There was a time when classical music was western culture's pop music. Franz Liszt and Niccolo Paganini were the Elvis and Bono of their day, playing to spellbound crowds and being mobbed by screaming fans. Today, supporters of classical music worry that its place in popular culture is in jeopardy. But classical music continues to thrive, if in a slightly different way.
The central question in determining whether an art form is in danger is whether it continues to elicit emotion from its audience. The dwindling of that audience's size usually serves as a warning that the art form no longer fans emotional embers.
In the case of classical music, audience size has had a long and politically colored history. It began as holy music in medieval churches, soon expanded to embrace aristocrats as a matter of theocratic course and extended to intellectuals in the Renaissance. Because composers relied on wealthy patrons to survive, the audience did not change significantly until the late 18th century. Beethoven, full of libertarian ideas and the furor of the French Revolution, threw open the doors of classical music to the middle classes by the boldness of his work and his status as (after several years) the first major patron-less composer. Classical music then underwent a period of mass popularization, including the incorporation of European folk melodies in the works of many well-known composers.
But the expansion of the 19th century reversed in the 20th. Jazz, swingrock, pop eclipsed classical as the dominant musical form in Europe and elsewhere, despite the growth of recorded media. Classical music lacking spectacles and stars, again became the domain of aristocrats and intellectuals.
Fortunately, the past few years have brought another reversal of course. Unfortunately, it has not been greeted with appropriate celebration by classical music's faithful. A new genre of classical music has arisen to embrace today's culture of quick fixes and processed products--pop classical.
The yards of "Mad about Classics," "Weekend Classics," "Heavy Classix," classical music has arisen to embrace today's culture of quick fixes and processed products--pop classical.
The yards of "Mad about Classics," "Weekend Classics," "Heavy Classix," "Inifinity Classics," "Best of Bach" and other compact discs have made fast inroads at retail stores. To these rows upon rows of recordings, most of them inexpensive, numerous classical afficionadoes turn up their collective nose. Why? The artists aren't the most famous, the works aren't complete, the selections pander to popular taste, the recording quality isn't great and so on.
These objections run contrary to the idea of music embodied by Beethoven and endanger the future of the music itself. Beethoven saw his music as forging a common emotional bond among listeners of all classes--the spreading of the ideas was more important than the actual listening. Pop classical might not convey composers' ideas in the most traditional form, but it does the job nonetheless. If someone enjoys a movement of a Vivaldi concerto on a pop classical disc, perhaps they'll want to buy a complete or "better" recording, and then perhaps they'll listen to Vivaldi's contemporaries, and perhaps later his successors. This process contributes to classical music's continuing existence; the growth of its audience, no matter how humble the beginnings, is its lifeblood.
Pop classical does pose the threat of marginalization and eventual forgetting of less popular works. If Top 40 classical takes over the media markets, where will the equally worthy but less popular works of other composers--to say nothing of contemporary composers trying to have their music played--go for exposure? Area radio stations such as WCRB have begun to cater to the pop classical market, even experimenting with playing only movements of pieces rather than complete versions one almost never hears a contemporary work, perhaps because of an unfounded assumption that new works can't possibly stir up the same pleasures as old ones can.
Current classical listeners ought not to shed their devotion to integral works and obscure composers; these listeners are the keepers of the flame. But we need to accept that pop classical is helping to keep a cherished art form alive.
Daniel Altman's column appears on alternate Mondays.