The Death of Classical Music

The development of polyphony and major/minor tonalities is one of the great achievements of the Western tradition. I love classical music, even the weird 14th-century motets where there are three different and unrelated texts being sung with a nasal quality in pre-modern tonalities. One of my undergraduate majors was music, and I have been blessed to participate in several ensembles over the years that perform classical repertoire.

It’s too bad, then, that the lion’s share of “classical” music composed in the last 50 years has been awful. This is not just my curmudgeonly, un-Enlightened opinion. Both audiences and performers around the world loathe most postwar compositions. The title of a 2008 history of 20th-century music encapsulates the problem: The Rest is Noise, a phrase every music appreciation instructor has been tempted to utter to his class upon completing the unit on the Romantic era.

So what accounts for this precipitous decline? One problem is that gatekeepers of the scholarly musical world simply exclude by definition from the category of “classical” any compositions that people actually like to hear. Sorry, John Williams. Sorry, Andrew Lloyd Webber. You’re just “popular” composers.

However, there are other factors at work, too. This article discusses the economic component of classical music production and points out that because most funding for this activity today comes from the State, composers don’t have to write music people want to hear in order to make a living. Because the wishes and tastes of audiences are not consulted, “you will find better music in a rotten blues bar in the poor old downtown of Cincinnati rather than in a posh, subsidized contemporary-classical-music event.” The author shows that even the edgy experimental composers of previous eras had a sort of discipline imposed on them by listeners who enabled them to pay the bills through their patronage. Last night I went to a performance that included a very nice 2008 piece. It was nice because a church commissioned it and demanded something decent in return for its money!

So if you care about good classical music, vote with your dollars. Donate to the organizations and artists dedicated to the good stuff and withhold funds from the ones who produce the trash. That won’t solve the government funding problem, but you can decide later whether you want to defund the NEA.

About Dr. J

I am Professor of Humanities at Faulkner University, where I chair the Department of Humanities and direct online M.A. and Ph.D. programs based on the Great Books of Western Civilization. I am also Associate Editor of the Journal of Faith and the Academy and a member of the faculty at Liberty Classroom.
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3 Responses to The Death of Classical Music

  1. Josh Cozart says:

    Thank you for this article, I was not a fan of classical music until I joined Chorus in high school. And Since becoming a Music Major I can find nothing better. I believe that the only compositions in the past few decades that are remotely similar are choral compositions and Movie soundtracks, (not all mind you, John Williams and a few others. )
    Even these are drastically different than what was composed in the 1800’s and 1900’s. And it does sadden me to see the decline in the music that started it all and an incline in music and musicians who use synthesizers and auto-tune to make music. Dont get me wrong, I love some Rock and Roll, Heavy Metal, and Blue Grass to name a few, but nothing quite compares to the complicity and sound of classical music.
    I agree that more money needs to be donated to the arts to keep “classical” music going. Thank you for this article and the others you have posted. Keep them coming.

  2. Fred Jewell says:

    Of course, the same thing has happened in the visual arts. What is the creative person to do who has to follow the technical perfection achieved in earlier periods? Answer: go in a different direction, which by definition is a move away from perfection. This is a process, it seems, with no outer limits, although there can be rebounds from previously-achieved lows.

  3. Pingback: Still Hating Modern Classical Music | The Western Tradition

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