Let me turn all this around. I think that classical music is in great shape. There are wonderfully talented young musicians all over the place. The standards of concert performance are higher than ever. There are all sorts of new recordings appearing all the time of well-considered interpretations of the core repertoire as well as discoveries of out of the way repertoire. We live in a time of a wealth of music. You could go to YouTube and just browse for hours.
So why all the worries? The problem seems to be related to popular music. Ever since the 60s popular music has had an ever-growing economic clout to the point that it has come to dwarf classical music. There are pop musicians like Paul McCartney that are billionaires. Others, like Beyoncé and Jay-Z are close to being billionaires. UPDATE: There are NO classical musicians who are billionaires and precious few who are millionaires. A look at the personal wealth of a typical contemporary composer would probably be embarrassing! Pop music dominates all mass media to the point that even very prestigious institutions like the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal barely acknowledge the existence of classical music. In the New York Times' annual tribute to the musicians that have passed away in the year, they consistently omit classical musicians. Last year this meant ignoring the deaths of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Gustav Leonhardt and Elliot Carter. I would say that there was an element of cultural imperialism here making it easy to pay hommage to drummers of obscure American 60s bands while ignoring the death of one of the greatest singers who ever lived because he was German (or one of the greatest keyboard players because he was Dutch), but the New York Times is equally prepared to ignore the death of one of the most important American composers of the 20th century, so it is simply prejudice against the music, not the nationality.
Here is my take on this: it is the mass audiences that are the real problem. They are stupider and crasser than ever and their choices are what drive the economics of music. In the 19th century the decline of the aristocracy and the growth and liberation of the middle class served to pump tremendous energy and economic resources into classical music. Popular and folk musics existed everywhere, but no-one took them too seriously and they were an insignificant economic force. If composers like Brahms or Liszt used folk melodies in a piece it was considered to 'elevate' the material. The economics of music since the middle of the last century seem to have elevated the tastes of another group. Instead of a middle class emulating the sophistication of a disappearing aristocracy, it is rather the case of all groups in society adopting the tastes of the least-sophisticated. What I believe Frank Zappa referred to as the metaphorical fourteen-year old girl from Cleveland. I can't find the exact quote, but here is something similar from Frank: "Some scientists claim that hydrogen, because it is so plentiful, is the basic building block of the universe. I dispute that. I say there is more stupidity than hydrogen, and that is the basic building block of the universe."
Who wants to argue with Frank Zappa, who also said that "Most rock journalism is people who can't write, interviewing people who can't talk, for people who can't read." Obviously a wise man. I hate to blame them because I do love their music, but the Beatles probably had a lot to do with this. I think they were intelligent, creative musicians, but they created an economic environment that other, much less-talented musicians, could exploit. And that is the world we are now living in. Here is an example:
Everything about that is as hackneyed, crass and as fundamentally stupid as possible. At least until somebody comes up with something even worse, next week!
We have to admit, though, that classical music has also been its own worst enemy. One of the best places for news and coverage of classical music in the mass media is the Guardian's classical music section. They have an on-going series of articles on contemporary composers that has been an excellent guide for listeners. The most recent one, on Alexander Goehr, captures some of what went wrong with the avant-garde. As quoted in the article, Goehr has written that
the music sanctioned by Boulez's ideological approach to serialism would mean "a conscious elimination of sensuous, dramatic or expressive elements, indeed of everything that in the popular view constitutes music".Yes, the sad truth seems to be that, for career and ideological reasons, quite a number of the most 'progressive' composers in the last century found it necessary to destroy those aspects of music that the ordinary listener found appealing. No wonder the Beatles and their successors found it pretty easy to take over the whole show.
So now we have reached the point where real classical music has very little prestige in the public view. Classical musicians are rarely seen or heard outside of their little niche environment and highly prestigious concert series, like the one held at the White House and broadcast on PBS, feature no classical musicians anymore. The next one will be devoted to "Memphis soul". Honestly, I have nothing against Memphis soul, but at the same time, to present Justin Timberlake and Queen Latifah as the best in music is unfortunate. True, by focusing on pop music only, it is possible for the US to claim cultural leadership in the world, which is nice and nationalistic, but it is a tad absurd to ignore even outstanding American classical composers like Steve Reich, let alone all those other ones who don't happen to be American.
But we can't really blame the politicians either, even though they used to have great artists like Mstislav Rostropovich and Andres Segovia perform at the White House. Politicians are responding to popular taste. It is the popular taste that is the problem.
Because it would destroy their careers, classical musicians really can't say this in public, but all you folks out there? You have truly awful taste in music. Grow up! Quit listening to crap like Ke$ha and discover what real music sounds like. As Frank Zappa has said, "Most people wouldn't know music if it came up and bit them on the ass."
Ok, now let's listen to some real music. Here is the first movement of the piano sonata op 111 by Beethoven, performed by Daniel Barenboim: