Concert music (that thing that the layperson refers to as “classical music”) is dead. Not just nearly dead, or ailing, or troubled, or whatever the aged reviewers from the New York Times would have you believe. But long dead and festering.
People who believe in concert music talk about it with concern: “Who killed classical music?” “How can we build our audience again?” These are simple questions to answer. Classical music killed itself, through arrogance and a complete unwillingness to move ahead with the times. We CAN’T build an audience again. There is no audience to build, save the tiny crowds of blue-haired concert-goers, who attend only to see and be seen and sleep through all of the music regardless. They will die soon, and no one is lining up to take their place. The seats are empty. Orchestras are folding every day.
Imagine this scenario: the honchos behind country music read their earnings reports over breakfast one day and realize that their audience has decreased in the last year. What would be their reaction? It seems self-evident; they would do marketing research, intensive analysis, and careful introspection to determine how THEY (as the creators) had failed.
Conversely, the more audience concert music loses, the more arrogant and self-righteous the creators become about how intrinsically important the music must be. After all, art is absolute, and is only for an elite minority of able-minded, educated listeners.
But if someone makes art in a forest and no one is around to hear/see/experience it, is it art?
Concert music exists today in much the same way as Sanskrit. Both are studied by a small group of academics. Both can teach students important things about relevant, contemporary modes of expression. Both cease to exist outside of the academy. Students of concert music study their craft in conservatories and music schools worldwide, only to get jobs teaching the same information to future generations of identical students-to-be-teachers. This type of cycle creates a feeling of community, and community creates a feeling of importance. The most successful concert music composers are “important” and “famous” within the world of the conservatory. But walk outside the Ivory Tower, and it won’t take long to discover that no one else is listening. No one at all.
The reasons for all of this are simple. The concert music world decided sometime in the last century that all of the great music had already been written. The deadline, it would seem, was sometime near the end of the 19th century with the late works of Brahms and the flowering of Mahler. Certainly notable exceptions exist from later: Rachmaninoff’s piano concerti and certain works of Prokofiev have been deemed “gentle” enough for the audience’s sensitive and refined palette. Meanwhile however, massive changes were taking place not only in what could have become contemporary concert music (Schoenberg, Stravinsky, etc.) but also in the beginnings of new genres such as jazz, rock and roll, etc. Audiences for jazz and rock blossomed. Always in search of the new, these audiences kept artists busy by demanding new music and new ideas about music making.
The concert music audiences, meanwhile, had no interest in progress. The radical new harmonic languages of Stravinsky, Schoenberg, and their followers were lost on what could have become a viable audience for the continuation of the concert tradition. Instead, this music has been essentially ignored, while 18th and 19th century “masterpieces” continue to be programmed by orchestras.
But no one cares about this music anymore. The recordings don’t sell, the concert halls remain half full. And still, the powers that be refuse to acknowledge that progress in the genre is a healthy thing, and that risk-taking in the concert hall may alienate the old-timers but would eventually bring in a whole new generation of progressive listeners.
But intelligent listeners have moved on. The risks being taken in hip-hop, jazz, and electronica (to name but a few) now far outweigh anything that’s happening in the academic concert world anyway. Furthermore, the level of musicianship in the realm of so-called “lowbrow” music now clearly surpasses all but the finest virtuosos in the classical world. Orchestras put together technically demanding programs on two rehearsals, and the bitter failed soloists that make up their ranks are content to play at a minimum level of proficiency. In contrast, even the most untrained garage bands practice for weeks before taking material to the stage, and would never be content with less than a high level of musicianship.
Oh well. Let it rot. It brought this fate upon itself, let it pay the price. The question shouldn’t be “Is classical music dying?” but rather “How much longer are we going to continue tripping over this festering carcass before someone cleans up the mess?”