Classical Music Imperiled: Can You Hear the Shrug?
By EDWARD ROTHSTEIN
Published: July 2, 2007
The sounds of a dying tradition are painful, particularly if the tradition’s value is still so apparent, at least to the mourners, and still so vibrant to a wide number of sympathizers. Those melancholic strains can sometimes be sensed only on the edge of awareness, sounding like faint drones, heard only in moments of silence. But they are all the more distressing if the imminent demise seems a result of previous carelessness or willful neglect.
Music unappreciation: A new book by Lawrence Kramer laments the dwindling enthusiasm for classical music and examines what could be lost.
Readers’ Opinions To what extent do you think classical music has become marginalized?
That is how I often think of the Western art-music tradition — the classical tradition — these days, and though I once tended to whine about its problems with cranky optimism, now even a stunning performance seems like a spray of flowers at a funeral.
O.K., this is a bit too melodramatic. There is no need after all to act like an extra in “A Song to Remember,” or any other cinematic biopic from an era when names like Chopin or Beethoven could still command box-office attention, an era when émigré film-score composers imported the symphonic tradition into Hollywood.
I also don’t idealize the idolatry that once enshrined the long 19th century of music (roughly 1785-1915) that forms the heart of the Western art-music tradition. But it is astonishing how little is now sensed about what might well be lost with it. And traditions do come to an end. The reading of ancient Greek and Latin — once the center of an educated person’s life — now seems as rarefied as the cultivation of exotic orchids.
The title of Lawrence Kramer’s new book, in fact, is exactly right: “Why Classical Music Still Matters” (University of California). It is the kind of title that would not have been used a generation ago, when debates about the musical scene might have involved titles more like “Why Contemporary Composers Don’t Matter” or “Why Audiences Are Stuck in the Past.”
What has changed is not how much the tradition means to its devotees, but how little it means to everyone else. From being the center of cultural aspiration, art music has become almost quaintly marginal; from being the hallmark of bourgeois accomplishment (“Someday you’ll thank me”), music lessons have become optional attempts at self-expression; from appearing on newsmagazine covers, maestros now barely rate boldface in gossip columns.
Prescriptions have been plentiful, but so many years have gone by without significant music education in the schools and musical commitment in the homes, and so many ears have gotten used to different sounds and minds to different frames of references, that the question has changed from “What can be done?” to “Why should anything be done at all?”
Why, in other words, should we care? After decades of arguments asserting that different cultures just have different ways of expressing themselves, that distinctions and assertions of value are tendentious, and that Western art music deserves no pride of place in a multicultural American society, it may be that even the problem is no longer clearly seen. The premises have shifted.
Unfortunately I don’t think the answers Mr. Kramer gives will make the difference, if any answers even can. Mr. Kramer — who teaches English literature and music at Fordham University and whose lyrical and suggestive studies of music and 19th-century culture have been fascinating contributions to recent musicology — sees the problem clearly enough. But in trying to explain the value of this repertory and its unique status he writes more like an introverted lover than an extroverted judge, more like someone gazing at its marvels from within than someone determined to articulate its virtues to a skeptical outside world.
“No other music tells us the things that this music does,” Mr. Kramer writes, but those things don’t entirely become clear in his retelling. This is not his weakness alone. When proselytizing for a nonverbal tradition, something is always lost in translation, and Mr. Kramer is sometimes too precious and allusive, given the magnitude of the task.
Nevertheless it is worth giving him close attention, and getting acquainted with his modes of expression (“Classical music allows us to grasp passing time as if it were an object or even a body”), because of the strength of his insights. He sees the ways melody (a “treasured, numinous object”) and its troubled fate become the focus of attention in so much of this music, the ways dramas of loss and recovery seem to be played out again and again, and the ways music and film reveal each other’s preoccupations.
He suggests, for example, why Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto plays so central a role in the film “Brief Encounter.” (It portrays “a deep subjectivity immune from manipulation or constraint by external forces,” he says, expressing the yearning of the narrator who recalls her star-crossed love affair.)
In Mr. Kramer’s explorations, though, one thing becomes clear: how many kinds of narratives can be extracted from the classical repertory. Theodor W. Adorno’s criticism serves as a model, examining music as an emotional, intellectual and political drama in sound. A Beethoven symphony becomes an account of attitudes toward political authority and war, or an exploration of subjective feeling in a threatening world. “An American in Paris” by Gershwin has an “undertone of dissatisfied reflection” underneath the “prevailing high spirits,” suggesting the fading spirit of the Jazz Age. The music Mr. Kramer calls classical becomes a kind of philosophical program music, recounting complex interactions between ideas and feelings.
To what extent do you think classical music has become marginalized?
The music’s ability to sustain these kinds of readings — and be illuminated by them — is a more profound achievement than it might seem. Music of this period is shaped in the form of a narrative. Even technically — in terms of harmonic movement or (as Mr. Kramer suggests) melodic processes — a 19th-century composition is literally a story in sound, telling the picaresque adventures of a theme. But it is a story so abstract that it can attract extraordinarily different metaphorical retellings. It reaches so widely because of this openness; it reaches so deeply because of its taut construction.
The stories this music tells — which involve, as Mr. Kramer notes, tales of fate and circumstance, loss and confrontation — are dramas in which listeners have found their personal experiences and sentiments echoed in sound. Many compositions are public demonstrations, displaying all the grand scale and force of communal ritual, and were written for the newly developing concert halls.
There, for the first time, the bourgeois audiences could hear something of their own lives enacted in symphonic splendor — the dramas of desirous, independent citizens, yearning, struggling, loving, brooding, recognizing, regretting, learning — ultimately bound into a single society by the more abstract society of intertwined sounds reaching their ears. Those musical stories are still our own, although in the tradition’s waning years we may, unfortunately, no longer feel compelled to listen.
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