Doom Bull

It seems that not a fortnight can go by without some prominent figure in the classical music world predicting doom for all classical music within an arbitrary, short period of time. The latest candidate is the conductor Kent Nagano, in an interview with Kurier magazine (German), and the timespan in question is “a generation”. The culprits are the usual, including music education and today’s youth seeing classical music as being “of the past”. (Those things are not unconnected, as I’ll explore below.)

Inevitably, these claims get a pile-on of support and well-practised drum-banging. Writers on comment threads get on their favourite hobby horses, asserting that music education standards have declined, that young people just don’t care for some reason. It gives readers the self-important feeling that they’re the last bastion of cultural hope, that they’re standing on the deck of the Titanic.

“Most 12 year olds,” asserts a commenter on this Classic FM post, “could not name a great composer”. Does the commenter really think that working class kids a hundred years ago had a better music education than they do now? I’d be stunned if the proportion of kids who can’t name a great composer isn’t pretty much the same today as it’s ever been. But today those kids have a voice in society; a hundred years ago, they didn’t. A free general education for all children has only been available in its modern form since World War I. Music education as a part of that has thus only been available at all to most children for a hundred years or so. The belief that we’ve come out of some idyllic time where children had a great music education is nostalgic, and it’s cuckoo.

That’s not to say there’s no room for improvement in the way music is taught. It’s hardly surprising, as Nagano also asserts, that young people see classical music as belonging to the past, when so many music curricula focus almost exclusively on dead composers. In a lot of syllabi, even “modern” classical is given to mean music written in the early twentieth century (with maybe a nod to minimalists, and a brief mention of a couple of the other schools). There seems to be a fear that students would have a hard time with more “difficult” modern music. In my experience, precisely the opposite is true. Students are often far more receptive to Ligeti, Cage, and Pärt than they are to Beethoven, Bach, and Mozart. Music students, like most people who are interested in music, want to explore new sounds, and sounds that are relevant to life today. It’s teachers who are wary of modern music, not students.

If young people see classical music as belonging to the past, that’s not in spite of music education, it’s because of music education.

In 2010, Roger Ebert tweeted: “Young people should above all be taught to read with pleasure. Everything else will follow.” The same goes for music. When children are told to respect the great composers, when they’re dragged through the structure of the music without seeing why it’s marvellous, it’s no wonder that they leave class and listen to Justin Bieber. It’s like a Shakespeare class that only teaches about the metre of the lines, and never the humans in the plays.

Show students something to like in John Cage, even if it’s not as deep an analysis, and you’ll make some fans who can find their own way around.[1]

My controversial assertion is that classical music isn’t about to die. Nothing that’s loved disappears completely, as long as there are people to remember it—and art is particularly hard to kill. The Seikilos epitaph—the oldest complete piece of music known—was written two thousand years ago, and finding recordings of it is trivial. Classical music flowered in the Soviet Union: far from being crushed, it proved some of the most passionate, subtle rebellion against the authorities. Are we really going to see it extinguished in the technological age? And even if, somehow, every classical music performer, composer, and teacher vanished from the face of the earth, there are still recordings, and there is still sheet music, and there are still countless books and treatises. Some day, someone would find Beethoven’s third symphony, and it would change that person’s life. And it would all start again.

The Kurier article closes with Nagano arguing passionately for classical music, and with a more positive tone:

Especially in this unbelievably complicated world which young human beings today are born into, classical music can help. Help to dream, to think.[2]

He obviously means well here, but I think that this kind of crusade is wrong-headed, and is partly causing the problems. Classical music isn’t suffering because it’s elitist—not wholly, at any rate. Lots of things that are seen as elitist are doing just fine today: Apple computers; BMW cars; good quality typography.

I see this a lot in classical music apologetics, and it always seems to me that those selling it are trying to classify the music as a vegetable: “Listen to classical music because it’s good for you.” I’ve been interested in classical music my whole life and it’s never once been because it expands my mind or gives my brain a full-body workout. It’s because I enjoy it.

Don’t listen to classical music because it’s good for you. Listen to classical music because it’s good.

Update: It’s been pointed out to me that in the Kurier interview, Nagano says he’s worried about classical music losing its cultural significance. Nagano was really just a jumping-off point for me to write about something I see a lot in classical commentary: the “last bastion” mentality that sees classical music’s few stalwart defenders, well, complaining about everything. Though I misunderstood part of what Nagano was saying, my arguments were more general, and I stand by them: for classical music to have relevance to culture, and especially to young people, they need to discover what there is to love in it, and far more time should be given to teaching and performing contemporary music.

As for the cultural significance of classical music, that’s been changing for six hundred years, and it’s going to keep changing, as culture and society change. Only by resisting change, by trying to be significant to a culture that’s moved away from it, will it be lost.

  1. I recently explained the thinking behind 4′33″ and the instrumentation of Water Walk to a class of three adolescent students, and played them extracts of both pieces. Two were nonplussed, but the third has come back to me several times and asked for the names of other pieces by Cage. None of the students was cynical or dismissive of the music, the way I’ve found a lot of adults to be.  ↩
  2. Many thanks to M.T. for the translation.  ↩