Repetition in music—even though it actually does not, in a precise sense, take place—is a commonplace, if not frequently a virtue. In writing and speech, it is of rather limited value. Unfortunately, for editors, the writing of editorials, even for a quarterly scholarly publication, resembles the predicament clergy face of having to preach a sermon every week. For all the understandable desire to avoid repetition, it is impossible not to end up saying the same thing many times. But there are concerns and issues that invite constant rehearsal and justify repetition. This is especially the case when one looks at the harsh realities facing the concert and classical music traditions in the United States and the sad news of the demise of yet another institution that keep coming. On this matter, some repeated discussion of the problem and what should and could be done can be tolerated.
There is indeed an unmistakable momentum pushing the traditions of classical musical culture and music making in the concert hall that utilize the historical repertoire, including music composed in the twentieth century, to the margins of significance in our society. It would be foolish to deny it, even though the memory of an earlier time, the century before 1950—when this was otherwise—has slipped into distant history. Only 9 percent of adults in the United States report attending a classical concert in a single year. But they represent a large population and thirty years ago, the percentage was only 13 percent. The most often cited evidence of marginalization apart from such percentages is the aging of the audience and the absence of young people at concerts.
I am not certain that the audiences today are any older than those in the past, or that concerts were ever destinations for young adults or adolescents (using objective age ranges historically, correcting for expanding life expectancy, making the forty-year-old in 1900 today's sixty-five-year-old). But if, nonetheless, we are left merely with the remnants of an audience from older generations that gradually is dying out and is not replaced, and if we fail to attract younger listeners, there is clearly a problem.
The fault does not lie with the art form. There is no evidence that there could not be a growing audience that includes younger members, even children. There are more Americans alive with higher levels of formal schooling. The reasons they are not coming to concerts may range from the pricing of tickets to the programming and framing of concerts. One needs to remember, however, that in the “good old” days, during the second half of the nineteenth century and first half of the twentieth, the overwhelming emphasis in concert and musical life was on new music. The taste for little other than a selection from the historical repertoire we witness today is an unwelcome distortion of a trend that became pronounced in the second half of the twentieth century. It is encouraging to see new life in the new music scene, but it still represents only a tiny part of our concert life, particularly in orchestral concerts and in opera. And a hundred years ago, the audience was dominated by amateurs and informed enthusiasts.
In this predicament, the profession of scholarship could be of help, in the nature of the issues scholars address and the rhetoric of the work they produce. They need to realize that the readership is not particularly well schooled in music but is otherwise sophisticated. The academic community also could wield greater influence by embracing music journalism. But most important may be the manner in which scholars teach music history and theory, particularly to nonmajors, in the university classroom. We must find a persuasive way to encourage listening to classical music, to making the discovery of its complexities, varieties, and unusual reconfigurations of the experience of time alluring. A first step is to underscore that there is no proper way to listen, and that one need not know anything about music to enjoy it, just as there is nothing one needs to know about cinema to like it. Learning about it should emerge from spontaneous enthusiasm. And we should encourage all adults to play and sing. We must shed the notion that it is too late to learn how to play an instrument after the age of five or even ten.
The suspicion that the fault does not lie with the art form—that matters could be changed—is bolstered by the realization that we are faced with a large and rapidly growing cadre of fine, professionally trained musicians, perhaps the most remarkable in history. The quality audible in our conservatories is nothing short of astonishing, particularly in terms of dexterity, speed of learning, enthusiasm, range of competence, versatility, and accuracy. There are more first-class young musicians out there trained in classical musical performance than we can use. If so many young people from all over the world are eager to learn to play instruments in order to perform the standard repertoire of classical music, from J. S. Bach to Alban Berg and John Adams, why are their own contemporaries not eager to listen?
This paradox becomes more striking when one considers the benefits of recent advances in technology. There are more sound documents, videos, and published music available to more people at little or no cost than ever before. The democratization of access represented by YouTube and Petrucci should result in an easier recruitment of listeners for concerts. Any user of modern devices grasps the vast difference between the audio quality on the iPad and a live performance. And technology has made it far easier to sell tickets, communicate with our public, and provide them with information, before and after concerts. We can even use social networks to create new virtual communities of connoisseurs and audiences.
So what ought to be done? There appear to be three factors that have been powerful forces behind the seemingly steady erosion of the place of concert and classical music in America, particularly during the late twentieth century and since the turn of the twenty-first century. These are, first, a decline in patronage; second, the direction of popular mass culture, and third, the disappearance of music—indeed all the arts—from the school classroom and as a priority within the nation's education policy. A cursory look at these three reveals that in each case something might be done. If that were to happen, the process of marginalization could be reversed and our traditions of music be given a boost we might deem a new lease on life.
