Why we shouldn't do a damn thing about the decline of classical music

Today the Twittersphere has been tossing around a blog entry by The New Yorker's Alex Ross. Ross posts a graph (above) from the League of Orchestras, a superhero-sounding organization tasked with the superheroic charge of keeping orchestral music alive in the 21st century. As a recovering sociologist, I appreciate that the chart clarifies two countervailing trends in classical-music participation: (a) people's interest in classical music tends to spike in middle age, and (b) over the past century, each succeeding generation has been less interested in classical music than the previous one was. This has meant that over the past couple of decades, the Baby Boomers' escalating interest in classical music (the life-course effect) has compensated for their kids' declining interest (the cohort effect).

Ross then, being a classical-music critic, engages the question of what is to be "done" about this potentially alarming development—that as the Baby Boomers move from middle age into old age and then into the Great Beyond, classical ensembles will be facing an audience of Gen-Xers who are looking likely to carry their supposedly defining generational characteristic of indifference (to classical music, among other things) right into middle age, and a Gen-Y audience whose almost complete lack of interest in classical music makes Courtney Love look like Jacqueline du Pré.

So, what is to be done? Ross calls for education and recalls the glory years when classical musicians like Leonard Bernstein had a much larger media footprint. For my part, though, I don't think we need to do a damn thing. Classical music will take care of itself.

I'm fortunate to work in a job that allows me to watch and participate in a wide range of art forms: books, pop music, classical music, jazz, theater, movies, visual arts, performance art, architecture, style, and more. There are a lot of things for an arts-oriented individual to do with his or her time, and among those things, classical music is objectively the most esoteric and unapproachable. I enjoyed a magnificent performance of The Rite of Spring a couple of weeks ago, but I was unsurprised that the audience surrounding me was—compared to the audiences to be found at most other local events that evening—rather old, pretty nerdy, and frankly more than a little snooty.

I write with candor, but also with affection, because I do enjoy classical music, and I'm definitely nerdy, I'm probably snooty, and if I'm not "rather old" now, I will be soon enough (I was born in 1975). My point is that classical music, as currently defined, will always be resistant to popularization. Yes, there are things classical ensembles could do to more readily connect with a younger, less snooty audience—performing at the Southern is a good start—but if you want significant numbers of people to forgo Mark Mallman for Gustav Mahler, no amount of venue-switching, Twittering, or media-whoring is going to make it happen. As for education, Ross is appropriately skeptical about the prospect of significant resources being poured into classical-music training in public schools. Would you vote for it? I wouldn't.

I'm not worried about the decline of classical music, because the classical repertoire stretching from Hildegard of Bingen to today's composition students is one of the towering achievements of human civilization, and great art takes care of itself. I predict that eventually the classical establishment as we know it will collapse, and that will be okay.

Look at what's happened in the visual arts. Great artists in the classic tradition are doing more than fine, with crowds lining up down the block to get into special exhibits at the MIA. Correspondingly, traditional performances of classical music will always have their place, and will always find an audience. That audience may not be 20-something, and it may not exist in every city in the country, but it will be there.

Meanwhile, contemporary visual art has moved into multidisciplinarity. From the Walker Art Center to the Art of This Gallery to the Northrup King Building, the most interesting visual art today is displayed alongside—and often developed in concert with—theatrical performances, written texts, and new music. The Walker's director Olga Viso understands this and embraces it. Where is the Walker's equivalent institution in the music world? To the extent it exists, it's the Walker itself.

In time, the footprint of classical music—in the Twin Cities and around the world—will shrink. It's inevitable, and it's not necessarily a bad thing. Classical music as we know it is by its nature an art form that resists being tampered with, and as history marches on, classical music is only going to get more and more distant from the mainstream of musical life, and from the mainstream of artistic life generally. The great works in the repertoire will be preserved as museum pieces, which—like museum pieces in the visual arts and in literature—will be appreciated by the relatively few people who connect with them. Thus, "classical music" will become even less mainstream, and approached by even fewer people, than it is now. The sky is going to fall, and no number of Chicken Littles, no matter how loudly they shout, will be able to prevent it.

Meanwhile, though, the tradition of new and ambitious music will live on in forms that may or may not be recognizable as having anything to do with "classical music." This is already happening: Ross's own book The Rest is Noise is one of many roadmaps that connect the dots from Bach to Beethoven to Schoenberg to Cage to Glass to Gaga. If you love music, you love classical music—even if you don't love "classical music." In coming years we may see many fewer performances of music in that tradition encapsulated in quotation marks, but that's okay—the music itself escaped the quotation marks long ago.

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Jay Gabler's picture
Jay Gabler

Jay Gabler (@JayGabler) is a digital producer at The Current and Classical MPR. He was arts editor at the Twin Cities Daily Planet from 2007-2013.


Different Perspective

I can't believe you would say this. Really? We shouldn't do a "damn" thing? We should cowardly sit back and watch it disappear? What about young and new musicians? I am an aspiring musician in the beginning of high school and I find what you say revolting. The reason classical music is failing is because the audience isn't willing to listen to classical music with an open mind. They aren't willing to give classical music a second chance to revive itself. I practice 5 hrs. every day to become a cellist. I travel 5 and a half hrs. to get to my lesson. This is how my hard work is paid off. Thanks so much everyone.

i agree.

i completely agree with you. i'm a violinist and i have been playing for ten years i just graduated high school and i cant continue with the violin because unless you're amazing you're not getting anywhere. and even those amazing people are soon goin to suffer. it's unfair to us because there ARE people out there who play and see that their dreams wont get them anywhere. something DOES need to be done because this is unfair to the MUSICIANS!


