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Heather Mac Donald
The Unsustainable Declinism of Greg Sandow « Back to Story

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Thank you so much for your article. Sandow's bone he has to pick with classical music is very bizarre. It's like his main problem is that he sees classical musicians today as not 'fitting in' with broader society and whether or not that's true I find it really irritating that that would be a problem. As if there's something amoral about having interests that don't fit in with everyone else.
I have to agree with the first commenter - I've been on mr sandow's website and I found his music to be less than convincing (a clarinet sonata was particularly awkward and clumsily written) - I'm sure he's a nice guy and means well, but when his musical skills are so impoverished, I find it hard to take him all that seriously as the great expert predicting the downfall of classical music. I'm on heather mcdonald's side.
has any reader of this exchange of comments heard any of Mr Sandow's own music? I submit that he's uncomfortable with older music that people still like to hear because his own music is so unpleasantly unlistenable. Maybe he's a nice guy, but he might try writing about other stuff. Like, say politics. It's less yucky.
If you want to grin when you contemplate the fate of classical music in America today, simply tune in "From the Top." I quote from NPR's Web site: "Broadcast on nearly 250 stations nationwide to an audience of more than 700,000 listeners each week, From the Top is one of the most popular classical music programs on radio. Hosted by acclaimed pianist Christopher O’Riley, each one-hour broadcast presents five high-caliber performances along with interviews, sketches and games, revealing the heart and soul behind extraordinary young musicians. Now in its eleventh year on air, From the Top is taped before live audiences in concert halls from Boston to Honolulu."

If it is not played where you live, you can hear it every Saturday on the Web at WWW.WRR101.COM at 9:00 Central Std. Time.

Listening to these exuberant kids play with passion and artistry, talk about how they fit their classical music studies into their high school life, listening to a young cellist who has just played an enchanting piece of Bach's talk about her second musical life in a teen rock band, and you will never ever think classical music is down and out in America.

I'm with you, Ms MacDonald. If you love classical music, it's impossible to imagine a more exciting time and place to live.

I rarely listen to classical music because I cannot stand it. Just saying ....
But it was fun reading the debate. I must say, Ms. Mac Donald, I love everything you write!
"In the end, without money you revert back to amateurism. No, we won’t see classical music disappear, but let’s not define Golden Age so loosely as to say that mere survival by excellent composer, musicians and technicians is deemed worthy of the Golden Age label."

In your own (interesting -thank you) article you write (quoting someone) that "Golden ages, by definition, do not last". Once again this depends what the 'golden age' is referring to, but as far as music is concerned, humanity (at least in Europe) has been in since Hildegard, i.e. around a thousand years. Given the incredible amounts of superb-quality music still being written in that tradition (I personally spend around 30 hours a week listening to new or recent music and still can't keep up!), I can't see how there's any real decline taking place.

But there *is* a decline - in the 'industry'. This has little to do with real art, though it obviously plays a significant role in promotion. It's the industry that Sandow and Mac Donald are arguing about, albeit from different positions and with non-equal amounts of insight and intelligence.

You say "without money you revert back to amateurism", as if that's somehow an insult to music. But it's not: genuine art is amateurism, in the sense that it's not primarily motivated by money. Take away all the money and art will still be there; it always has been.

Yet all the money won't go, even if Sandow's Industry slides into a Black Hole later this year, say, because for one thing, philanthropy will always fill some gaps, and for another, there will still be a 'hardcore' of real music lovers who will pay to listen - even if only to digital files or internet radio streamers if all the performers fall into the Sandow Black Hole.

There's a lot that can be done that the Sandow-Mac Donald argument doesn't even touch upon. That, in fact, is why came into existence!

I have to agree with Aaron Liskov's comment: "the fundamental difference between Mac Donald and Sandow is that M starts from the supply side and S starts from the demand side."

I wrote about it more in depth here:

In addition, as JT suggests in a comment, both Mac Donald and Sandow are using rather narrow definitions of classical music and are arguing about different forms. What's more, they seem to argue on style quite a lot. It's art, what one person likes, another dislikes...

In the end, without money you revert back to amateurism. No, we won’t see classical music disappear, but let’s not define Golden Age so loosely as to say that mere survival by excellent composer, musicians and technicians is deemed worthy of the Golden Age label.
This fascinating discussion is just one of the reasons I just renewed my subscription to City Journal - promptly upon receiving the first renewal notice.
I have been following the debate between Heather and Greg from the sidelines, both as a music-lover and (I confess) an amateur composer. What keeps occurring to me is that for those under sixty, music has ceased to be a stand-alone experience. Music is no longer about entering a dark room where the lights dim and the musicians play in silence, with no extraneous visuals, eating and drinking, or social activity. The same thing has happened to movies. I doubt that a potential Ingmar Bergman would choose cinema as his or her career in this era of 3-D theme park movies. But back to music: When music is everywhere -- when your iPod is part of your wardrobe, and part of everything you do --, who needs go go out of one's way to hear it? When everything is possible, nothing is possible. (Stravinsky, I believe.) When music is everywhere, music is nowhere.
Sorry, I didn't mention the title or topic of the article by Fredric Jameson: REGIEOPER, OR EUROTRASH?