The traditions of music we are concerned with have always depended on patronage. They never flourished as a result of a free market driven by supply and demand, even in the early twentieth century. The commerce, once robust, surrounding classical music (inclusive of publishing and recording) between 1850 and 1950 still depended, particularly in terms of the high incomes of star performers and the impressive royalties earned by a few composers (e.g., Stravinsky and Strauss), on a firm institutional base, which in turn was dependent on patronage, private and public. Classical music, taken as a cultural and social system, was never a profit-making enterprise, even if a very few individuals became relatively rich through it. This form of music was never a business, and will never become one. Subsidy was always and will always be indispensible.
The reasons for all this are quite obvious. Music making, particularly of the orchestral and operatic variety, is and will remain labor intensive. The labor involved demands the participation of highly skilled individuals and there is no way around this; there are no technological surrogates, not even robots, in our future. And given the legitimate expectations of excellence, there is no way to reduce the cost of personnel by cutting salaries and benefits. The allure of replacing the well paid with poorly paid substitutes is short term, unless we wish to abandon the idea of music as a life-long career. Given the skill required and the demands of performance, is it really proper to strip experienced musicians of their hard-earned middle-class status in an era when the inequalities of wealth are extreme?
We need to remember that the audience has never fully paid for the cost of performance, either in an orchestral concert or an opera performance; the best prediction is that so-called earned income from tickets will continue to decline as a percentage of the budget of most performing institutions and concert venues for reasons that have been well documented by economists. In the absence of any economic efficiencies, one cannot pass the rising cost of a labor-intensive enterprise on to the consumer. Passing on the rising costs might have worked to the benefit of the privileged few in healthcare because they feel they have no choice, but in the performing arts, the shifting of the burden of higher education on to the consumer and away from the state, so pronounced since the 1980s, clearly is not working. And the model of consumer-based revenue will not work in a form of life as discretionary in terms of basic survival as the arts inevitably are. There is no sufficient elasticity in ticket prices. The acoustic nature of the art form militates against huge venues, even if one could fill them. Most of the halls built in the two decades after 1945 feel too big for the modern audience that more than ever seeks a sense of intimacy in sound and sight.
The irony is that the drying up of patronage comes at a time when the need for it has become greater and the rich have become richer, when the 1 percent at the top has more money than ever. But it appears that only a handful of the Forbes 400 (at best) can be considered music lovers, or amateurs. And an equally small number of that fabulously wealthy group are those who may not be particularly musical but still regard the musical institutions in their community as vital emblems of civic or regional pride, and therefore deserving of support. The sensibility that musical institutions are worth maintaining for civic reasons seems to be vanishing too, however. The last president of the United States to truly enjoy classical music was Jimmy Carter and he left the White House over thirty years ago.
The collapse in private patronage—which in America has been crucial to the nation's musical culture—explains why New York City Opera folded with barely any outrage. No one seems to care that the Brooklyn Philharmonic declared bankruptcy. The Minnesota Orchestra is basically gone. And these three events from 2013 follow on the heels of the closing of other orchestras (for example, Syracuse) and other groups. Hidden behind these public failures is a massive strain to survive within existing institutions. Consider the reduction, during the past decade, in the services provided by regional orchestras. Each of these offers fewer “classical” programs in each succeeding year, and reduces rehearsal time and limits the size of the orchestra, and therefore the repertoire. Orchestras and opera companies in the United States—even the Metropolitan Opera—face some degree of severe financial constraint. And this economic pressure works against any expansion of the repertoire, no matter how desirable.
In each case of failure, a finger can be pointed at some proximate cause—bad leadership, on the board or in the administration, for example. But the phenomenon of marginalization is too widespread and ubiquitous to be explained by compiling a list of incompetents. The plain fact is that if there were enough committed patrons, determined to see an opera company or orchestra succeed, they long ago would have pushed the incompetents out and found first-rate people to hire in their place. Boards would have been stronger and more generous and would not have allowed those institutions to fail. The elite within the very rich, those who set trends in the high-flying set, do not care. It all does not seem that important anymore.
If we cannot persuade those capable of major philanthropy—the new wealth that has emerged from the financial industry and technology—to invest in our musical institutions and subsidize the public culture of music, the process of decline will only accelerate. But this is precisely the time to launch a counter offensive. There is no shortage of good arguments that connect the vitality of the traditions of musical culture to the health of our social fabric, and to freedom, individuality, individual well-being, and community, thereby making a cogent case for support even from those who have no interest in music. Proper subsidy can make ticket prices reasonable, which is a precondition for any effort to rebuild the audience. The Rush Ticket program at the Metropolitan Opera should serve as an example for all institutions; its success may even prove a successful fundraising argument.
