Classical Music: Alive and Kicking

Classical Music: Alive and Kicking

The American public perceives classical music as a fuddy-duddy culture and boring. This is ironic since much of the classical canon was composed in the midst of tumultuous times and was regarded as part of those times, not some throwback to the past. Popular music artists relate to today perfectly, but, to a classical music lover, their music doesn’t satisfy our need for more complex musical nuance and longer forms. More and more we hear the view that classical music is not more advanced, musically, than popular music but is simply another musical genre and has no claim to superiority.

Richard Taruskin, who appears to hold that view, nevertheless, demonstrates, in a recent article in The New Republic, that up until the end of the 1950s classical music was accepted by all levels of society as the very pinnacle of music. When asked for his favorite tunes, President Eisenhower named classical pieces by Beethoven and Mendelssohn. According to Taruskin the “precipitous decline” of classical music began after Eisenhower’s administration.

Taruskin has the timing exactly right. As a kid in the early sixties I was a classical buff studying violin and composing and my parents sent me to music summer school. I was sitting in a classroom, waiting for the music theory teacher, when in pranced a rather cute female student, and, while I was ogling her in a casual adolescent way, she walked up to the blackboard, grabbed a piece of chalk and wrote one word on it: “Elvis”. Who was this Elvis, I wondered. The teacher? If so, why only one name?”

I didn’t find out who Elvis was until I saw him gyrating on Ed Sullivan beneath the wooden stare of his host. Girls in the audience were screaming and fainting. “That looks amusing,” I thought. I never realized that some of the most literate, knowledgeable, and sophisticated people of my generation would see culture change in this mumbling, hip-rotating clown with the syrupy voice.

The times they are a’changin’

“Something’s happening but you don’t know it is, do you, Mister Jones?” One day I awoke and found that, according to the media, Bob Dylan was the chief guru of my generation. That was a surprise. I had first seen Dylan at Gerdes Folk City in the Village where he sometimes alternated with my real folk idol, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, the cowboy from Brooklyn who had been Woody Guthrie’s protégé. Dylan adopted Jack’s style, but when that didn’t get him very far he switched over to protest music and showed up at political events with his guitar. Our generation was in revolt against the conformity and reactionary politics of their elders egged on by the great wrong of the Vietnam War. Many of us students considered ourselves more agitators and organizers than scholars. We marched for civil rights, peace, and economic justice for the poor and then, a little later, for equal rights for women. It was a time of great hope that things could really change and, indeed some did. Segregation was ended in the South and women gained the right to legal abortion. Eventually, the troops were withdrawn and the war ended. Bob Dylan and other singers like Joan Baez and Country Joe McDonald and the Beatles wrote songs that explicitly or implicitly challenged the values of the rich and powerful as well as shredding the prevailing fake morality that made it a crime to make love and a virtue to make war.

I was by this time playing fiddle and guitar in a folk-rock-country band named Tiny Alice. Bob Dylan had gone electric and his adenoidal voice was being imitated all over and his lyrics were called important poetry. I didn’t think so, but some of my friends were in the mood for this kind of thing and couldn’t get enough of it. I never bought into it at this level, but I did find it very entertaining and often politically right on, although I still preferred classical music and bought many classical recordings. My love of folk music didn’t lead me to the conclusion that it had the same musical status as classical music. On the other hand, although I listened to plenty of contemporary folk artists, I did not listen to any modern classical composers. In fact, I had given up on becoming one myself.

My life as a composer had come to an abrupt end in high school when I came in contact with the music of the composers of the atonal school. Which composers I don’t remember, but I didn’t like it. The music sounded like scratching fingers on a chalk board. It had no recognizable melody and seemed to go nowhere, just noodle around endlessly in a rather lugubrious fashion. All I could think is: when will this be over. Then another unfortunate thing happened. I was at a bookstore and came upon a book on contemporary music. The writer was billed as an expert musicologist on the book jacket, so I purchased it. The book explained that modern music was different than the work of Beethoven, Bach, or Mozart. It was based on a modern theory of atonal music and serialism. The book explained how modern composers composed modern music by following techniques that resulted in the modern music I had heard and hated. I decided, with great sorrow, that I could not be a modern composer and so changed course and went into drama.

