The Relevance of Classical Music, Part II

Future Symphony Institute

EDITOR’S NOTE: This essay is the second part of a three-part series.
You can read the first part here.

If classical music is the art of “therapeutic” interiority, then thinking about presentation, marketing, funding, etc. needs to be developed from this insight. “Selling” music in wrapping paper which belies its nature will inevitably lead to disappointment: the regular listeners will feel their experience is being diminished and dumbed down and may stay away in the future; potential new audiences – especially the younger generations without much exposure to classical music – will feel cheated when they find out that a Mahler symphony does not sound at all like heavy metal or hip-hop. One could revisit the many rubbing points that characterize the problems of classical music with this perspective in mind and try to find new and better ways to connect the art form to the needs of modern society instead of trying to make it compatible with modernity. Symphony orchestras especially, vulnerable because of their complex bureaucracy and great expenses, could find explorative trajectories to anchor the institution within society in a way that secures their existence in the present and in the future. And at the heart of such considerations lies the way in which the orchestra as an institution is perceived from the outside, from the modern world to which it offers a much-needed alternative space.

A short word about the sonic art performance culture is appropriate here. Since the Second World War, this entirely new art form has developed aesthetic and, especially, psychological receptive frameworks which differ fundamentally from those of music. This has meant an entirely different approach to composition, performance, education, and marketing. Sonic art does not intend to address the listener’s interior life but instead wants him to become aware of the aesthetics of pure sound patterns, which is more like an observation process of patterns which are not means of any communication of interior, emotional experience, but are objective, independent entities to be enjoyed for themselves, as natural phenomena are. Sonic art is not an art of interiority but an objective art that belongs to the world of objective entities. Given the ideological nature of much sonic art and its promotion, which insistently relates it to the specific character of modernity, it can never offer the contrast to modernity as explained in the first part of this essay. It belongs firmly to the modern world to which classical music, as the art of interiority, in contrast offers an alternative experience. In other words: audiences who want to immerse themselves again in the modern experience will seek sonic art; listeners who long for an experience that confirms their inner life and universal humanity will try to find this in classical music.

Let us now try, with the concept of interiority in mind, to find indications of possible solutions that can help to preserve classical music in the future. What follows are mere general suggestions which, however, can be further explored in specific cases and thus may offer new and fertile trajectories.

Education

Educational programs of classical music should be organised from primary schools onwards and clearly presented as an alternative music to pop, in the way healthy fruit is presented as an alternative to fast food, ice cream, and candy. It should not be treated as something old-fashioned but instead as something that has proven, by experience, to be wholesome to people’s emotional development. Active playing and singing, however simple, should be part of such programs. Comparisons with pop music which children will hear elsewhere in abundance, comparisons in which classical music is told to be superior, should be avoided, since patronizing overtones of a truth hinder communication; children will have to discover for themselves the quality difference when they engage in classical music; and if they do not, that’s too bad – but you cannot force love and appreciation. At least children who do not appear to be sensitive to classical music will know it exists and that it is important for a lot of people, and a normal part of civilization.

At the level of secondary school, the case of interiority and timelessness can be discussed around active playing and informative listening sessions. And at the university level, music history and general education in classical music culture should be a normal part of the humanities and of first-year, or preparatory, orientation programmes. Every student leaving university should know the basics of the classical music culture, irrespective of the profession he has been prepared for. As for “diversity”: since classical music is universal (because human interiority is universal), it is not bound to culturally-defined mental territories; it is open to everybody with enough interest and sensitivity to spend some effort and time on it, and will give its full and rich rewards to listeners irrespective of ethnic background or culture. Such music information courses at the university level should not be part of gender studies, or musico-sociological courses where music history is treated as part of political or social agendas; however interesting such courses may be, they do not touch the heart of the art form which transcends such contexts.

