Farewell to Beethoven?

11 Mar 2017

Greg Sandow,  a notable Julliard analyst and teacher, is known for his sober insights on classical music in XXI century. Some time ago, I have posted his warning appeal to the classical musicians. His vision, in short:


"Classical music is in trouble, and there are well-known reasons why. We have an aging audience, falling ticket sales, and — in part because our audience is shrinking — persistent financial woes.


How can we attract a new audience, if we turn away from the world the new audience lives in?


The changes will be large. And … very likely troubling, for some who deeply love classical music the way it is now. But the old ways aren’t sustainable. Classical music can’t survive without major change." (The future of classical music)


His article “Timeline of crisis” (2013) was not an inspiring reading, still is worth to be read to know the truth.


The reason why I turned to his ideas once again is an optimistic and encouraging change in his views: 


"I expect (classical music) be reborn, to find a new audience, to reconnect with our wider culture, and to become a truly contemporary art."


A balm to a musician’s soul, but unfortunately not for long. As soon as we delve deeper into the details of his suggestions, our hopes fade away.


What does classical music has to overcome to become reborn and thrive as a truly contemporary art according to Greg Sandow?


It has to free from a millstone hanging round its neck, and the milestone is the music by Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, and other composers of the past:


"I’d give more weight to my growing conviction — and this is radical — that the familiar classical masterworks are a millstone hanging round our necks, preventing us from changing. ….Our constant focus on them, our constant performance of them, prevents us from reaching the contemporary world”. (The future of classical music)


Isn’t it a strange result of years of sustained search? In order to reach contemporary world – don’t focus on composers of the past. Take them away. Want to be relevant in the present – don’t deal with those who lived in the past.


That's exactly what Greg Sandow says: 


"We’ll perform less music from the past, most likely much less."


But what should be done with the classical music in the usual sense, with Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms? Greg Sandow gives the answer – just redefine it:


“We have to redefine classical music as something that goes beyond any style or sound, beyond any repertoire”


According to this opinion, the problems with classical music in the digital age come from an inadequate definition. To address these problems, we have to find a definition which eliminates the music of the past and includes any kind of music of the present. This should be a long-expected way out.


What’s wrong here? The very idea that to belong to the past is a disadvantage, enough reason to be irrelevant in the present.


Sir Isaac Newton was a scientist of a distant past, but people still use the results of his creativity every day. That means that his main ideas are completely contemporary. The same with art. For instance, a spatial perspective in painting was discovered in XIV century by Ambrogio Lorenzetti. It remains in active use today as well.


Why is the classical music an exception in this case? Why can’t it have something able to be used at any time?


Perhaps, the composers of the past are great not because they were famous in their time (many were not), but because they discovered new structures in the field of sound, just as Newton and Lorenzetti in their fields.


And may be, we call them classical because of these timeless discoveries, not because they were relevant to audience needs of their time.


By establishing this, we get a completely different perspective on classical music and its future rather what Greg Sandow suggests.


First, the essence of classical music can’t be reduced to the specific point in history. To be classical means to be timelessly valid, at least as a possibility. This means classical music fits digital era as well. The question is to discover how.


Second, redefining classical music solves nothing.  If we play hip-hop and “Star Wars” soundtracks instead of Bach and Beethoven, then Bach and Beethoven fall silent. And no one will care how to define all that.


It’s not a rocket science to bid Beethoven farewell and to cover this situation by an "appropriate" definition. The real problem the classical music meets in a digital era is not about definition, but about the destiny of baroque, classical and romantic repertoire.  


Even prior to all definitions, symphony orchestras, ensembles and soloists of our time began a drift away from classical toward non-classical and entertaining repertoire. In most cases to avoid bankruptcy and to earn a bit more money (I have touched upon this subject here).  


If only yesterday we called this order of things  troubled, and today we call it a norm, it’s just a self-deception.  Instead of thinking how to make a great repertoire of the past interesting, we are coming up with ideas on how to escape it. 


It goes without saying that the classical music of our days has to change to match rapidly changing life.


But probably, there must exist some other ways to accomplish this aim rather than throwing the baby out with the bathwater.



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Violinist deeply rooted in classical tradition and concerned about the future of the genre >> more about the author 

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© Yevgeny Chepovetsky 2015-2017