The "Death" of Classical Music

Article excerpt

Has classical music become nothing more than the petrified forest of modem culture? Sometimes it seems that its practitioners are the art form's own worst enemies, closing off the world of classics from potential new audiences and ignoring compositions outside the canon. Meanwhile, financial crises continue to afflict classical ensembles all over the world. Still, to talk of the "death" of such an integral part of our culture is perhaps to look at it from the wrong perspective. After all, the music's traditional strength has always been that it transcends something as mundane as death.

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IT was eleven o'clock on a weekday night in an Anglican church in Ottawa; at the height of summer's dog days, it was hotter indoors than Out. Lacking air-conditioning, the stately old building could offer only a few ceiling fans to move the air, providing little relief to the sweltering crowd within.

What, short of impending Armageddon, could possibly have filled a church at such an unlikely time? Readers from the national capital region may recognize what I am describing: this was the Ottawa International Chamber Music Festival -- the phenomenally successful extravaganza that in nine years has grown to become the largest chamber music festival in the world.

The concert was one in a series of five festival performances by Montreal pianist Louis-Philippe Pelletier featuring the complete piano repertoire of Claude Debussy. And although much of the program contained lesser-known works by the French composer, enthusiasts stood in line for as long as two hours to get in.

Acting as master of ceremonies for the concert, Ottawa Citizen music critic Richard Todd announced that he would be attending 30 of the 112 concerts in the two-week festival. Remarkably, when he asked if anyone in the audience planned to attend more than that, some people raised their hands.

That something as rarified as a chamber music festival could be so popular in the year 2002 confounds all common sense, not to mention those who are quick to declare classical music "dead" at every inauspicious turn of events. Proclaiming the decay of classical music -- usually in tones of woe, but occasionally with glee -- has grown into a small industry over the last few decades, and those who hold this opinion can point to a sizeable body of evidence to support their position.

The symptoms of demise appear all around us. Last year, London's Daily Telegraph reported that worldwide sales of classical recordings, which accounted for twenty percent of record sales four decades ago, now cling to a three percent share of the recorded music market.

Here in North America, the San Jose Symphony went bankrupt last year, and the orchestras of Toronto and St Louis almost did. While CBG Radio 2 soldiers on, many American classical music radio broadcasters -- including NPR stations -- are being converted to non-classical formats at an alarming rate. Detroit, with a metropolitan population of 4.7 million, currently has no classical music station, and the city's last classical record shop closed its doors earlier this year.

Even from the heartland of Europe comes news that German Culture Minister Julian Nida-Ruemelin recently suggested that popular music should be taught in his country's schools. "You cannot get most adolescents interested in the culture of music with classical music," he remarked.

And everywhere there is talk of an aging audience. Said Alexander Coleman, music critic for The New Criterion (as quoted in The National Post): "The audience is increasingly grey-haired. Classical music has become the province of geezers, and moneyed geezers at that."

Some reports are perhaps little more than press sensationalism. However, it's harder to dismiss the views on classical music's troubles found in numerous thought-provoking books on music and culture. …