The day the music will die

Kent Nagano, musical director of the Hamburg State Opera, recently claimed that classical music was on its way out, that it was ‘losing its social significance’. This was met by much wagging of heads and tutting that the world is going to the dogs, and that the young people don’t know what’s good for them. But is he right?

It’s not usual that I’ll accuse someone else of being pessimistic, I’m quite happy to take that duty upon myself, but this time I can’t agree with Mr Nagano. Did the sandalmakers of Rome panic that the world was going down the pan, and that with the Roman invasion of Britain that would be the end of open-toe footwear? Erm no. What will happen with classical music is the same as what will happen with everything that is worth keeping – it will adapt to survive.

In fact, it’s already doing that – and it’s been doing it for a while. What if people hankered after the music of JS Bach and refused anything new-fangled? Well there’d be no Magic Flute by Mozart for a start – and in fact anything involving a clarinet, a horn with valves, or a saxophone – or even a pianoforte as opposed to a fortepiano – would not exist. And I think we’d all agree, we’re more culturally prosperous for the fact that music has adapted to the changing world around it.

Mr Nagano cites budget cuts and technology for reasons why music will die. Budget cuts sharpen the game. When survival is harder, invention, innovation, and adaptation happen faster. Why do people not go to as many classical concerts as 80 years ago? Probably because now they’re able to hear the music in their own homes on CD or iTunes. I suspect Mr and Mrs Average have a greater fondness for classical music now than ever before. Remember Italia ’90? Remember Pavarotti? That sporting event brought Puccini to probably his most massive audience yet. And Nessun Dorma (the song) is one of those that we’re all  now familiar with. How about X Factor and the use of Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana when they start the programme? Classical music is a cultural staple. It’s not going anywhere. It’s being used in such a wide variety of settings that it is short-sighted to worry about people not going to so many concerts as before.

Every Easter weekend, the commercial radio station, ClassicFM releases its top 300 pieces of classical music chosen by its listeners. There are two interesting things about it:

  1. A lot of the pieces stay the same. If you’re not mad keen on The Lark Ascending or Rachmaninov’s second piano concerto, there’s no point bothering with the last half an hour where they unveil who’s at the top.
  2. Some of the pieces change. And what’s been really interesting has been the increase in the number of pieces from film soundtracks over the last 15 years or so, and also the inclusion of music computer games more recently.

These changes show that classical music is attaining a wider audience than ever before. EVEN computer games now!

So perhaps the concern is not regarding classical music itself, so much, as the declining demand for classical concerts. But even then, there are changes. Picnic style concerts during the summer are popular, Andre Rieu has popularised classical music as light entertainment – be as snobby as you like, he’s made it accessible and enjoyable for more people. There are classical music festivals all over the place, and concerts are taking place in all kinds of venues.

But yes, perhaps the actual ‘classical concert’ might be under pressure to change, and there might be enough people who like the status quo who will prevent that change from happening. I like classical concerts. There is nothing like watching some incredible person negotiate the intricacies of Dvorak’s cello concerto – but I know that that’s not for everyone. And culture’s a democracy; if a thing isn’t popular enough, it’ll have to change. Or leave. Perhaps in the future orchestra’s will use their funding not just for classical concerts but to work with communities to improve society through art. Julian Lloyd-Webber (cellist) is doing just that by being involved in a UK project designed along similar lines to the El Sistema project of Venezuela (Gustavo Dudamel’s baby), a programme for teaching music to children who live in the country’s slums, and described by Sir Simon Rattle as ‘the most important thing happening to classical music anywhere in the world’.

So in short, classical music doesn’t have to die. I’d argue it’s more relevant today than ever. It will need to continue adapting as it always has done. Music is fluid. There is no time in history that you can point to and say ‘THAT right there is “music”‘. It will continue changing, developing, growing – like Smetana’s river Vltava, in fact. Funny that.

Put the Don Maclean song away – here’s Gustavo ‘the Dude’ Dudamel with the Simon Bolivar Orchestra of Venezuela

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