January 10, 2006

Classical music must be reclaimed from the critical elite to be truly appreciated

At the beginning of an uncommonly warm January, 250 years after the birth of Mozart, classical music dances on as if in a bedazzled snow globe, bewitching the observer. The crisis, the stagnation, and the beauty continue; but then again, they always did.

As every historian is keenly aware, epochs only materialize in the clarity of retrospection, and retrospection in every genre is a unique function of time. Let’s just say that even in the most placid periods of Mendelssohn and Chopin there were fiery prophets of doom, and that 100 years from now, orchestras will still be dying, superb new music will face approximately the same odds, some little nonentity whom nobody bothered to listen to will be discovered, knighted with fame and yoked with a crystal ball, and the critics will be holding their sides and laughing at us.

Classical music, ladies and gentlemen, is alive and kicking. The orchestras play on, strikes and gloomy sociological studies notwithstanding. Brilliance lives on, publicity agents notwithstanding. And music of ageless beauty continues to be made and written, fire-eaters notwithstanding.

However, it is true that classical music as an art is perhaps more fragile than others, and more vulnerable to assault by isolation. And in my opinion as an economist and a critic, although Baumol’s cost disease, product placement, the aged demographic, and the dependence upon contributional funding have contributed to this status, they have relatively little to do with the underlying cause.

Among all other expressive forms (literature, theatre, film, dance, art, sculpture, and such) classical music is by far the most instutitionalized in terms of expertise and its perception. The process of criticizing classical music and forming an opinion about its merits is almost entirely left to “the critics”: a well established, stable body of writers. Almost anyone can read a book and declare whether they liked it or not, but the sound of a violin rushing over a piano seems to make people abandon all judgment and resort to the “canon of well established opinion.” There seems to be a lurking fear that one will be called an ass if one ventures anything but banalities about classical music, a sentiment that only the highly cultured can appreciate classical music, and a feeling that the words “opera” and “highbrow” are synonyms in spirit that makes individuals eager to wholly delegate the task of interpretation to the critics. Too many people place their opinions entirely in the hands of the critics, and when their instinct rebels against any of the edicts thus imposed, they lose interest instead of regaining control.

When critics insist that George Crumb was a great and profound composer, and an individual finds his music unpleasant at best, the individual does not rise and make his stand, for he believes himself outmanned and outgunned. He simply stops listening—and not just to George Crumb, but to all modern music that sounds even vaguely like Crumb. And there you have the very quintessence of artistic degeneration.

Critic David Hurwitz makes a brilliant point in his editorial Classical Music’s Ten Dirtiest Little Secrets, when he says that most consumers view classical music as a “take it or leave it” proposition. He argues that moviegoers throng around theatres every weekend, despite and even because of the fact that “9 times out of 10, [they] hate what they see.” They are free to hate something, to pan a movie, to find the performance utterly vile. They are at liberty to expound this opinion, and will not be thought of as wholly uncultured morons, as they would doubtless be perceived if they dared to do the same after a classical music concert. The freedom to dislike as well as admire, the faculty of criticism, and the right to an autonomous opinion imbue the audience of any given art form with phenomenal power. Granting individuals the cultural sanction to sit in judgment and hate a product if it does not please them is possibly the best way of engendering ardent admiration for the conception if it does please them.

Passion can only exist if there exists room for antipathy. If you walk into a concert with the air of a sheep that will accept anything as long as it is presented by elderly gentlemen in tuxedos, you will do just that: Accept everything, and fall in love with nothing. A man can go from being a cynic to an idealist and vice versa. It is Walter Mitty who forever remains unchanged, and classical music after the 1960s has unfortunately been overgrown with a cultural heritage that favors redefinition over evaluation and catatonia over criticism.

Which then raises the question—what can possibly be done about it? “Nothing” is hardly an answer, and I shall not insult you by arguing it. Is the art form doomed to an apocalypse, in which death and transfiguration will recreate clear, fresh springs of opinionated milk and critical honey? Come, come, we are not children; it is hardly that simple. The solution lies in allowing ourselves the luxury of opinion, of examining our gut instincts, and trying to apply that wonderful faculty of judgment to the hallowed realms of classical music. It may be an undiscovered country, but it is well worth exploring.

Both incredibly beautiful and incredibly horrible music exist in the canons of this tradition. When your ears tell you something, pay heed to it. Don’t accept it implicitly—for that would be substituting the tyranny of pure opinion for the tyranny of pure docility—but put it to the test. Find out why Webern sounds so bloody bad, and be able to defend that opinion to yourself. Walk into a concert hall and feel free to court, as well as to disbelieve.

Classical music does not demand anything more or less from its audience than any other form of music, or any other form of art: It merely asks for a receptive ear and an aesthetically open perception. If we accept everything, we enshrine mediocrity and cheapen brilliance. The future of classical music depends upon the willingness of the critic (as well as the concert-goer) to call a cat’s wail a cat’s wail. Any other name will pave the path to aesthetic bankruptcy.