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May 12, 2005

The end of classical music

A few days ago, I was in the car and listening to a performance on the radio of Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody #2 on piano. It's a hokey piece, but a lot of fun in its own way. I'm a little more familiar with the orchestral arrangement, but there's something about the piano version you've got to love -- imagining Lizst writing a piece to show off his own technique knowing that nearly no one else could play it right, or at all.

And, naturally, I also started thinking of Bugs Bunny. All fans of Bugs Bunny know that the Hungarian Rhapsody #2 was used in more than one BB cartoon. There's a list of classical music used in Warner Brothers cartoons here. Which is interesting for what it says about changes in our shared culture. Sixty years ago, cartoons featured spoofs of classical music and opera. The assumption must have been that most educated people had some knowledge of those genres. I can't imagine anyone harboring that idea today.

To say classical music is in peril today is not news. My wife and I attend a series of chamber music at the JCC of Greater Washington, and we often repeat the joke that the average age of people at the concerts is deceased. My wife optimistically observes that young first-generation Asian-Americans will save the day, and she may be right, although it sure is strange that interest in classical music is so strong in a non-European subculture.

All of these thoughts led me to read Terry Teachout's essay in the April 2005 Commentary magazine (which unfortunately is no longer online) entitled "Singing the Classical-Music Blues," an article-length review of Joseph Horowitz's book Classical Music in America: A History of Its Rise and Fall. I haven't read Horowitz's book, but Teachout quotes Horowitz's view that classical music in America failed because Americans, unlike Europeans, "worshipped musical masterpieces and deified their exponents" and because American musical culture was "less about music composed by Americans than about American concerts of music composed by Europeans" -- that is, it was "culture of performance." Because it was a culture of performance, by the time we began to produce our own distinctive classical music, the culture was already locked up. Orchestras were playing the same European masterpieces. It was hard to persuade them to feature American music.

I suspect this is at most a half-answer. You'd have to include some other important factors: twentieth-century composers who so completely intellectualized their music that audiences rebelled; the dominance of popular culture; the general trend in art away from a belief in greatness; the financial strains of supporting musical institutions; I could go on.

But I can console myself by realizing that as classical music audiences are going to that great concert hall in the sky, at least we have our recordings for posterity. And Bugs Bunny.

UPDATE (5/16): Here is the Teachout article, cached by Google.