Who Needs Classical Music? Cultural Choice and Musical Value

By Julian Johnson | Go to book overview
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INTRODUCTION

THIS BOOK IS about the value of classical music. More particularly, it is about its apparent devaluation today and the consequences of its current legitimation crisis. But this is merely the starting point for examining classical music's claim to a distinctive value and assessing the relevance that claim retains for our postmodern, plural, and multicultural world. It addresses questions not just about music but about the nature of contemporary culture, because changing perceptions of classical music have less to do with the music itself than with changes in other cultural practices, values, and attitudes. To ask questions about the status of classical music today is inevitably to ask questions about cultural choices more generally. What is the significance of our musical choices? What cultural values do those choices exhibit? Do the cultural values we hold as musical consumers equate with the values with which we align ourselves in other areas, such as education or politics? What is it about classical music that makes it so marginal and about popular music that makes it so central to contemporary society?

But my concern is with classical music, not with popular culture. I have largely avoided the labyrinthine arguments about their competing claims to value because my main point is that while some classical music can and does function as popular culture, its distinctive value lies elsewhere. It makes a claim to a distinctive value because it lends itself to functions that, on the whole, popular music does not, just as popular music lends itself to functions that, on the whole, classical music does not. This different potential of musical types arises not just from how people approach different kinds of music but from the objective differences between musical pieces and musical styles themselves. Central to my argument is the idea that classical music is distinguished by a self-conscious attention to its own musical language. Its claim to function as art derives from its peculiar concern with its own materials and their formal patterning, aside from any considerations about its audience or its social use.

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