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The Unsustainable Declinism of Greg Sandow
More on classical musics new golden age
11 August 2010
My recent article, Classical Musics New Golden Age, has provoked in critic Greg Sandow a multi-part outpouring of bile. Sandow, who is writing a book on the dire condition of classical music and how to rescue it from its trajectory of demise, finds it risible that someone could offer a different perspective on classical musiccould celebrate its astounding vibrancy in a world so different from the one that gave it birth, could laud its performers passion for the past, or could give thanks for the musical riches available to us with the flick of a finger. For Sandow, any tour of the musical landscape that is not couched in terms of audience share or record sales and that does not reach a negative conclusionany approach to the topic, in other words, that departs from Sandows ownis intolerable.
Hence his numerous blog postings (here, here, here, here, and here) about my articles violations of the heretofore unpublished Sandows Rules for Writing on Classical Music. Sandow remarks of my article: When I read her, . . . I think Im in another universe. He is. Sandows universe is defined by two decades of ticket data from the League of American Orchestras, selectively interpreted; the world that most interested me spans the last three centuries of performance practice.
Sandow makes no attempt to rebut the central thesis of my article, because he cant. It is indisputable that classical-music lovers have never enjoyed such an abundance of great music, performed at levels of consummate artistry. The chronological range of repertoire in the concert hall and on disc has no precedent. Equally remarkable is the canonical position of works that for centuries were rightly viewed as far too difficult for the paying public to appreciate. To witness the trepidation with which nineteenth-century musicians began gingerly introducing sonatas and string quartetsthe very works that today constitute the core performance repertoireinto their public concerts is to marvel at how far the capacities of audiences have advanced.
Sandow scoffs at the notion that I could call a time when millions of people across the globe have instant access to this performance a golden age. An amazing concatenation of human accomplishment brought together this exquisite musical sensibilitythe fruit of a performance revolution that is the most important classical-musical development of at least the last half centurywith a technology that allows listeners to share their love of music almost infinitely. When does Sandow think a classical-music listener would have had greater exposure to the most sublime creations of the human spirit? Drop yourself into any time in the past and you will have to forgo all the repertoire that came afterward. Vienna in the 1780s, say, may be a tempting destination, but who is willing to give up Schubert, Chopin, and Brahms?
Even if the repertoire you most prize today had already been written, it was quite likely unavailable, either because the presentism of the paying public had consigned older works to oblivion, or because the baffling judgments of contemporaries and near-contemporaries kept works we now deem masterpieces from being heard. Paris in the early 1800s knew that Mozart was too note-heavy and most Beethoven simply beyond the pale. No less a music aficionado than Stendhal deemed Don Giovanni slow and sad. In Italy, the Germanic repertoire was virtually unknown. A priest in the Sistine Chapel told Mendelssohn that he had heard mention of a young man of great promise called Mozart, Berlioz recounts.
The music that was performed might have been grotesquely mauled by interfering conductors, publishers, and virtuosic performers. I, for one, am relieved not to be subjected to Les Mystères dIsis as my version of The Magic Flute, or to any of the other abominations concocted by Christian Kalkbrenner, Castil-Blaze, and other score bastardizers that prevented listeners of the past from hearing what composers actually wrote.
Sandow cannot accuse me of ignoring negative data. To the contrary, I address the decontextualized audience trends so beloved of Sandow and the doom-and-gloom League. I give voice to performers who worry about the future. The only transgression that Sandow can pin on me is that I tell a story different from his, by noting the vibrancy of the world that lies outside his favorite data and by putting performers observations in historical context. Sandow should pull his head out of the sand and look around him. He might notice that music festivals and new performance enterprises, such as Stephen Stubbss baroque and contemporary opera venture in Seattle, are constantly springing up. Baroque oboists and bassoonists are in such demand in the United States that early-music festivals sometimes have to import them from abroad. A group as specialized as the medieval ensemble Sequentia has thrived for decades without government or philanthropic assistance. Has Sandow tried to canvass the wholly unexpected places where students are avidly pursuing music training, such as California State University Fullerton, a nuts-and-bolts commuter school in the endless freeway sprawl of the Los Angeles basin? CSU Fullerton is not the first place that comes to mind for a large and popular classical guitar program. CSU Long Beach is an equally unlikely spot for serious keyboard studies. How does Sandow explain away the opera company in Indianola, Iowa? The demand for amateur adult training has led to chant and recorder camps.
