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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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.