mm185: Time for a classical music post

MUDGE’S Musings

We’ll do this a bit differently today. Slate.com has an interesting dialog going on jazz and classical music, and what people listen to.

So, go read it (perhaps even taking in some of the Fray) and come back for MUDGE‘s take.

[Please click the link below for the complete article — but then please come on back!]

Alex Ross and Ben Ratliff discuss jazz, classical and pop – Slate.com

I grew up in a house where classical music was heard everywhere, on the radio, on records, on the piano in the living room. We were taken to concerts in the rarified atmosphere of a cathedral of the arts.

So I listen to classical music most of the time. Not all of the time: Constant reader will recall the frequent references to Pandora.

In the home my children grew up with, the radio that I controlled always had classical music playing, but, of course, there was more than one radio in the house by this generation, television was much more pervasive, and the piano in the living room (the same one, appropriated rather embarrassingly one remembers ruefully) was largely silent. Piano lessons were attempted, and dropped. Live concerts were usually way beyond the budget.

So those children listen (so far as I can determine; they’ve long since established households of their own) mainly to pop. Indeed, MUDGElet No. 3 is a musician of growing accomplishment, in the modern pop vernacular of drum machines and Pro-Tools.

And so the slice of the cultural pie populated by classical music grows smaller with each generation.

But.

As alluded to in the Slate dialog, there’s more going on here than generational taste.

And as mentioned in at least one of the comments, perhaps our definition of classical music has been allowed to become too narrow.

It is MUDGE‘s contention that for a very large number of years of the 20th Century, composers of classical music stopped writing for their historic audience. And this has to do, one could theorize, with the changed musical food chain.

As someone commented more or less accurately, for many hundreds of years composers had patrons: first, the Catholic church and later, well into the 19th Century, secular sources of funding: royalty and the wealthy.

Times changed, and composers had to find new safe havens, and found them: academia. So composers wrote to suit these new patrons, their fellow academics. And the broad audience was left out.

Schoenberg could be angry at his concert audiences (as noted in the Slate dialog), but his later works, and the works of those he mentored and influenced, seem to have been academic exercises and barely tried, and hardly succeeded, to connect to that audience.

So, no wonder the audience is apparently dwindling. Much as one might love listening to the “Three B’s”, and Mozart and Schumann and Mahler, and Handel and Berlioz, it’s old music, written for the clerics and the princes and the audiences of a time long past.

The most listenable of the composers of the 20th Century: Stravinsky (some), Prokofiev, Shoshtakovich (hmm, Russians); Copland and Gershwin and Bernstein; wrote in the idiom of an earlier time, and thus stretched the audience instead of confronting it. But still, by now, old.

Who is writing serious orchestral music for today’s listener?

A few have been successful. John Adams (who I confess I haven’t much appreciated); Philip Glass (who I do).

But Glass’s example leads to the second point I was about to make: many of his most successful and approachable works are music written for film.

Film producers and directors might almost be considered the successors of the churchly and princely patrons of music of an older age. And yes, at least one of the comments to the Slate story touches on this.

Early filmmakers even drafted European serious composers to add gravitas to their popular art, Korngold being for me the most potent example.

Hitchcock’s suspense would have been much less so without Bernard Herrmann’s scores.

Jerry Goldsmith; John Williams; the master, Ennio Morricone; Philip Glass himself; and recent upstarts like Hans Zimmer, James Horner and Danny Elfman: all wrote or are writing music that was commissioned to meet a specific storytelling purpose, but many of their scores provide wonderful entertainment listened to on disc without the film, and I’m certain entertains surprisingly well in the concert hall, if anyone is so bold as to program it.

Thus, the point. People in the millions are listening to classical music (i.e., music written using a most traditional tool — the symphony orchestra — to help tell a story) daily, only in the form of scores for films, in movie theatres and home theatres and on iPods and laptops.

So classical music hasn’t died, isn’t dead or dying.

It’s just made the journey to the 21st Century in order to reconnect with its audience, if not the academic establishment that held it captive for so many barren years.

And that makes classical music bigger than ever.

It’s it for now. Thanks,

–MUDGE

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3 Responses to mm185: Time for a classical music post

  1. […] know (and you might, faithful reader from posts like this one and especially here) of my general interest in serious (classical) music, and my mature years dismay (as a youngster I […]

  2. […] Svt’s interest in serious music has been documented in the space several times (among them: here, here, here and most hilariously, […]

  3. Brittni Yuan says:

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