The second factor facing the traditions of music is the atrophy of a connection between commercial entertainment and the classical music tradition, particularly on Broadway and in Hollywood. Commercial films on the lives of composers were once made, and musical subjects once had their place on the screen. The American musical, in its heyday, was a flourishing bridge between popular theater and the compositional practices heard in the concert hall.
Consider two examples of popular film culture—winners of the Academy Award for Best Picture in the 1965 and 1984, respectively. In the 1960s, a commercial film version was made of Rodgers and Hammerstein's The Sound of Music. The movie is worth revisiting. Despite the embarrassing and awkward distortions of history evident in the screenplay (and the original musical), the Rodgers score reveals not only his startling skill and ingenuity but also his unabashed debt to the compositional legacy of opera, operetta, and art song. The almost unbearable sentimentalizing of the past does not obscure the fact that The Sound of Music also glorifies amateurism, singing at home, in the family and in the community. It places a musical culture with an evident debt to music history in the center of a drama in which musical traditions are aligned with loyalty, courage, and above all love. The aesthetic was entirely dependent on acoustic sound and demanded no amplification, even on the stage. Yet, the score and its attendant aesthetic, derivative of concert music and operatic practice, were enormously popular as recently as the 1960s and captured the public imagination. They appear now hopelessly dated and naïve. Nothing akin to it is likely to be produced either on Broadway or on the screen.
Exactly twenty years later, another commercially successful and popular movie was made, Milos Forman's Amadeus. This icon of the 1980s, when watched after a hiatus of almost thirty years, wears well in retrospect, despite its quite annoying qualities. The cast is impressive and the work of Neville Marriner and Twyla Tharp is memorable. At the same time, it is hard to ignore the fact that Mozart's character is a dishonest caricature. His vulgar buffoonery (despite impressive acting and an effort to complicate the silliness) is not persuasive; the characterization of Mozart's creative process lacks complexity and depth. And his genius is framed too conveniently as a freak of nature, an act of God in which Mozart becomes an unwitting scribe to fully finished music.
Salieri is diminished to being the patron saint of mediocrity (we should all be so lucky), which was hardly the case. Just because Mozart was truly exceptional never made Salieri mediocre. Among the mountain of music Salieri wrote, there is terrific work to be played and heard, as there is in the case of Czerny. The way the juxtaposition between genius and mediocrity is offered in the film turns the act of musical composition—in contrast to writing prose or poetry or painting and sculpture—into a zero sum game, an effortless task requiring little thought, criticism, or revision. The opposite is more often the case; the composition of great works is a struggle, fraught with doubt and second-guessing on the part of individuals who were not prodigies, as the examples of Schumann, Wagner, Elgar, Mahler, Puccini, and Janáček—to name a few cases—reveal. The point of Amadeus seems to be that musicality is an inexplicable gift; either you “have it” at a very young age or you do not: a great composer is most likely an “idiot savant.” If one compares this with greatness in sports, the consequences of this stereotype become clear. Even the all-time greatest sports players are seen as having to work on their skills. This inspires lesser talents to do the same. In Amadeus, the logic is corrosive of ambition: if you are not Mozart, why bother with music.
This is a shame. The film has many subtle historical touches (such as the visuals of the mental institution at the end of the film). But in the end, history takes its inevitable gratuitous beating. The musical sophistication of the class of aristocratic patrons is ridiculed (with the odd but well-chosen exception of Baron van Swieten). As in The Sound of Music, beneath the veneer of historical plausibility, there is, in Amadeus, a wild distortion of the facts. Peter Shaffer's well-crafted but heavy-handed simplification of Pushkin's ironic, economical, and fantastical verse play (in which the Mozart–Salieri relationship is constructed to suggest a veiled parallel of the rivalry between Pushkin and Lermontov) renders the film's reductive distortion of Mozart's life and death and Salieri's relationship to him even more irritating.
At the same time, the film is remarkably generous in its foregrounding of the music. Shaffer's text also eloquently expresses, through Salieri's reaction to the overwhelming humanity, profundity, and beauty of Mozart's music, the power of classical music. And the excerpt from a Salieri opera is striking, making one wish to hear more. For all its faults, the film unquestionably makes Mozart's music the heroic protagonist and communicates unabashedly the magic and centrality of classical musical culture. The film and its success were a boon for music and music history.