Extra-musical significance also escapes Sandows attention. The period-instrument movement, which I treated extensively in my article, is important not just for its recovery of lost repertoire and the exuberance of its performances. It is also one of the last redoubts of the humanist impulse in a culture that has little use for the past. There is more loving devotion to historical knowledge in one program of the Boston Early Music Festival than in a hundred college courses in the Ivy League, where humanist learning has been all but vanquished by identity studies. The only question that concerns Sandow, however, is what tangible difference [the early-music movement] might make to the economics of classical music. Unless something contributes to the industrys bottom line, it is not worth discussing. Of course, the early music movement clearly has generated new musical activity and new audience. But even if it had not, it would represent an intellectual revolution worthy of praise.
In Sandows view, though, the only legitimate topic is sustainability, and the only legitimate conclusion that one can reach is that without the insights of our critic himself into how classical music can be more real and more like the rest of the culture, classical music is doomed. Given the condescension that Sandow lets fly for my failure to parrot his point of view, hed better be sure of his own arguments. Lets review the evidence he puts forward in his blog for the dire, unsustainable condition of classical music.
The sterility of performances. Whats amazing to me, writes Sandow, is that she doesnt even mention [the argument that performances have grown more sterile]. I might argue this, Sandow continues, on what you could call ideological groundsI think classical music has lost touch with the world around it, has retreated into itself, and set up rules for proper performance that have little to do with real communication. But others, for decades, have made the argument without any ideological point. Theyve said that jet travel has made performances sterile. . . . People also say that recording makes things sterile.
My entire article was a rejection of such hackneyed bellyaching. I am not going to waste my readers time rebutting an argument that is fatuous on its face. Has Sandow or any other knee-jerk nostalgist heard Andreas Scholls Agnus Dei from Philippe Herreweghes B Minor Mass? That unbearably erotic expression, sterile? Youve got to be kidding me. Andras Schiffs courtly shaping of the Bach partitas? Jean-Christophe Spinosis fierce La Verità in Cimento? James Maddelenas News Has a Kind of Mystery? Name some names, Greg. Warren Jones, a sterile accompanist? Kissins Chopin, sterile?
The age of recording and heavy concertizing was well under way during the career of the great baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. Worse, Fischer-Dieskau assiduously followed those rules for proper performance that Sandow finds at odds with real communication. Nevertheless, despite these warning beacons of sterility, I cannot account for my good fortune in living at a time when I can possess his complete Schubert lieder discs. Fischer-Dieskaus musical gift, which involved an intense attention to every note and a profoundly expressive use of breath, comes around not once a generation but once an eternity. But Christoph Pregardien and Matthias Goerne are his heirs, with their concentrated focus on text and phrasing. Are they sterile, too, in Sandows estimation?
With his usual affinity for bromides, Sandow points out that especially, maybe, in opera, . . . its routine to meet people who think current singers cant stand up to the singers of the past, even in their vocal technique. Opera fanatics moon about a lost golden agewhat a surprise. Sandow apparently thinks that such a reflexive inclination should be taken seriously as an objective measure of current artistic standards, oblivious to the fact that opera nuts have bemoaned the dearth of great singers for hundreds of years.
Typically, Sandows entire discussion of sterility is cantilevered off a distortion of what I actually wrote. He says, with magnanimous pity, How sad, beyond this, to hold up precision as the standard for a golden age! Have we really sunk that low? I never used the words precise or precision to celebrate todays musical world. I said that never before has so much great music been available to so many people, performed at levels of artistry that would have astounded Berlioz and his peers. I lauded todays caliber of musicianship. And I concluded that the present-day abundance of classical musicof newly rediscovered works, consummate performances, thousands of recordings, and legions of fansis a testament to its deep roots in human feeling. Sandows twisting of those statements into a celebration of precision is of a piece with the rest of his misreadings.
Todays performances may lack the headstrong tempi and unfettered portamento and rubato of turn-of-the-century interpretations. I, for one, do not feel deprived by our less eccentric concert practice. The sterility argument boils down to this: there are so many more top-notch musicians than ever before, thanks to the efficiency of the talent-spotting machine and the professionalism of music training, that we are sated with near-perfection and are desperate to find fault. The stupefying overrepetition of a criminally narrow slice of the repertoire does not help, either, which is why I advocate cracking the canon open. Why not a concert of unknown composers mentioned in Berliozs Mémoires, such as Gaspare Spontini, Antonio Sacchini, and Jean-François Le Sueur, several of whom Berlioz regarded with unqualified respect? Why not all the composers associated with the nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Allgemeiner Deutscher Musikverein (General German Music Association), such as Hans von Bülow or Leopold Damrosch?
