Classical Music: The Need to Tend the Flame

Winifred Massey, 16, practices before a music competition in Dublin, April 2, 2019. (Clodagh Kilcoyne / Reuters)

Do young people know who Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven are? If they don’t, they have been dealt a terrible disservice.

Editor’s Note: The below essay was written as a foreword to Observations on Music, Culture, and Politics by Daniel Asia.

Daniel Asia is a composer and teacher of classical music. Those are very good things to be. He is also a spokesman for classical music — another very good thing to be. He defends music, champions music, evangelizes for music. All highly important.

“Classical music has taken a big cultural hit in America since the late sixties,” he writes. Yes, it has. Classical musicians used to appear on the cover of Time magazine, as many of us note. Toscanini appeared on the cover three times! Beecham, Szell, and Solti appeared there as well. So did Flagstad, Tebaldi, and a slew of other opera stars.

Opera stars were seen, and heard, on The Tonight Show, too. Johnny Carson was evidently keen on them. He had big names, like Pavarotti. But he also had Judith Blegen and Martina Arroyo. Beverly Sills not only appeared on his show, she guest-hosted for him. Johnny had instrumentalists as guests, too: the violinist Eugene Fodor, for example, and the pianist Byron Janis.

“Now they won’t let us talk,” Renée Fleming said to me, about ten years ago. What did she mean? The great soprano meant that classical musicians — chiefly singers — are still invited to appear on talk shows, occasionally. And they get to sing or play. But not sit down and talk to the host, as before.

The decline and fall of classical music is an old theme, one that I have often made sport of. “The death of classical music,” said Charles Rosen, the late pianist-scholar, “is perhaps the oldest tradition of classical music.” Yet there is legitimate cause for concern.

Research shows that the leading factor in whether a person attends classical concerts or operas is: Did the person study an instrument as a child? Did he actually touch an instrument with his hands? The composer Thea Musgrave pointed out to me that people are able to consume reams of music these days — via YouTube, for example (that gift from heaven). But such consumption is basically a passive activity. There is no substitute for making music yourself.

Music education in America is way, way down, I’m given to understand.

Dan Asia has a front-row seat (much as one would want to avert one’s eyes). “Students come to university never having heard of Bach or Beethoven,” he writes, adding, “I kid you not.”

He tells us that “the professional class of previous generations” knew classical music, thanks to “the playing of an instrument.” They had musical training — however modest — from grade school through college. They also had exposure to music by attending concerts, and plays that featured music. “Essentially, this has been lost,” writes Asia.

Yes, but speaking of Asia: There is a great appetite for classical music in China, Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, and so on. Western conservatories are stuffed with students from East Asia. When I asked Lorin Maazel, the late conductor, about the future of classical music, the first words out of his mouth were, “Thank God for China.”

As you may have gathered, I have interviewed a fair amount of musicians over the years, and you’ll forgive me if I quote them. In 2002, I spoke with Ned Rorem, the American composer, who was lamenting the status of his class, i.e., contemporary composers of classical music: “We are living in the only period in history in which music of the past is stressed at the expense of music of the present.”

Dan Asia has written about the “professional class.” How about the intellectuals? Rorem said that they know about visual art, past and present; they know about literature, past and present. But if they know any music at all, it’s pop music. “I and my brothers and sisters are not part of their ken,” he said.

How about the general public? The public “has no notion of what it is we composers do,” said Rorem. Performers are more important than composers — a lot more important — in the eyes of the world. “We’re a despised minority,” said Rorem. “Actually, we’re not even that, because we don’t even exist, and to be despised, you have to exist.”

I assure the reader that Asia is less gloomy. He is generally a happy warrior, or at least a determined, feisty one. But surely he knows what Rorem is talking about.

Something in this book made me think of my own experience. Asia writes, “Most universities have historically supported great performances of Western art music on campus as part of their educational mission for their students as well as the surrounding community.”

