So begins a recent article on Slate.com by Mark Vanhoenacker entitled, “Requiem: Classical Music in America is Dead.” Heralded by a cartoon of a morose conductor gesticulating fruitlessly to a tombstone, the piece makes the case for our cherished genre’s iminent demise: cultural interest has declined, the audience is getting older, federal funding for the arts is nothing but a midsummer night’s dream, album sales have plummeted, and even classical radio stations are calling it quits. Yes, Vanhoenacker has left no stone unturned, and no cringe-worthy pun unsaid.
“Looking at the trend lines, it’s hard to hear anything other than a Requiem,” he writes slyly at the end of the third paragraph.
Oh, very clever, very clever indeed! That really makes me feel a lot better about the whole thing.
Then there’s the author’s citation of a popular TV show, Modern Family, as an example of pop culture’s general disdain for classical music.
“In one episode, Phil and Claire are mortified at the thought of attending a cello performance by Alex, their nerdy daughter,” he describes. “They panic and invent dinner plans with fictitious friends, ‘the Flendersons.’ It turns out Alex is in fact playing cello for a rock band. Her mom and sister are pleasantly surprised.”
As a cellist myself, I find this scenario rather appalling, but I think it’s important to remember that it didn’t actually happen. Sit coms are intended to exaggerate common beliefs and personality traits for comic effect. To assert that the average American parents would do their utmost to avoid being seen at a cello recital is tantamount to claiming that any groom who says the wrong name in his wedding vows will be promptly dumped, simply because that’s what happened to Ross in Friends. Lots of people mess up those things! Even Barack Obama messed up his oath of office, and he’s still hanging around.
But I digress. With all due respect to the author, I feel obligated to express that I was deeply discouraged by this article. If you want to write about how classical music is lacking in cultural interest, fine. I write about that all the time! But my goodness, at least offer a potential solution. All we have in this piece is the acknowledgement that yes, classical musicians are aware of the problem and have started some alternative ensembles like Groupmuse-but directly afterwards we have a description of Tanglewood as thriving on a “declining share of a growing pie.” The whole thing is quite pessimistic and I don’t really think it contributes anything to the ongoing discourse. The arguments and statistics presented aren’t exactly breaking news, and there is no blindingly innovative solution to accompany them. It’s as if Al Gore got up, talked about the drastic implications of climate change, and then said, “Okay, well, this sucks, but that’s life. See ya!”
Therefore, I was quite heartened to see that John Terauds, editor of the blog “Musical Toronto”, effectively debunked Vanhoenacker’s claims in a bold post entitled “Meditation: The reports of Classical Music’s death are greatly exaggerated.” Vanhoenacker’s arguments are “all nonsense,” Terauds asserts. “Classical music is alive and will remain alive for as long as the nuclear missiles stay in their silos and Mother Nature stays her desire to swallow us up in a planet-cleansing tsunami.”
If classical music had really arrived at death’s door, we would observe decreased interest in the younger generation-and the millenials are, by all accounts, embracing the genre with unbridled enthusiasm.
“Until we hear crickets instead of scales in the halls of the Royal Conservatory of Music,” Terauds assures his readers, “we should all sleep soundly in the knowledge that posterity still has a place for art music, its proponents and its interpreters.”
But what of the dire statistics and graying audiences? That may be the reality, Terauds acknowledges, but that doesn’t mean that people have suddenly stopped liking classical music. Pessimistic commentators like Vanhoenacker are “confusing a seismic shift in the institutions that sustain classical music with the art form itself,” he explains. “In religious terms, it amounts to declaring the death of God when in reality it is the Church that is the problem.”
The solution, therefore, is not for us to bemoan the fact that a mode of public entertainment formerly relevant in nineteenth century Germany is not quite jiving with the demands of contemporary American culture-we must instead search for a new means of connecting with that culture.
“It’s not the music that’s at the core of this problem, it’s our behaviour,” Terauds rightly notes. “Those music presenters who learn how to get people excited about what’s coming up tonight or next month will reap. Those who don’t will expire. And that doesn’t even begin to take into account all the new concert ideas and presenters who are still twinkles in their parents’ eyes.”
Terauds is definitely a man in touch with reality-and coincidentally, a variety of additional blogs have appeared in the past week that validate his claims. Perhaps the most thought-provoking of these was a blog on the Huffington Post entitled, “Behind the Cello,” which summarizes a conversation with Yo-Yo Ma. In this riveting and mind-boggling read, Ma suggests that a new enlightenment is upon us, one which reunites science and the arts. In an apparent refutation of Cartesian philosophy, he references an argument made by neurobiologist Antionio Damasio postulating that feeling and emotion are critical aspects of advanced cognition.
“Advances in neurobiology now make it clear that we humans have dual neural pathways, one for critical thinking and one for empathetic thinking,” Ma explains. “Only one pathway can be activated at a time, so when one is on, the other is off. Yet we are also aware that wise and balanced judgment results from integrating the critical and empathetic, taking emotions as well as reason into account. While this can’t be done in tandem, it does occur, we now know, through a loop-back process of layers of feedback.”
This knowledge has broad implications, according to Ma-it presents a compelling case for the integration of the arts in education. The current focus on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (known as the STEM model) is vitally important, but not entirely adequate-instead, we should have “STEAM,” with an ‘A’ for the Arts added into the mix. Possibly the most fascinating aspect of the piece is Ma’s description of the arts and sciences as opposite edges of a societal equilibrium. In this conceptualization, only a combination of the insights and discoveries gleaned by both disciplines will restore balance to our contemporary global society.
Ma is not the only one thinking outside the box that seems to house the classical music doomsayers. A recent article in Scientific American by Cornell University president David J. Skorton echoes his advocations.
“’To be truly effective, …what we really need is a much broader humanistic education for scientists (and nonscientists), beginning in K–12 education and continuing through the undergraduate/graduate and professional years,” Skorton writes. “It is through the study of art, music, literature, history and other humanities and social sciences that we gain a greater understanding of the human condition than biological or physical science alone can provide.’”
Finally, a drop of insightful rationality into the murky stew of the our education system-not that I would expect anything less from the president of Cornell.
So, needless to say, it’s certainly been an eventful week in the classical music blogosphere. All things considered, I think I’m going to ascribe to the inspiring sentiments of Yo-Yo Ma and Skorton and not spend too much time ruminating over the exaggerated claims expressed in “Requiem.” Yes, classical music faces many challenges-but I think it is safe to say that it is very much alive.