Even as contemporary art is booming in the new Gilded Age, classical musicians fret about greying audiences and reduced state support for orchestras. Classical music has not found a formula to reach beyond its core supporters and draw in new ones. The strategies that have been pursued by the impresarios of classical music fall into three basic categories: democratization, mystification, and reform of the musical genre.
Democratization’s basic underlying premise is that everyone can learn to appreciate classical music. Proponents of democratization assume that classical music is not widely appreciated because it is complicated. Education is necessary to be able understand and, hence, enjoy classical music. The experience of many young classical musicians who were hooked on music before knowing anything about it challenges this viewpoint. But, democratizers stress that the most important thing is for people to be exposed to classical music, preferably at a young age. This seems hard to argue with. How can potential audiences know whether they like classical music or not if they not heard it (in a pure, unadulterated, form, i.e. not in commercials)? If you are a classical musician who believes in this democratization theory then your obligations are clear. You must act as a missionary attempting to attract new converts to classical music.
One of the great democratizers of the twentieth century was Leonard Bernstein. While the New York Philharmonic’s Young People’s Concerts had existed before Bernstein became music director, he greatly expanded them, creating a total of 53 musical lectures that were broadcast in the United States and around the world. A generation of music-lovers credit Bernstein as the source for their love of classical music.
The utilitarian Jeremy Bentham claimed that, ‘Quantity of pleasure being equal, push-pin is as good as poetry.’ He meant that all forms of entertainment are equally valuable if they create the same amount of joy for those who experience them. His protégé, John Stuart Mill, balked. J.S. Mill pointed out that many in the lower class have not had much exposure to high culture (poetry) and that explains why they prefer low culture (pushpin). Since those who have had ample exposure to all forms of art tend to prefer poetry or the opera or painting, then there must be something intrinsically more valuable about these forms of expression than, say, coloring books. It is this spirit which motivates the democratizers. Democratizers of classical music believe in the intrinsic value of the art form for all of humanity.
Mystification is a tool common in the world of visual art. The English Art Critic John Berger provides an example of mystification that is familiar to anyone who frequents art museums: “[Frans] Hals’s unwavering commitment to his personal vision, which enriches our consciousness of our fellow men and heightens our awe for the ever-increasing power of the mighty impulses that enabled him to give us a close view of life’s vital forces.” Such lofty verbiage signals to all but the most highly educated (and the most pompous) that Hals’s paintings are not for you. And yet what the author is saying is so mundane it doesn’t even need to be written. Anyone who glances at a few of Hals’s paintings can see that the painter was committed to painting portraits “of our fellow men” and by doing so elevates his subject matter.
One does not have to search hard to find similar language in classical music concert programs, cd booklets, and reviews in newspapers.
Mystification exists for three basic reasons. It appeals to aspirational people seeking status. Mystification is the language of liberal arts educational institutions. Anything else using their language will necessarily enjoy a certain degree of prestige.
Second, mystification is useful for artists themselves. It obscures banal platitudes and artwork of middling beauty, creativity or originality. It allows nearly any work of art to be marketed if it is placed in the right context.
Lastly, mystification creates a whole cottage industry of specialists who can navigate the world of art for those who are wealthy but lack the education to navigate it themselves. London, for example, is filled with advisors who assist the newly-arrived rich from around the world in navigating the city’s labyrinthine class structures. (What art to buy, how to prepare your children for admission to the city’s elite schools, etc). These specialists have an interest in maintaining the veil of secrecy surrounding art.
Here is the problem with mystification in classical music. Unlike a painting, which can be hung on a wall and viewed or not viewed, going to a concert of classical music demands the audience’s engagement. Mystification risks making this engagement unintelligible for the audience. Contemporary classical music is about as mystified as it gets, and yet its financial and popular support is much lower than that of contemporary visual art.
The final strategy impresarios use to draw in new audiences is through changing the art form itself. This path is particularly in vogue among classical music reformers. The underlying assumption is that the world is changing and classical music has to change with it. iPhone-addicted youth are presented as evidence that young people today do not have the attention spans to sit quietly through a concert of classical music. Titillating visual stimulation is needed to attract them. The strategies for attraction can be as simple as marketing gimmicks or as grandiose as creating a new gesamtkunstkverk.
Canadian violinist Lara St. John claims that sex appeal can draw in new audiences to classical music. The cover of a cd she recorded in 1996 of a selection of Bach’s works for solo violin features her seemingly naked upper body, with the violin covering her breasts. She claims, “I know very well that the publicity surrounding the cover increased sales of the album by at least 20,000; a picture of J.S. Bach would have sold rather less. And to whom did it sell? To Joe and Joanne who had never heard of Bach.”
A concert by the Norwegian Chamber Orchestra concert last spring is indicative of the gesamtkunstverk approach. The concert was in two halves, but the first half featured a genuine attempt to fuse various art forms and it is what I will speak about here. The Norwegian concert pianist Christian Ihle Hadland performed Bach’s Goldberg variations. There was no separation between performer and listener as concertgoers were free to walk around Hadland and into the art gallery where the main attraction was. Here, the musicians of the Norwegian chamber orchestra posed as human statues. Exceedingly well-coached, they stood completely still in poetic forms for long stretches of time. Towards the end of the Goldberg Variations, one of the statues came to life. He traveled around the art gallery touching one statue after another, coaxing them to life, until all were crawling towards this master, seated in the middle, as Rodin’s thinker in the Gates of Hell.
This concert was both enjoyable and interesting, but more because of the human statues than the performance of the Goldberg variations, which, perhaps excellent, was relegated to the status of background music. It is very likely that the concert attracted people who are active in the visual arts but who do not usually attend symphony concerts. It is not clear if such a concert could be easily replicated elsewhere and compete with the standard concert hall format. It seems that if such concerts became common they would lose the appeal of uniqueness. Lastly, the concert stopped one step short of a true gesamtkunstwerk. It was entertaining and artistic, but it was not philosophy and it did not comment on the political and social problems facing our world. It failed to make a strong case for the relevance of classical music today.
Classical music is one of few fields still untouched by data analysis. Without sophisticated statistical analysis, we have no way of knowing which strategies are working and which are not. For example, Lara St. John points to sales of her cd that are 20,000 in excess of what could have been expected. But there is no research aiming to find out whether people actually listened to her cd after buying it, how many times the listened, what they thought about it, and crucially, whether they started going to concerts and buying cds that do not feature young, pretty, half-naked women. There is a sense that “something must be done” to expand classical audiences and improve orchestra finances, but without data, we are groping blindly in the dark for solutions. This leaves the door open for ignorant impostors masquerading as impresarios who will change our art form. There is the distinct possibility that extra-musical “special effects” can detract from the appreciation of a concert. Handing over the reins to people from other fields who promise to revolutionize classical music can lead to a deemphasizing of the quality of musicianship. We can lose our existing audience and fail to create a new one.
The use of these three strategies are not mutually exclusive. An orchestra often conducts outreach programs (democratization) and woos donors with the promise of exclusivity (mystification). At the heart of the conflict among democratizers, mystifiers, and reformers lie a series of unanswered questions. How to reconcile the fact that the money which must support classical music lies in few hands but concert halls have many seats? How desperately do we want certain segments of the population to be our audience? Must we adjust ourselves to audiences or can audiences adjust to us? What would need to change for this to happen?