Sandows ideological statement about todays sterile performance climate displays a simpleminded understanding of the semiotics of communication, to the extent that this phrase means anything at all: I think classical music has lost touch with the world around it, has retreated into itself, and set up rules for proper performance that have little to do with real communication. Real communicationwhether language or musicis always artificial and conventional. The stage has been around for centuries, with its invisible division between performer and audience; it is a convention that hardly conflicts with communication. The usual nostrums served up by music-industry consultantsconversation between musicians and audience, musicians in street clothes, a more heterogeneous programare no more natural or real than a quiet, engrossed audience, a silent performer in evening wear, or an all-Scarlatti recital. Presumably, Sandow would say that movies and TV have little to do with real communication as well, since the actors are never in the audiences presence and often not even in each others. Movie and theater audiences today expect their fellow ticket holders to be quiet, and nobody complains that movies and theater have lost touch with the world around them.
A seventeenth-century mass by definition is remote from the twenty-first-century world around it; it is silly to wish away the irreducible foreignness of the music of the distant past. Either you are willing and able to enter that foreign world, with its lost language of feeling, or you are not. No amount of allegedly audience-friendly tweaking with our performance tradition is going to overcome the initial division between the modern world and music that came out of a courtly tradition.
Entrepreneurship training. Some music schools are teaching entrepreneurship, another sign for Sandow that classical music is in dire straits: If there wont be orchestra jobs . . . then students will have to learn how to make careers on their own. Its news that musicians have to hustle to make a living? Through much of the nineteenth century, composers subsidized performances of their works and traded favors with their fellow composers to get a second hearing for those works in their colleagues own benefit concerts. Berlioz grouses about one concert in which the receipts barely covered the expense of lighting, advertising, the poor-tax, and my priceless chorus which had preserved such a masterly silence. (After having missed its first entry, the chorus had remained discreetly silent throughout the remainder of the piecea far less likely occurrence today.)
Given such exertions by composers, does Sandow really think that the nameless musicians who played their works were better paid than todays musicians or had more secure jobs? The wave of union militancy that began in the 1960s was prompted by what are now viewed as abusive working conditions and criminally low wages. Managers knew that they could underpay musicians and that they would still performbecause they were desperate for jobs. The main players union, the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians, boasts: In 1962 most orchestra seasons were about six months long. Now, almost half of all ICSOM orchestras have year-round seasons and our average is 44 weeks. Salaries have grown considerably since the 1960s when major orchestras paid less than $5,000barely a living wage. . . . Tremendous progress has been made with pensions, insurance benefits, job security, grievance and arbitration procedures. So when was Sandows golden age for orchestra musicians? And might the fact that today they lead a far more comfortable and professional life, however deserved, than at any time in history contribute to sustainability issues?
Sandows hand-wringing over entrepreneurship training follows his grudging admission that yes, students are flocking to conservatories in record numbers, a fact at odds with his dire assessment of the state of classical music today. This genuinely is a mystery, he writes. Thus the imperative to find what he calls the downside of the situation: that not all these students may find orchestra jobs. In Sandow-logic, an oversupply of eager music students equals musical decline . . . and an undersupply of eager music students undoubtedly would, too.
Peter Gelb feels glum. Those who think that classical music might be in trouble . . . might include many of the leading people in the classical music business, Peter Gelb, for instance, Sandow writes. This is the same Peter Gelb who is confidently expending what the New York Times estimates as over $16 million for a new modernist production of Wagners Ring cycle, even though the majority of the Mets traditional funders are undoubtedly unhappy about Gelbs junking of the beloved Otto Schenk staging. Like Sandow, Gelb is in desperate need of some perspective. The Mets 20082009 budget of $291 million is simply an astronomical investment in classical music, raised from people who have no expectation of seeing their beneficence and virtue celebrated on the stage. Gelb can casually drop six figures retrofitting the Mets stage to support the giant steel seesaws of Robert Lepages new Ring set; for decades, the old Met made do with tattered painted backdrops that it recycled among different operas. How much bigger a budget would make Gelb feel secure about classical music? I have no doubt that many classical-music organizations are in a financial squeeze at the moment, just as every other nonprofit and for-profit organization. But the baseline for their budget worries is higher than ever before in history.
These leading people in the classical music business whom Sandow cites as experts on the industrys health are presumably the same ones responsible for the industrys sterility. Why is he now willing to credit their views as definitive?
