The Relevance of Classical Music, Part III

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

Last but not least, the burning question of repertoire. For classical music as a genre to survive in modern times, renewal of the repertoire is a fundamental requirement: without renewal, the art form petrifies and audiences will stay away because they will have the repertoire of works on CD at home. An obvious way to rejuvenate the repertoire is to explore works of the past which have gone out of fashion or which have been unjustly overlooked – the filter of history is by no means an “honest” one and many unmusical factors have an influence upon the formation of the repertoire that appears to survive the times. There are works by well-known composers which were once popular but then fell out of fashion, as well as works by these composers which were never very popular but are nevertheless definitely worthwhile. Among the examples which come to mind are César Franck’s symphonic poem Le Chasseur Maudit and his Variations Symphoniques for piano and orchestra; Fauré’s Ballade for piano and orchestra; the operas of Cherubini (highly appreciated by Beethoven); symphonic poems by Saint-Saëns; the neoclassical repertoire by Stravinsky and De Falla. Music which has been overshadowed by “the Greats” can also offer surprising works, like Reger’s Romantic Suite (a most remarkable work), or the many engaging works by British composers of the early 20th century (Vaughan Williams, Holst, Delius). The 20th-century tonal tradition, much maligned and pushed to the margins by modernism and academia, offers a veritable treasure trove of interesting music which, fortunately, is currently explored by recording labels and which has been thoroughly mapped by Canadian musicologist Herbert Pauls. There is so much unfamiliar and engaging music already written that it won’t be very hard, with some serious time spent on it, to find additional repertoire which enriches concert life with an injection of adventure and exploration.

And then there is contemporary production, which, on the surface, seems to carry the stronger symbolism of renewal and development for the art form. But this invokes some quite complex questions. If renewal means programming a new, still unknown work, then how do we know beforehand that it is worthwhile, given the immensely wide range of idioms and the fact that a lot of new music is unsuited for classical music’s performance format? How to find your way into that jungle, and with which value framework? How do we know beforehand that announcing the new work won’t reduce ticket sales – since an unknown or contemporary name on the program often invites grave suspicion with prospective audiences that it may be one of those indigestible pieces that are painfully endured rather than a compelling and interesting experience? And then, could a new work which is painful on first hearing not be a great work after all when performed more than once – and if so, how could we know? After all, orchestras, opera companies, and smaller ensembles can function perfectly well without any “unfamiliar” work, the established repertoire being so large and varied. Orchestras and opera companies work under strong pressures to get the planned performances realized in the best possible way. The many letters, proposals, and recordings they receive from composers, their agents, or their publishers every day create mountains of unsolicited mail in corners of their offices and they simply don’t have the capacity to deal with those masses of information which are mostly seen as a mere threat to their working routine. In general, orchestras and opera companies don’t have a specialized staff member dedicated exclusively exploring such material, and the staff dealing with artistic planning can’t afford to lose valuable time assessing material they are not equipped to judge.

Another problem is the sheer amount of new music being produced every minute of every hour nowadays. Because the musical fashions that have arisen since WWII claim total freedom from traditional musical standards and aesthetic norms, composing has become open to anybody – including people with the ambition but without the talents to really write meaningful music. And they are many. What’s more, current computer technology makes putting something together that one could call a “composition” possible for people who in former periods would not have dreamed of becoming a musician, let alone a composer. This has resulted in the current proliferation of “composers” thronging at the doors of orchestras, ensembles, and opera houses, creating a dense fog that is looked upon with suspicion and gloom from the closed windows of artistic leadership. It has thus become very difficult for institutions to find new, valuable works.

What is the role of conductors in introducing unfamiliar works? They compete for restricted opportunities in the field, and career choices are often given priority over interest in content. But fortunately, quite a few conductors – mostly of the younger generation – understand that restricting their repertoire to warhorses will not benefit either their career or the art form itself, and proposals from conductors to the planning staff are a possible route to performance. But conductors who have earned the trust of the orchestral staff, whether of their own orchestra or of other orchestras where they make guest appearances, generally have little time to explore the labyrinth of new music and to react to the flood of proposals coming their way.

Orchestras and opera companies try to give as many performances as possible to exploit the available financial and practical resources to the fullest. Well-known works of the repertoire only need rehearsing for the “how” and not for the “what,” so works from the standard repertoire are cheaper and more practical than unfamiliar or new works. Most of the time, new works are only rehearsed for the “what;” and where the music in itself does not intend to transcend the sound level, where the “how” consists in getting the notes and timbres in the right place and nothing more (which is mostly the case with postwar music), preparations are finished when the structure is more or less correct. But this does not leave listeners with the impression of communication and a deeper musical meaning. The result is that the work is soon forgotten and not repeated because it does not invite more hearings. What happens to the rare works in which, as in “older” music, the level of sound is a mere carrier of musical expression? Extra rehearsal time is needed to create the opportunity of exploring the expressive dimension, and that is only possible when first the “what,” the right notes in the right place, has been realized. Given the cost of rehearsal time, this rarely happens, with the result that works which may offer the unique opportunity to add to the repertoire are put in the same category as the superficial, musically-empty products and share the same fate of oblivion. Postwar modernism and its hip progeny, in combination with the expensive cost of operation for orchestras and opera houses, created barriers which hinder renewal of the repertoire – a self-destructive mix, pushing classical music into the corner as a “museum culture.”