Marketing

When information given in the media and on websites about concerts, ensembles, orchestras, and opera houses, apart from the practical data, is presented in a style which does justice to the dignity of the art form and which refrains from any association with vulgar commercial advertisement, such an approach will be an honest and correct service to prospective listeners. Where orchestras and opera houses also include the more popular genres like musicals and cross-over programs, the style of presentation should be as different as possible from the presentation style of the classical programs, so that it will be clear to prospective listeners that classical music is really a different genre and will address the more sophisticated and developed inner life of audiences.

The star cult around brilliant performers has always been part of the classical music culture, and it would be much too puritanical to bring up arguments against it, since the real, live presence of such artists is one of the great attractions of a concert. But it makes quite a difference whether performers are presented as the main subject of the event, or as serving the music. A certain measure of dignity and chastity will keep the balance right (one thinks of pianists dressed up like pop stars, or singers almost drowning in their cleavage – a misapplication of the idea of interiority – which creates a barrier between the listener and the music by exaggerating the outer appearances of the intermediate).

If the promotion and marketing of concerts focus on the contemporary need for interior experience, one has the best chance to get audiences, both old and new, who will recognize the value of the event and will come back for more. When attracting young and new audiences, it will not be references to the modern world, or pop, or superficial glamour that will bring them around more than once, but the argument that they will find something of their own inner identity touched and confirmed by classical music. Surely young people, still finding their way into life and into a confusing and often insecure world, will be interested to experience something that will strengthen their sense of Self, that will stimulate aspirations, and that connects them to the long organic chain of generations, an experience which may insert some awareness of human greatness, individual potential, and all the important human values which cannot be defined by “the market” or fashion or hip technologies.

A short word upon “diversity,” a term which often crops up in government reports, fundraising initiatives, and defences of the art form in relation to social changes. The classical repertoire was created in times and places which were different from our own times. The idea that the art form should be accessible to all community types within society is perfectly legitimate and right; given the universality of classical music, it cannot be nailed down to a mere product of dead, white males from undemocratic times and thus an expression of white, male, European dominance. The music transcends such narrow-minded notions. It is not anti-women, anti-proletariat, anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, anti-gay, anti-whatever, but addresses itself to any human being prepared to open her heart and ears (probably the latter in the first place). So, programming which seeks to meet requirements of diversity by including works which do not belong to the genre is creating a barrier: listeners from backgrounds where Western classical music is not heard should not come to the concert hall to recognize something of their culture at home, but to be invited to explore an art form which may be unfamiliar at first but which can be absorbed by their own inner Self in the same it absorbed their own cultural symbols and metaphors, and thus provide an enrichment without any suggestion of “giving up” something of their own cultural identity. As Western listeners can learn to understand and experience Indian traditional music, Indians can do the same with Western classical music. Because of its all-embracing universality, Western classical music is particularly suited to the needs of our own globalized, and therefore increasingly neurotic, times.

Funding

As we know, funding of classical music differs from country to country and especially from the USA to Europe. Where concerts are dependent upon private donors and corporate sponsorship, again the contemporary need for interior experience that classical music offers, best be at the heart of the fundraising exercise. Also references to permanence, continuity, and the civilizing influence of the art form should help to attract donors who feel themselves committed to such values and corporate sponsors who wish their products to be associated with an art form contributing to compelling, interior experience. (A good example of the presentation of classical music with a dignified emanation of quality – and with a discrete reference to sponsorship but without the suggestion that music is a mere luxury product – is the website of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, where a mere little clock on the left indicates that the orchestra has a sponsor relationship with Rolex.)

Where governments support classical music, as they do in Europe, orchestras’ existence is secured by structural subsidies. Spending tax money on such institutions has to be politically motivated and this results in the dependence of the institutions – orchestras, opera houses, concert halls, etc. – upon just how politicians think about cultural identity and the political gain they may derive from supporting the arts or else cutting the subsidies (as recently happened in Denmark and the Netherlands, both countries gravely suffering from populist inroads into the cultural sector). Most countries in Europe, however, still have a strong traditional cultural identity in spite of the erosion that comes with globalization. Germany and Austria understand themselves as Kulturnationen, “nations of culture,” where classical music especially forms an important part of national self-understanding. France still cultivates its patrimoine, the total of cultural monuments, artifacts, and traditions which have come down through the ages, not to mention Italy and Spain with their rich inheritances. The arguments that institutions have to regularly present to the state funding bodies have to relate to the political agendas of the reigning parties, and where the political landscape changes these arguments change as well. The current rise of populism, which infects many political parties who had been immune against such erosion before, means that musical institutions have to find other accents in their arguments to justify their function within society. In the discourse with governments, the populist agenda is entirely against any culture which claims high quality experience since any such suggestion is considered “elitist.” The best an institution could do when confronted by such an agenda is to stress the accessibility of classical music and its therapeutic effect on all levels of the community – and be silent about its relationship to notions of “European civilization,” its artistic qualities, its level of craftsmanship, and the like. As for the concept of interiority: this will probably be much too difficult to understand for populist politicians and thus better left untouched.

Concert Halls

A concert hall is not merely a practical space for live concerts; it also creates the appropriate mood where classical music can be experienced in the most appropriate way. But what is the most appropriate way? To begin with, this space will have to underline its separateness from the outside world, not only acoustically (a practical consideration) but also psychologically, to underline the interior nature of the art form. The great concert halls of the 19th century, when public music life found its first anchoring in public space, were created like temples, separate from the noise of daily life, often with solemn classicist design and richly-sculpted decorations out- and inside the hall, which had the advantage of both creating an atmosphere of dignity and elevation and spreading and distributing the sound waves in such a way that the music comes into its own right. In the 20th century, however, architectural modernism sought to stress the contemporaneity of the concert hall building, with the effect that the music being performed inside began to seem “outdated” and “historical.” Together with the splitting-off of the avant-garde from the central performance culture, modern concert halls seemed to underline the museum-like nature of the classical, pre-modernist repertoire. The inescapable conclusion is that, if classical music should be best served in its concert spaces, we need to build concert halls in a classical style, as happened in Nashville with the Schermerhorn Symphony Centre.

Community work

Fortunately, many musical institutions have extended their activities to educational programs in the communities of their cities, trying to interest young people and hoping to build new audiences for the future. Some of these community programs have taken on the character of a social engineering exercise, as if classical music could heal the social problems of underprivileged neighbourhoods suffering from crime and racism, thereby suggesting that the influence of music should be able to change attitudes in the social sphere. But classical music is not an instrument of social change in a direct sense: if it has an influence, it works in an indirect way by civilizing the emotions, awakening aspirations, confirming the Self. But it cannot solve the problems resulting from the lack of these things. Those problems are (for music) too far down the chain of cause and effect. Active participation in music-making in ensembles, sponsored by either donors or the state, can certainly improve problem neighbourhoods as many reports have shown, but one should not expect miracles from classical music in such areas.

The last subject related to the relevance of classical music, the repertoire problem, will be treated in part III of this series.

About the Author

John Borstlap is a composer and author on cultural subjects, covering music and the visual arts. He studied at the Rotterdam Conservatory and took a Masters Degree at the University of Cambridge (England). His Violin Concerto won prizes at the Prince Pierre Competition in Monaco and the Wieniawski Competition in Poznan (Poland). John’s third symphony is due to be premiered by the Kammersymphonie Berlin in the coming seasons. Other orchestral performances are currently under negotiation in the US, Germany, and Vienna. In 2016 Borstlap’s new work ‘Feierliche Abendmusik’, a shared commission by the Dallas Symphony and the Hong Kong Philharmonic, was premiered by the respective orchestras under the direction of Jaap van Zweden. The recently released second printing of John's book “The Classical Revolution: Thoughts on New Music in the 21st Century” is included in FSI's recommended reading list and can be found in the bookstore on this site.

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