There's an interesting dialogue going on at Alex Ross's blog today about classical music, specifically, attempts to figure out what elements are responsible for its loss of apprecation, audience, and general place in American culture. It would appear that, on some kind of larger scale, the same kinds of cultural earthquakes that made rock music cool made classical music uncool.
One key point brought up by Steve Metcalf via Ross and then A.C. Douglas is about the inability of the educational system to expose kids to the classical genre. They don't all agree about whether or not you can blame the schools.
-Metcalf says, "Blaming the schools for the problems of the concert hall is, I'm afraid, a cop-out. It excuses us from the harder task of inventing genuinely compelling new concert models and thinking up compelling new ways to sell them to an over-stimulated and distractible public."
-Douglas says, "In today's world, the single most important — overwhelmingly important — entity in the promotion of classical music is none other than the commercial media, cable and broadcast TV most especially."
-Ross says, "The need now is to recapture the attention of young adults, not by making the music superficially "cool" (can't be done, anyway) but by stressing its passion, its intelligence, its relevance."
Back in college (Music degrees do actually have relevance) we spent a lot of time talking about the seismic postwar rumblings that caused this earthquake. But it's the classic black hole of History, and we can find significance as far back as we want – The French Revolution, maybe?
I'm not going to go that far back, but I do want to go beyond WWII. I think that the real culprit, since we are assigning blame, is the 19th century-era canonization of the western Germanic tradition. The very obvious split between "serious" classical works and "trashy" operas was not dissimilar to the genre-pandering marketing engine of today's pop music industry. In the same way that a contemporary rock critic will invoke the spirit of, say, Led Zeppelin, The Ramones, and Radiohead to establish a credible background for a new post-rock-post-punk-emo-retro-soul band, for about 150 solid years now, classical music appreciation starts with Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Wagner. Anyone who ever took piano lessons will verify this. There is an implicit assumption that people who appreciate classical music are involved in an intellectual dialogue with the music itself, and if they are not, then they aren't part of the club.
Meanwhile, Rossini's operas were hits, and in the realm of industry-speak they were the Top 40, the Garth Brooks. It's no suprise that a social divide caused a division in the market. This is no strange occurence to us today.
Therefore, and I hope you can follow my train of thought, to try and blame the schools for not being able to indoctrinate children with the Beethoven bug is absolutely ludicrous. There are so many upsetting problems regarding schools and arts education, but this is not one of them. To relegate classical music to a scholastic experience merely furthers the pigeonhole effect, limiting the realm of experience to academia, separating it from the grit and passion of regular experience; this instinct shows that we have come no further than about 1875.
Despite the differences of opinion of the above critics (and they are not incredibly different, either), one thing jumps out at me. They adhere to the term "classical music" in a way that will not help them in their common cause. Everybody understands that it's a term of convenience; it applies to the Germanic canon but also to Debussy and John Adams and plenty of contemporary symphonic or opera composers that I don't know enough about. Nevertheless, if they are concerned with selling, they will need to change their terms. Critics and salesmen knew it in the 19th century, and these days they call it branding, but the question of naming is essential to changing the public opinion. What category would the Kronos Quartet fall in? (By the way, Mr. Ross has a great review of them in a recent New Yorker) – Or how about Elvis Costello's new release with the Brodsky Quartet – more like a Schubert than anyone else I can think of. And a lot of Billy Joel's earlier work crosses the line as well. These are just a few obvious examples.
Musicians, even rock musicians, especially rock musicians, owe a whole lot to people like Beethoven and Wagner. I hear echoes all the time. The social stigma of classical music is undoubtedly what keeps people away.