Financial Times FT.com
Is classical music trying to be fashionable?
Is classical music trying to be fashionable?
By Andrew Clark
Published: May 29 2009 16:22 Last updated: June 4 2009 07:38
Published: May 29 2009 16:22 Last updated: June 4 2009 07:38
There is a lot of noise in classical music today. It’s not the noise we associate with the louder forms of pop and rock. Nor is it the noise of percussive or electronic effects that have become a significant part of the classical composer’s armoury over the past 50 years.
There's a dig if ever I've read one. I smell jackass already. I would suggest that most orchestras don't program the old school '60s idea of orchestra with tape anymore than they program much music beyond Late Romanticism. So, pop and rock are noise? I get it. Keep going, chumly, I am getting excited here.
It’s a different kind of noise – call it “noises off” – that, in the eyes and ears of hard-core classical aficionados, is threatening to drown the music. It’s the sound of classical music trying to be fashionable, relevant to the internet generation.
I know where this is going. And another dig. The internet generation? Isn't that everyone? Isn't that like saying the "automobile generation"? He's also suggesting that this is dumbing down to pander to those damn kids.
The latest example is the YouTube Orchestra, which was auditioned and selected on the web. It made its debut last month at Carnegie Hall in New York, one of the world’s most prestigious venues, after a mere two days’ rehearsal. No one in classical music dared say this was a scratch orchestra breaking a cardinal rule of the art form: the centuries-old practice of patiently creating a style and blending disparate voices, essential for the high-quality rendition of great music. No, the YouTube Orchestra was ground-breaking and reassuringly democratic. It was definitely not elitist, a word that has become fashionably pejorative but which aptly describes the creative processes underpinning all great works of art.
This is really awkward writing and smacks of an amateur out of his depth. Translation: They didn't practice enough and this shows the decline of Western civilization. And, what does elitism have to do with creativity? In other words, only a chosen few, a superior strata of society, which we dare not name ourselves to be superior, can claim to understand or appreciate great music.
Whether or not the YouTube Orchestra turns out to be a gimmick, it made a lot of noise in the media. In that respect it is part of a trend: the classical music industry has woken up to the fact that it must shout to be heard amid the competing noises of contemporary culture. That means downplaying the demands and subtleties and complexities of the art form and, instead, emphasising the things that make it look sexy: youth, cross-over, consumer choice, talent contests, downloads, the very same sales techniques used by popular culture.
There's that sense of entitlement that arises all the time in classical music. Classical music or musicians for that matter, shouldn't have to work on marketing because somehow that is beneath this majestic art form. The quality of classical music alone should bring peoples in droves to concerts. What century is this guy living in?
Has classical music suddenly become a follower, or even a victim, of fashion? The very word “classical” implies something old and immutable, far removed from passing fads and fancies as if it has always been there. Just look at the temples of performance-culture – London’s Royal Opera House, Boston’s Symphony Hall, the Vienna Musikverein, even the relatively modern Metropolitan Opera in New York – and you can’t mistake the message: these are museums of music, pillars of continuity, guardians of a repertoire that seems fixed and above fashion.
"Temples?" Is this music or religion? Oh no! Classical music may have to work a little bit to gain a younger audience. Perish the thought! We have built museums for these dusty treasures; great pillars and "guardians" of culture. What do we need to guard it against? That's no attitude that's going to bring in audiences. Museums? Is that what it is? Something to be preserved behind glass? I thought it was a living, vibrant art form still engaging people. Excuse me.
That's the trouble: fixed and relegated to a museum in some people's eyes. As one listener reportedly said, " I don't listen to any music written after 1850." There are countless examples of how the now sanctified composers were once ridiculed in their time for being charlatans or of no talent. They were not fashionable in their time. This guy needs to read more history. I think he learned about music from a cereal box.
That’s true, up to a point. The ultimate judge of this or that symphony’s quality is not a weekly pop chart or a Classic FM playlist, but posterity. Great music rises above fads and fashions. It may have been written in a style that was fashionable at the time of composition (even Mozart and Wagner built on the stylistic precepts of their age) but it is music that people have wanted to play and listen to ever since.
This is so laughable. We are preserving music for a generation not yet born. The last bastion of classical music are public radio stations. We are hands down the number one promoter of classical music. Would Little Lord Snoot be surprised to find that some stations actually use playlists and limit the rotation to a limited number of chosen pieces. Even more horrified would he be to learn that sometimes software chooses that selections based on set parameters. Sounds like a pop station or FM?
That is a popular assumption. It is not the whole truth. Looking around the world’s opera houses and concert halls today, you could easily assume Handel and Mahler have always been popular. You might also assume, from the scant recognition accorded Haydn in this anniversary year (200 years since his death), that he has always lagged behind the elite. You would be wrong.
There is no such thing as a repertoire fixed in stone.
There is no such thing as a repertoire fixed in stone.
Yes indeed there is. Just look at every major orchestra across the country and you will see the same pieces being played over and over again. Of course, there are some orchestras who take chances and play new music, but the old war horses aren't going anywhere. Haydn lagged behind the elite? What elite? The Prince for whom he was composer in residence?
Classical music may not be subject to the “here today, gone tomorrow” fashions in clothing or pop; its timelines are decades-long, rather than weekly or yearly but it is just as prone to cultural shifts and trends. Taste in classical music is a highly complex reaction involving what audiences hear and respond to, what orchestras, conductors and soloists enjoy playing, and what happens to be available. A century ago people only heard the live music of the day They listened in the concert hall or bought a piano score and played it at home. There was a single tradition, which was subject to accretions that were rejected or developed, and which then moved on. It was like a corridor with a few rooms off to the side. Today we live in a house of many floors, accessible to everyone. Thanks to the internet revolution, you can click on any type of music from the past eight centuries within 30 seconds.
What this part he wrote while he was stoned? This seems a little disjointed.
“We’ve been slow to recognise what a radical departure this is,” says Sir Nicholas Kenyon, managing director of London’s Barbican Centre. “What people are choosing from is far more random and wide-ranging than in the past. The sheer availability of it all makes people insecure because they no longer turn to a single source to dictate their taste.”
Oh no! No high minister of music to lead the dull masses to high culture? Egads! What shall we do? People have choices! I would never assume that people need to have their musical taste dictated to them. No matter how much money and marketing is thrown at an artist, people can smell a phony; even 14 year olds.
One positive result of this trend is that music with no connection to the long-familiar classical tradition can enjoy a new success, as the 12th-century composer Hildegard of Bingen has done. But there’s also a flash-in-the-pan effect, through the internet and television, that can turn any kind of music into a sudden hit. It has included an amateur opera singer winning the first Britain’s Got Talent competition, a blind soprano securing a recording contract on the back of her success in Operatunity and a comedian conducting a professional orchestra at the Proms, as Sue Perkins did last year after winning Maestro, another television talent contest.
So, internet good sometimes? But internet bad others? Mongo confused.
Exactly how this sort of overnight exposure will impact on classical music in the long term is anyone’s guess.
I'm guessing internet exposure for classical music is a great plus. There's far more there than contests. Has this guy ever done a YouTube search?
Fashion is a reflection of what excites a majority at any one time. It thrives on herd instinct, born of a fear of making individual judgments that could be exposed as “wrong”.
Seriously, is this guy from the 19th century? This has to be a hoax.
By definition it is fickle. It’s easy to be taken in by the noise, as the classical world was when record companies, on the cusp of the CD revolution and The Three Tenors, tried to market opera singers and classical instrumentalists like pop stars. For a while it succeeded, but we have since seen a return to the primacy of the live event. Classical music’s longevity gives it an advantage over popular culture: it has had time to winnow out fashions that didn’t last and turn those that did into long-term movements.
This is another prevailing attitude. Anything that is popular is lacking substance because the masses follow the lowest common denominator in culture. While this is still true at Lynrd Skynrd concerts, some things actually has substance. Domingo said of that project that as long more people came to the opera, he was happy. "Primacy" of what? Wasn't that a live concert? I have news about popular music being a flash in the pan: the Beatles Sgt.Pepper's album is 42 years old. That album will remain a landmark masterpiece for generations to come. Yes, kids, some popular music actually has substance. And oh, there's a style called jazz as well. Perhaps you need to get out a bit more.
And by the way, when Sgt. Pepper came out, one critic called it "fraudulent." Obviously another guy that liked to puff himself up.
But it is as open as any other cultural activity to changing taste. Musical history is littered with it, the concert format being one example. Unlike today’s concert-goers, who expect to be in their seats for no longer than about two hours, audiences a century ago were accustomed to four or five-hour marathons. For much of the post-war era programming was dominated by the overture-concerto-symphony format. That’s now old hat. Half a century ago no self-respecting conductor would have dreamt of speaking to the audience, or introducing the music by way of explanation. Styles of performance have also changed.
The whole world has changed buddy. Maybe you didn't get the 411. People lead extremely busy lives today with multiple choices for entertainment. You cannot compare one era to another. that's ridiculous.
Until recently no one raised an eyebrow about “arrangements” of standard masterpieces. After all, Mozart made his own version of Handel’sMessiah, Mahler re-orchestrated Schumann, Strauss altered Mozart, Schoenberg doctored Brahms.
Today, thanks to the impact of the early music movement, which stresses the primacy of source material, the composer’s writ has become sacred. The fashion now is to follow the original markings in the score, even though composers of previous generations regularly tampered with their own and others’ music. In the next 50 years musicians will probably move on to a different way of interpreting the classics, just as they will find another way of presenting them.
"the composer’s writ has become sacred" I think this is untrue. Early music ensembles include improvisation as well as scholarship. John Eliot Gardiner is bringing us a new Beethoven, Schubert, etc. Interpretation is the lifeblood of the classics. Him likes that word primacy. Must have gotten a thesaurus for his birthday.
Taste changes with the Zeitgeist. The same applies to the choice of music we play and listen to. Today Così fan tutte ranks as Mozart’s most popular opera, but for most of the 19th and early 20th centuries it was barely played. Its “modern” tale of promiscuity offended haut-bourgeois sensibilities; its music, now recognised as sublime, was dismissed by the Victorians as inferior.
Musical taste changes, what's the point? Methinks you are just showing off and off point.
Handel’s operas languished for the best part of two centuries, judged to be artificial and repetitive. Today they are all the rage.
So, let me see, sometimes people misjudge music of their own time? Really? Didn't know that. Huh.
Their revival has coincided not just with the early music boom, spotlighting the pre-1800 era, but also with the proliferation of overlooked repertoire on CD and a trend towards smaller, cleaner voices. There’s one other reason for Handel’s return to popularity in the opera house: his characters echo our 21st-century emotional dilemmas.
What emotional dilemmas? This is nonsense filler.
Just as Handel’s star has risen, others have waned. If you study the names on the façade of the Palais Garnier in Paris, you’ll find Auber, Meyerbeer, Spontini and Halévy, composers whose music appealed to mid-19th-century taste but is now gathering dust. Posterity is ruthless in weeding out music that panders to fashion.
You keep using fashion and I see anorexic women in feathered outfits strutting down a catwalk to techno. So, if a composer goes out of fashion, this is bad? I'm not sure where you are going and I'm damn sure you don't know yourself.
One of the most accurate barometers of musical taste is the BBC Proms. In the pre-first world war period, the top 10 composers by number of performances included Gounod, Mendelssohn, Liszt, Saint-Saens and Sullivan, all of whom, 100 years later, are lucky to get a single hearing in any Prom season (exceptionally, Mendelssohn gets a boost in 2009, the 200th anniversary of his birth).
Until the late 1960s Beethoven symphonies never had fewer than 40 performances in any five-year period. In the past five years there have been just 19. By the 1980s Sibelius and Tchaikovsky, previously popular, had been marginalized but Mahler and Bruckner, whose music barely featured in the first 60 years, had become a staple, reflecting a trend towards bigger, louder music. Since 2004 more Shostakovich symphonies have been played than Mahler or Beethoven. Youth orchestras and non-classical western music are an increasingly visible part of the mix, another reflection of cultural trends.
Of course, the Proms are more than an annual popularity poll. Their role is to lead taste as well as mirror it. “If we were only subject to audience taste, we’d end up with a hall of fame of 20 pieces,” says Roger Wright, director of the Proms. “A core gets repeated but we’re funded in part in order to allow us to keep the unfamiliar and the new in the mix.”
The Proms are to lead taste? I thought they were just concerts that people enjoyed. This guy is too worried. Maybe his fav composers aren't so popular on the concert stage anymore. Maybe he thinks they should have consulted him on the programming. Believe it, there are misfits out there who believe they have a God given responsibility to lead us cattle to the higher grounds of culture that we are simply incapable of discovering for ourselves.
If state subsidisation has kept orchestras and opera houses immune to sharp swings of fashion, why has taste continued to change so radically? Trends can’t exist without trendsetters, charismatic creators and communicators who capture the spirit of the times. They dominate pop and couture, but they also have a huge impact on classical musicals. Think of Leonard Bernstein waving the flag for Mahler in the 1950s, or Simon Rattle more recently awakening interest in the early 20th century Polish composer Karol Szymanowski. What started out as a fashion led to a change in taste.
Personalities can just as easily influence by intimidation. In the postwar era the widely respected, and feared, musical theorist Theodor Adorno almost single-handedly killed Sibelius’s music in Germany: there’s still a prejudice against it there.
A music theorist was feared? Must have been a badass dude. Only in Germany.
In the best, ie most discerning, areas of classical music, there is a sense of long-term growth and development. The idea that you can create an orchestra from the internet to play a five-minute piece by Chinese composer Tan Dun makes a great story, but few in the music industry see it as the future of music. What is happening is that the broad tradition of orchestras, conductors and festivals – a tradition that has evolved over 100 years and more – is trying to digest the explosive impact of technology. There’s nothing peculiar to classical music about this. Every field of life is experiencing the same thing.
Is English his first language? Seriously. If you took a random set of players from every major orchestra in the world and told them in two hours they were going to play Beethoven's 7th symphony, do you think they would be worried? Poor Tan Dun: taking one for the team.
The classical tradition won’t disappear overnight, but it may gradually morph in ways we may be slow to notice. Should we be alarmed? Will everything we value and respect start to crumble?
All because of one internet performance? Wha?
“You have to distinguish between the outer shell – the marketing and presentation – and the heart of it, the soul of the musical experience that the performer transmits to the listener. That part doesn’t change much,” says Jessica Lustig, founding partner at 21C Media Group, a New York-based arts consultancy. “The effectiveness of this communication has little to do with the outer shell, apart from encouraging people to come into the hall who might not otherwise do so.”
So, yes, change is happening faster in classical music than it did in the past, but still nothing like as fast as other forms of culture. There are continuities in classical music that we value and respect, and which make it relatively immune to short-termism. In that sense classical music remains deeply unfashionable. That’s why it has lasted.
So, no more under rehearsed YouTube orchestra at Carnegie? Is that that whole point of this blowhard, showoff, snotty little article?
Andrew Clark is the FT’s chief classical music critic
and he is a real good one as well.