Classical Music’s New Golden Age
Thanks to period-music evangelists, breathtaking virtuosity, and millions of listeners, the art form remains vibrant.
Anyone inclined to lament the state of classical music today should read Hector Berlioz’s Memoires. As the maverick French composer tours mid-nineteenth-century Europe conducting his revolutionary works, he encounters orchestras unable to play in tune and conductors who can’t read scores. A Paris premiere of a Berlioz cantata fizzles when a missed cue sets off a chain reaction of paralyzed silence throughout the entire sorry band. Most infuriating to this champion of artistic integrity, publishers and conductors routinely bastardize the scores of Mozart, Beethoven, and other titans, conforming them to their own allegedly superior musical understanding or to the narrow taste of the public.
Berlioz’s exuberant tales of musical triumph and defeat constitute the most captivating chronicle of artistic passion ever written. They also lead to the conclusion that, in many respects, we live in a golden age of classical music. Such an observation defies received wisdom, which seizes on every symphony budget deficit to herald classical music’s imminent demise. But this declinist perspective ignores the more significant reality of our time: never before has so much great music been available to so many people, performed at levels of artistry that would have astounded Berlioz and his peers. Students flock to conservatories and graduate with skills once possessed only by a few virtuosi. More people listen to classical music today, and more money gets spent on producing and disseminating it, than ever before. Respect for a composer’s intentions, for which Berlioz fought so heroically, is now an article of faith among musicians and publishers alike.
True, the tidal wave of creation that generated the masterpieces we so magnificently perform is spent; we’re left to scavenge the marvels that it cast up. The musical language that united Bach, Schubert, Mahler, and Prokofiev finally dissolved into inaccessible atonalism by the mid-twentieth century; subsequent efforts to reconstitute it have yet to gather the momentum of the past. But in recompense for living in an age of musical re-creation, we occupy a vast musical universe, far larger than the one that surrounded a nineteenth-century resident of Paris or Vienna. We can hear the beauty in the poignant chromaticism of Gesualdo and the mysterious silences of C. P. E. Bach, no less than in the by now more familiar cadences of Beethoven and Brahms.
And at a time when much of the academy has lost interest in history, contemporary classical-music culture is one of the last redoubts of the humanist impulse. The desire to know the past has grown white-hot among certain musicians over the last 50 years, resulting in a performance revolution that is the most dynamic musical development in recent times.