“Classical music is the sum of all its institutions”


A recent piece in the New Yorker by William Robin rebuts the recent Slate article written by Mark Vanhoenacker that I mentioned in my previous post. As the title of this post reflects a viewpoint I’ve been advocating for all the Classical Music is in Crisis discussions, I’ll quote the section in Will’s piece from where it was taken:

The doomsayers also like to cherry-pick a few crisis-ridden institutions and use them to generalize about the art form itself. Classical music is the sum of all its institutions, performers, and listeners, plus a thousand-year-old cultural lineage; it can’t be snuffed out through any combination of bankrupt orchestras and mediocre album sales. What’s most remarkable, perhaps, is that the industry remains relatively vibrant in the face of an American media culture that appears so determined to marginalize it. The classical-music declinists rarely consider the value in having a few of the greatest orchestras in the world located in America, the so-called homeland of pop culture.

Interestingly, even Greg Sandow has distanced himself, whether admirably or ironically, from the hard-lined stance of the Slate piece:

But I do think it’s both wrong and unwise to say that classical music is dead. Unwise, because the statement is imprecise. Do we mean the music itself is dead? Or the industry supporting it? Has Beethoven lost all vitality and meaning, or is it just your local orchestra?

That’s a minor quibble, though. What matters most is that the statement is — so very clearly — wrong. Classical music may be in all kinds of trouble, but it plainly isn’t dead. The music still gets performed. Many people love it. Many people learn to play it. The institutions, troubled as  some of them may be, still function. Even if you think that they’re declining, even if you think some of them will be out of business in a decade, they still exist.

To be fair, the title of Slate piece was an editorial decision (for a list of this and a number of other responses to the Slate piece, refer to my post from last Sunday) though Vanhoenacker’s piece almost reads like a postmortem description of the industry.

The important point is that, how we frame the institution can shape the types of conclusions we make about it. And those conclusions may have nothing to do with the institution, or the “sum of all its insitutions,” that is Classical Music. As I stated in a related Facebook conversation about the prominence of SOBs (Symphonies, Operas, Ballets) defining the debate:

Your viewpoint about the prominence of SOBs makes perfect sense if they do have as much power within the whole field as you say. I just don’t think they have as much power to define the field as you seem to. Also, I think we all should keep in mind our own idiosyncratic experiences with Classical Music (hence the first post above about bias). Since I also spend a significant amount of time teaching, doing cello sectionals, coaching youth symphonies, presenting and performing at the k-12 level, that puts me in touch with a much younger population (the kids) and their parents. That and my occasional work with College age students and non-professional community players gives me a different perspective on those involved in the whole field that doesn’t just include the “big” players in SOBs which really only exist in larger metro areas so have little direct impact in the much more expansive smaller communities.

Once we start marginalizing sub-communities (e.g. see my blog posts about the ageism implicit in the Aging of Classical Audiences discussions) within greater sum of communities within the totality of Classical Music, it’s easier to claim this or that about the field. Unfortunately, those claims will only have relevance to that small subset of the whole, while the whole may be negatively affected by that singular focus on the subset by prominent public voices.


  1. I am convinced there is another blog post on a thumb drive in Greg’s pocket, which we’ll never see, that runs something like:

    “Slate piece sound badly needed wake-up call to classical music”

    “Has Beethoven’s music lost all vitality? Yes. Sorry to say it, but in this modern world of ipods, hip blue-haired kids with nose piercings, mashups, YouTube, and (other trendy shibboleths), the music of Beethoven no longer speaks to us as a people. Nor does the rest of the classical canon, as Mark Vanhoenacker’s eloquent call to arms clearly illustrates. I would also like to thank him for doing me the honor of quoting me so many times in his brilliant watershed piece, as I have long been trying to convince my colleagues in classical music to — how shall I put it? — face the music.”

    But he sat back for a bit, waited to see the response, and instead posted the other blog post, the one you quoted. I wouldn’t be surprised if he didn’t read the Slate piece before it ran, or had personal contact with the writer of some kind (in face, over the phone, at least through e-mail), and now can’t stiff-arm him fast enough as the guy is covered with the mud that the inhabitants of the classical music ecosystems have wanted to hurl at Greg’s positions for years.

    I mean, I can’t stand that stupid Slate piece, but the writer is just catching the shit that Greg should have caught. However, as he is at Juilliard, no one wanted with any investment in that world could do it. A mere journalist, though? Hell, yeah. He’s a safe target to take the flaying that the Philadelphia Orchestra’s musicians must have wanted to give Greg for the last couple years for making the completely looneytunes suggestion to fire all of them and replace them with kids barely out of puberty — and that’s just one example.


    • Man–I thought I’d responded to this, but yeah–with the editorial decision to title the piece as it was titled, I think the author got the short end of the stick. Not that what he wrote was worth the time I took to read it, but the buck got passed to him.

      Not sure how I feel about Anne’s piece defending Greg either.


      • By itself, it didn’t bug me … but the fact that she didn’t even say once, “Okay, so I’m somewhat biased here,” really makes it seem VERY disingenuous. It was what she left out that torqued me, not what she said.


      • Stephen Soderberg made just that comment too!

        Re your follow-up to Greg’s demur-laden defense (you failed to note that the Slate article relied *heavily* on “facts” and opinions supplied by your husband): I’m never quite sure where or if I agree with you or not, because I always find your rhetoric unequivocally equivocal. Whether this is intentional or a subconscious mannerism is not clear. But let me see how I come down on this occasion.

        On this particular topic-du-jour , whatever your opinion is (again, I’m not quite sure – you seem to want it every which way), I’m reminded of the French biologist Jean Rostand who reported a sign over the entrance to a laboratory that read, “Theories come and go – but the frog remains.” So, my own opinion ahead…..

        Absolute truth in a nutshell: Venues come and go — but the music remains. The same can be said of audiences and critics. It’s not “classical music” that’s dying (I THINK that’s sort of what you were trying to say sort of? – I’m still not sure – but if it was, I agree), it’s US.

        The question no one seems to ask is: Why are we so taken with ourselves that we believe our collective opinion could kill the Beethoven quartets?

        On the bright side, we will all be replaced – but the music will remain.

        – Stephen Soderberg


  2. (As an aside, why the hell must I google Juilliard every single time I want to make sure I spell it correctly? *sigh* Why can’t he work at Curtis? I guess he would have made his crack about the NY Phil, then.)


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