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An Audience For Classical Music

Posted by acdtest on November 9, 2003

Creating An Audience For Classical Music

hroughout the past decade or so, one has read often of the attempts made by various classical (or “serious”, or “art”) music entities — symphony orchestras, chamber groups, recital organizers, even opera companies — to gain a larger audience for their “product”, and it’s nothing short of depressing to observe that, virtually without exception, they’ve all pursued a model that’s not merely wrongheaded, but positively suicidal. That model, in keeping with the rabidly populist and promiscuously equalitarian Zeitgeist of our era, and using promotional techniques employed in the world of mass entertainment, has at its core the concept of reaching out to The People. Or using less euphemistic and less charitable terminology, the concept of pandering to the proles. While such a concept is perfectly appropriate and spot-on right in the world of mass entertainment, it’s an ultimate kiss of death in the world of classical music for the very simple and should-be (but astonishingly, largely isn’t) obvious reason that, much as one wishes it were not the case, classical music is not, nor has it ever been, nor will it ever even marginally be, an object of mass or even widespread appeal no matter how vigorously and assiduously it may be promoted. Classical music is, by its very nature, a fundamentally elitist enterprise, and should never be viewed or promoted as anything other.

One of the pernicious aims of the current leveling Zeitgeist is the dissolution of all hierarchies, both natural and culturally determined without distinction. And while that aim is doomed ultimately to abject failure, the casualties it will produce, and has already produced, along its doomed way will take whole generations to restore to good health, provided, that is, they’ve not been entirely destroyed by the murderous onslaught.

And why is the aim of the current leveling Zeitgeist doomed ultimately to abject failure? Because hierarchies are essential to the well-being of Homo sapiens. There’s just no getting around it. It’s in our DNA as it’s in the DNA of all living things. And in the hierarchy of music, classical music, by every meaningful aesthetic measure, occupies the very highest level; one distinct from all other levels, platitudinous and pernicious equalitarian pap such as the following from a professional classical music critic who more than most ought to know better, notwithstanding.

Said this classical music critic (who, as an act of charity, shall remain nameless):

Music is a very broad river, into which many streams flow. Classical is only one of those streams. It has particular virtues other kinds of music don’t have, but then they have virtues of their own.

Bypassing the paltry imagery of the metaphor which has music as a river rather than the vast, life-nourishing ocean it is, classical music is not merely “one of [music’s] streams,” but its very apotheosis; the one instantiation of music that alone is capable of subsuming and transfiguring all of music’s other instantiations. And so classical music promoted as just another “stream” flowing into the “river” of music will ultimately be met, by those at which the promotion is aimed, with the same sort of contempt afforded the person who attempts to present himself as what he manifestly is not, and by the attempt makes himself appear thoroughly ridiculous as he cannot help but do. Think of a redneck attempting to pass himself off as a genuine aristocrat, or, much more to the point, vice versa.

So, if pandering to the proles is not the answer, what, then, is? I’ll risk a tentative answer, but in fundamental principle only, as I’ve neither the foggiest notion how, nor the professional expertise necessary, to put the thing into actual practice.

The alpha and omega of it is that a hardcore audience for classical music can, in huge part, be created only by targeting the very young. If you fail to get ’em very young, you mostly don’t get ’em at all.

And that targeting must begin with the pre-kindergarten young, and continue at least through early adolescence. Schools, both public and private, cannot do the job, although they have their place in the campaign. Neither, strange to tell, can parents, although they, too, have their place. In today’s world, the single most important — overwhelmingly important — entity in the promotion of classical music is none other than the commercial media, cable and broadcast TV most especially. If classical music is not sold there, it will remain largely unsold no matter what else is done. Classical music must be made a part of the very air children breathe, and only the commercial media can accomplish that.

And it’s important how it’s sold, too. If it’s sold as merely another “stream” flowing into the “river” of music the campaign will fail — abjectly. It must be sold as the elite enterprise it in truth and in fact is; something to aspire to. And that means the purveyors and performers of classical music must never succumb to the temptation to ape the outward trappings of the world of mass entertainment, or dumb down classical music’s content or presentation, in the false and doomed hope of thereby attracting a greater following. There must never be permitted a disconnect between projected image and the true reality of the thing itself (i.e., classical music’s fundamental elite nature). In marketing terms, classical music must be sold honestly as a vintage Chateau Latour, not a sexily packaged, reasonably priced Napa Valley Merlot.

A tough sell, and a long row to hoe, certainly, but the only effective way to go.

As I said, a tentative answer in fundamental principle only, but an on-the-right-track — the only right track — beginning.

UPDATE See this entry for an important clarification.

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