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Peering Into Classical Music’s Future

Is the current model supporting classical music adaptable enough to ensure it will exist 50 - 100 years from now?

by Drew McManus
October 11, 2004

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There’s quite a bit of discussion about the future of classical music in America these days. Most of it focuses on the larger institutions of classical music, such as orchestras, and whether or not they’ll be financially viable and culturally relevant organizations.
But of course, there’s much more to classical music than just orchestras. However orchestras do hold the status of representing the art form to the majority of the population, so how well they fare is often the chief indicator on the classical music barometer.
So where will classical music be 50 to 100 years from now?
In order to look ahead, it usually helps to look back. A paper written by Douglas Dempster (PDF File) and published in Harmony magazine in 2002 concluded that the increase for aggregate revenues of 625 American orchestras increased 1,476% during the 30 year period from 1971 through 2001 with aggregate expenses not far behind at a 1,442% increase.
However, those tremendous increases conceal the issue that classical music has been steadily slipping in attendance for that same period of time. According to a recent Knight Foundation study, that decline in attendance has resulted in only 4% of Americans actively participating in classical music.
In the 30 years prior to 1971, many orchestras that are now considered large by today’s standards, such as Indianapolis and Baltimore, were barely part time jobs and performed a fraction of the concerts they do today. So the increase in revenue and expenditures doesn’t exactly carry a similar increase in participation. Overall, it’s a very mixed message with regard to where orchestras have been and where they may go.
But there are a few facts which can’t be ignored. The current decline in active participation has directly influenced how much classical music’s impact has on the overall American cultural consciousness. So even with the increase in revenue from sources such as federal and private philanthropic funds you still have to have a certain level of the population interested in what you do in order to justify your existence.
If the current rate of decrease continues among attendance of live orchestra events, there won’t be more than 1% of the population actively participating in classical music. That’s a very tiny percentage of any population.
If only 1% of the population 50 years from now participates in classical music, that low of a percentage will cause enough of a reduction in earned income to force 2/3 of the professional American orchestras into bankruptcy or reduce their expenditures to such a degree that they will once again become only community ensembles, incapable of supporting musicians at even poverty levels. This would effectively return the state of orchestral classical music back to a time before 1971.
And what about 100 years from now, will orchestral based classical music even exist in all but the largest metropolitan centers as a sort of cultural throw back? Will it be a type of “dead language” art, mentioned in the same breath as Latin and Greek?
That may very well be the case, but only for orchestral based classical music. But there will still be that fractional percentage of the population who will always have some interest in classical music. And that interest will focus on everything that is not at the conscious center of classical music today; the countless number of chamber musicians who regularly perform the wide body of traditional and new repertoire.
And barring a new dark age descending upon humanity that could wipe out even the memory of classical music, there will always be the possibility that the seeds of chamber music will create a new interest in the large scale works.
Will this future come to pass? It’s impossible to say, however, the current direction the orchestral side of classical music is heading seems to be one of near extinction. Without a significant increase in the percentage of the population actively participating in live orchestral music there will be an ever increasing need for orchestras to subsidize their operations on funds from philanthropic and government sources.
It would be wise to consider that subsidies are a poor substitute for direct interest and participation. As a result, classical music may have some very turbulent times ahead if orchestras are forced to endure a sort of extinction event resulting from a financially unsustainable model.
Ideally, in 50 years we’ll see a future where both large orchestras and smaller ensembles equally share prominence in the cultural consciousness. They will be ensembles capable of financially sustaining professional musicians and revenues as an industry will concentrate on listener participation and not subsidies.

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Frank T. Manheim from Fairfax, VA writes:
November 24, 2004

Drew McManus has peered into the future of classical music (Partial Observer, Oct. 11). It doesn’t look good. As one of classical music’s Young Turks, and a scholar of symphony management, Drew may be the first writer to use hard data to help speculate about where classical music might be 50 to 100 years from now.

McManus concludes that there will always be some interest in classical music – but it might be a kind of “dead language art, mentioned in the same breath with Latin and Greek.” He suggests that unless current trends change, they predict extinction of symphonies and large–scale musical enterprises in the future. At best, “classical music” interests will concentrate on chamber music and smaller ensembles.

