Sunday, May 28, 2006

"Rumors of Our Demise Are Dead Wrong"

Even though the headline sounds like something Donald Rumsfeld would say, it is a well-researched piece about classical music in the Sunday Times. We've heard it repeated several times in the past couple of weeks that people prefer living in the recent past, and that is exactly what rumors of the death of classical music are--nostalgia for that time, just a while ago, when all seemed just right.

Among the country's 1800 orchestras (whoa! who knew there were so many!), revenues are up and operating costs are down. Newish composers like Gyorgy Ligeti have such a devoted following that both Sony and Teldec are rushing to record everything he's written. Labels like Naxos turn out new CDs by the dozen every month--and Naxos makes those albums available at, too. The most surprising stat in the Times was the revelation that 12% of downloads from iTunes are classical--okay, so that probably just means the gray-hairs buying classical don't know how to use BitTorrent. And now that you mention it, gray-hairs have always been the principal ingredient at a symphony hall event, and there are more of them now than ever before.

Kozinn also touches on the fact that a generation or so ago, nobody listened to Shostakovich. Now, the generation that grew up while Shostakovich was writing listen to him in concert halls everywhere. Ligeti may be next in line for this sort of revolution, but more likely, we'll find someone else to eclipse him, and classical will live on. Joshua Fineberg, back in Salon's glory days, put it this way:

Most art is crap. This may be a shocking idea to many people. We think of art as the great masterworks we know, and it's very easy to forget the mountains of mediocrity that were sifted to lift Bach or Dante or Emily Dickinson to their Olympian heights. I have heard people suggest that somehow the gene pool has been diluted to the point that no more Beethovens are possible (this suggestion actually came from a composer). What they forget is that Gioacchino Rossini was arguably more famous than Beethoven in the early 19th century and that a French opera composer named Giacomo Meyerbeer was much more popular than his rival, Richard Wagner.

In almost any era, the sheer mass of bad or mediocre work tends to dwarf the good or great works. This can lead us to assume that the past was somehow better, since we kept only the best parts and threw out the crap. I would venture to say that there have probably been more masterpieces created during the past 20 years than there were in the last 20 years of the 19th century (an easy bet, since the population is so much bigger now). We just haven't finished sorting the gems from the garbage yet.

And there, he captures both our rosy nostalgia for the good old days and the value of sorting through piles and piles of records or checking out every live band in town. (There's gold in them thar hills!) Of course, Fineberg is not at all optimistic about our continued patience for sifting through yards and yards of manure to find the gold--but then, consider the Shostakovich thing.

UPDATE: Fineberg just finished a book of the same name as his spot-on Salon essay.

UPDATE II: This was originally posted, by coincidence, on Gyorgy Ligeti's birthday. He died on June 12 in Vienna. Lux æterna luceat eis.

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