The real death in classical music.

There has recently been much discussion regarding ‘the death of classical music.’ Such conversations are nothing new, of course; classical music has been dying for some time and yet always manages to outlive the very authors of its obituary. Yet the whispers persist, too often rising to a dull roar and, now and then, erupting as a full-throated shout from the rooftops.

It is most unfortunate, because classical music is actually doing quite well. In spite of the funeral march we have witnessed many exciting developments in the field in recent years: record ticket sales at some orchestras, the introductions of new outreach programs, the establishment of modern music ensembles and festivals, the proliferation of orchestras and opera houses in new markets across the world, exciting young soloists bursting onto the scene and the release of notable and important new recordings. And the music–oh, the music! Mozart and Beethoven have aged extremely well; their music is still as fresh and vibrant as it was in the Enlightenment and Napoleonic Europe. Mahler’s prophecies about the future of his music have come to pass and he has become a repertoire mainstay. The eternally autumnal glow of Brahms’ oeuvre continues to find new ways to warm us and his romantic-era sparring partner, Wagner, has continued its Kantian hold over our collective psyches. Yes, the music is just fine, thank you very much.

But, back to the issue of death. Yes, to read recent articles would leave the music lover scratching his or her head in puzzlement. While there are problems–real problems which need to be solved–the music, that which is most important, is absolutely fine. So why do we keep reading such grim reports?

The fact is that there has been a death in the classical world, a death which we should all mourn. Unfortunately it has gone unreported, its corpse still animated and somewhat coherent. It is a death in two parts, with one all but completely gone and the other still in the throes of Denial. 

This is the death of musical criticism.

The first death is the most lamentable. Full time positions for critics and journalists have been eliminated at major publications across the United States, leaving many audiences without a voice. This may lead to a sigh of relief for musicians and arts administrators in some corners; but the fact is that a critic (a good critic) is an essential voice in a musical community. That these positions have begun to disappear is cause for real alarm and dismay, and we may only hope that they may experience a resurrection in the future.

The second death, however, is regrettable for different reasons. This death is not yet complete, but the animated remains are too often kept alive only by large amounts of hubris. This death, that which still resides in Denial, is the death of the Critic (or Journalist) as Artist.

Musical commentary seems largely to have followed the trend of journalism in general. Fact is replaced by conjecture; insight by opinion; a desire for truth by a desire to be first, loudest or most sensational. This is not to say that it has always been different historically. On the contrary: musical criticism in the 19th and early 20th century was often salacious and motivated by politics, leading to near destruction of some of the greatest musicians in history. Yet there were notable bright spots: this was an art practiced by Schumann, Shaw and Twain, after all! And the one thing those men had in common: they always wrote about the music.

Today, sadly, we seem to read more about the politics and finances of institutions; the personal lives, rather than the musical insights, of performers; and, worst of all, comparisons of performances to other performances (or even recordings.) This last matter is most troubling. To compare one orchestra to the other, especially in the performance of a particular work, is not especially helpful. To compare one performance to an historical performance is often even less productive. Certainly the commentary may be interesting or entertaining, but the only comparison which truly matters is that of a performance to the score. The intentions of the composer are the most important things to consider. What a great conductor or orchestra did in the past; what traditions have developed over time; these are beside the point. To offer any meaningful commentary, one must begin with the score.

Unfortunately it is rarely thus. Aside from the often mediocre quality of the writing in general, especially in non-traditional formats, reviews seem to spend a very little time actually writing about the music. And why should this be so? The musicians of an orchestra have a responsibility to the music: to inspire those who hear it. Likewise, the journalist has an obligation: he must find a way to inspire his readers to love this music, to become curious, to explore, learn and grow. Far too many seem to buy into the most ridiculous aspect of the ‘brand’ of classical music: gleeful snobbery. 

There are excellent journalists writing today, absolutely; but we need many, many more. If the critics are to be the proverbial watchers, then on whom may we rely in turn to watch them? In an age of ubiquitous musical virtuosity, it is time for a few more Virtuosi of the Pen.

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7 thoughts on “The real death in classical music.

  1. Honestly, most of the most problematic critics are only promoting themselves: making a big noise so people will look at them. That’s what it’s about for a lot of them at bottom: yelling and being the center of attention. It’s not about the music.

    Thankfully, aside from the Comic Book Guy insiders, no one needs to hear what a critic has to say to make up their minds as to whether they like something or not.

  2. Bravo. I fear that I’m one of the few music critics left who actually knows how to read a score. I feel fortunate to be able to write CD reviews for a magazine that values honesty, but I often wonder if it actually matters when too many reviews are more like advertising copy than actual criticism.

  3. Thanks for the insightful writing. We are regular attendees and supporters of our local Symphony in Greenville, SC. We have a keyboard collection that tells the history of keyboard instruments from the earliest times to the present. Students of the keyboard come with their institution’s faculty and hear this history and then get to play on a keyboard that is what Mozart would have known, that Beethoven or Mozart would have known. I gotta say, they are all over that stuff!

  4. This is what happened in Kansas City. April 2008 the KCStar, due to the newspaper crash laid off its one remaining critic, reportedly never to replace the position. But instead of complaining about it, we made it happen ourselves. http://KCMetropolis.org began publishing weekly original content October 5, 2008. That is independent reviews, previews, current issues and the top event calendar in the area.

    With up to 15-20 expert writers at one time, KCM has given our fair city deeper coverage than in well, longer than I can remember. Instead of covering just the major companies like the Star did, KCMETROPOLIS covers the pros and even the scorn and third tier artists.

    The Kansas City Independent Magazine also picked up the slack by grabbing the critic that was let go at the KCStar.

    On the quixotic side of this, the KCStar brought back some of its classical arts coverage, and in a turn, seem to grab our writers first and foremost. It’s a problem, albeit a good problem. There is plainly more coverage for the performing arts in Kansas City and unfortunately, we are pretty unique in the nation.

    all the best and good luck!

  5. Education (especially of children) is the chief solution for the endangered species called “music”. Music education is crucial for the future of music. As for the importance of critics: I suggest you read “The Lexicon of Musical Invective” by Slominsky…….this fascinating book is a compilation of the many, many scathing music reviews of great composers…….there was even a London panning of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony — in 1895!

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