I’m an old, rather than a Young Turk. But I share with Drew his view of current problems with the classical music establishment. I also believe that our large and small symphony orchestras and the brilliant musical compositions they were created to play rank with the Egyptian pyramids and Greek sculpture and architecture among the greatest human achievements in the arts. Unlike the latter, they’re still here to inspire us. I rate McManus and the Knight Foundation Report as among the best and most objective sources of insight about the condition of our symphony orchestras today.

I think Drew’s initiative deserves serious comment and debate, and I offer some observations and future projections of my own, which are cautiously positive. First, some notes about “old music’s” survival. Then I offer concepts and signposts for potential turnarounds in classical music.

In an early-stage blog on the British music review website, http://www.musicweb.uk.net/, I recently posted an essay, Why '“classical' classical music will never die. My thesis is that special conditions surrounding the production of courtly music from Mozart and Haydn’s time led to musical products with a blend of tunefulness, inspired elegance and nobility, and serenity-inducing qualities that are unlikely to be duplicated. They are likely to retain their unique character and role well into the future.

Music from roughly 1760 to 1800 reflects the influence of the Enlightenment. In the words of E.N. Williams (The Ancien Régime in Europe, 1999) the Enlightenment philosophes were informed, warm-hearted, tolerant, and humane - they fought obscurantism, bigotry, prejudice, and injustice, and believed that the sum of human happiness could be increased”. Royalty and the nobility were influenced by these concepts. They wanted to associate themselves with musical entertainment of the highest quality, evoking sophistication, serenity with grandeur, yet melodic, optimistic in character, and requiring no laborious effort to assimilate.

The royal houses and emulators expanded equality of opportunity and had the money and prestige to recruit the best musical talents from their societies. For example, Joseph Haydn started life as a country boy from Rohrau, Austria, but ended his life as the most famous composer in Europe, lionized in England.

Courts and nobles of Europe (and even the Spanish colonial extension to Mexico) vied to create something I like to think of as the musical equivalent of the powerhouse East German Olympic teams of the 1970’s and 1980’s. The East German Communist government ran a nationwide farm system to identify and groom promising athletes that would honor the nation in the international Olympics.

In perhaps far-fetched sounding but I think, not dissimilar fashion, Elector Karl Theodor of the Palatine in Germany built the Mannheim Orchestra. It boasted no fewer than nine famous composers of the time: Cannabich, Filtz, Holzbauer, Lebrun, Richter, Toeschi - and Johann, Karl, and Anton Stamitz (recruited from Bohemia). This famous ensemble dazzled young Mozart during his early travels and inspired the noted English music writer Charles Burney (1726-1814) to famously write: ” it is an army of generals, equally fit to plan a battle as to fight it.”

I suggest that at no time before or since the classical period have such formidable musical compositional talents been assembled and constrained to create music designed to give sophisticated pleasure. Composers from this relatively brief period (extended in some countries) are known not just from Germany, Austria, and Bohemia, but from most European countries, such as (Johann Christian) Bach and Arne in England - Sammartini, Boccherini, Paisiello, Salieri, Cimarosa and Piccini in Italy - Soler and Arriaga in Spain - Corrette in France, Gossec and Gretry in Belgium - and even Tulindberg, Byström, and Crusell in Finland. The latter three are rediscoveries of the late 20th Century – and can lead radio listeners to think they are hearing some of the bigger classical names.

Widely heard American commercial all-classical radio stations like WRCB (Waltham MA), and WGMS (Washington) discovered in the 1980s and 90’s that baroque and classical pieces – including those by rarely heard composers, were favored by newcomers to classical music. This music helped them relax. Commercial firms’ telephone “waiting” music is often classical, not necessarily because managers are classical buffs, but because classical music provides entertainment conveying a feeling of relaxation with taste and dignity.

In America, we can discern a pronounced shift within the larger classical recorded repertory toward baroque and classical music. The “big three”, Haydn, Mozart, and early Beethoven, offer some of the few areas in music where music professionals and nonprofessional audiences can agree without heavy qualifications. Aside from “new music” trends discussed below, I feel on safe ground in predicting that the U.S. in the future will be reluctant to abandon a musical period that provides such artfully rewarding and multilevel musical expression.


As German conductor and musicologist, Nicolaus Harnoncourt has put it - a vital musical culture has always required new music. And that brings us to the biggest problem and bone of contention between the classical music establishment and audiences: contemporary music. An almost inconceivably drastic break with traditional tonal and rhythmic structures took place in the early 20th Century through a bewildering host of revolutionary approaches.