Some recordings are self-financed. On some small labels, the record company has to raise money to survive, and the artists making the recordings also raise money, to pay the recording costs, Sandow notes. Does this sound like a golden age, an age when musicians have to pay to have recordings madeas opposed to a generation or two ago, when classical recordings could be profitably sold? Again, the need for musicians to raise funds from friends and patrons is nothing new in music history. Moreover, it is not clear why a technology that did not exist for most of classical musics history has now become the benchmark of its health. The decline in CD purchases by people under 40 is occurring across the board; it was not a drop-off in classical-music sales that made Tower Records collapse.
Further, the works which smaller labels are self-financing are often of such marvelous obscurity that the recording giants of the 1950s and 1960s might not have been interested in them. As evidence of decline, Sandow weirdly offers the fact that a Spohr concerto for two violins sold 7,000 CDs in five months. Is he crazy? How many of us have ever heard of the Spohr double violin concerto, much less heard it performed? I unashamedly confess ignorance. If Spohr were apprised of these sales figures, would he say: Gee, how disappointing, only 7,000 CDs sold? Or would he say: What an unpredicted bonanza for my work, put in the hands of magnitudes more listeners than ever heard it during my lifetime, and who can now play it not just once, but over and over?
The ongoing Vivaldi opera project on Naïve is as important a recording venture as any in the past, in my opinion. And Sandow takes no note of the vigorous consumption of classical music online, which even the saturnine League feels compelled to acknowledge.
Sandow is either an incompetent reader or a deliberately deceptive writer, since he systematically twists the plain meaning of my words. He converts the following passage from my article
into the slogan classical recordings are booming, an idea nowhere to be found in my text. What I did writethe classical recording industry is still shooting out more music than anyone can possibly take in over a lifetimehe does not attempt to refute.
In addition to presenting bogus negative trends, Sandow tries mightily to find the downside of clearly positive phenomena, such as:
The Asian music machine. Fifty million children study classical music in China, including 36 million young pianists. These students are a huge source of future audiences, since the best predictor of attendance at classical concerts is having studied an instrument. But Sandow is having none of it. Support for classical music in Asia, or at least in China and Korea, is to some extent aspirational, he sniffs. And through much of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, young ladies studied an instrument to make themselves more marriageable. So what? That Asians view classical-music skill as a sign of bourgeois success might, to a disinterested observer, be taken as proof of its status and vitality in Asia. Sandow also notes in desperation that a Western indie-rock band touring China had stronger supportstronger fandomthan western classical musicians might find. If Sandow is now reduced to using rock music as a benchmark for classical success, I rest my case.
Americans have used their postwar prosperity to create orchestras. Im not kidding: Sandow really presents this fact as proof of the dire straits of classical music. I had noted that professional orchestras in the U.S. today dwarf in number anything seen in the past. In 1937, there were 96 American orchestras; in 2010, there are more than 350. Population growth accounts for less than 50 percent of that increase. So Sandow plays his trump card:
(It is apparently a revelation to Sandow that cities in the early part of the twentieth century had very few resources, compared to equivalent cities now.)
Why is increased prosperity (or, as he mystifyingly puts it, increased prosperity, along with the combination of population growth and prosperity) a reason to view orchestra growth skeptically? There are many other things that cities could have spent their money onstill more sports stadiums, for instance. Does the only good growth in orchestras that Sandow will acknowledge come during a depression?
The Bang on a Can Marathon is thriving. Sandow tries to rebut my claim that the public finds little emotional significance in most contemporary classical music, especially that produced in academic enclaves, with the observation that a large younger audience . . . drinks in new music at events like the annual Bang on a Can marathon. These are hardly mutually exclusive positions. Sandow surely wont dispute that a Donald Martino retrospective will not find a large audience of typical concertgoers; I would not dispute that the Bang on a Can festival has a dedicated following. But Sandows inclusion of that fact in a tract arguing for musical declinism is a mystery.
Sandows discussion of the nineteenth-century classical-music market is so muddled that I despair of disentangling it. Its jumping-off point is a misreading of the following passage from my article: Much of todays standard repertoire was never intended for a mass audiencenot even an 1820s Viennese mass audience, much less a 2010 American one. This observation he translates as: Classical music has never had, and was never meant to have, a mass audience. So it can survive without one now.
That distortion has nothing to do with what I wrote. I was distinguishing what was indisputably a mass-market phenomenonopera and the fantasies spun off from opera that were the core of so-called miscellany programsfrom the serious music written for a composers pupils or the connoisseurs who patronized aristocratic salons. The wonder today is that this once-elite repertoire has become the mass taste of most classical-music listeners (and the previous mass-market musicopera and songhas become a far more elite taste).
