The Reactionaries Who Retard Classical Music

Yair Avidor lute

Lutenist Yair Avidor. I’m not picking on Avidor, and I’m sure he’s a fine lute player, but the image of a relatively young man playing a centuries-old instrument just seemed too good an image to pass up. Sorry, Yair.

Would you go to an art museum to only see paintings made in the Representational Art style? No Goyas, Turners, Van Goghs, Picassos or Dalis or O’Keefes?

Would you only read books written in a clear narrative style that included no allusions or imaginative fantasies? No James Joyce, no Faulkner, no Brautigan?

Would you only go to see plays written before the era of Ibsen?

Do you avoid all buildings using modern architectural designs developed since the 1920s? No Bauhaus, Art Deco, Frank Lloyd Wright or later buildings?

If you answered yes to all of the above questions, then I understand that you want to live in a retro world where nothing changes and anything new, even if it’s interesting and enjoyable, is to be avoided. But if you don’t, and you just listen to tonal music of the old school, I have no respect for you.

And I have even less respect for professional musicians who won’t play modern music of any type.

This is the kind of mentality that runs most of the music world, and it drives me absolutely batty. The worst manifestation of this is the American Classical Radio Mafia. No matter what city you live in, no matter how “modern” they are in other ways, when it comes to the arts, particularly classical music, Reactionary is In. They actually have rules regarding what can be played on classical radio stations (I’ve seen them). Nothing with more than a few dissonances per 100 bars, nothing atonal or dodecaphonic, and during certain hours of the day, NOTHING vocal. On my local classical radio station, I actually heard them play something by Arnold Schoenberg once, and before they did so they apologized to the listening audience in advance and then assured them that THIS piece had nothing dissonant in it because it was his arrangement of someone else’s older music. On their “Morning Edition,” they overload the program with Strauss waltzes, Gershwin, Mozart, transcriptions of operatic arias for harp or bassoon and other such nonsense. And when they play standard repertoire, 90% of the time they use older recordings: Ormandy, Klemperer, Bruno Walter, Szell, Bernstein, Karajan, Böhm, Solti—always the slowest, most Romantic and drippy renditions they can find, as a rule.

So here’s the irony: All you people who record earlier music, even Baroque music, do not get your recordings played on classical radio. You’re stuck in a Catch-22 situation.

But what burns me more than anything are those musicians who make their entire careers playing nothing but old stuff—or, if they include something from the 20th century, it has to be something tonal and “acceptable” to such an audience. And yes, New York City is one of the worst examples of this. Back when Pierre Boulez was music director of the New York Philharmonic and would program something by Webern or Schoenberg, audiences stayed away in droves and those who came to the concerts bitched and complained. (I know: I attended one such concert and heard people in the elevator going to the parking garage gripe all the way down.) This was the primary reason they later hired music directors who they felt would stick to Da Classics, Zubin Mehta and Kurt Masur. When Alan Gilbert directed the Philharmonic, he got in trouble with subscribers and the board of directors for programming the complete symphonies of Carl Nielsen. CARL NIELSEN, for God’s sake!!

As I say, however, it all starts with the musicians themselves, and a big part of the reason they stick to the old stuff, aside from the fact that they can always guarantee themselves work, is that many of them hear “spirituality” or some other kind of “deep meaning” in this music that apparently doesn’t exist in modern music. To me, this is laughable; most of the composers they play, and extol, didn’t even write that music to promote “spirituality” or “deep meaning”—a few outliers like the Mozart Requiem or Handel’s Messiah excepted. Bach’s Passions and Cantatas were music-made-to-order for his church performances. Yes, the St. Matthew Passion has some moments of deep feeling, but the Mass in b minor was primarily an exercise in counterpoint for old Bach, and the cantatas were cranked out as if by a machine. All of Richard Strauss’ operas between Elektra and Daphne were likewise cranked out to please the masses, not to fulfill any personal inspiration or emotional needs. Verdi’s Requiem, clearly one of the greatest scores he ever wrote, was written more as a devotional piece to Manzoni, who he highly respected, and not as a communication with his Creator. Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis, a really lovely work, was written as a humanitarian gift to mankind in order to bond people together by a composer who was a Deist and did not believe in a personalized God.

But these musicians hear all kinds of nonsense in music written to order for various situations: Chopin’s drippy piano pieces, Liszt’s show-off opera transcriptions, even the Dvořák Cello Concerto which some people (including one well-known cellist) have told me is “deeply spiritual” when in fact it is nothing of the sort. And by the way, the Requiems of Cherubini, Berlioz and Dvořák, all of them quite fine music by the way, were likewise written to fulfill commissions and, despite the effect they have on the listener, were not written in a fit of religious ecstasy. The Brahms German Requiem was indeed composed in a fit of grief over the loss of his mother, but the feelings in it are personal, morose and not actually spiritual, any more than Duke Ellington’s Reminiscing in Tempo is spiritual. Get over it.

