06 November 2005

The Death of the Death of Classical Music*

*The title is a quote by Alex Ross. See the penultimate line of this entry for its context.

Those who say that classical music is losing its popularity in today's society may be probing at a deeper issue: that our methods of musical communication might have to be continually evaluated as we embrace new cultural changes.

I believe that classical music is as relevant today as ever. Its place in our society is largely centered around how we communicate it and make it pertinent to the culture around us. I don't mean that we should "dumb it down" so to speak, but I do think that we should evaluate how to make it accessible via ticket prices, performance venues, viable programming to relate to audiences, online streaming, etc.

I point you to a great posting by Alex Ross, for more thoughts on the issue:

"Drew McManus directed me toward some startling statistics on orchestra ticket prices, which appeared in a recent piece by Peter Dobrin of the Philadelphia Inquirer. To quote:
If interest in classical in waning, why then, when BBC Radio 3 offered Beethoven symphonies online a few months ago, did Beethoven draw an astonishing 1,369,893 downloads? How can we downgrade classical to esoteric when the Philadelphia Orchestra drew an estimated 8,000 listeners for its neighborhood concert at Montgomery County Community College in July? That's three times the capacity of Verizon Hall. What these two happy events have in common is a characteristic that's inconvenient for classical music presenters to consider: Both were free....

Given the escalation of ticket prices for orchestral concerts in the last few decades, plus the expanding number of entertainment options, the mystery in classical music is why times aren't even tougher than they are. Quite by accident a couple of months ago, I came across a routine Philadelphia Orchestra press release from Nov. 23, 1975, announcing a subscription program. Tickets were listed at $2, $3.50, $4, $4.50, $5, $7, $7.50, $8 - with the top ticket price a big $8.50. A complete listing for the season shows the highest ticket for a regular subscription concert was $10.50. Converted into 2005 dollars, that would mean the top ticket price to hear the Philadelphia Orchestra today should be $39.33.

Of course, it's not. The highest ticket price next season will be $122 - an escalation three times the inflation rate.
The whole piece is worth reading. Dobrin acknowledges the difficulty of bringing ticket prices back down, but urges that something be done to make concerts more affordable. Expensive marketing ventures might turn out to be utterly unnecessary if people had to pay less. See Marc Geelhoed for broader thoughts on current orchestra issues."

Now for a personal experience. In July, my Schumann quintet performed once at our music festival on the "rising artist" series, and then again at a local nursing home. It was the latter that proved the most fulfilling for me and for the ensemble. We were not on a stage, but rather in a living-room like set-up, the way that salon concerts were back in the day. Much to my excitement, the audience clapped when they felt moved (in between the first and second movement). The reception that followed afforded us oppurtunities to talk with the audience about music and life. They were very inquisitive folks. Their questions ranged from asking if I was the "director" of the quintet from the piano to where we were from. In many ways, the time afterward was just as important as the concert itself. The audience wanted to engage in some sort of communication.

As a poor student, I fully understand the difficulties in only performing concerts of this sort, that is, concerts with the sole purpose of engaging the listener and communicating ideas, regardless of pay or benefits. I think the ultimate goal is to somehow incorporate this idea into a career or lifestyle. What if orchestras centered their core values and goals around artistic integrity and communication? Might financial concerns be cared for if the community (through who much of the grants and donations is generated) was more engaged in orchestral affairs? The community at large seemed to be engaged in classical music in previous years, perhaps a function of both the composers and the public. Bach only composed in German, in the vernacular, the language of the people, to much success. Haydn and Beethoven's music moved the public so much that they ascribed programmatic names to some of his works. The fact that we would care enough about the music and care enough about others to want to communicate it, I believe, is so powerful.

Another awesome entry from Alex Ross on the popularity of classical music:

"Via ArtsJournal, a good piece by Marc Shulgold on classical downloading. Shulgold writes: 'Naturally, we're not talking huge volume here: According to [Naxos's Mark] Berry, classical downloads account for only about 6 percent of the total of all music downloaded on the Internet.' But note: classical music has had 3 percent of the CD market in recent years. So it's twice as popular on the Internet, and growing. The death of the death of classical music continues. By the way, Naxos's $19.95 offer — which gives you Internet access to their entire catalogue for a year — is quite a deal."


At 8:44 PM, Anonymous josh gates said...

:) Of course, evaluating methods of musical communication is difficult, given that music is not communication! Expression? depends on the performer's/composer's motives. Engenders reactions? sure, depending on the listener. Communicates? nah. :)

At 10:06 PM, Blogger EmmaSometimes said...

You are so right. My children have been exposed to classical music since they were babies. They love classical because they are given an opportunity to hear it. And don't even get me started on the Public School system paring away at music and art classes. I believe this problem starts in the schools.

I am sure that if there was far more exposure to the younger generations, this genre of music would be far more intriguing. Our big city, next door (hop and a skip) has but one classical station and more top 40 or R&B than you can choke on. More evidence of losing the younger generation.

At 10:39 PM, Blogger Sophia said...

Oh, Josh. This reminds me of our conversations this summer. :)

If you look up the word "expression" at dictionary.com, the second definition it gives is "Something that expresses or communicates". Check it out :


We may never agree on this, but that's OK. :)

At 10:45 PM, Blogger Sophia said...

Hello, Jenny Bee!

Thanks for your comment. There are indeed many top 40 stations. I must admit though, I do listen to them sometimes... :)

However, I do wish there were more classical music stations, and yes, definitely more active exposure of it to kids, especially in school. Sounds like you're doing a wonderful job with your children. :)

At 11:39 PM, Blogger Graham said...

Excellent post Sophia :). The problem I find with classical music is that because I'm a bit of a philistine I don't really know where to begin. I like the obvious stuff, Barber's Adagio, that Raging Bull anthem, Mascagni or something, + Rodrigo's Concerto De Aranjuez (or however you spell it)... but, it's quite a complicated learning curve trying out different things. I think everyone should get a designated classical music buddy to help them make good choices about what they're looking for.

Hope you're doing good Sophia :).

At 10:06 AM, Blogger Sophia said...

Hey, Graham!

Thanks for the comment.

Yes, it is a complicated process sorting through all the classical music out there; I'll be your classical music buddy! :)

I guess, just like anything else, the best thing to do is experiment and find out what you really like. I, for one, don't necessarily like everything that I "should" like as a classical musician.


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