Whether the directions took their departure point from new theoretical systems like the (12-tone) serial compositions of Schoenberg - mathematical theory (Messiaen, Nono) - pointillism and electronic music (Stockhausen) - elevation of dissonance to a dominant role, e.g. the “dissonant counterpoint” of Charles Seeger, compositions by Ives - the formidably complex rhythmic structures of Colin Nancarrow - or aleatoric (indeterminate) music like that of Cage and Wolff, these and other experimental directions all had one thing in common. They abandoned the traditional musical system of tonality and rhythm that had characterized music in recorded musical history. They thereby excluded or drove away general musical audiences. In cases where the composers identified their music with revolutionary political causes, the challenge to “bourgeois” audiences could be quite deliberate.

Although inheritors of the revolutionary technical traditions continue to exist, the more obvious and aggressive challenges to audience sensibilities have dwindled since the 1960’s. Critic Terry Teachout in his new book of essays, A Terry Teachout Reader, declares serialism stone dead as a serious current composition system. Minimalism, a music style pioneered by composers like Steve Reich and Philip Glass in the U.S., features repetitive, slowly changing tonal harmonic structures behind which complex musical developments may take shape. This approach has captured newer composers, some of whom, like Lieberman, Adams, and Gorecki, have consciously moved toward audienceS.

From my perspective it’s not tonality or matters of music theory that remain the big obstacle to reversing the decline in classical music’s outreach. It’s the attitude of composers and the music profession toward nonprofessional musical audiences. The majority of composers and music critics have not yet reimpowered nonprofessional audiences or other consumers of music (amateur players and singers) as valid judges of the quality of serious music. In fact, there remains a current stigma within the establishment on music that audiences enjoy. If they really like something, not just appear to be appreciative out of duty or recognition of performer skill, etc., then it can’t have real depth or originality. Everyone knows that this paradigm operates in today’s serious music environment – but only a few writers are willing to speak of it openly.

Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Grieg and many other composers are on record as feeling part of a shared understanding of music with audiences. Virtually all composers before 1900 understood their role to involve communication, not construction of independent artworks, understanding of which was mainly limited to professionals. There seems to be no rational reason why that philosophy cannot be reestablished – and with it the dynamic link to future audiences. I do not imply that the resulting new music would sound like any of the above composers. In fact, if the past is a key to the present, new “breakthrough” compositions will sound “new and different” from what went before. But it won’t be different just to be original or demonstrate technical mastery.

There are a number of developments favorable to audience reempowerment currently taking place. One of them is writing like that of Drew McManus, myself, and others who seek change, almost entirely in electronic format. The Knight Foundation Report had and is having a major impact, directly or indirectly, on attitudes by symphony managements toward audiences (see my report on the NAXOS website, under “Industry Views”). American symphonies are requiring new conductors to establish personal relationships with their audiences and communities. It’s no longer enough to just guide performance of great music. The biggest leap forward has been made by the London Symphony, that employs a whole range of approaches designed to build audience interest at every level, from youth through mature audiences, and has taken bold new steps in programming as well.

The British have led in two other areas. Classic FM radio now reaches the astounding total of some 6.5 million listeners on a weekly basis. It does so through an array of hosted music features emphasizing audience interaction. Significant gains have even been made with under-25 audiences. British businessman John McLaren established the Music Prize about five years ago. The revolutionary feature of this step was that the monetary award of $25,000 would be judged not by the usual (in the United States) professionally qualified panels, but through a system that drew on opinion of Internet music audiences, audiences at live performances, and a smaller proportion of professionals. The interest in this bold contest initiative can be judged by the fact that the first award drew more than 1000 competing compositions. Winning compositions can be heard on Classic FM, though they have not yet made it effectively into American media.

U.S. National Public Radio early in 2004 announced a call for new ideas to stimulate wider popular interest in classical music broadcasting. If events of this and other kinds spoken of in this letter continue, I think that as a next step bold individuals or proposals will emerge that will accelerate the trend to loosen the controls of an inwardly oriented and unresponsive musical establishment over new developments in classical music in America. So far the discussions on this topic have been mainly in electronic media – not in paper media (i.e. newspapers, magazines, or scholarly journals). My hopeful view is that it will be a question of when, not if, new breakthroughs occur.

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