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.