Questions about the state of Classical Music

Black & White
Black & White

I had started another blog post but decided to wait on writing that one as I realized that it would be one that may take a few hours to write and not being as young as I used to be I should probably sleep on it some before digging in to it.

As it stands, I had a nice meal after getting home after a gig with a Rock Band that I play [cello] with and though I often state “beer is good food” it still pales before the “real” thing.

Before I left for the show, I checked the stats to my blog (as I’m often wont to do) and noticed a fair number of visitors to it and as I viewed the link that the hits came from I realized that Alex Ross (music critic of The New Yorker and blogger about Classical Music at The Rest is Noise) had written a post and linked to a number of my posts about the Orchestra Crisis and Age of Orchestra Audiences.  The post is titled, “The orchestra crisis at 110,” which references the first NYT article that I have in my Annotated Bibliographic Timeline of “Orchestra Crisis from 1903 (hence the 110 years of an orchestra crisis).

As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, I’ve only included pieces that reference an Orchestra Crisis in general.  Pieces that reference an Opera Crisis date back a bit further and there are several pieces that talk about the deficits or financial difficulties of specific orchestras as opposed to the whole field.  I haven’t really found (nor looked for) Ballet Crises pieces.

In one of my previous posts I linked to a recent piece by Greg Sandow which specifically states: “No one, to my knowledge, has gone searching through old newspaper articles, trying to find the first reference to a crisis.” though I’d started my bibliography some six months or more ago.  To which blogger, 113yearslater, asks “Even if he doesn’t know that someone has, then I really have to ask, if he thinks that, then why the hell isn’t he doing it?!”

This makes Ross’ comment, “There are real problems in the classical world, but the lack of a sense of history and perspective can be exasperating” and conclusion that “all stories about this non-topic — including those protesting that classical music isn’t dead after all, as well as those protesting that the entire discussion is a waste of time  — are a waste of time.”  all the more relevant.  While on the other hand, Sandow would say this simply means that since we don’t know then we can’t say there isn’t a crisis.  If we lack a sense of history and perspective, then we can’t really say that there is a crisis either, right?  This just takes us back to the problem of how terrible we are at dealing with simple binaries and predictive reasoning.

I could spend this whole blog just saying things about human reasoning, but I don’t–hence why I maintain another blog (one of many) dealing specifically with comparative neurophysiology (for a while I thought I would quit music altogether and go into this fascinating field) so I can post about things that may only have a tangential relationship to music.

But I really should just outline the fallacies which arise due to erroneous reasoning about binaries such as the bifurcation fallacy of “Orchestras are Healthy” vs “Orchestras are in Trouble” which actually only refer to two of the four logical states that Orchestras (or the Orchestra field) can be in, the other two being “Orchestras are not Healthy” and “Orchestras are not in Trouble” (or the more cumbersome locutions, “It is not the case that Orchestras are Healthy” and “it is not the case that Orchestras are in Trouble”).

The fallacy comes when you collapse the four distinctive logical possibilities into two binary oppositions by equivocating “Orchestras are Healthy” with “Orchestras are not in Trouble” and “Orchestras are in Trouble” with “Orchestras are not Healthy.”  When you make those equivocations you leave out the other two possibilities and lose the ability to see how grey and nuanced the situation is rather than simply being a Black/White issue (other names for the “Bifurcation Fallacy” are the “Black/White Fallacy, “Either/Or Fallacy,” or the “False Dichotomy”).  Orchestras could just as easily not be in Trouble AND not be Healthy; also Orchestras could both be in Trouble AND be Healthy.

Ironically, this lack of a sense of history leads the Chicken Little Think Tank or the Pollyanas to reinforce their own beliefs about health of Classical Music (that’s sometimes referred to as the Confirmation Bias) so are unlikely to be able to see the latter two possibilities mentioned in the previous paragraph.  But seriously, after a 110 years of crisis, maybe it’s time for all of us to get a better sense of history and perspective so we can stop making an arse of ourselves and realize that things just aren’t so Black and White.  As Ross quotes Charles Rosen’s immortal aphorism, “The death of classical music is perhaps its oldest continuing tradition.”


    • It’s money, but in a cynical way, I think it’s also just attention. I think I mentioned this in a comment on one of your posts recently, but I imagine the day after he made some flip comment about firing the entire Philadelphia Orchestra and replacing Them with conservatory grads, he must have been the most popular guy in the student-frequented coffee shop. More than a few of his ideas seem calculated to make him the “cool dad,” or the professorial equivalent.

      Given how poorly Juilliard prepares kids to have ANY musical careers much less the orchestral ones they think demonstrate superior human worth so nicely (viz. the Juilliard Effect), it’s really a damned shame. Those kids are working so hard, and they are being alternately sucked up to and left out to dry.


  1. Fire and Air, yes, you did.

    Jon, I don’t know whether there are numbers, but if there are, Drew McManus either has them or knows how to find them. Meanwhile, there was a NY Times series a few years back about a number of Juilliard grads and what happened to them. (This is, I think, part or all of it:

    I have seen numbers indicating that US music programs graduate something like 11,000 or 12,000 people a year at the BA level. It’s definitely too bad that every town in the country hasn’t got its own orchestra, because there are enough decent players around to staff hundreds more orchestras than we have.


  2. At a time when many symphony orchestras are foundering, the Naples Philharmonic is doing well. With a budget of $6.7-million, it operates in the black, and the 49 full-time musicians are paid a base salary of $39,700 over a 39-week season. (The Florida Orchestra, with 80 full-time players, has a base salary of $25,120 over a 32-week season.) The Philharmonic hires other musicians on a per-service basis to fill out the size of the orchestra.


  3. […] While most folks won’t give two bits about what Classical Music denotes, those of us concerned about the future (or event present and past) of the field have some vested interest in delineating the discourse. In some cases, it’s a monetary interest. […]


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