If you wanted to turn a profit in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the cardinal rule of concert programming was: Always include a singer. The vast majority of music-goers were opera-besotted. The cry of exasperation attributed to the Enlightenment author Bernard de FontenelleSonate, que me veux-tu? (Sonata, what do you want of me?)expressed many listeners impatience with instrumental music, which seemed impossibly abstract. The only interest of nonvocal music, Stendhal asserted, was the cold and unexhilarating abashment at the sight of the triumph of virtuosity over the recalcitrance of technique. Pianists and violinists made sure to ask singers or even an entire chorus to join their concerts, and just to be on the safe side, they would themselves perform wildly virtuosic improvisations on the favorite opera tunes of the day. (Today, the popular preference for singing has migrated to rock and other pop music, which contain almost no instrumental works, while most classical radio stations keep vocal music to a bare minimum.)
Solo musicians started introducing into their concerts the monumental works that we now take for granted only in cautious baby stepsone movement at a time. Liszts performance of just the first movement of Beethovens Pathétique Sonata at a public concert in Munich in 1843 left the audience rather cold, reports Kenneth Hamilton, though they went wild over Liszts virtuosic fantasy from Bellinis opera La Sonnambula. By mid-nineteenth century, a few brave pianists were performing entire sonatas, but only for highly select audiences.
Chamber music was just as much of an elite taste for much of music history. In 1804, the Viennese violinist Ignaz Schuppanzigh broke radically with convention by excluding vocal music from his quartets concerts; the violinist Pierre Baillot made a similar declaration of independence in his chamber concert series in Paris in 1814. These daring all-instrumental performances were hardly blockbusters; their patrons were aristocratic and their audiences small, as William Weber describes in The Great Transformation of Musical Taste. It would have been unthinkable for a string quartet to tour the provincial hinterlands performing Mozart and Beethoven, much less (if time travel permitted) Anton Webern, as todays quartets regularly do.
My interest in this history derives from its significance for the evolution of musical understanding, not for its bearing on Sandows ever-present bottom-line test. The fact that audiences happily sit through an entire recital of Beethoven piano sonatasmany of which are among what Berlioz sarcastically refers to as the popularly supposed eccentric and unintelligible works among Beethovens outputis another mark of a musical golden age, albeit in this case one that stretches back a century.
So Sandow sees little cause for joy and gratitude in todays musical scene. But he has a program for finally bringing some hope to this sterile landscape. He outlined that program in a recent speech in Australia. The crushingly empty verbiage is an insult to every performing musician today:
Who, exactly, among todays famous and not-so-famous musicians doesnt understand the culture theyre in? Does Sandow dare to suggest that he possesses a better understanding than Alfred Brendel, Paul ODette, or Emanuel Ax? I would love to know who on the performing scene today is not alert, lively, thoughtful, individual, or creative. If arts organizations buy this snake oil, I might finally be persuaded that they are in as bad shape as Sandow suggests.
Sandows program for sustainability rejects the one true imperative todaymusic educationin favor of making music organizations more in tune with our current lives. Classical musics idiom is by now so far from contemporary culture that acclimating ones ears early on to this foreign language is almost essential to being able to understand its significance. But children are not getting enough exposure to classical music. I speculate in Classical Musics New Golden Age that the cachet of conductor Gustavo Dudamel, with the attendant attention to the program that produced him, El Sistema, might help persuade more young philanthropists that funding music education fits in with their multicultural or social-justice ambitions.
I would have welcomed an informed critique of my article. There was plenty to debate: arguably, I glossed over the tension between my valorization of score fidelity and my enthusiasm for the authentic performance movement. For centuries, it was standard performance practice for a musician to willfully alter a score to best show off his particular skills. I also gave short shrift to the nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century antecedents of todays early-music movement. I dont grapple with the question that has occupied Joseph Horowitz: whether a performance culture, as opposed to a composing one, can survive. (I would provisionally answer, first, that we have been in a performance culture for nearly a century now without signs of terminal decline, and second, that one solution to the overrepetition of existing repertoire is to throw open the repertoire vault all the way.)
Sandows critique, however, is based on rampant distortion and a blanket rejection of any concerns other than his own. That a celebration of musical richness and the evolution of musical taste could provoke such animus in him is frankly bizarre.
Heather Mac Donald is a contributing editor of City Journal and the John M. Olin Fellow at the Manhattan Institute.