What Really Handicapped Classical Music?

Prime, retrograde, inverse, and retrograde-inverse permutations.

Bill Eddins wrote a provocative and over the top post claiming it’s Schoenberg’s fault that classical music has lost its audience.  His follow up post, No One Expects the 12-Tone Inquisition, explains some of the method to his madness–namely attacking Sacred Cows, but one statement he made really caught my attention in light of all the issues surrounding the rise of the mass media industry that serves as infrastructural support for more dominant entertainment industries:

The flip side of that coin is that I don’t believe in coincidences.  The “composer as international celebrity” idea effectively died between 1945 and the early ’70s, and I do not believe that it was a “coincidence” that this happened when this particular compositional technique was in the ascendant.

From what we understand via the NEA Survey of Public Participation in the Arts (SPPA) the last cohort that regularly attends classical music with any frequency are the early Boomers.  The Baby Boomers are usually described as those born between 1946  to 1965 so the early boomers would have been the population born between the 1946 – 1955 years.

From what we understand from most surveys and studies of predictors for arts attendance it is early exposure to classical music ranks up there with level of education and socio-economic status.

We know that conductor, Arturo Toscanini conducted ten television concerts on NBC between 1948 and 1952 which were simulcast on both TV and Radio.  When the NBC Symphony Orchestra disbanded in 1954, the musicians re-formed as the “Symphony of the Air” and had their first televised concert on the popular Television program, Omnibus, on November 14th of that year under the baton of Leonard Berstein.  From 1955 the “Symphony of the Air” would be led by Leopold Stokowski and eventually disbanded after once returning to their former name for a production of Gian Carlo Menotti’s written-for television opera, Amahl and the Night Visitors.   Berstein would later lead the New York Philharmonic in the Televised “Young People’s Concerts” between 1958 to 1972.

So, we know that the last population cohort that currently comprises a significant proportion of audiences for classical music relative to younger cohort is the early Boomers who had the benefit of having grown up with early mass media exposure to Classical Music.  By the time this cohort had reached the age range of 17 to 26 years this population would have seen two (or three) top notch orchestras and three top notch conductors on a regular basis on Television.

That mass media exposure is difficult to understate since the entertainment industries that eventually filled the gap on broadcast media, Pop Music and Sports, then and now enjoy the infrastructural support (and audiences) that came from their entry into the mass media markets (including the Recording Industry).  These industries have also benefited from growing their audiences and developing business relationships which have helped them to mitigate the Performance Income Gap (i.e. Cost Disease) in ways that Orchestras have not.  The industry with the lowest ratio of performance revenue to total revenue, the NFL (ticket sales comprises roughly 20% of total revenue), just happens to be the most profitable due to the high prices they can demand for broadcast media licensing.

The Classical Music industry is constantly trying to develop audiences through educational initiatives and outreach programs–and some aspects of the “new model” emphasizes this as an even more important function of the organizations.  But there is just no way individual and local organizations can replicate the type of exposure and impact the mass media had during that 1948-1972 period–that is, until now.

As Live and HD casts are becoming more prevalent for large scale arts organizations we may have a chance to see how Classical Music can turn this new/old technology into something that can create environments of mass exposure.  Two models have emerged for livecasting which mimic the older broadcast media models: Mass Free Broadcast and Pay Per View Broadcasts.  The former has been done in Sports Stadiums or large public parks by the San Francisco Opera, Dallas Opera, and more recently the Paris Opéra Ballet at the start of their US tour in Chicago.  The latter has been the model for Cinema Theater Casts by The Metropolitan Opera, Los Angeles Philharmonic, and one of Yo-Yo Ma’s latest projects, the Goat Rodeo Sessions.

Classical Music isn’t the only industry doing this as a handful of theater companies are also getting in on the act.  Even large media corporations are turning some of their small screen franchises into big screen casts, such as the upcoming 25 year anniversary celebration of Star Trek: The Next Generation which will feature two digitally remastered popular episodes back-to-back in select theaters this July 23rd.  And yes, if any of you are wondering, I am appearing as a Klingon cellist at one local IMAX that’s making this into an event.

Whether this form of mass media can create a similar kind of early exposure environment we found during the 48′-72′ period as well as licensing opportunities remains to be seen.  But having the mass media support and foundation support (e.g. Rockefeller and Ford) during this time period paralleled the Broadcast Media licensing support surely contributed to the compositional environment. The hubris was in many (but not all) composers during this period not having to rely on audience support for livelihood or sustainability–since that kind of revenue was in decline for all forms of performance (both popular and in the arts) it helped to create a climate that fostered more self-indulgent(?) experimentalism.  This probably says more about academic composition where so much of this kind of compositional activity took place as well as how that music composition environment interacted with the professional performing groups.  If these kinds of works had more public exposure, rather than a primarily academic audience, the outcome may have been different.

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