Friday, August 26, 2016

The Problem of Classical Music

What is the problem of classical music? This question is usually approached in some of the following ways:

  • classical musicians have to learn to be entrepreneurial and market themselves more like pop musicians
  • classical music has to be more progressive and leave behind its more outdated traditions and practices
  • the history of classical music has to be "problematized", that is, the misogyny, racism and classism of it has to be revealed
  • the rigid boundaries of classical music have to be erased, enabling more creative collaborations with other musicians and an appeal to a wider audience
and so on. I think that examining these ways of looking at the "problem" of classical music might reveal what the real problem is.

First of all, we need to make an important distinction: there are two sorts of people proposing these ways of looking at the problem. There are administrators, agents, record companies and impresarios who represent the business of classical music. Like any business leaders, they see their role as increasing sales while controlling costs. To them, selling classical music is hardly different from selling frozen fish sticks. The other sort are educators, professors and music teachers. This category includes everything from band teachers to private music teachers to people teaching music appreciation in college to professors of music theory and musicology at university. Some of them are simply practical musicians, passing on knowledge, but the ones at the top are part of higher education in the humanities, which means that a very large percentage of them are part of the Gramscian march through the institutions, that is, their agenda is basically one of cultural Marxism, which they think of as being "progressive."

Antonio Gramsci's theory of cultural hegemony, that I just linked to, is superficially quite persuasive, though at the end of the day no more appealing than economic Marxism, which universally reduces every society in which it is tried to appalling poverty with the exception of a small class of very wealthy commissars (Hugo Chavez' daughter is the wealthiest woman in Latin America, while ordinary Venezuelans starve)! The real advantage of Marxism, both economically and culturally, is to provide very powerful tools for cynical seekers of power to manipulate the society of which they are a part. I am not going to provide an argument for these claims as this is not the place, instead I would just reference the writings of F. A. Hayek and Paul Johnson, who have expressed them pretty clearly.

What I do want to do is analyze the "problems" of classical music, as they are typically stated, from the point of view of examining the motives of the people who provide them. Business people, of course, are interested fundamentally in profit and who can blame them? Business is the practice of providing goods and services that people want at a price they find attractive. The trick is to not go broke doing it and, in fact, make a nice profit. Classical music, of course, is the poster child for a very difficult, if not impossible, business. Opera and symphony concerts have never, NEVER been profitable in their entire history, if they are looked at purely in terms of ticket sales. Opera was born in Florence as a gala celebration of the nobility. The symphony was also a celebration of the nobility. Most of Haydn's 106 symphonies were composed while he was in service to Prince Nikolas Esterházy and premiered in the concert hall at his estate to an audience of perhaps a dozen people--fewer than were playing onstage! Opera is a fiendishly expensive project that has almost always been funded either by the nobility or by the state, in modern Europe. It would be an interesting project to do a financial analysis of how Broadway musicals are able to be profitable, given their costs, but that is a project for another day (and probably someone else!).

That leaves us with the other important group: those leading academic figures who, over the last few decades, have successfully been transforming the humanities in academia from a role of passing on the great cultural heritage of the West, to essentially deconstructing it by characterizing it as a history of hegemony and the influence of power.

What is missing from both these models, the business model and the political model, is music as an art form, as an aesthetic object. Yes, music can make money and it can influence people, but in both instances, it does so as an art form, an aesthetic object.

Given that, I think it is pretty clear that all of the typical ways of describing the problem of classical music are flawed and missing the point. Academics are placed in a particularly keen dilemma as their true agenda, to fight the cultural hegemony of capitalism, means that they run straight into the fact that nearly all the great music of Western civilization was produced by people who were in service to the nobility or composing for the most highly educated people of their societies. This means that classical music, politically, is nothing more than a tool of hegemony. It therefore needs to be destroyed! Well, that's an awkward position to take if your job is teaching music history, isn't it?

But the business people also are in a bit of a bind. The best way to make classical music profitable is to model it after pop music, hence the appeal of "crossover". But if you do that in any sort of thorough way, many of the most powerful aesthetic traditions of classical music will wither away. It has to be acknowledged that there is no situation in which more than a very small percentage of the listening public will be able to appreciate classical music to a significant extent.

What saves classical music from the Scylla and Charybdis of these two approaches to the "problem" is likely the simple realities of the music itself. There are a lot of truly great pieces of music out there and we are perhaps more aware of them, and the whole history of classical music generally, than ever before. There are a large number of gifted and well-trained musicians in the world, giving outstanding performances of this music, again perhaps more than ever before. The music is widely available to anyone with access to the internet. Musicians discover that in order to play the music with the technique and aesthetic qualities it deserves, they have to work very hard in a disciplined way, essentially following in the traditions of expertise that have been developed over centuries. All these factors together put the lie to both the pure business model and the pure political model.

Great music is great and sounds great, and every well-played concert demonstrates without a shadow of a doubt that it is not the equivalent of frozen fish sticks, nor is it some kind of political brainwashing. We all know this, actually, so the arguments to the contrary will always fail if you look at them closely.

For our envoi today, a musician who has always disdained both the economic and the political, Grigory Sokolov playing "La Poule" by Jean-Philippe Rameau:

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