The Sad State of Classical Music Today

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You might chalk this article up to the fact that it’s a hot, sweltering day here in Cincinnati, but I’ve actually had these complaints for some time, occasionally throwing one or two out in the course of a review, for a few years now. It’s about the bad, and sad, state of classical music as we begin the third decade of the 21st century.

Even as far back as the 1940s and ‘50s, critics were starting to complain about those classical performers who didn’t play, sing or conduct much modern music. It reached a chorus of carping during the 1960s and ‘70s, but for the most part has died down over the past 40 years…probably because no one in the classical field is listening, least of all “average listeners” who probably make up more than half of those who listen to the music.

But now it’s gotten to the point where there is even more great modern music being written and recorded than ever before, and by “modern” I sometimes mean composers whose work goes back to the 1940s. Look at the average symphony concert program, song or solo instrument recital or the repertoire of your favorite opera house (and oh boy, does opera have problems beyond repertoire!); you’re unlikely to find much if anything programmed that was written much later than the early 1930s, and even then the bias is towards the same old same old: tonal music by the Great Masters. If there is a resurgence of anything in the classical world it’s usually the promotion of some composer who wrote pretty tonal music from the mid-18th century to the 1930s. The discovery of Florence B. Price was a godsend to classical musicians and particularly to classical radio stations; she wrote well-crafted but impersonal music that is pretty and attractive but says absolutely nothing, and the kicker here is that since she was African-American they can feel good about themselves by promoting her.

Yet the music of other great African-American composers whose music was far more personal and much more interesting, such as William Grant Still, Ulysses Kay, George Walker and Adolphus Hailstork, is pretty much invisible even today, and when Still’s music is performed it’s usually in a bleached, white-bread version that completely eliminates the funkier, more “black” aspects of his music. I wrote a long profile on Still and his music a few years ago, and what I said then still holds today. Hailstork, who is still with us (he recently turned 80), has a few CDs of his music available on the Naxos label but not nearly enough to give the listener an idea of the full scope of his output, and in the concert hall he is another non-entity. You could also add to this list the brilliant black British composer Errollyn Wallen. She’ll be 63 years old this year, but how many of you have even heard her music? And how many of you have even heard of Nancy van de Vate, now 90 years old, who has been writing great music for decades? She doesn’t even appear on Naxos. As far as the record companies are concerned, she’s a non-entity, which is why she had to start her own label, Vienna Modern Masters…which gets no distribution except via her own website.

But it isn’t just black and women composers who suffer the “modern music blackout.” There are so many others that I can scarcely list them all here, but I’ll give you one example among many. Kalevi Aho (b. 1949) is a Finnish composer who many musicians and critics, myself included, consider to be one of the very greatest alive today, but if it wasn’t for a string of recordings of his output issued by Bis Records I doubt that anyone would have heard of him—just as few people outside Scandinavia have ever heard his music in the concert hall. I only use Aho’s name because he is, for me, a sort of archetype, the modern composer who exists in a sort of bubble. But don’t they all? One of the most widely-recognized modern composers to have had his name resuscitated after his death, the brilliant and highly individual Polish-Soviet composer Miecyzław Weinberg, was ignored by most festival halls in the centennial year of his birth, 2019, except for a number of concerts paid for and promoted by violinist Gidon Kremer who adores him. I’ll bet that anyone out there who has not heard of Weinberg certainly didn’t hear much about those Kremer-sponsored concerts unless you lived in one of the countries (not the U.S.) where they took place. But by golly, EVERYONE celebrated the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth in 2020, didn’t they?

The standard complaint is that bitonal and atonal music isn’t “natural” to humans to listen to, therefore it’s an esoteric thing. Music critic Henry Pleasants even wrote an entire book slamming anything modern, The Agony of Modern Music, to protest it. But for crying out loud, that was 65 years ago! Even some of the rock music—and certainly a great deal of jazz—written since then has included bitonal and atonal moments. We’re living in a different age now. Our ears have certainly adjusted by now to sounds outside the norm.