Although I didn’t listen to much contemporary classical music, I admired Stravinsky but only the works before he adopted atonalism, and I heard some Copland, Bernstein, and Menotti. When I was a child, classical music was much more prevalent in the mainstream than it was from the sixties on. Prime time television had at least one opera show with famous singers and NBC had its own symphony orchestra conducted by Arturo Toscanini. The theme music for The Lone Ranger was the William Tell overture and the theme music for Captain Video, my all time favorite, was the overture to The Flying Dutchman, which had an electrifying effect on me. Can you imagine anything like that today? Oh yeah, there’s that commercial that has a few moments from a Beethoven symphony conducted by a hip-hop performer where the music morphs from the Ninth into hip-hop proving you should drink spring water with a little flavoring in it.

The times they are a’changin’ back

Despite the sixties generation’s efforts to alter society in a fundamental way, we found ourselves facing middle age having only reformed the system so it could more efficiently exploit people and with less opposition. The power structure showed a remarkable ability to adapt to the new youth attitudes and turn them into cold hard cash while, at the same time, robbing them of their radical content. Salacious, chicken-neck-biting, drug-taking rock idols were embraced by mainstream commerce and turned into establishment pop idols. Even today’s rap, much of which preaches violence, and denigrates women as “hoes”, was absorbed into the dominant culture with hardly a burp. Feeling safe at home, the ruling elite felt no threat from “sex, drugs and Rock ‘n Roll.” They had already caved in on sex. Drugs were unstoppable and widespread and Rock ‘n Roll no longer ruffled anyone’s feathers. Conformity came back with a vengeance: suits and short hair cuts made their appearance again and interest was revived in acquiring as many “cool” material possessions as possible. Like Candide, we were cultivating our own garden.

At the beginning of the eighties, after a stint as a director and writer of plays, I decided to begin composing again and damn the atonalists, I’d do it my way. In the process, I started listening to modern music searching out any composers who had bucked the serialist trend. To my joy I found a whole bunch of them. However they all suffered from one thing: they were isolated from mainstream musical tastes and they were barely tolerated by the classical music establishment. Why was this so?

During the sixties, there had been two parallel tracks: the rock/folk music explosion which embodied the rebellion of the youth against their elders and the modernist movement, a reaction against Romanticism, that took center stage in the classical music space. This, by and large, was the music extolled by music critics and taught by music schools. It was regularly programmed at concerts despite the fact that the mainstream audience did not like it. I remember attending a concert that included a John Cage piece in which a number of people gathered around the back of a grand piano, occasionally plucking a string with their hands. This went on for what seemed like forever. The restless audience finally gave up on this and started talking among themselves until the piece was over.

In light of the classical music audience’s resistance to pieces that they didn’t understand or like, the practice began of putting rather short modernist pieces in between the works of the great composers. This sandwich maneuver kept symphony concert-goers from simply walking out, but it resulted in the idea being formed that modern classical music was to be avoided. Critical opinion is divided as to why the classical music audience did not accept modernism. Some say that the pieces that were brought forward by performing organizations and grant makers of the time were above the heads of the audience. They feel that the audience was too conservative for modernism and never took the time to learn to appreciate it. Others feel that the composers abandoned the audience and made no concession to its tastes. Personally, I think that as the Baby Boomers ignored classical music in favor of more popular forms, there was intense competition in the classical music world for an ever diminishing number of performances and accolades. This led to coteries being formed and doomed composers who did not fit into the dominant form to become outsiders, almost shunned by the music establishment. In the Fifties and early Sixties, things centered around Serialism. Later on it was Minimalism. On the positive side, today, things have opened up considerably and there is no Academy that demands adherence freeing composers to follow their own vision.

I doubt, however, that rejection of modernism is what drove Baby Boomers away from classical music. They weren’t there in the first place. Part of their act of rebellion was to put a minus sign on anything their parents found important and classical music was seen as part of the conformity and stuffiness of the middle class life they rejected. To make matters worse, music education in the schools was gutted as the post-war prosperity waned and brought massive school budget cutbacks. So, it can’t really be said that most Baby Boomers and, especially, the generations following, considered classical music and then rejected it. It was simply not an option.

Is classical music over?

Today’s classical music composers are in a difficult position. The major media would no more pay attention to an adept classical composer than they would to an adept pornographer. With some holdouts, the official intellectual world has decided that if most people no longer think classical music is more complex and deep than any other music, then it isn’t. They raise the dread specter of “elitism”, that politically-correct but intellectually dishonest category that condemns the smarty pants who thinks he or she may have more knowledge and understanding about art than the untutored folk themselves. This type of thinking arose after the sixties when the actual political rebels were in retreat. It grew up in academia, where a wrong-headed type of thinking took root which used a shallow populism as the basis for restricting ideas. Classical music was branded by some influential critics as representing the obsolete canon created by “dead white males”. It was portrayed as sexist, since there were relatively few women composers and racist, since there were few Black composers.

