Classical Music Crisis is the “Tip of the Iceberg”

I’ve been reading Reginald Nettel’s “The Orchestra in England: A Social History” (Yay, Half Price Books!) as some of my latest posts have been focusing on how the orchestra has changed and evolved throughout history. For many of us in the field, Orchestras (and to a lesser extent, Operas and Ballets) are symbolic of (and for some, these organizations are synonymous with) the Classical Music World. Orchestras (and Operas and Ballets), however, are a small fraction of the presenting organizations in existence and much like Pop Superstars, they get far more attention in the media and in conversations about the field as a whole.

As I was cleaning my home office, I came across my copy of Jan LaRue’s “A Catalogue of 18th-Century Symphonies: Volume 1 Thematic Identifier” which lists 16,558 symphonies from the 18th century alone as I mentioned in a previous post. Two things of note here–one of which I stated in that earlier post. These are early symphonies well before the standard warhorses that many orchestras perform today. Second, and I didn’t mention it at the time as it didn’t come to mind–this is VOLUME 1! Sadly, LaRue passed away in 2004, so we may not get a volume 2 (unless his research team decides to publish it). Who knows how many tens of thousands of symphonies are left for us to wonder about from that period, much less from the 19th and 20th centuries.

So not only are we in a position where we discuss a tiny fraction–the tip of the iceberg– of performing organizations, but those performing organizations are performing a tiny fraction of the existing repertoire.

To recap briefly: Discussions and media attention about the Classical Music world focus on, say, orchestras. That usually means attention is given to the full-time professional orchestras, which are a small proportion of the existing orchestras (recall that the League of American Orchestras cites 1800 existing orchestras in the US). These organizations are also a small proportion of the existing large ensembles performing in the US. Recall that Chorus America claimed there were 42.6 million people in 270,000 choruses in 2010 and the number of Concert Bands have dwarfed Orchestras in the US since, well, forever. Add in all the various types of orchestras I’ve been highlighting here (Chinese Traditional Orchestras; Telematic Orchestras; Laptop and Mobile Phone Orchestras; Video Game and Film Orchestras; Mandolin, Balalaika, and Tamburica Orchestras; Arabic Orchestras; Soundpainting Orchestras; Latin American Orchestras) and we’re talking about far less than the ubiquitous 1% of Large Ensemble organizations being the focus of the health of a field as a whole.

And if we step outside large ensembles into the small ensemble world, and the that 1% starts looking more like 0.001%. That’s also setting aside the 1% (or 0.001%) of the repertoire that’s being performed. As I’ve said in the past, the field is constantly evolving, and maybe discussions about, and attention given to, the field should evolve as well? For example, just focusing on the SOBs because they’re the big budget organization is a red herring since even they started out as smaller, part-time collectives or clubs. In practically all cases it took nearly a century for some of them to reach the full-time and permanent status that they now have. The cherry-picking of talking points, as well as data, does a disservice to us all and, unless we have some background in statistics or mathematics, we aren’t particularly good with numbers or statistical reasoning. The media isn’t particularly helpful either.

I think that until we can get into the mass of the iceberg of Classical Music, we’re really only talking anecdotally. And yes, I fully recognize that the image I made for this post is ambiguous in that it could mean the tip implies widespread crisis (which I don’t believe) rather than crisis pronouncements are made by only examining the tip. Then again, I’m much more interested in falsifiable hypotheses which doesn’t seem to typify the majority of Hedgehog-like Crises opinions.

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