'The Crisis in Contemporary Classical Music' / Catherine Dixon
At a recent Q&A, composer Judith Weir posed an interesting question: in a digital age where music is more accessible than ever, why isn’t contemporary classical music more popular? Paradoxically, the accessibility Weir was referring to is part of the problem: with music constantly played as the backing track to our lives, how can we expect an audience of curious listeners?
The rise of recording and broadcasting in the early 20th century not only affected how we hear music, but also how we participate in music. A century ago the best way to hear music, if not in concert, was to physically play it yourself. The piano duet was an especially popular medium, and a huge number of orchestral and even operatic works were arranged for piano four hands. Now that this is no longer necessary, keyboard facility is mostly limited to professional musicians, with far fewer amateur performers. Unfortunately, this has made musical education seem less relevant to the majority. In Britain, The Times reported a 15% decline in GCSE entries in music in the last 2 years, whilst the option to take music at A-level is increasingly being dropped from schools. The music director of the Royal Opera House, Sir Antonio Pappano, was quoted saying ‘music should be the birth right of every child but it is fast becoming the preserve of the elite’.
Part of the problem is classical music’s unhealthy infatuation with the past. Before Beethoven, music generally wasn’t performed after a composer’s death. Beethoven took a unique interest in the way that his music would be approached after his death. He set about correcting the mistakes in previous editions to create an authoritative edition of his scores for future performers and gave only his major works ‘Opus’ numbers. It was only shortly after Beethoven’s death that Bach’s music was revived by Felix Mendelssohn with a concert performance of the St. Matthew Passion (before then his works were only known to music students and connoisseurs). Thus began the ‘canon’ of Western classical music. Works accepted into the canon are generally accepted as masterpieces - the works mass audiences really want to hear - and so intolerance to new works developed. As early as 1859, at the premiere of Brahms's First Piano Concerto, a critic said: ‘new works do not succeed in Leipzig’.
Conversely, this intimidating awareness of the past urges composers to be original at all costs, endorsing the idea that in order to be progressive, new music should be hard to understand. For example, romantic historians often downplayed the successes of premieres of Beethoven’s music, contributing to the myth that he was an under-appreciated genius. The majority of performances today are of the ‘classics’, resulting in an audience critical of performance and interpretation, but not critical of the music itself. To fully examine this issue, it would be imprudent not to consider that the music itself may be part of the problem.
At the beginning of the 20th century composers started writing in a way that was self-consciously avant-garde. Schoenberg, for example, was very aware of the importance of his divorce from tonality. On receiving the Freedom of the Borough of Aldeburgh award, Benjamin Britten stated that a ‘gulf between the public and the serious artist…has helped to encourage a deep-seated philistinism about the arts.’ He strongly believed that an artist should work for, and as part of, their community, and that this has become ‘rarer and rarer’ in the last century. He argued that: ‘this has made a great deal of modern works obscure and impractical — only useable by highly skilled performers, and only understandable by the most erudite...I am against experiment for experiment’s sake; originality at all costs.’
Classical music is an engaging and stimulating art form. It brings people together, often in large ensembles. It has the potential to build social cohesion and to instil a sense of community and fulfilment. The 20th century brought about extensive changes in how we appreciate and interact with music, whilst the music itself was undergoing drastic changes, resulting in a rift between the ‘serious’ artist and the general public. If contemporary classical music is going to re-enter the mainstream (indeed, if it wants to), we must tackle the issue of excessive professionalism in the arts and rekindle the amateur classical music scene.
Cover image: Harry Burmeister