I grew up in Ann Arbor, Michigan, the home of the University of Michigan — and a small capital of the arts. This was in the 1970s and ’80s. There were as many concerts as sports events. I thought this was normal. Getting out and about in the world, I saw that this was abnormal — and I knew that I was very lucky.

In his collection, Dan Asia talks of various issues in music, including political correctness. Does PC exist in classical music? Oh, my heavens, yes. Twenty years ago, the late composer Patrick Kavanaugh made an amusing remark to me. It went something like this: “If you want to get attention or funding for your music, just throw in some gamelan.”

The gamelan is a musical tradition from Indonesia. It is a fine tradition, I’m sure. But it was comically trendy in the West for a long while. I’m not sure how it stands today.

Composers, writes Asia, like to “regale us” with messages concerning poverty, sexual liberation, war, the rights of workers, environmentalism, and so on. For a time, I was hearing a lot of “environmental” pieces. A shameless punner, I nicknamed this genre of music “the greenpiece.”

I think of Krzysztof Penderecki, the late Polish composer, who said, “I don’t write political music. Political music is immediately obsolete.”

One of the many things I admire about Daniel Asia is that he is not afraid to express an opinion — to plant his flag, whether you or I would plant it there or not. He is not vague. In Dan’s view, Stravinsky and Schoenberg are “certainly the two most important composers of the 20th century.” Certainly. I appreciate this lack of shyness.

He says what a great many people think but fear to say — about Pierre Boulez, for example. That composer was supremely honored in his time. He was no doubt brainy as hell. Will his music be honored by posterity? I would not bet the ranch, and neither would Asia. Fashions come and go, whether in couture or in music.

Asia quotes Boulez as saying that, if you don’t compose twelve-tone music, your music is “irrelevant” to the “needs” of your “epoch.” You will pardon me if I do some more quoting, from interviews I have conducted.

Lee Hoiby, the late American composer, said, “I felt the hot breath of the composition police on my neck every time I wrote a major third.”

Elliott Carter, another American composer, was very, very different from Hoiby: He was an exemplar of modernism. (He was also one of the most intelligent people I have ever been around.) Asked what he thought about the “neo-Romantics” such as Samuel Barber, he said, “Well, some of us felt that the kind of music Sam wrote had already been done, only done better than anybody could do it now. Therefore there was no reason to do it now.” With a grin, Carter added, “What Sam did was deplorable,” but the music, nevertheless, “is rather good.”

I should say. And don’t forget the words of Duke Ellington: “If it sounds good, it is good.”

How about John Cage? A lot of us think he has no clothes, clever as he may be. Dan Asia points to him like the boy pointing to the emperor. There are many, many people who privately agree with Asia — but only privately.

They also agree with him when he writes this: “For the most part, pop music is bad stuff. Its tunes are anodyne, freeze-dried, lacking any substance. Its rhythm is base and never changing. The music starts nowhere and goes nowhere . . .”

Let me not leave the impression that Asia is a mere naysayer or a crab. No, he is a wonderful booster. Reading him, I’ve been reminded of my old fondness for Robert Beaser, an American composer born in 1954. I intend to listen to him again. Also, Asia sent me off to listen to a violin concerto by Stephen Jaffe, and to the music in general of Stephen Albert. Those are two Stephens with whom I had not been acquainted.

I will return to that crack by Charles Rosen: “The death of classical music is perhaps the oldest tradition of classical music.” I believe that classical music will go on and on. I believe that it is unkillable, same as beauty, soul, and intelligence are unkillable. But classical music will always, always be a minority taste.

Permit me to quote a crack of my own: “There’s a reason they call it ‘pop’ music, you know: It’s popular.” Classical music is not supposed to be popular.

But it should be loved and nurtured by a minority. Composed, played, sung, conducted, and listened to by a minority. How healthy is that minority? How healthy is it in the United States, which has been a major home to classical music for about a hundred years? The minority needs boosting. And no one can say that Daniel Asia — talented, irrepressible, and invaluable — is not doing his part.

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