Yet if you tune into any American classical radio station, you’d think that all musical innovation ended in 1924 with George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, which is played at least three times a week (no, I’m not exaggerating). The rare moments in which you’ll hear something by Schoenberg are usually one of his earlier works or one of his transcriptions of older music, and always with a verbal apology before the record is played to convince the listener to stick around because this isn’t one of his more acerbic pieces.

I can’t speak for European opera houses because I don’t follow their repertoire that closely, but at the Metropolitan only a handful of operas presented there on an occasional (not regular) basis were written after Strauss’ Arabella in 1933: Berg’s completed Lulu, a few Britten operas (mostly Peter Grimes) and Stravinsky’s neo-classic The Rake’s Progress. But as I’ve pointed out numerous times on this blog, New York is not, and never really has been, a hotbed of musical innovation, despite the fact that several excellent composers and jazz musicians claimed New York as their base of operations. Even as far back as the early 20th century, most of the new operas they’ve premiered at that house have been tonal garbage unworthy of perpetuation. Nowadays we’re familiar with the few that they insist on reviving every so often because someone on the board likes them, e.g. John Adams’ Nixon in China and John Corigliano’s The Ghosts of Versailles, but consider this list of turkeys that were once considered hot tickets at the Met:

Giacomo Puccini: La fanciulla del West (1910)
Victor Herbert: Natoma (1911)
Deems Taylor: The King’s Henchman (1927)
Ottorino Respighi: La campana sommersa (1928)
Deems Taylor: Peter Ibbetson (1931)
Louis Gruenberg: The Emperor Jones (1933)
Howard Hanson: Merry Mount (1933)
Gian-Carlo Menotti: Amelia Goes to the Ball (1938)
Gian-Carlo Menotti: The Island God (1942)
Samuel Barber: Vanessa (1958)
Gian-Carlo Menotti: The Last Savage (1963)
Samuel Barber: Anthony and Cleopatra (1966)

Of course, I’m not saying that each of the composers whose works were premiered at the Met were bad ones, but the few good ones were skilled at other kinds of music: Victor Herbert in operetta, Respighi and Hanson in instrumental music, and Barber in songs and short orchestral works. Operas just weren’t their forte and they showed by fading away.

And this during a fertile period for opera which included such masterpieces as Berg’s Wozzeck (1925), Schoeck’s Penthesilea (1927), Zemlinsky’s Der Kreidekreis (1933), Britten’s Peter Grimes (1945), Orff’s Antigonae (1949) and Pizzetti’s Ifigenia (1950) and Clitennestra (1965). Wozzeck did come to the Met in 1959 at the insistence of Rudolf Bing. Peter Grimes finally came to the Met in 1967, and then only due to the insistence of tenor Jon Vickers. The others have still never been performed there, and it is also noteworthy that Strauss’ 1909 Elektra, now considered his masterpiece, did not get its Met premiere until December of 1932, and of the six performances it received that season. the other five were prefaced by Rossini’s Il Siignor Bruschino!! (Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov has also been an on-and-off visitor, with productions anywhere from six to ten years apart; its last Met performance was given on March 17, 2011, a bizarre situation in which Rene Pape sang Boris through most of the opera but Evgeny Nikitin replaced him in the last scene.) None of the other operas mentioned above have ever been performed at the Met.

Yet the problem of premiering new operas at the Met has been, for the most part, always based on how close to tonality the score would be, not whether it was a great opera or not. They kind of lucked out on both counts with John Harbison’s The Great Gatsby, which is an interesting opera with some pretty good music, but like so many modern operas it “plays” better in a small house than in a barn like the Metropolitan, thus it ended up being one of their failures. In recent years they’ve tried to be edgy and innovative by giving house premieres of Thomas Adès’ The Tempest and Kaija Saariaho’s L’Amour de Loin, but as I pointed out in my review of the latter (in December 2016), the music wasn’t really very good even by modern music standards. In both cases the composers were chosen due to the weight of their publicists, not due to any inherent greatness of the scores, of which there was none. But this, as you can see from the list of turkeys above, has always been their problem. Whoever picks the “new” operas for the Met, then or now, has poor musical taste, thus they die on the vine.

Over the past 30+ years, the world’s premiere opera houses have tried to compensate for the paucity of interest in endless revivals of the old stuff by screwing up the productions with inappropriate, stylistically inaccurate and borderline insane stage productions. I addressed this in my article Regietheater: The Ruination of Opera, and was appalled to receive a large number of comments from people who actually like these productions because they “make you think” about the operas. I admitted in the article that a small handful of modern stage productions have actually been good and interesting, and named a couple of them; but when you look at the cover of a DVD release of a well-known opera and cannot tell what that opera is if you hide the name, then most of the time you’re heading in the direction of insanity, not enlightenment. If any of my readers have wondered why I don’t review too many opera DVDs, there’s your answer.

And if you think that instrumental concertgoers are hard to sell on anything but tonal music, you haven’t met opera nuts. These people live in a bubble where, to them, d’Albert’s 1903 opera Tiefland is still a radical modern work that’s under-appreciated. As one of them wrote to me, they listen to a lot of modern opera on recordings but they don’t like it or don’t get it. To them, “the music never gets going,” and they apply this complaint as much to Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande, which most of them would wish to just disappear and never return, as to the operas I mentioned four paragraphs earlier. For them, opera is all about Beautiful Music and High Notes. If you try telling them that this is NOT what opera is all about, they stare at you as if you have three heads. Well, of course it is! No, you say, opera is sung drama. The music needs to reflect the meaning of the words, not some easy-to-assimilate tune that everyone can hum. But, they’ll tell you, high Cs ARE dramatic! That’s what “opera as drama” is all about!

Now, obviously I listen to a lot of older operas, but I do try to zero in on the best and most dramatic works of every era, and most of the time these do not include the tune fests with high notes that these people live on. I’m very fond of Monteverdi’s Il ritorno di Ulisse in Patria and L’Incoronazione di Poppea, Rameau’s Le temple de la Gloire and Les Boréades, Gluck’s Armide, Salieri’s Les Danaïdes and Les Horaces, Spontini’s La Vestale, Fernand Cortez and Olimpie, Méhul’s Stratonice and Uthal, Pacini’s Saffo, Meyerbeer’s Le Prophète, Saint-Saëns’ Le Timbre d’Argent and Samson et Dalila and Massenet’s Le Cid. Indeed, one could build an entire Met season around just these operas, but they dare not because except for Le Prophète and Samson et Dalila,  they don’t all have Tunes that people can hum and won’t hold a modern audience who still thinks that Bellini’s Norma is superior to La Vestale because it contains “Casta diva” and “Mira, o Norma.” As for Rossini, I do like his Big Three comedies (Barbiere, Cenerantola and L’Italiana in Algeri). Mosé and Guillaume Tell, but little else. Back in 1800, Gaspare Spontini wrote a comic farce which had a good run at the time, La Fuga in Maschera. It resembled a Rossini opera in every way except the use of the “Rossini crescendo.” One might say, Aha, you see, even Spontini had to imitate Rossini!, but there’s one problem with this. At the time it premiered, Rossini was only eight years old and hadn’t written anything yet.

This is the continuing problem with most “modern” operas regardless of era. You have to try to at least sound like a continuously popular operatic style in order to grab the attention of the average operagoer, but unfortunately composers, as a rule, have moved so far beyond the Puccini-Strauss model that they’re not interested in revisiting it. Menotti made a huge mistake by trying to be the modern-day Puccini; his operas in this style were puerile and inferior to his model, yet the existence of his Violin Concerto proves that Menotti did indeed know how to write music, just as Donizetti’s string quartets and his Requiem Mass for Bellini prove that he, too had talent that you would never suspect from his ghastly “Queen trilogy” or even the popular but clearly uneven Lucia di Lammermoor. Composers of the 19th century clearly just wanted to make money and be popular, and this they achieved, but in their wake they left a broad swath of musical garbage not worthy of reviving. Ned Rorem hit the nail on the head when he said that there was nothing the “bel canto” composers did that Baroque composers did not do better, and that bel canto opera was “the pap of the past as popular music is the pap of the present.”

