assassinating classical music

I found myself with too many thoughts about my UNC graduate colleague Will Robin’s piece for the New Yorker today to feel comfortable subjecting him to the following post as an email (which is how it started). You should read his article, as I’m sure much more thought went into it than went into my impressions here, and as he is an excellent and persuasive writer. But to summarize: Will challenges the notion that a tradition with a thousand-plus-year past can simply die out and excoriates journalists who would suggest otherwise, in part through a sublime infographic* showing the long tradition of lamenting new trends in Western music. Along the way, he makes several important points about the role of classical music in American society, e.g., that one factor in its decline is the drop-off in the government’s interest in using it to assert cultural dominance over other parts of the world. And so on. Really, go read it yourself.

I always wonder what’s at stake in the constant doom-mongering, as he puts it, especially when it comes from people who seem to consider themselves as existing outside of the classical music world.** What’s the point in asserting the imminence of the death of classical music if you are ambivalent, if you are interested neither in reviving it nor in helping to kill it off? If you don’t even want to engage with new trends in any way, thinking about how things might be changing as a whole rather than dying out entirely?

That’s the beauty of the infographic, thinking about it historically: had Pope John XXII been able to hear Beethoven’s music, he wouldn’t have even considered it to belong to the body of work he was trying to defend. But today we place the two together as part of a developmental trajectory. So even if all the American orchestras were to fold tomorrow, against all odds, wouldn’t we just come up with something else to act as Western art music’s new standard-bearer? (And aren’t we constantly in the process of doing so anyway?)

This is to say that I’m not sure what the point in talking about the death of classical music is either, when the sum of what we consider to belong to this category is flexible and to a large extent retroactively constructed. But I have a hypothesis as to why people do so. I think that this particular social and historical construction of “classical music” that is being taken down, this art of the symphony hall, opera house, and recital stage, stands in for many things to its would-be antagonists, particularly in an American context: Western cultural imperialism; elitism and classism; Eurocentrism in American culture; intellectual disdain for popular forms of expression. It represents a period in our cultural history that many people would like to think is receding into the past–or dying out with aging audiences, as it were. None of the above associations are entirely unfair. But as I see it, none of them are disappearing any time soon, even if we do end up replacing the symphony orchestra with chamber pop or indie classical or online choirs or so on, or even if what we might now consider popular music does take over entirely. Killing off classical music in the press is merely a statement; it can only serve as a toothless assertion that mainstream or dominant American society is rejecting these troubling values. It can do nothing to actually change the musical past, and it does very little to alter the course of the inevitable progression of our own cultural self-definition. And it certainly does not absolve any of us of our collective cultural sins.


* Created in collaboration with Andy Doe, who also has written an impassioned takedown of the Slate article that Will references.

** I think it’s important to note quickly that there is a difference between the type of article to which Will seems to be responding and those written with an explicit interest in reforming classical music institutions and practices, most often in an attempt to increase popular appeal.

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    • Elizabeth
    • February 24th, 2014

    Nicely stated! I love this line — “What’s the point in asserting the imminence of the death of classical music if you are ambivalent, if you are interested neither in reviving it nor in helping to kill it off?”

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