The Magazine

Requiem for Strings

The salutary past, and uncertain future, of classical music.

Jul 30, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 43 • By GEORGE B. STAUFFER
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Why Classical Music Still Matters

by Lawrence Kramer

California, 251 pp., $24.95

The Life and Death of Classical Music

Featuring the 100 Best and 20 Worst Recordings Ever Made

by Norman Lebrecht

Anchor, 352 pp., $14.95

Cultural commentators have been noting for quite some time now classical music's fall from grace. The plummeting attendance at classical concerts, the abandonment of classical repertory by the major recording labels, the precarious financial state of professional orchestras, the replacement of pianos by media centers in middle-class homes, and the elevation of popular music and idolization of popular musicians (some of whom can neither read music nor sing it in tune) are taken as signs that classical music is doomed, and that it will not be long before it fades from modern life altogether.

Cultural shifts in Europe towards the end of the 19th century spurred Nietzsche to proclaim that God is dead. Is it time, in light of recent trends, to declare that Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven are dead, too?

Maybe yes, maybe no, to judge from two recent books on the topic. The yes vote is cast by Norman Lebrecht, well-known British music critic, who traces the rise and fall of the classical recording industry. To Lebrecht, the authoritative hold of classical music was broken with the arrival of Elvis Presley on the Western front and the Beatles on the Eastern front. Their pincer movement in the 1950s and '60s delivered a blow from which classical music--and perhaps Western civilization as well--has never recovered.

The no vote is cast by Lawrence Kramer, professor of music and English at Fordham, who champions the salutary effects of classical music upon the soul. To Kramer, classical music remains a Lourdes-like spring in which weary pilgrims plagued by the stresses and complexities of 21st-century life can bathe and find themselves restored. In his view, classical music is not only alive--it is a potential source of salvation.

Of the two volumes, Kramer's is the more substantial. The author presumes that the reader still has access to classical music and that he seeks more edification than popular music provides. And the underlying theme of the book is compelling: Classical music, unlike popular music, can enhance the quality of life. Listening to classical music is like working out at an aural fitness center: It not only provides escape from the tedium of daily activities but also commands attention, pushes the intellect, and offers insight and empathy.

How does it do this? As Kramer points out, the precise notation of classical music allows for thoughtful organization and manipulation of the text. Popular music presents good tunes; classical music develops them. With classical music, the fate of the melody becomes important. Melody, harmony, rhythm, and other musical elements are artfully arranged and granted substance. The music becomes a story in which details count: Characters (in the form of themes) appear and take life, plots and subplots unfold and interweave; dilemmas develop and resolve. Kramer believes that classical music deals with the fundamental choices and transitions of life: Loss and recovery, desire and destiny, forgetting and remembering, change and recognition. The listener takes possession of the tale and wants to know how it comes out.

Classical music also appears to have stabilizing qualities. Although the "Mozart effect" has now been discredited (a group of lab researchers at Texas Tech claimed that rats exposed to the music of Mozart and Schoenberg preferred the former, seemingly because of its calming properties and pleasing organization), Kramer maintains that the hierarchical structure of classical music helps to train the ear to listen deeply and perceive how the world might be arranged. As Otto Bettmann said of Bach's music: It puts in order what life cannot.

The vagueness of classical music only serves to make it richer, according to Kramer. It is often difficult to put one's finger on precisely what happens, but this only enhances meaning. Here the author cites Ludwig Wittgenstein, who compared listening to classical music to viewing the expression on a face: We understand it, but we don't decode it. It is the general nature of the emotion in music that gives it its power. As many historians have noted, Lincoln's Gettysburg Address comes from its nonspecific language--language that calculatedly transcends a battlefield in Pennsylvania to apply to the broader fight for freedom worldwide. In a similar way, Kramer argues, the battle for consonant resolution in a Beethoven symphony has the ability to symbolize the wider struggle for peaceful existence.

But are people truly engaged when they listen to classical music--engaged enough to experience the transcendence that Kramer describes? Modern observers commonly claim that audiences listened more intensely in the past, when they were not diverted by innumerable distractions. To me, the record on "the good old days" of classical listening is mixed. On the one hand, we have Mozart's description of an audience in Paris that heard one of his symphonies and applauded gleefully when it recognized the return of a theme cunningly delayed. That Parisians could follow the intricacies of classical sonata form without the aid of a Music 101 course suggests enlightened times. On the other hand, boxes at many opera houses in the 18th and 19th centuries were set up for eating and card playing, implying that audiences did not always listen with rapt attention. As Lady Henry declared in The Picture of Dorian Gray, "I like Wagner's music better than anybody's. It is so loud that one can talk the whole time without people hearing what one says."

