upward movement. … in a gesture of comprehensive affirmation."

But why do we feel that such music means something beyond exhilaration? Why (and how) are we convinced that we have learned something from hearing it, though no words have passed, no stories, no arguments? To answer this, Scruton draws on the blend of "empiricist" aesthetics he has been exploring since his Cambridge dissertation, Art and Imagination, twenty-five years ago. Music is not spiritual in a conventional sense, or even in Small's pop-anthropological sense. Rather, music introduces us to the shapes, the movement, of our own feelings.

Listening to music, Scruton says, we hear an intentional action we describe in metaphor: the music "goes up" and "down," it is "cool" and "warm," it "lingers" and "blazes." It is organized not by rules but by gestalten, the implicit patterns of perception. Indeed, Scruton spends a good deal of time battling the theories of Heinrich Schenker and others, who wished to give music a logical syntax. Music, Scruton insists, is not a system but the freedom of human reason in an "inherently contemplative" occasion.

We learn from music because in it we encounter our own feelings emerging into the world through their expression (Scruton draws here on Hegel). Music gives the formation of these feelings "a sphere of perfect freedom" removed from practicalities (here the touchstone is Kant). Encountering our feelings educates them, shows us where they are false, inadequate, or genuine. In a Schubert quartet, Scruton writes, we find ourselves "rehearsing something that is very hard to feel—the impulse to selfless gratitude for the gift of life." And to feel this is a moral good.

Scruton's account seems to be evocative and frustrating in equal parts. Why, for instance, would he say that this "selfless gratitude" is "very hard to feel"? My guess is that we feel such things in many common experiences without making Scruton's claims for them (though perhaps we should). The truth is, I think, that Scruton is using "feelings" to name a specific class of feelings, the ones available to highly cultured people or (perhaps) to the members of a Cambridge common room.

For Scruton is quite plain that this moral education comes chiefly to those who listen to Bach and Mozart. If Small is too cavalier in claiming that "all musicking is valid," Scruton is too narrow in claiming that Western art music is what music universally is. Of his 256 musical examples, fewer than 20 come from folksong or popular music. As for other musical traditions—Asian, African—he simply dismisses them. They have no history, they do not count.

It isn't surprising, then, that after Schenker and the musical logicians, Scruton spends the most time battling Arnold Schoenberg and his defender, the Marxist critic Theodor Adorno: it was their conviction that traditional classical music had exhausted its own resources and withered into a slave of pop culture. After all, where did Rachmaninoff's harmonies go but into the movies?

Scruton argues, powerfully I think, for the revival of traditional harmony in new composition. But he dismisses the historical criticism of musical styles too quickly. Scruton's reason is that he wants Bach and Wagner not to be historically particular events. But it is hard to imagine Kant listening to Wagner with any pleasure at all.

And the culture, as Scruton admits, haschanged. To listen to classical music today, one must have, or acquire, a knowledge of musical traditions that is no longer common in American culture, if indeed it ever was. Or in American schools: the ruthless slashing of arts budgets, particularly in the lower grades, is at the very root of the crisis.

What the defenders of orchestras and the lovers of their music must do, therefore, is clear: we must take on the responsibility of educating our own successors. This is where we began, with the educational concert in the elementary school. The orchestra, which has traditionally seen itself as the endproduct and capstone of "music" in society, must become music's explainer and nurturer.

This is obvious, of course, to many musicians already, and much is being done. Orchestras reach out to schools by way of educational concerts, mini-ensembles, and youth orchestras. Communities "adopt" string quartets for a year of music and conversation about music. The St. Louis Symphony Orchestra has adopted the financially shaky St. Louis Conservatory, giving the players a direct community outreach. The Symphony Orchestra Institute, with its young journal, Harmony, works to improve relations between players and management and between ensembles and their audiences.

Even Don Campbell's ideas are being given their chance: a small orchestra in southeastern Michigan is giving free CDs to newborns, to spark their intellectual growth and prepare them, later, to think well of the Mozart of their nurseries.

The prime temptation in this endeavor, as Morison and Dalgleish argued a decade ago, is the temptation to rush—to demand instant results that show up on budgets. The temptation is understandable: how many more orchestras will fail before a cultural reeducation has a chance? "It's a collapsing market," a young conductor told me, as he studied scores and mailed out resumes. It is beginning to be assumed, outside the classical music world, that the profession is doomed.

The truth is that this music will survive among those who love it. The danger is that fear drives people to quick fixes or, more dangerous yet—this appears to be the present mood in conservatories—to turn inward and treat the music as a secret knowledge accessible to specialists only.

Some time ago, I wrote in this journal that the survival of communities-in-place in the consumer culture depends on work with a Luddite feel—personal, low-tech, long-sustained, the search for precedents, and the renewal of traditions. I bring this up not to advertise myself but to point out that the pursuit of sane economic agendas and the survival of orchestras share the same predicament: now that it is clear that the planet's resources (and therefore by necessity the resources of any given nation) will not sustain unlimited economic growth, how will we apportion our resources among our cultural needs? Now that it is clear that we cannot have everything, how will we decide what we must have?

This is the third point at which the fate of orchestras touches the movement of the culture as a whole. For the question of how to apportion resources faces all our cultural projects. It is facing American education, where colleges go more and more deeply into debt for technology to train students in the use of the same technology. The question is facing American (and world) science: Congress has withdrawn the nation from several major experimental projects in the last decade, including the Superconducting Supercollider and the International Thermonuclear Reactor, in both cases leaving Japan and other countries to eat enormous financial losses.

My point is not that orchestras and science are in the same fix financially: the budget of a single medium-scope research project at a major university would maintain ten small professional orchestras for a decade. My point is rather that our cultural visions can no longer be predicated on the dream that there will be money for everything. We must begin, as Barry Lopez has suggested, a national conversation on what we need, what we must and will pay for.

The defenders of high culture cannot, I believe, hope to influence this conversation by way of the saturation ad and the corporate strategy: those avenues are already crammed with the corporation's traffic. We must influence it by convincing the schoolchildren and the adults of Carthage, Texas, that the gifts of high culture are not the preserve of an elite but the birthrights of their humanity. This education will not only concern music; it will have to be by wayof music.

Here Scruton's reflections on music and human feelings are wholly to the purpose: this education by music will not succeed if it insists on flourishes of cultural equipment, protocols of concert behavior, or poses of spiritual superiority; it will succeed when the music speaks to our feelings. The concert ritual that Small criticizes, and that Higginson of Boston thought the apex of civilization, is a historical anachronism standing in a far greater light: music, even the imposing structures of orchestral music, is a speaking from person to person, as is all learning, as is grace. The support orchestras need will be enough to allow them to offer this gift to everyone.

The late Lionel Basney was professor of English at Calvin College.

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