Is Classical Music in a Golden Age?

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Is classical music in a "new golden age"? Heather Mac Donald recently argued this at length in City Journal, a right-leaning quarterly. Despite widespread pessimism, she takes the view that performances have never been better, audiences never more attentive, and quality music never more available. Of course, the contending view is that the audience for classical music is quite literally dying off, as funding vanishes, and musical innovation languishes.

You may not have seen a real classical-music war in a while, so you may be surprised how much passion the "decline" debate arouses in fans.  Mac Donald's piece had that effect, drawing a fierce five-part response from Greg Sandow at Arts Journal. Here are the rough outlines of the brawl:

  • Classical Music Flourishing  With a proper sense of perspective, argues Mac Donald, we can see that classical music is in a "new golden age." Performance standards are higher than ever, fed by "a vast oversupply of students competing to make a career in music." Recording could have proved fatal, but did not: "Schubert's piano sonatas and Chopin's nocturnes, Beethoven's string quartets and Brahms's intermezzi ... have triumphed over the potentially stupefying overfamiliarity inflicted on them by instant replay and the accumulating weight of hundreds of thousands of performances." Meanwhile, argues Mac Donald, classical music declinists--those alarmed by the lack of a mass market--fail to grasp that classical music never had a mass audience, and that today's audiences are far more reverent:
The universal loathing directed by today's audiences at the hapless recipient of a mid-performance cell-phone call would have struck eighteenth-century audiences as provincial, given the widespread use of concerts and opera as pleasant backdrops for lively conversation. ... The much-publicized financial difficulties of many orchestras during the current recession also need to be put into historical perspective. More people are making a living playing an instrument than ever before, and doing so as respected and well-paid professionals, not lowly drones. There were no professional orchestras during Beethoven's time.
  • 'Cockeyed Optimist' is what Greg Sandow, who is working on a book with entirely the opposite thesis, calls Mac Donald. In his first post on the subject at Arts Journal, he attacks one section in which Mac Donald "dismisses the NEA [National Endowment for the Arts] data by noting that other activities also show a decline in participation." Wonders Sandow: "Wouldn't you think, if you'd established that classical music has (or is likely to have) a smaller audience and less funding, that then you wouldn't go around saying that it's in a golden age"? Furthermore, he adds, current standards of performance may be technically high, but artistically low: musicians, trying to meet the standards introduced by recording, "work on precision first, and expression only later." Meanwhile, globetrotting musicians "can't settle into a free and individual performance style." Nor is he impressed by her argument that classical music never had a mass market, and thus that today's lack of mass market shouldn't worry us:
The notion of a mass market is meaningless historically. There wasn't any such thing in the 18th century, or in much of the 19th ... Whatever the musical market was in past centuries, what we now call classical music entirely ruled it, often with characteristics--sensation-seeking audiences, for instance--that in our time we'd associate with the mass market, and not with art.
  • 'The Unsustainable Declinism of Greg Sandow'  Mac Donald hits back--hard. "Sandow makes no attempt to rebut the central thesis of my article, because he can't," she writes. "It is indisputable that classical-music lovers have never enjoyed such an abundance of great music, performed at levels of consummate artistry." Among her many responses to Sandow's points, she gets down to the nitty-gritty of his "sterility" accusation regarding modern performance in a way that only a classical music nut could:
Has Sandow or any other knee-jerk nostalgist heard Andreas Scholl's "Agnus Dei" from Philippe Herreweghe’s B Minor Mass? That unbearably erotic expression, sterile? You've got to be kidding me. Andras Schiff’s courtly shaping of the Bach partitas? Jean-Christophe Spinosi's fierce La Verità in Cimento? James Maddelena’s "News Has a Kind of Mystery?" Name some names, Greg. Warren Jones, a sterile accompanist? Kissin's Chopin, sterile?
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