The only possibility for orchestras and opera houses to find new repertoire, with the chance that they hit upon something of real value, is to preserve a practical framework: the one which defines the fundamentals of the art form. This means ignoring the postwar modernist ideologies of progress – because there is no progress in the arts – and requiring of new repertoire that it be suited to the medium as it has developed over time. In other words, new music should be rooted in some sort of tonality, create the possibility of communication and expression, and offer the players (and singers when in opera) the opportunity to create a coherent total musical experience which can be combined with existing repertoire and which avoids disruption of the general format of the art form –which, after all, is merely a means to an end: the compelling musical experience. Only then will the expensive extra rehearsal time needed for a satisfying result be justified. Does this sound “conservative?” Is preserving fundamentals of a precious art form “conservative?” Or is it merely common sense? If we want classical music to survive in modern times, it should be its intrinsic, artistic quality which carries developments, not its deviations from the only format within which the art form can thrive. New music which needs to deconstruct the fundamentals of the art form to make its mark is dealing not with content but with the outer form, which points toward a lack of artistic motivation. Even the most deviating works in the past, like Stravinsky’s Sacre, made use of the basic format of classical music to introduce a highly original treatment of melody, harmony, rhythm, and instrumentation – all of which were rooted in music that existed already at the time. The Sacre was not avant-garde and modernist (which is modernist jargon) but highly idiosyncratic and an extreme version of an existing musical tradition: the one of Russian folklore, being prepared and practiced long before Stravinsky laid his hands on it.

Thus two possibilities readily present themselves regarding the renewal of the repertoire:

  1. Exploring unfamiliar works from the past, of which there are many that deserve a new hearing; and
  2. Looking for contemporary music which conforms to the fundamentals and medium of our performance culture (orchestra, ensemble, opera house).

Either way, it would be best if orchestras and opera houses appointed a special staff member to explore and select new ideas for programming. Someone with both performance experience and an extensive education in music history and aesthetics would be ideal for such undertaking and able to intelligently discuss new ideas with the conductor(s) concerned.

Fortunately, there is already much effort being spent on the survival of classical music by both the established institutions and many ad hoc initiatives. However it is to be hoped that musical institutions will, in the course of time, become still more adept at navigating their routine pressures which, though entirely understandable, in the long run may prevent necessary reform. In spite of all the stories of “a dying art” and the completely unfounded criticism that it is “outdated’ and “incompatible with modern times,” Western classical music as a genre remains one of the greatest human achievements and inspires hope that we will, at some stage, be capable of creating a civilized world in which the benefits of the mind and spirit can flourish.


  1. Nicolae Bretan is an overlooked composer from the past. His two operas Golem and Arald are available on CD and are well worth being added to the repertoire of opera companies.

    1. I listened to some samples of Bretan’s music on the internet, but – with all due respect – it is all very conventional and unimaginetive, with phrase structures square and obvious, the harmonies plain and without any engaging modulations or colours, and the prelude to his ‘Evening Star’ is naive and simplistic:

      That the music is very, very oldfashioned for its period (early and later 20C) is not the point, but the bland way in which he uses the musical language, with such flat ideas. It is maybe sympathetic music, and singers can do something with it, the composer being a singer himself, but I don’t think his music is a very interesting discovery. A totally different matter is, of course, the way he was treated by the communist regime, so his rehabilitation is justified.

  2. Hi John, always a joy to read your work. There is a good and accurate description in there about how the new work that is currently being performed gets selected, useful information for anyone unfamiliar with how the system operates. Not sure whether the addition of a trained specialist staff member will do all that much though, because lightening the work-load is unlikely to address the key issue. To explain this, we need to look closer at how the process plays out.

    I’ll restrict myself for now to how the system operates in Germany, but a similar process plays out pretty much everywhere that I’m aware of. Here the first point of contact is usually the Musik Dramaturg/ Dramaturgin. Their rather vague job description is mostly about feedback and guidance and they invariably hold a music degree of some sort. They are relatively high in the pecking order but definitely not decision makers themselves. If they like something new they have been sent, they might share it with various other members of staff, and ultimately possible new repertoire will be discussed in a more formal setting. In my experience, works will then be short-listed on the basis of how they measure up against an established artistic policy. When I say established, it’s highly unlikely that this will be an actual official policy in writing, but that does not change how uniform and inflexible the regime is, at least here. I’m speaking of course, of “avant-garde only”.

    So even if you beat the odds and somebody actually looks at or listens to work that you’ve submitted, even if then you receive strong support from important people within the organisation (I have all this in writing by the way from a disgruntled Dramaturgin at a major German house), it only takes one “avant-garde policeman” to spoil the party, and most opera houses and orchestras have considerably more than one.

    On the subject of reviving unjustly ignored work of the past, I do think that as much as it’s a fine idea, energy and resources would probably be better spent uncovering unjustly ignored work created in our time.

    1. That seems to be a particular problem for Germany. Postwar modernism was considered, in the ruined state of the country after WW II, and with a moral bankruptcy of immense proportions, as the only way music could develop, with a fundamental break with the past with associations of German music with the nazis: Wagner’s antisemitism, Strauss’ ‘collaboration’. The avantgarde ‘policeman’ at musical German institutions is some sort of moral safeguard against anything which may produce overtones of ‘the past’ because for many Germans, ‘the past’ is the Dark Period of the last century. That there is a better past further back, is too difficult to consider because society was so different then. The country has to wait until new generations will understand that German cultural identity is more than the nazi period.

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