The Fate of Western Classical Music

From pandemic-borne havoc to systemic woes the industry must overcome

The challenge facing all musical ensembles and concert venues—no matter how large or small—became clear when the New York Philharmonic Orchestra announced the cancellation of not just its summer programme, but its fall schedule as well. For the orchestra, this marks a net loss of about $19 million solely in ticket revenue and cancellation costs. Alex Beard, chief executive of the Royal Opera House, remarked that they could keep going for a few months, but “when your financial model means you break even when you sell 95% of your tickets, when public subsidy accounts for only 20% of your income… it is obvious that you are going to hit the buffers.”

With countries all around the world being ravaged by Covid-19, gatherings of any kind are unwelcome, to say the least. The world of western classical music and performance at large is thus faced with a perplexing calamity. The director of the historic Wigmore Hall believes that major ensembles around the world may be running into the wall in about twelve weeks. As institutions collapse, individuals are faring no better—tens of thousands of musicians in the gig economy are out of work, and considering symphony orchestras need about sixty musicians closely packed on stage and audiences in the thousands to survive, chances of respite appear bleak at this juncture. You may view it as impending, slow demise—or a phoenix-like rebirth, if you’re optimistic.

Mythological rebirth aside, do the already apparent financial challenges caused by the pandemic, or the perennially flawed economics of classical music bring in to question the well acclaimed artistic value of the industry? Does classical music need an overhaul? Historically, the influence of western classical music has been immense. From laying the foundations of functional harmony(something that most popular music today relies on) to the invention of ‘songs’ as we know them (Schubert’s Lieder), a fair share of modern songwriting is owed to the classics. Credit extends to the invention of instrumental or choral works, musical forms and classical compositional techniques at large.

Despite being one of our greatest intellectual and artistic treasures, western art music’s waning mass appeal, as well as its fall from favour amongst the youth, is not a complete surprise. When given a choice between consuming the relevant commentary and youthful exuberance of a Stormzy or sitting motionless music in an ornate concert hall, the average youngster’s choice is apparent. The age breakdown of classical music audiences suggests that only 7% of concert bookers in England are likely to be under the age of 31 while 42 % are between the age of 41-60. Does the notion of a grand setting for the display of classical artistry go against its appeal? Are the tight tuxedos and  general exclusivity not seductive to the youth? Or are the classical concert halls of today more revered than enjoyed, more sterile than exciting, more intimidating than inviting for a first-timer? Are the sky-high ticket prices, pedantic rules and rituals, and a religious adherence to scores—not to mention the awkward “can-I-clap-now” moments—reinforcing its image as an inaccessible art form meant only for the highbrow, poker-faced connoisseur? The short answer, I believe, as a former classical performer, and still huge fan of the idiom, is yes.

The fact that classical music was not always mutually exclusive with having fun may seem surprising in 2020. Like any audience for any music in any reasonable world, spectators were free to express their delight as and when they pleased—there were instances when crowds “stood on chairs and screamed in awe” of their favourite performers. At Geraldine Ferrar’s last concert in the 1920s, at the Met—she was “buried in flowers” as they crowned her with a jewelled tiara. Banners were strung across the orchestra pit as people “wept, shouted and flapped unrestrainedly.” Their dearest soprano was bidding goodbye to the New York stage, and there was simply no better way to pay tribute to her. Not to preach that foot-printed velvet chairs be the ideal display of appreciation; but doing anything even remotely passionate at Palau De La Musica or the Musikverein today would have you relegated to the ‘uncultured’ section, and then kicked out.

Classical performers of the past thrived in their freedom too, much like their audiences. Liszt, Mozart and Beethoven were all deemed ‘rockstars’ of their time. They improvised their way through performances and thought of scores merely as suggestive frameworks, not detailed instructions. The goal was not to immortalise a certain version of their work by setting it in stone, but for it to be alive—drawing from the moment, yet retaining the composition’s essential thematic material. Written notation was not a restriction but a starting point from where performers could take the music further. Herewith some examples:

Bach’s great Musical Offering grew from a spontaneous creation, after King Frederic of Prussia presented him with a theme and challenged him to embellish it. A hundred years later, Mozart was improvising not only his cadenzas, but at times entire movements of his concertos, suavely blurring the lines between composition and performance. The list spills into the subsequent centuries—Beethoven was known first and foremost as a fierce improviser, not just a composer. The sheet music of Liszt and Chopin also reflect an improvisatory form, and in some cases seem like direct transcriptions of performances.

For reasons unknown, classical performers seem to have lost their appetite for such spontaneous creativity. Even today’s (seemingly) most liberated showstoppers like Lang Lang, for instance, don’t write or perform original music and only dabble with improvisation. They prefer to express themselves through ‘unique’ interpretations of pieces—some variations in tempo, dynamics and phrasing, or a few added mordents at best. They spend years, even decades, building a gigantic and gruelling repertoire—yearning to master albums to the extent that each note and dynamic marking is performed with pedantic precision. Then, audiences of classical music flock to concert halls around the world where they listen in uptight silence to an identical list of pieces, written by the same select composers, and often even played by the same performers.

But the important question is this—should one advocate that performers make notes up in performance rather than play what they’ve rehearsed and memorised? With no improvisation in the classical landscape, the performers of today are simply presenting to us works that they may or may not understand. Considering the obsession with virtuosity and a disproportionate emphasis on technique over musicality, creativity is often smothered by rote flamboyance. Poised to impress rather than express, young entrants are pressured to conquer pieces of gymnastic ability while they ignore its emotional and interpretive aspects.

Music exploits the connection between sound and emotion, without intermediary word or thought. Across boundaries and cultures, it allows artists to convey to us their complex inner worlds. Bringing improvisation back to the classical landscape seems the best way to retain a balance between preserving the monumental works of classical composers, while maintaining a flavour of contemporary, organic artistry. A skilful improviser must adeptly manipulate form, harmony, melody and rhythm with authority. The great composers across centuries did so intuitively and admirably, translating emotion into music on the spot, while maintaining structural coherence and expressive ease.

But in the past century, the expressive voice of classical music has been pinned down. The merit of its oeuvre and the genius of its composers have been wrongly intellectualised, analysed and mummified to the point that we now live in fear of damaging its perfection, and their legacy. Due to certain restrictive trends, the industry appears daunting for performers, and the general appeal to youngsters and first-timers has plummeted. Over and above pandemic woes, the free spirit of the classical idiom is under threat. It is for us to determine whether we wish to smother one of our greatest artistic treasures and its audience under decorum and worship, or let it grow back into its freedom and splendour.

Yuvraj Nathani
Yuvraj Nathani

Yuvraj Nathani is Founding Editor at ALMA Magazine. For more, follow him here.