Art music isn’t dead (yet)

How do we judge the worth of an art form? Can it be measured by album sales, or magazine covers, or the age of its participants? Is there anything else to guide our thinking? Using figures for classical music in America Mark Vanhoenacker wrote recently in answer to the question ‘Is Classical on death’s door?’ that, despite some reasons for hope, ‘Looking at the trend lines, it’s hard to hear anything other than a Requiem’. I would judge art music differently. Although it might need a bit of intensive care it’s not dead yet – really it’s an attitude transplant that’s most in need.

Mark Vanhoenacker, like many others, appears to put a lot of faith in figures relating to art music’s album sales, radio airtime, and ageing audience. I suspect that these figures are broadly similar in the UK, although they may be held in check to some extent by public services such as BBC Radio 3 and local youth music groups. Let’s be honest, figures that show art music’s inferiority in comparison to other styles should not be a surprise. ‘Popular’ music (in the broadest sense) is (obviously) defined by popularity, and therefore to a certain extent, by its accessibility – anything that doesn’t reach out to large numbers of people will struggle to be seen as pop. Art music, in contrast, has tended towards increasing difficulty, at least to the uninitiated. To pretend otherwise is pointless – once one is intiated the likes of Wagner, Boulez, and Cage can be wonderful, but it should not be a surprise that this is not the case for a beginner.

However, there are still two problems with the perspective these figures give us that I think may present reasons for optimism. Firstly, I think looking at album sales misjudges how we should value art music. Recordings are fantastic, and have changed musical culture in both the USA and UK in the last 100 years through providing easy access to huge catalogues of music. However, I believe that the best of music as an art form lies in experiencing it as live performance. Therefore information relating to performances – the number of people listening to or participating in live music – matters more than anything else. Furthermore, often when considering performances we discount amateur music, which is just as important as professional music to a vibrant musical culture (if not more important in some respects). It is figures that show huge declines in the number of art music participants of all ages across the board, not just professional music, that would be truly awful. Of course, this situtuation may already be upon us, but it is certainly true that if we are to improve our musical culture then amateur music needs further encouragement.

Secondly, I don’t really understand why the idea that art music being supported by donations, rather than run as a purely commercial business, is such a bad thing. I would say so, as I work in development, but I think the public funding the art that they experience is potentially very powerful. In fact, I would argue music has only been an ‘industry’ run in a business-like, profit driven way for a very small part of its history (beginning somewhere around the mythical figure of Josquin Desprez, and only really developing around the time of CPE Bach). Certainly it is not an inherently bad thing for music to be a non-profit enterprise.

On the other hand, I would certainly agree that art music has some serious issues, many of which I think stem from attitude problems. Instead of glorifying past ‘great’ composers and focusing on historic music we need to open up to debate and develop more truly new music (hence my use of ‘art music’ rather than ‘classical’ which partly implies historicism). Amateur music needs to be valued more highly, with greater support for community ensembles, rather than leaving performers hung out to dry when they leave school or university after years of lessons and practice. Those that do value art music need to be encouraged to support what they love beyond simply purchasing tickets, so that professional groups have sufficient funds (although vital government support also needs to be maintained). Art music needs to cease being held up as superior to any other form of music, situated on a higher plane from which its listeners gaze down at the unwashed masses below. There is great art music, and there is terrible art music and we should demonstrate that more clearly by engaging in debate and developing more truly new music (i.e. from the last ten years). Art music could also learn a lot from pop in relation to new music, as well as striking a balance between composition and performance. 

I don’t think art music is dead yet, but it certainly needs some work. Perhaps, though, we need to stop treating it as the sick elder relative of cool and trendy pop, but more as a teenager with an attitude problem, stubbornly burying its head in the sand.

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