I was pretty amazed when I first heard of “political correctness” as a criteria for judging ideas. One thing many of us in the student movement of the sixties had rebelled against was the idea that you had to “tow the party line”, be that the one the McCarthyists insisted on or the one Stalin wanted. In either case, not towing the line could result, in the U.S., in loss of job or in Russia, in loss of life. Now here it was, back again, in different form, making people afraid to say the wrong thing or, in the case of music, to defend classical music against charges of racism and sexism, charges that are ridiculous. It has made them afraid to argue what their knowledge, taste and sophistication tell them, which is that classical music is an important art form and potentially achieves more depth and complexity than popular forms, however wonderful those are.

As for charges of “elitism” if it is elitist to create works over average people’s heads then why is it alright to have schools to educate them? There is a remark attributed to the playwright Bert Brecht that I like very much. A state official castigated him for creating art that only appealed to a small circle of connoisseurs. This was undemocratic, the official stated. Brecht said something like: “Then let’s work to expand the connoisseurs into a large circle of connoisseurs, because art requires knowledge.”

That said, it doesn’t follow that any classical music piece is automatically superior to any popular music work. Popular music is market-driven and the best of it has been selected out, which doesn’t happen so frequently with modern classical music due to the current lack of interest in it and lesser opportunities. Inept music doesn’t improve with classical music techniques and will not achieve anything, much less musical depth. Its entertainment value will be close to nil.

I think the intellectual level of the people who write for the arts has dropped substantially as a result of their using political criteria, although often quite progressive ones, in place of artistic criteria. It’s ridiculous to have to argue that Beethoven’s opus is not in the same universe with that of Fifty-Cent, yet that is an argument that one must have with most of them. No, friends, the classical music canon did not get replaced by Rock ‘n Roll. Really. Take my word for it. Nor does it co-exist with it in the realm of musical complexity, nuance and depth.

Thankfully, classical music still has a devoted following. Taruskin makes the valid point that, back in the day, it only looked like everyone liked it…most people could have cared less, it was custom dictating their feigned interest. Interestingly, a recent poll by the Norman Lear Institute shows the majority of people as liking classical music. This, despite the fact that patronage for classical music has declined significantly since the nineteenth century and continues to decline as does the concert-going audience whereas untold millions are spent on publicizing popular music, shoring up its performer/composers, making them household names, filling their arenas. Is there not a correlation there? And I fear that, if the Baby Boomers and the current generation are not won to more than an opinion of “liking” classical music, but to a more active involvement, then the decline will continue. Just like the number of people who could read and write declined during the dark ages.

What about us?

We modern classical music composers suffer greatly from the public disregard of our work since we are forced to compete for the attention of an ever smaller pool of people, grants and awards. We are constantly tempted to come up with the gimmick that will bring us an audience, although, often, that gimmick seems to be making it sound like pop music. Should be content that most people experience classical music only in the background of a movie or commercial?

A question we must ask ourselves is why is classical music not only ignored by society, but also treated as a pariah? No hated, sniveling classical-music-loving aristocrats are persecuting the masses today. Why is classical music made a joke of in every television sitcom, and why is the Hollywood serial killer always playing it (usually opera) as he prepares to carve up his victims? Why is it likely that a classical music lover or musician will be called a nerd or worse? Why is the word “geek”…which originally described a sideshow freak…being applied liberally to people of intelligence and knowledge. The reason may be found in what our society has become. It is a society that hogs most of the world’s resources so that a middle class economic elite (the real elite here) can spend its life in unparalleled luxury, in the pursuit of ever multiplying fashionable goods and services while the rest struggle to survive, starve, or die of treatable diseases. In this atmosphere, heated by global warming and greed, those who think too hard or know too much are denigrated by the mass of this self-satisfied idiocracy (I’m indebted to Mike Judge for the term) and their ideological servants, the trendy intellectuals whose primary aim is not truth and beauty, but personal success in an ever more unreasonable world.