Do you think this might be part of the attitude of entitlement that's turning some people off from classical music?

What I always find ironic

I find it humerous that many articles over the past 60 years have talked about the decline in classical music. I'm not making a judgement call on your blog post one way or another, just a general observation of the countless articles over the years for and against the decline in classical music. This is what I can never figure out. Since the median age of "classical music lovers" is around 58 has not changed over the years and the population has grown (I read the median age of classical music audiences was 58 in the Time Magazine article "American Orchestras in Trouble" from 1969). I also recall from an enlgihtened world regional geography class that I took in 1997 that the US population doubling rate is about 70 years currently (It actually may be more now with the immigration issue ;-), but thats for another day ). Wouldn't it be safe to say that if 11% of the Gen X'ers like classical music then there would be a larger audience simply because there will be twice as many people attending a concert in 2040 than in 1969?

It's a question of choice. It's politics too

I want to add the point that in the public schools, there has been a steady erosion of arts education.  Either there is no money or no time available to teach kids how to play music.  There is a lot going on when you practice scales and play in ensembles with others. 

Politicians like Governor Pawlenty are forced into making choices.  Fund *this* at the expense of funding *that*.  He is more interested in keeping his eyes on his prize and building sports stadiums than in funding education properly.  Choices.  If you choose not to fund bridge and road maintenance things fall apart.  The same is true of education.  Don't fund arts training and your audience drifts away.

Of course lack of funding of arts education is not the only reason for the decline in classical music,  nor is it the complete picture.  Woodshedding alone is hard to do.  Learning in a context is more meaningful and leads to better results.

my response

I'm not entirely convinced by your argument, and have posted a response on my blog.


What damn thing to do, and whom to do it?

Thanks, Billy. I agree with you that it's reasonable, appropriate, and important for classical companies to seek new audiences. That's true of any company doing anything. If I were running a classical company, I would absolutely devote significant resources to ensuring that my company's peformances came to the attention of any and all potentially interested audiences. I think it's also important, though, to trust the audience to know what it wants and needs. When it gets to the point of selling Salome as a striptease, or pushing classical-music education in preference to other forms of arts education that young audiences are more immediately attracted to (say, turntablism), that's when it seems to me we're taking unnecessarily extraordinary measures to "save" classical music.

Audiences and artists of all demographics will naturally gravitate towards the art forms that are most engaging to them, and if that means they gravitate away from Gershwin and towards Girl Talk, I think classical music advocates are wasting resources and making themselves look silly by throwing themselves in the way of that movement. Instead, as I suggest in the blog entry, I think companies interested in serious music—if they genuinely want to engage new audiences on those audiences' terms (see below comment)—will emphasize forward-thinking programming. There's nothing wrong per se with conservative programming, but conservative programming is going to attract a conservative audience.

Classical music, good riddance.

I'll be back to say more about this piece, but for now, I'd just like to know what the evidentiary basis was for saying that the Stravinsky audience was "frankly more than a little snooty?" Was the audience equipped with pince-nez, tuxedoes, satin dresses, their noses slightly elevated even when talking to one another? Were eyebrows forever being raised? Did they interrupt the musicians with catcalls to signal their displeasure with the performance? And in what proportion? Were most, some, one or two, snooty? It is that sort of impressionistic writing - "frankly more than a little snooty" - coupled with charts and graphs that makes a reader a little suspicious of the attitude at work here.


You're right—my observation that the audience was "snooty" was an impressionistic observation. In honesty, I have not had any specific negative experiences with any individual attendees at orchestral concerts, and it is somewhat uncharitable to characterize them as "snooty." Maybe it would be more precise to say that the overall atmosphere at a classical music concert is not one that makes new audiences feel particularly welcome. It feels like going to church—which, in a sense, it is. I'm sure the vast majority of classical music patrons would welcome first-time attendees, but, reasonably, they expect those attendees to meet those longtime patrons on their established terms. Given the nature of orchestral performances and audiences, there may not be much to be done about this. Your point is well-taken that applying the term "snooty" for rhetorical flourish betrays my attitude—but I'd guess that most readers also appreciate its underlying truth.

Excellent points

It's also worth noting that similar warnings have been made about literary writing -- that the average age of a reader of literary fiction is in the mid-50s range, and what's going to happen to this genre when these folks get old and die? Then you go back in time and discover that the average age of this kind of reader has been in the mid-50s for several generations, meaning that as people mature or become more sedentary, they are more likely to turn to William Faulkner or Don DeLillo for their reading pleasure.

If there is in fact a decline in interest in "classical music" (a category that, at all events, only traces back to the late 19th century, when a large body of today's classical music was often considered a harbinger of the death of the real classics), the answer is, as you imply, that composers work with conviction and integrity, seeking new venues and synergies, not some retrograde campaign to "educate" the public.