Every month, when I pore through the Naxos New Release Catalog, I see pages and pages full of old music, most of which I’ve heard before and some of which I own in recordings that will never be surpassed by most of these modern performers. Sometimes they try to gussy up the old repertoire by “reimagining” it, either transcribing it for instruments the original composers never intended (I half-expect to see, one month, a Bach Art of Fugue played on the bagpipes) or by interspersing the old stuff with something modern. All this does for me is to show how much more concise and inventive the modern pieces usually are, and how wasteful the older composers were with Tunes and thus stretching out the form of the piece to please a popular audience.

In the 1920s, after he escaped from the Soviet Union, Nikolai Medtner turned to his friend Rachmaninov to help set him up on the concert circuit playing piano recitals. Rachmaninov did so, but Medtner bombed because he mostly played his own compositions, which were much more technically detailed and lacked the tunefulness of his older colleague. Yet because of this tunefulness, it is Rachmaninov who is held up as a great composer and adored by millions and Medtner whose music still struggles for recognition. When I told this story to a friend of mine, adding that Medtner died a pauper, he said it served him right for not writing pieces that people liked—as if that was the first duty of any composer. No wonder that Kaikhosru Sorabji shut himself up in his home and refused to allow anyone to perform his music between the 1930s and the 1970s. Why bother if the performance might be bad or the audience not even care to hear it? Nowadays Sorabji is still not a household name, but he’s much better known to pianists and a certain segment of the classical audience who have tastes that run beyond Chopin and Rachmaninov, and this is entirely due to those pioneering pianists of the 1970s and ‘80s who fought to perform and record Sorabji’s scores. Thank goodness the composer lived long enough to see his work vindicated, at least a little.

The living artists who either play modern music at least half the time or specialize in it exclusively are mostly those who struggle for audiences and recordings—soprano Barbara Hannigan and violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja are two exceptions—and this should not be the case. Edgard Varèse one stated, “The modern-day composer refuses to die!,” but a couple of years after he said that he was indeed dead. Varèse’s music was strange and often unlikable, but his principles still resonate today.

It’s time for adult classical listeners to put their big boy or big girl clothes on, go to concerts and support artists who take risks…as Charles Ives once said, “Take your dissonances like a man!” If we don’t, classical music is going to continue to stagnate, with the best modern composers playing to audiences of perhaps a hundred people at best instead of a few thousand, and by the next century people will still be listening to Handel, Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven etc. and nothing new. At the very least, even if the classical audience breaks up into sects as it has in the jazz world, where some listen only to pre-1942 jazz, some only to bop, cool and progressive of the late ‘40s through the late ‘60s, and others to more avant-garde sounds, it would be healthier for the art form than this continued shoving of the Baroque-Classical-Romantic axis down everyone’s throats.

I leave you with this quote from the great Nadia Boulanger:

Pianists who cannot play contemporary music are not complete musicians.

Although Boulanger was only addressing pianists here, I could easily substitute the words violinists, cellists, horn players, oboists, conductors and especially singers and the sentiment would be the same.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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2 thoughts on “The Sad State of Classical Music Today

  1. Quire says:

    Good article on a topic where, sadly, little ever changes. A few nitpicks:

    “Africa-American” should read “African-American”.
    “150th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth” should instead reference the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth.
    “Corgliano’s” should be “Corigliano’s”.
    “Kaja” should have an “i” right in the middle.
    Sorabji did not shut himself in a castle but rather lived in a house in the village of Corfe Castle.
    “When I told this story to a friend of mine” should substitute “friend” with “ex-friend”, but that’s just the cynic in me. 😉

    Like

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