The Nth Death of Classical Music

Earlier this year, some personalities have proclaimed (yet again) the (impending) death of classical music. Kent Nagano of the Bavarian State Opera and Montreal Symphony Orchestra has told the Kurier (a Viennese news outlet) that classical music is “in danger of losing its social significance.” Meanwhile, Robert Freeman at Austin’s College of Fine Arts has also told a somewhat similar tale to USA Today.


And so, is our kind (classical music enthusiasts) about to become extinct? Not if we continue listening to works via record players, or reading features on orchestras like at Random Life Music. Much less likely if we get a guitar, put up a home recording studio, and learn to compose ourselves. That said, how classical music is learned may be the very reason that the genre is withering.

Music Education and Jobs

According to 63 year old Kent Nagano, the dearth of music education in Western schools is the reason the art is dying. In contrast, Robert Freeman says that there are actually a lot of artists with classical music training. The problem, he says, is that there are very few jobs available for them nowadays.

The lack of jobs may have been caused by an unstable classical music industry. In 2013, the New York City Opera went out of business (there are plans to relaunch it this year, so cross your fingers). Before them, the Philadelphia Orchestra also filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, but have managed to bounce out of it in 2012. In the past few years, musician strikes have also caused troubles for symphonic orchestras of Minnesota, Atlanta and more.

But the mentality of aiming for an orchestra job only is one of the manifestations of the one real problem, says Bill Zuckerman. The true culprit, he says, is that students are taught to aspire for the same old, “homogenized” goals (e.g. an orchestra job, winning contests, waiting for career managers). And he may actually have a point.

Last year, the New York Daily News reported that classical music sales have actually exploded. Granted, the records that sold well weren’t “hardcore classical” (i.e. the nth rerecording of Mozart’s sonata or the likes). Rather, it was “crossover classical” works that kept the cash registers ringing. In other words, it was the “expanding of boundaries” that reinvigorated the classic music industry.

Sold Out or Sell Out?

Purists might say that crossing over is “selling out.” But could we say the same to rockers like Jonny Greenwood who have produced avant-garde orchestral works? Or do we have double standards?

This is not to say that classical musicians should change their sound. If a music student wants to write a fugue or a sonata, then he should do so (like what contemporary composers have done). But he should also be made aware that it’s a different, wider world out there now. Because when something limits itself, it stops growing. And if it stops growing, then it may indeed die.

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