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Monday, July 21, 2008

Is Classical Music Dying?

In the case of classical music, there is a widespread notion that, because it is weakening in its impact on the world, it is by all means a dying art. Is this factually true? Who started the notion that classical music is dying? 

For me, since childhood classical music is a presence and a force that I see everywhere. It is not dying, but it is changing. By that, I mean its role is moving from its role as highest of the musical arts (something we inherited from the Romantics) to a new role: managing the mood. This change may have positive and negative aspects.  Jeremy Begbie, a theologian, professor at Cambridge, and classically trained pianist, puts it like this:

It has been argued that classical music is dying in Western culture, and a vigorous dispute has grown up around the issue. Some point to the large number of orchestras (including prestigious ones) struggling to survive financially, dwindling audience figures, the shrinking share of classical recording companies in the overall market...the aging classical music lover, and so on. But in fact classical music is reaching an exponentially larger audience than ever before.  Partly this is due to marketing techniques well tried and widely used for other forms of music. Promotional devices associated with popular music have ensured artists like Nigel Kennedy a very wide hearing;...and the Three Tenors...famously brought Italian opera into the pop charts..Internet downloads of classical albums grew by nearly 100 % in 2005. Radio 3, the United Kingdom's main serious classical music radio station, recorded and experienced record numbers of website hits with a recent all-Bach season. The increasingly common fusion of recording and live performance has been another key factor, cutting out his studio expenses: Sir John Eliot Gardiner's label, SDG, has begun to offer concert attendees a freshly pressed recording of the performance they have just witnessed. 

It is probably true to say, then, that classical music is not so much dying as changing its social and cultural role. And marketing (allied to rapidly developing sound technology) is likely the most significant factor at work in this shift. A major upshot is that, for many, classical music has come to fulfill the role that is common and basic to most music in our culture today: namely, managing our mood. Music creates an ambience, an environment in which we live and move...like the vast majority of popular music, it [classical music] will most often be used as a background to some other activity. Music helps us run better, improves our concentration at work, and so on. 
Quoted from Resounding Truth: Christian 
Wisdom in the World of Music 
(Baker Academic, 2007)

Begbie goes on to point out that some theorists are worried about this trend. Even something as ethereal as classical music has been homogenized into a safe, digestible form we can switch on or off as our mood dictates. The kind of marketing that makes all music, not just popular, a commodity, says that it is now okay for everyone to like this 'heavy' music. It is the same marketing that often provokes the trained musician to silent anger. Yes, we may now have football stadiums filled to capacity to hear the Three Tenors (or some other classical group) sing excerpts from opera to millions via television. But what we really have, in my opinion, is classical "superstars" who easily forego the high standards for excellence and nuances of expression so vital to well-performed music. In a sense, we have traded our heritage, the millennium of music we call classical today, for a "mess of pottage" that panders to mass culture in ways that may be destructive to music's deepest value. 

If you have thoughts on this subject, please include them in a comment below. 


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