Watching the film one is overcome with unanticipated nostalgia. Could such a film be made today? Could a film that foregrounds our musical heritage, cast in the frame of biography and that places music in the center, ever again become as popular and then go on to win “Best Picture”? Perhaps “Wagner the Vampire”? Could a soundtrack from a commercial film so effectively repackage, in so alluring a manner, large segments of the standard repertoire and bring them to the attention of a mass public? One suspects that the answer would be no. As I noted in a previous issue, we have to be grateful instead for a failed film on Stravinsky, with an unnecessarily ill-informed and unpersuasive sound track.
The third factor that concerns us is the state of public education and the debate over what excellence in education has come to mean. In the 1980s, during Ronald Reagan's presidency, a report that decried a national tolerance of educational “mediocrity” in our schools was issued. The response to this clarion call was less than commonsensical. Dissatisfaction with our schools gave life to the privatization of public education and fueled sharp criticism of teachers and unions. It also sparked a national obsession with assessment and testing and inspired several versions of a “back-to-basics” movement in the curriculum whose latest iteration is the so-called Common Core. Running parallel to the furor about the quality of our schools, there has been, from the 1980s on but more forcefully in the past decade and especially as a result of post-2008 economic anxiety and concern over global competition, a shift away from any emphasis on the arts, particularly music, as a dimension of schooling and education. The arts are considered impractical and irrelevant. All the nation currently seems interested in is science and engineering.
One of the most persuasive indicators of how bad American schools have become are comparisons with other countries, measured by comparative data from tests. Yet throughout the entire thirty-year-long public outcry about our schools, particularly during the George W. Bush and Obama administrations, no consideration has been given to the importance of music in the school curriculum and in the life of children and young adults. The ironic surprise is that the very nations with which we compare ourselves and we lag behind in math and science—Finland, China, Korea, Japan, for example—have all presided over a remarkable growth in the prestige and investment in music education, precisely in classical Western music. This correlation has gone unnoticed. Indeed, there is reason to make the inference that a serious investment in music education, in classical Western music, might yield remarkable results in the level of achievement in schools in those areas of greatest concern: reading, mathematics, and science.
Last but not least, beyond the realm of test scores in the matter of the proper role of schools in society, there is the embarrassing example of Venezuela. El Sistema is no panacea. It does not represent a formula for imitation. It cannot be franchised in the strict sense, despite the fact that “El Sistema” programs are being started all over the world. But El Sistema merits adaptation and close emulation as a powerful approach to using music as an instrument of social change.
Over four hundred thousand children and young adults in Venezuela make their own instruments, play in ensembles and orchestras, and sing in choruses. Music education in the form of group learning and performance, at all levels, has proven itself a powerful way to alter the course of the lives of poor and disenfranchised children; it has been a force against the ravages of poverty and hopelessness. Learning to play Mozart, Beethoven, Mahler, and Shostakovich, as well as Chávez, Ginastera, and national and regional folk music, has become a route to social betterment, self-improvement, economic opportunity, and upward mobility all over Venezuela. The mechanism of change is music as a form of social action, understood as a matter of individual achievement within a collective effort that engenders public and civic pride.
We need to find an equivalent national strategy in America on behalf of the utility and significance of serious musical education, one that gives children and young people a voice, a purpose, a sense of community and public recognition, irrespective of social class. The Venezuelan experience—as its less celebrated precursors in Asia have also demonstrated—reveals that the Western traditions of music defined by the repertoire of classical music possess a power that transcends the specific culture and history from which classical music emerged. Sweden, Scotland, Austria, Korea, and Japan have begun to adapt El Sistema. We ought to do the same. But it cannot be done without some significant public support, which in the United States seems implausible given the current character of American politics. One hopes that the era of misplaced resistance to such forms of public investment can come to an end soon.
To reverse the trend toward irrelevancy we now witness as the historical trajectory of classical music, the first priority for action must be education. If we can make the case for music through education, we can then tackle the task of recruiting the requisite patronage to make our public musical life vital. Addressing the factors of education and patronage in that order will increase the probability that so-called classical music can once again—as it did in the mid-twentieth century—make an occasional though memorable cameo appearance in the mass media of popular culture and entertainment, rendering composers long dead superstars. It is no accident that the popular TV show Big Bang Theory came into being precisely when the nation became obsessed with the importance of science and engineering. Perhaps there will be a Big Sonata Form program in our future. In this dream sequence of unbridled optimism, a vital place will then open up for contemporary music and young composers, so that they might have a chance to take their place alongside the towering figures from the past, including (of course) Mozart, but, without doubt, Salieri as well.