In a recent article in The New York Times, critic Bernard Holland takes composers to task for often writing music that the classical music audience does not like. Some composers have taken him to task for this, explaining that a composer must be true to her or his vision. While that is absolutely true, we composers must take a look at our vision and decide whether we want to write for a small coterie or for the classical music audience as a whole. There is nothing wrong with either approach: after all, cinema multiplexes cropped up for exactly that reason. However, in regards to classical music, it seems sad to if we cannot reach the classical music audience, which is already a small minority, with music that they can relate to without watering down our vision. I am not proposing “selling out” and, I believe, neither was Bernard Holland. I champion the idea of writing music—squarely in the classical tradition of complexity, nuance, and long form—that can stir and influence the existing classical music audience without demanding that it “re-educate” itself. I don’t believe we can skip over this step and involve a new audience that is not attracted to classical music with our music. Musical modernism can be achieved without alienating the audience, and that is where I am aiming my composing skills; not because I have to, but because I want to. That is my vision.

Here are some more steps we could take to make things better:

1. Like the critic Greg Sandow, I believe that education should be an important part of any concert. We can no longer take it for granted that the audience will understand classical music much less modern music. We must find creative, non- pedantic ways of accomplishing this.

2. We should pool our resources and set in motion an ad campaign that aims to educate people about classical music in creative ways and using well-known people to get across the message. Although it may be true that at some point in time (a time far, far away) you had to be wealthy or an aristocrat to hear this music, that is no longer the case and this pleasure, like chocolate and pineapples, is available to all.

3. We need classical music awards (“The Classies”) that are presented publicly and in grand style like the Emmys or Oscars. (They could even be televised on public television.) Being the most unimportant part of the Grammys sends a message that we need to counter. One of the perplexing contradictions today is that there are famous living classical performers, but no famous composers. This is because these days “famous” means “commercial”…a false dichotomy when it comes to art. Just because it’s good for capitalism doesn’t mean we have to accept that idea. Fighting against that idea is, itself, a step towards reclaiming our society from its downward trajectory.

4. We need to significantly increase the patronage for classical music. Popular music doesn’t require patronage, because it is commercial. It may be that a revivified classical scene will generate some commercial success stories, but, as has always been the case, classical music requires a commitment from society just like schools, fire departments, libraries, and health care.

5. The writing class and the media should be courted and lobbied to stop throwing mud at classical music either by ignoring it or attacking it as the plaything of the outdated elite. We need to vigorously answer assaults on common sense that assert classical music is dead, over, or just a niche like ukulele music. It’s bizarre to me that many of these attacks come from people who love classical music. Their intellectual collaboration in its demise makes me wonder whether they think classical music is only for them, not the masses, making them the very model of the elitist they so preach against.

6. We need, first of all to win back the classical music audience and then go on from there to convince the rest of the world that our kind of music, in addition to a powerful catalog, has the ability to significantly enhance their lives as it does ours.

7. Clearly the Internet is giving us a chance to bring our music to newbies, communicate and debate more among ourselves and will be key to a revival of classical music. The American Music Center and others have made effective use of the Internet and we composers will keep on thinking of new ways to use it to bring our works to a growing audience. As Alex Ross pointed out in a recent article in The New Yorker, the World Wide Web has allowed us to escape from the cone of silence imposed by the mainstream media on our music.

Ultimately, in a country whose chief executive is a nitwit and which, rattled by a terrorist attack on our soil, has engaged for the first time in torture, and where war is again something the ruling elite feel they can carry out, the fate of classical music may well be wrapped up in the political struggles of our time, and, if so, no measures we take, simply as composers, will set things right. But we need to try, don’t we? It may be that a revivified classical music can be part of the new movement of change that is just beginning again in a world that has seen velvet revolutions against dictators, growth of anti-war sentiment, increased concern about the environment, and international solidarity for human rights. Some have noticed that there appears to be a deep conflict between the interests of people of reason and those who would overthrow reason in favor of greed, war and ignorance. Certainly classical music has always incorporated the idea of the value of the individual and the force of reason and, as such, remains strongly pertinent to survival in these troubled times.


Roger Rudenstein
Photo by Marilyn Rudenstein

Roger Rudenstein studied composition with composers Fu Yuan Soong and Walter Hilse. In reaction to the destruction of the World Trade Center, the destruction of Iraq and New Orleans, global warming and other man-made insanities, he has written a body of chamber pieces plus an opera entitled The Nightmare of Reason. His recent CD, a Swiftian satire of the Bush administration entitled State of the Union, is available on the MMC label and features Richard Stoltzman, D’Anna Fortunato and Paul Dykstra with “lyrics” by G.W. Bush.

NewMusicBox provides a space for those engaged with new music to communicate their experiences and ideas in their own words. Articles and commentary posted here reflect the viewpoints of their individual authors; their appearance on NewMusicBox does not imply endorsement by New Music USA.