Composers Forum is a daily web log that allows invited contemporary composers to share their thoughts and ideas on any topic that interests them--from the ethereal, like how new music gets created, music history, theory, performance, other composers, alive or dead, to the mundane, like getting works played and recorded and the joys of teaching. If you're a professional composer and would like to participate, send us an e-mail.

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Friday, April 14, 2006
The Decline and Fall of the Classical Empire

There's been a bit of a blogospheric kerfuffle surrounding Steve Metcalf's April 12 piece at New Music Box. Alex Ross says it's "very smart," AC Douglas says Metcalf's points don't add "anything new to the conversation," Lisa Hirsch is all about iPods, Lisa and ACD aren't on speaking terms any more, Ali Marcus thinks the Germans got too big for their britches, and so on. Each of them gets some of it right and some of it wrong, but I think all of them suffer from an incomplete understanding of the underlying forces at work.

The real "problem" started somewhere in the 19th century with the rise of the middle class. For centuries, the upper class was both a financial class and a social class, and was presumed by the culture as a whole to be culturally superior to the lower class. The industrial revolution begat the origins of modern capitalism and modern bureocracy, which in turn opened up opportunities for the working class to attain management positions, own businesses, and move themselves up the economic ladder. The middle class grew, but the prevailing attitude was that the people who bettered themselves economically did so because they were culturally superior -- that they were more thrifty, more self-reliant, more hard-working. As much of the titled nobility lost their fortunes in the new market economy, the nouveau riche often married their children to the children of the poor nobility in order to get titles for their families. In short, the prevailing attitude was that the social upper class was culturally superior, and so the burgeoning financial middle and upper class aspired to be social upper class. Classical Music was the music of the social upper class, and general belief in the superiority of upper class culture, combined with the newfound social mobility made Classical Music very popular among the middle class. Lisa Hirsch says "There was a mass audience for new music in the 18th and 19th centuries, because there was much less of a distinction between popular music and what we now call classical music," but the key factor was really that the mass audience believed in the superiority Classical music over popular music.

As time wore on, the financial middle class got larger and more economically powerful and the financial upper class became more and more populated with nouveau riche, and the power of the social upper class began to wane. Plus, even the lower class began to have enough disposable income that selling entertainment to them became a good business. The growth of mass production combined with a large middle class meant that selling a million cheap items to a million people rather than a few expensive items to a few rich people was a good business, and the mass media made advertising to the middle class the smart business model. The mass media created a large, homogenized culture based on the financial middle class, and that culture became more and more dominant. The desire of the financial middle class to be socially upper class began to wane, and a culture of the social middle class emerged which was based heavily in the culture of the social lower class from whence they had come. The single most important factor in the decline of Classical Music is that it is seen by society as the music of the social upper class, but belief in the superiority of the social upper class has declined and been replaced by a belief in the superiority of the cultural middle class. Nowadays the middle class doesn't aspire to join the social upper class, they merely aspire to be rich. Popular music, the music of the social middle class, rose to prominance because it was built by and for the financial middle class at a time when they were beginning to lose their belief in the superiority of the social upper class, right before the arrival of the Baby Boomers, which was a giant, dissaffected bump in the population of the middle class.

Classical music education is declining because people don't believe that indoctrinating kids into believing in the superiority of the music of the social upper class is important, and because those who do believe it are drowned out by the dominant cultural attitudes. AC Douglas is right in the sense that if you believe in indoctrinating kids into elitist beliefs you have to start your brainwashing as young as possible -- but Alex is right since if your goal isn't an aggressive brainwashing campaign music education is a small drop in a big bucket. The iPod is an important development in terms of increasing opportunities for people to get exposed to Classical Music, but without a change in the underlying cultural beliefs the music that gets downloaded onto the iPods will be viewed as exceptions to the "classical music sucks" rule. Having more classical music superstars is tricky -- Yo-Yo Ma's stardom follows the exception-to-the-rule model, and I suspect that manufacturing more stars would only create more exceptions to the rule, but it might be that once you reach critical mass the underlying cultural problem would be cured. Either way, you can't manufacture stars without the cooperation of the mass media, and our mass media has bought into the "classical music is elitist" narrative and won't do it.

Neither Classical Music education, nor the iPod, nor the manufacture of more stars is the silver bullet. Contra AC Douglas, it's not the case that Classical music has a "fundamentally elite nature;" in fact making that argument merely reinforces the popular attitude that classical music can safely be ignored. And contra Alex Ross, "the real problem" isn't that "tickets are far too expensive," even though they are and it's certainly a real problem. And Ali Marcus is on the right track, but mistakes a symptom, "19th century-era canonization of the western Germanic tradition," for the problem. The solution is to change the culture as a whole so that Classical music is no longer seen as the music of an elitist social upper class. I don't know what this solution looks like, but accurately understanding the underlying problem is the first step.

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