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Classical Mythology 101

12. The Myth of Imminent Extinction

Classical music is on the ropes.

Music critics have been singing this jeremiad for decades. They note with alarm the gray audiences at symphony and chamber concerts and wonder who's going to replace them. They envy the gold and platinum sales racked up by pop albums compared with the paltry traffic in classical music, where 5000 units is considered excellent for a single title. They read the Arbitron surveys of radio listenership that report only 1.7 percent are tuned in to classical stations during an average quarter hour, and they've witnessed the ominous retreat of classical stations from the airways.

Man, can they sing the blues!

Face it. Classical music is a decidedly minority interest. It always has been (see Myth No. 11). There's no sense envying the pandemic influence of pop. Most people will probably always prefer listening to simple songs with four-bar phrasing and easy Western diatonic chord progressions. Aficionados of jazz and even hard rock share the same complaint about the "soft" listening habits of the general public. Classical music is hard work, it has a hoity-toity image problem and hardly anybody wants to devote a lot of energy to an enterprise whose return on investment isn't so obvious.

But try this postulate out and see if it fits: More people listen to classical music today than at any previous time in history. I offer no direct proof of this bold statement, but it seems to make a kind of sense. For one thing, there are more people alive now than ever before. It's commonly estimated that if you counted up all the people who ever lived since homo sapiens arrived on the scene, roughly 6 percent of them are alive today. Granted, most are peasants in China and India, but Western countries have a substantial middle class pool. Compound that with the ready availability of music through mass electronic media and you have the makings of a critical mass for a sizable nuclear family of classical music listeners.

In 1450 ~ during the heyday of Dufay, Binchois and Ockeghem ~ there were 50 million souls in Europe. The Catholic Church, bruised from recent Papal Schisms but not yet under assault from the Lutheran Reformation, was enjoying a brief renaissance under Pope Nicholas V and had a virtual monopoly on those souls. But because only a little over 3 percent of the populace lived in the cities and towns ~ none of which had a population over 125,000 ~ very few people actually got to hear the masses of the Burgundian choral school being sung in the large Gothic cathedrals.

When Mozart arrived in Paris in 1778, France was the most populous country in Europe with 25 million people (the rest of the continent, including Russia, numbered over 100 million ~ and by its first census in 1790, the United States had 3.8 million). What he found was a country with a class structure consisting of the clergy (130,000), the nobility (400,000) and everybody else. This last group ~ the so-called "Third Estate" ~ was a highly stratified column of 100,000 or so bourgeoisie families at the top as well as common tradesmen and peasants near the bottom. It was the financially well off but as yet politically powerless upper middle class (bankers, merchants, manufacturers, lawyers, doctors, teachers, artists) who enjoyed the theatrical satires of Beaumarchais, the philosophical wit of Voltaire, the political analysis of Diderot and Rousseau and the concert life of the cities (though they didn't exactly shower their love and louis d'ors on Mozart). In fact, the demographics of art consumption in pre-Revolutionary France ring much like our own times though if anything, probably a little more exclusive.

Today, the combined population of Europe and the United States is upwards of 1 billion, so a small percentage adds up to some spectacular numbers. A 1998 report by the National Endowment for the Arts concluded that 20 million Americans sang in choirs or other groups, 33 million took photographs for arts purposes, 24 million wrote creatively outside of school or work, 22 million played classical music on an instrument, 5 million acted on a public stage and 97 million attended at least one arts event (including jazz, opera, museum, classical concert, theater or ballet). None of these figures covers the numbers of people who read a novel, watched an art film or played symphonies on their home stereo. We are a society with diverse interests (How do you spell "low life?" I spell it "N-A-S-C-A-R.") but we live in a time that ought to be considered a golden age for art. A century ago, many of the world's orchestras hadn't been founded yet. Concert halls built in the middle of the 20th century dwarfed almost anything built in the 18th or 19th centuries; London's Royal Albert Hall, more hippodrome than hall with 10,000 capacity, was a notable exception. Of the 114 professional opera companies registered with Opera America in the year 2000, half came into existence since 1970. Today, whatever music we can't get in our local radio market can now be downloaded or ordered over the internet.

Perhaps it's time to stop lamenting the premature reports of classical music's death. It's still very much with us (even in the TV commercials watched by the masses ~ surely evidence of a plot among jingle writers to keep the classics alive). Whatever passes for popular music in a pluralistic society must necessarily find a broadly common denominator. But people will always have a need to hear music of uncommon power and intricacy and involvement, music that has a rich living history behind it, music that gives them something to think and talk about. And people will find it in Beijing opera, Balinese gamalan, Pakistani quwwali, Portugese fado, Ugandan kiganda, Chicago blues, Argentine tango and European classical. We still listen to Gregorian chant a thousand years after the fact. Perhaps people will still be listening to Philip Glass a thousand years from now. Or perhaps they'll discover a special affinity for composers like Morton Feldman, Einojuhani Rautavaara or Claude Vivier ~ who are barely on the radar today. In any case, they will undoubtedly be listening to music by Bach, Mozart and Beethoven; how they'll listen to it, what they'll think of it and how it will relate to their own times is anyone's guess.

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© David BŁndler, 2000
Last revised: July 9, 2000