If today's audiences are not conscientiously listening, there is still the chance that they are conscientiously looking. Kramer devotes considerable discussion to the effective use of classical music in film, from Disney's groundbreaking Fantasia through Brief Encounter and People Will Talk to such recent movies as Paradise Road and Impromptu. His appraisal of the Prelude from Bach's G-Major Cello Suite in the soundtracks of Master and Commander and The Pianist is masterful and shows how classical music can add both nuance and new meaning to the cinematographic image. In film, the life-enhancing social energy of classical music forms a convincing partnership, one that proves effective even in campier productions. Would the restoration of Superman's powers after his encounter with kryptonite feel as strong if it were not accompanied by the return of the heroic main theme in John Williams's stunning score?

While Kramer is convinced that classical music still has the right stuff, Lebrecht would say it doesn't matter, since the recording industry that carried the great masterpieces to a broad audience has changed priorities. Lebrecht begins with the first recordings of classical music by Enrico Caruso in 1902. Short, stout, and not particularly handsome, Caruso was an unlikely operatic superstar, but his penetrating tenor voice with its dark, baritone-like timbre carried through the pop and crackle of the early cylinders and 78s. His renditions of Verdi and Puccini convinced listeners that the gramophone was not just a gimmick. By his death in 1921, Caruso had earned more than $2 million from his recordings--more than Babe Ruth could boast in his famous salary face-off with President Hoover. Equally improbable was Wilhelm Kempff, a solid but lackluster pianist whose career blossomed on the basis of recordings rather than concerts.

By the mid-1920s, the recording industry was moving forward at full steam, fueled by its recordings of classical music. In 1926 RCA Victor sold $20 million worth of Victrola players in one week alone, and by 1929, annual classical record sales totaled $104 million. Following the stock market crash, this figure plummeted to $6 million. But with RCA and Columbia in the United States competing against EMI and Decca in Britain and DGG and Telefunken in Germany, the recording industry steadily revived and prospered though the 1940s. With the switch from the 78 to the long-playing album in 1948, classical music entered a golden age of recording. The introduction of magnetic tape in the 1950s opened the door to studio editing and the manipulation of the recorded sound.

In early times a wealthy patron could bring Handel and Scarlatti, Bach and Marchand, or Chopin and Liszt together for a match-up of skills. By the middle of the 20th century any middle-class citizen could sit in his home and compare Kempff and Backhaus, Heifetz and Milstein, or Rachmaninoff and Horowitz. Arthur Schnabel's cycle of Beethoven sonatas, although riddled with technical slips, nevertheless became a cultural marker, a reference tool as necessary in one's personal library as the Encyclopedia Britannica or the World Book. Recordings also led to the rise of star conductors--Toscanini, Walter, Klemperer, von Karajan, and others--whose albums took them far beyond their local cities, Lebrecht points out.

Elvis Presley's arrival in 1955 changed everything. Within one year his record sales topped $22 million--half as much as the entire classical market. EMI saw the writing on the wall and began to judge classical recordings on profitability. Adolescents soon became the main drivers of the recording industry: They had the money to spend on records, and they, not media moguls, became the arbiters of taste. Lebrecht's numbers tell it all: Arthur Rubenstein's 1956 recording of Rachmaninoff's Second Piano Concerto sold 350,000 copies; his 1971 remake of the same piece sold 20,000 copies. Big names no longer spelled pay dirt (as Lebrecht puts it) and the reign of the classical performer had come to an end.

This is not to say that there was no market whatsoever. Solti's recording of Wagner's Ring, made in 1958-1965, has managed to sell 18 million copies, and von Karajan's orchestral recordings weigh in at 200 million sales and counting. (Pavarotti is second on Lebrecht's all-time artist list, with 100 million sales.) Ironically the compact disk, with its brilliant sound, portability, and low production costs has proven to be the coup de grâce for the classical record industry: Easily pirated through digital means, it is as often dispensed as a souvenir or promotional gift as cherished in one's library.

In Lebrecht's view, overproduction of a limited number of masterpieces (435 different versions of Vivaldi's Four Seasons, for instance), corporate pragmatism, competition from television and other media, and the lack of convincing new music have added to the problem. A home collection of classical music, carefully assembled through reading reviews and browsing in stores, is no longer necessary; one simply surfs, clicks, and downloads. Lebrecht closes his eulogy with an annotated catalog of the 100 best and 20 worst classical recordings in history.

But wait! Like Mark Twain's premature obituary, the reports of classical music's demise may be an exaggeration. Before signing off, Lebrecht notes that, in May 2005, the BBC placed an in-house recording of Beethoven's nine symphonies on the web for a week, allowing listeners to download the music free of charge. The expectation was a thousand takers. When the files were in, however, the result was an astonishing 1.4 million downloads! The largest group of listeners--approximately 40 percent of the total--stemmed from the United States and United Kingdom, as might be expected. But there were also healthy contingents from Vietnam, Thailand, Taiwan, and other non-Western countries, a fact that points to the emergence of new, global audiences.

Thus Haydn, Mozart, and Beetho ven may not be dead, after all. Still, it is difficult to know whether the BBC listeners were seeking the transcendence described by Kramer or simply looking for cultural chachkas to complement the Dave Matthews and Christina Aguilera tunes that already crowd the megabytes of today's iPods.

George B. Stauffer is dean of the Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers.