classical music
Culture Sound

Is Classical Music, and the Desire for Rebellion, Dead?


Do today’s elite lack the patience and culture for classical music? Or is it a matter of cultural dominance of the popular, the fame producing, and capital revenue streams which have sacrificed painstaking complex creation? John Halle opines.

classical music
Is Classical Music instruction, and other forms of high art a thing of the past? Are these gateway drugs toward complex creation and cultural advancement of our civilization sacrificed at the altar of commerce and commoditized culture? Peter Oundjian, music director of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. Photo from WQXR New York.

The Last Symphony

By John Halle, Published in Jacobin Magazine

Doug Henwood is not the first to observe  that the U.S. empire has entered a decadent phase. He is, however, among the few to focus his attention on how the “social rot produced by market-regulated societies, from the macro level of investment down to the socially shaped psychology (has begun to dictate) how we think and feel.” Henwood is right to wonder “how the imperium can long survive this sort of pervasive rot” as the ideological and cultural foundations on which the bourgeoisie rest, and through which it, at least in part, claims its legitimacy begin to founder.

As if on cue, at about the same time a piece appeared in the house organ of neo-liberalism the New Republic taking aim at an admittedly tiny but nonetheless significant bourgeois institution, classical music instruction, which middle-class parents, and those striving to move up the class ladder, have imposed on their children as a kind of secular catechism for generations.

Its author, New York Times religion correspondent Mark Oppenheimer concedes that “(s)tudying music or dance over a long time teaches perseverance and can build self-confidence” and “that there is virtue in mastering difficult disciplines.” But he is at pains to draw a rigid distinction between what we do in our spare time and work — or, more precisely, what we should do in each.

When we work we do so for a clear goal, namely a pay check, but for leisure:

[P]ointlessness rules [. . . ] Lots of great activities have little or no point, at least beyond the fact that somebody likes to do them. My annual viewing of Dazed and Confused is pointless (it’s not as if I didn’t get all the nuance by the fifteenth time around). Candy corn is pointless. Watching local Pentecostal preachers on public-access cable is pointless. Hobbies are all the better for having no point beyond the fun they provide.

The attitudes on display here should be familiar in that they reflect the departure from the scene of what Henwood describes as “the classically bourgeois executive ego, a relatively stable, if sometimes anal-retentive structure to guide the subject through life.” What has replaced it is what Thomas Frank identified fifteen years ago as “the official philosophy of corporate America, from the ponytails and pierced noses of the cyber-boardrooms of California to the madcap tie-snipping and convention-squashing of Madison Avenue.” Long gone are the traditional protestant virtues catalogued by Max Weber at the turn of the twentieth century. The “new generation of goateed, rule-breaking entrepreneurs” now privileges immediate gratification, self-expression and originality albeit within market imposed limits, or, as Oppenheimer puts it, “fun.”

It should be obvious that the leisure complement to this now dominant managerial class philosophy could not possibly consist of the sedate, repressed rituals of the classical concert hall. Nor is it a surprise to find the New Republic‘s meritocratic class contributors opining in favor of jettisoning instruction in Mozart sonatas in favor of the three-minute rock tune, campfire singing, and ukulele strumming.


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“While almost all well-meaning, ideology-driven revolutions have spawned the same authoritarian systems that they sought to replace, resistance is a state of fervent desire for change — which is universal and existing at all times,” said the poet K. Satchidanandan. “Rebellion is innate in all art, born from a desire for a counter-system.”

This is not something to be alarmed by: as musical styles and fashions change, history has shown that attempts to hold back the tide are futile and usually a bit ridiculous.

While conceding that, it should be better understood that the shift from “classical” to popular music is a bit more fundamental than the changes in style which have been a constant in music history. That classical music is not so much a different style but fundamentally different medium is not immediately obvious, though it is something both parents and children come to understand when they begin the tedious business of learning the notes on the page, and transferring this knowledge to an instrument. The acquisition of musical literacy rarely fails to involve tantrums and tears.

Kids enrolling in the school of rock curriculum endorsed by Oppenheimer will be spared these and they will learn a lot about many things. But they will not learn to read music with any degree of fluency.

The rock and popular music canon is almost exclusively defined by vocal music, that is, songs, many of them admittedly great songs. While we might call sonatas by Beethoven, Mozart, Schumann character pieces, Bartok Mikrokosmos and other staples of the introductory repertoire, “songs” that’s just a metaphor. These are works of “pure” music which cohere, not by a text with its own self-contained expressive content and narrative logic, but by a logic entirely based on the abstract relationships inherent in the pitches and rhythms. They are composed within abstract forms, large-scale plans dictating their unfolding in time of which at least an intuitive awareness is required for them to be fully appreciated by audiences.


“Triviality is evil – triviality, that is, in the form of consciousness and mind that adapts itself to the world as it is, that obeys the principle of inertia. And this principle of inertia truly is what is radically evil.” — Theodor W. Adorno, Metaphysics: Concept and Problems

It’s hard to avoid not making another connection: the decline of musical literacy and the large-scale forms which they make possible, the increasing demand for immediately catchy tunes, striking sonorities and flamboyant stage presentations pairs with the impatience of the elites classes in another realm: the demand for investments to show an immediate short-turn return. Elites have long since jettisoned the expectation for steady growth embodied in the now retired Goldman-Sachs slogan, “long-term greedy,” having come to accept and even embrace, in Henwood’s words, “the erosion of the planning function, and any rationality beyond the most crudely instrumental.”

Relating the musical and economic and social spheres is reminiscent of critical theorist and musicologist Theodor W. Adorno‘s connection of “the regression of listening” with broader irrationalist, authoritarian tendencies afoot in the 1930s.

In retrospect, Adorno’s perspective seems odd, or at least premature. Elites at the time were making enormous concessions to radical pressure. At the same time, while there was some competition from popular music (the growing legitimacy of jazz notoriously having piqued Adorno’s ire), a clear division between high and low musical forms remained accepted across the board, with what was universally regarded as the precious legacy of concert music claimed and lavishly supported by both fascist and Soviet regimes alike.

What has emerged in recent years is the exact opposite. On the one hand, government lavishes unprecedented economic and social privileges on its elites, taking an axe to programs benefitting those who fall behind. At the same time, the distinction between high and low artistic culture having been erased, the result has been a single standard for qualitative judgments derived from the commercial marketplace.

Market austerity is taken as a universal tonic in both realms: The solution to a supposed “culture of poverty” consists of work requirements and benefit reductions to break the “cycle of dependency” and promote “self-reliance.”  The longstanding crisis in classical music is treated by the imposition of market discipline requiring institutions to devise “working business models.” This means in practice supporting themselves predominantly by ticket sales, something which virtually no major orchestra or opera company in history has done successfully and which would require jettisoning most of the defining virtues of the medium.


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“What can oppose the decline of the west is not a resurrected culture but the utopia that is silently contained in the image of its decline.”  — Theodor W. Adorno

What is needed to make sense of present circumstances is not Adorno, but rather his successor Pierre Bourdieu who argued that the high arts have historically fulfilled a crucial legitimating function for the bourgeoisie. Disparities in wealth and privilege have been justified, or at least tolerated, insofar as those benefitting from them are seen as fulfilling a necessary role in preserving artistic and cultural traditions of unquestioned sophistication, subtlety, and refinement.

There are two logical corollaries to Bourdieu’s analysis relevant to the discussion. First is the widespread belief among contemporary elites that their acquisition of great wealth is not only justified but self-justifying. Exercises of noblesse oblige, whether investments in the arts and culture, generosity or even simple decency towards others are no longer necessary, by now viewed as sentimental archaisms, vestiges of a pre-meritocratic elite.

Second, what is by now an unshakeable faith in the transcendent wisdom of the marketplace not only justifies the withdrawal of elite support but demands it, based on the rationale that they should not “pick winners” or “put their thumbs on the scale” in so doing corrupting market mechanisms taken as omniscient arbiters of value.

This is at least part of the logic according to which the head of the negotiating committee of the Minnesota Orchestra US Bancorp CEO Richard K. Davis  demands sharp wage and benefit reductions from the orchestra’s musicians. His own yearly compensation of $14.4 million could easily make up for the orchestra’s budget shortfall, by itself, as could a small fraction of the tax breaks, subsidies and bailouts gifted to Davis’s fellow board members over the past two decade. A philosophical commitment to austerity, albeit likely compounded by sheer avarice, dictates that any such exercises in generosity would be dismissed as counterproductive.  For Davis, fiscal sustainability is a prima facie indication of social and artistic merit.

While crude market fundamentalism continues to guide the actions of the Minnesota Orchestra’s board, its audiences appear to take a different view, understanding that an orchestra’s job is not to make money but to make music. This was implicit in a recent report of a farewell concert offered by the Orchestra under its departing conductor, Osma Vanska.

As a poignant encore, Mr. Vanska offered a work by the composer perhaps closest to him, his Finnish compatriot Sibelius: the ‘Valse Triste,’ which Mr. Vanska described as a dance of death. In typically self-effacing fashion, he asked the audience to withhold applause at the end, and listeners filed out quietly, many in tears.

What Minnesota audiences were mourning went beyond the destruction of one of the world’s great orchestras engineered by a team of bean-counting plutocrats. It was connected to an awareness that the virtues of classical music are inherently hostile to neoliberal mindset now dominant in all sectors of society. For many, classical music, its refusal to engage in high-volume harangues, its reliance on aural logic rather than visual spectacle, its commitment to achieving often barely perceptible standards of formal perfection, all serves as a repudiation of late capitalism — a refuge from hideous strip malls, the 24-hour assault of advertising copy, and marketing hype. Ultimately, it is a protest against the cruder, meaner, and self-destructive society we have become.

Achieving this recognition is not easy, nor are most things worth doing. That’s the underlying lesson learned by a child confronting a Mozart sonata. And it will need to be relearned by adults if we have much hope of surviving the century.

John Halle is the director of studies in music theory and practice at Bard College Conservatory.

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