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Thread: "New Golden Age" for Classical Music

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    Default "New Golden Age" for Classical Music

    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.



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    When I was in Vienna several years back I managed to see an outdoor evening performance of Mozart’s work. It was also broadcast on large screens, it was a memorable evening (Vienna is a wonderful city anyway) and began my love for classical music.
    I believe that legends and myth are largely made of
    “truth”, and indeed present aspects of it that can only be received in this mode; and long ago certain truths and modes of this kind were discovered and must always reappear.

    J.R.R. Tolkien

    Indeed it might be a basic characteristic of existence that those who would know it completely would perish, in which case the strength of a spirit should be measured according to how much of the “truth” one could still barely endure-or to put it more clearly, to what degree one would require it to be thinned down, shrouded, sweetened, blunted, falsified.
    Nietzsche

    To God everything is beautiful, good, and just; humans, however, think some things are unjust and others just.
    Heraclitus

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    It seems that someone begs to differ with Ms. Mac Donald (and he seems to take enormous offense that she spells her name that way ).



    The Unsustainable Declinism of Greg Sandow
    Heather Mac Donald

    More on classical music’s new golden age

    My recent article, “Classical Music’s New Golden Age,” has provoked in critic Greg Sandow a multi-part outpouring of bile.

    Sandow, who is writing a book on the dire condition of classical music and how to rescue it from its trajectory of demise, finds it risible that someone could offer a different perspective on classical music—could celebrate its astounding vibrancy in a world so different from the one that gave it birth, could laud its performers’ passion for the past, or could give thanks for the musical riches available to us with the flick of a finger. For Sandow, any tour of the musical landscape that is not couched in terms of audience share or record sales and that does not reach a negative conclusion—any approach to the topic, in other words, that departs from Sandow’s own—is intolerable.

    Hence his numerous blog postings (here, here, here, here, and here) about my article’s violations of the heretofore unpublished Sandow’s Rules for Writing on Classical Music.

    Sandow remarks of my article: “When I read her, . . . I think I’m in another universe.” He is. Sandow’s universe is defined by two decades of ticket data from the League of American Orchestras, selectively interpreted; the world that most interested me spans the last three centuries of performance practice.

    Sandow makes no attempt to rebut the central thesis of my article, because he can’t. It is indisputable that classical-music lovers have never enjoyed such an abundance of great music, performed at levels of consummate artistry. The chronological range of repertoire in the concert hall and on disc has no precedent. Equally remarkable is the canonical position of works that for centuries were rightly viewed as far too difficult for the paying public to appreciate. To witness the trepidation with which nineteenth-century musicians began gingerly introducing sonatas and string quartets—the very works that today constitute the core performance repertoire—into their public concerts is to marvel at how far the capacities of audiences have advanced.

    Sandow scoffs at the notion that I could call a time when millions of people across the globe have instant access to this performance a “golden age.” An amazing concatenation of human accomplishment brought together this exquisite musical sensibility—the fruit of a performance revolution that is the most important classical-musical development of at least the last half century—with a technology that allows listeners to share their love of music almost infinitely. When does Sandow think a classical-music listener would have had greater exposure to the most sublime creations of the human spirit? Drop yourself into any time in the past and you will have to forgo all the repertoire that came afterward. Vienna in the 1780s, say, may be a tempting destination, but who is willing to give up Schubert, Chopin, and Brahms?

    Even if the repertoire you most prize today had already been written, it was quite likely unavailable, either because the presentism of the paying public had consigned older works to oblivion, or because the baffling judgments of contemporaries and near-contemporaries kept works we now deem masterpieces from being heard. Paris in the early 1800s knew that Mozart was too note-heavy and most Beethoven simply beyond the pale. No less a music aficionado than Stendhal deemed Don Giovanni slow and sad. In Italy, the Germanic repertoire was virtually unknown. A priest in the Sistine Chapel told Mendelssohn that he had heard mention of “a young man of great promise called Mozart,” Berlioz recounts.

    The music that was performed might have been grotesquely mauled by interfering conductors, publishers, and virtuosic performers. I, for one, am relieved not to be subjected to Les Mystčres d’Isis as my version of The Magic Flute, or to any of the other abominations concocted by Christian Kalkbrenner, Castil-Blaze, and other score bastardizers that prevented listeners of the past from hearing what composers actually wrote.

    Sandow cannot accuse me of ignoring negative data. To the contrary, I address the decontextualized audience trends so beloved of Sandow and the doom-and-gloom League. I give voice to performers who worry about the future. The only transgression that Sandow can pin on me is that I tell a story different from his, by noting the vibrancy of the world that lies outside his favorite data and by putting performers’ observations in historical context. Sandow should pull his head out of the sand and look around him. He might notice that music festivals and new performance enterprises, such as Stephen Stubbs’s baroque and contemporary opera venture in Seattle, are constantly springing up. Baroque oboists and bassoonists are in such demand in the United States that early-music festivals sometimes have to import them from abroad. A group as specialized as the medieval ensemble Sequentia has thrived for decades without government or philanthropic assistance. Has Sandow tried to canvass the wholly unexpected places where students are avidly pursuing music training, such as California State University Fullerton, a nuts-and-bolts commuter school in the endless freeway sprawl of the Los Angeles basin? CSU Fullerton is not the first place that comes to mind for a large and popular classical guitar program. CSU Long Beach is an equally unlikely spot for serious keyboard studies. How does Sandow explain away the opera company in Indianola, Iowa? The demand for amateur adult training has led to chant and recorder camps.

    Extra-musical significance also escapes Sandow’s attention. The period-instrument movement, which I treated extensively in my article, is important not just for its recovery of lost repertoire and the exuberance of its performances. It is also one of the last redoubts of the humanist impulse in a culture that has little use for the past. There is more loving devotion to historical knowledge in one program of the Boston Early Music Festival than in a hundred college courses in the Ivy League, where humanist learning has been all but vanquished by identity studies. The only question that concerns Sandow, however, is “what tangible difference [the early-music movement] might make to the economics of classical music.” Unless something contributes to the industry’s bottom line, it is not worth discussing. Of course, the early music movement clearly has generated new musical activity and new audience. But even if it had not, it would represent an intellectual revolution worthy of praise.

    In Sandow’s view, though, the only legitimate topic is “sustainability,” and the only legitimate conclusion that one can reach is that without the insights of our critic himself into how classical music can be more “real” and “more like the rest of the culture,” classical music is doomed. Given the condescension that Sandow lets fly for my failure to parrot his point of view, he’d better be sure of his own arguments.

    Let’s review the evidence he puts forward in his blog for the dire, “unsustainable” condition of classical music ...

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