Of course, the absolute worst field of classical music to resist change, and particularly anything that is really modern in the best sense of the term, is the opera world. When Arturo Toscanini scheduled a production of Verdi’s Il Trovatore at La Scala in 1902, audiences were angry that he had the nerve to present something so OLD, particularly a piece from which they heard the arias played by organ grinders in the street. Nowadays, La Scala audiences welcome productions of Il Trovatore over anything new. And even at the Metropolitan—or, to be clearer, especially at the Metropolitan—resistance to most REAL modern operas, or even older operas that push the envelope, are resisted. All their audiences want to hear are Tunes and High Notes, not necessarily in that order. Any operas that do not have recognizable, hummable arias or arias capped off by high notes at the end is frowned upon, unless it is one of those aforementioned Strauss horrors from Der Rosenkavalier onward. Alas, this also applies to several older composers who wrote excellent (for their time) operas that actually deserve revival: Méhul, Spontini, most of Gluck except for Orfeo ed Euridice and Iphégenie en Tauride which are actually performed, most of Cherubini except for Medea, Catel, Chabrier, etc. When modern opera is performed at the Met, with the sole exceptions of Thomas Adès’ The Tempest and the latest Kaja Saariaho opera, it’s usually something with a tonal or minimalist bias that won’t ruffle too many feathers. Even the wonderful little operas of Maurice Ravel and Frank Martin are never heard at the Met. Stravinsky’s Nightingale and Rake’s Progress ARE performed, but these were purposely written by him in a populist style that he knew would appeal to the highest number of listeners. When was the last time the Met produced, for instance, Gluck’s Armida or Dukas’ Ariane et Barbe-Bleue? Not since the time when Toscanini was music director. Albert Roussel’s Le Festin de l’araignée, Szymanowski’s Król Roger and Martin’s Le vin Herbé have NEVER been performed at the Met, and these are now really old operas.

The list goes on and on and on, far too long, in fact, to recount here. And then we have the Baroque Specialists who only play music from that specific era. Well, of course I enjoy some of the music from that time—I have a good amount of it in my collection—but I actually enjoy C.P.E. Bach as much if not more than his father because, in my opinion, he was even more inspired and innovative. Beethoven was indeed a giant, and I own almost everything he wrote except for Wellington’s Victory (and a few small incidental piece) as well as everything that Berlioz and Mahler wrote. But they were innovators. Their music had spine and backbone. They almost never wrote to pander to the touchy-feely sensibilities of their audiences, which is why none of them were fully appreciated in their lifetimes. Gluck was appreciated in his lifetime, but the dramatic school of opera took a big hit once the “Bel Canto boys” and the frilly French style based on the Bel Canto Boys came into being. I’m still a little shocked that Wagner got such a firm toehold in the standard repertoire pretty early on, and has stayed there, since several of his operas, particularly Parsifal and almost everything in Götterdämmerung except for the Dawn and Rhine Journey scene, Siegfried’s funeral march and the “Immolation Scene,” have no melodies or high notes for people to hang onto. But he had a great P.R. machine, and musicians in particular appreciated and understood how important he was, so there you are.

If you’re a 21st-century musician or singer and you’re not performing music written after, say, 1945 at least 10% of the time (hopefully more), I really feel sorry for you. You are doomed to be a dinosaur in today’s world, and it’s largely because of you that the classical music audience is aging , dying off, and not attracting very many young viewers and listeners. You’re screwing up the timeline as well as the healthy growth of an art form. Now, on the other hand, I have heard several modern-day composers who, influenced strongly by rock music, produce an edgy style of music that, to my ears, really is abrasive and, more importantly, has no real development or form, but this, too, can be blamed on the reactionary musicians who refuse to perform a great deal of contemporary scores that ARE good. It’s not really a slippery slope, it’s more of a sand dune that they’re stuck in and can’t get out of—and don’t want to get out of. They enjoy slipping on the same oil spot and spinning their wheels in the same old same old.

And their dumbed-down audiences just keep on going along with them.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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2 thoughts on “The Reactionaries Who Retard Classical Music

  1. As for commercial classical radio (which I worked for in the early 90’s) you had to play what appealed to the most ears in order to sell advertising time. But this is perpetuated by laziness on the part of program directors and announcers. On non-commercial stations it is pure laziness.

    They don’t take the time to find and listen to new(er) music. Which is why lovers of the genre stay away in droves and turn to Spotify or similar services.

    The joy of discovery is lost. Which is very sad.


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