"The opening of a new Danish production of Wagner’s Tannhäuser would not be the occasion for extended theoretical comment were it not for a world-wide Wagner revival, in which the sheer number of new stagings of Wagnerian music dramas has overtaken, we are told, the revivals of virtually all now classic 20th-century (or ‘modern’) operas. Perhaps the career of its director, Kasper Bech Holten, director of the Royal Danish Opera at the age of 27 and soon to join the new cultural globalization of internationally mobile conductors, virtuosi, multi-lingual actors and soccer players, can add an additional perspective to what looks like the development of a new historical phenomenon, which neither Wagner’s genius nor Holten’s talent are sufficient to explain."
(subscription required)
Ms. Mac Donald,
I thought you might be interested in Frederic Jameson's new article in the New Left Review (by 'interested' I mean, of course, you probably will want to read it and then throw it across the room).
It's pointless holding up the NYPO as an example of "where it's all gone wrong". Any orchestra willing to pay its conductor $3 million a year is in cloud cuckoo land, and deserves to fail, regardless of the quality of the music it makes.

But much art music isn't orchestral, and even if all the orchestras in the world went bankrupt (very unlikely), there would still be enough of it still being written that could be performed by solo pianists, guitarists, quartets etc to fill a hundred golden ages. And that's not even starting on all the small-scale works the last few centuries have produced.

Neither Mac Donold nor Sandow have got it right, because they're both talking about particular (and different) varieties of 'classical' music based on rather narrow definitions. Most people in the discussion below are wrongly accepting the premise that 'classical music' is some kind of monolith or industry. It isn't.

By definition art doesn't need huge audiences - just a single person's appreciation would be enough to keep many composers writing and painists playing, and in the absence of that, some would still keep making art.

Art isn't a product, though it can be made into one. It's products that both Mac Donald and especially Sandow are talking about.
The idea that classical music is in a golden age because it has never been easier to access good performances is a recipe for complacency. This is like arguing that coke is in a golden age because it has never been cheaper to buy -- coke definitely wouldn't agree with that. The fundamental difference between Mac Donald and Sandow is that M starts from the supply side and S starts from the demand side. There's never been more orchestras, M says, or better ones, or more recordings of them, or more faithfulness to the composed music itself, and this suggests classical music's ascendancy. But over what? Itself? On the "demand" side, none of these things are that interesting. The coke bottle is shinier, each can is cheaper, its ingredients fresher and mixed with more exactitude -- we have the best Coke there has ever been -- but no one who drinks beverages really cares. To them coke is coke, and the product seems so intrinsically unappealing that it is a matter of time before it becomes impossible for Coke to keep producing its platonic ideal. Part of the debate is just semantics. It may be a "golden age," but peaks are unsustainable and twilights become inevitably. "Golden ages" presage decline. Classical music cannot sustain the goodness M describes because most of the people who "drink" it will die soon and the people who follow are demonstrably more interested in other music. All those trained orchestras will go bankrupt, music critics will lose their jobs, the surplus of trained musicians will turn to other fields, and all of these trends will demonstrate that classical music has become a historical artifact preserved by a privileged few as opposed to a living phenomenon with something to say to the whole world. "The bottom line" may not seem that crucial when you're slobbering over Emmanuel Ax and Brahms, but it does a lot more when one of the most well-endowed orchestras of the world, the NYPhil, is calling up a 20 year old college student begging for a donation to help seal up its multi million dollar shortfall. This is all unless classical music comes down from its "golden age," accepts the silver, and seeks somewhere new to go, changes to make, new listeners to find and move and persuade. The vision presented by M leaves no room for growth. It's all just polishing the trophy. The most culturally alien element of classical music today is the self-satisfied tone of many of its fans, and the position of M's article does not help.
Majid I found this article long but equally fascinating...praps you will too. It comes from n
P.S. my comment below was mainly aimed at Greg Sandow, and submitted originally to his blog... let's see if he publishes it
A view from someone with no dog in this fight-- neither a musical pro nor a musical snob, just someone who loves classical music and would like his town to have more and better offerings within reach of his family:

I'm sorry if classical musicians find it tough to make a living, but really, it's ridiculous for performers in any field to b!tch about pay scales when one considers the fact that such a profession is and always has been a luxury. Look at the average life of any pro athlete (and their injury rates) in any sport you like, from figure skating to football, and then ask yourself whether a unionized musician earning close to six figures over a multi-decade career has it rough.

Anyone with a smattering of economics or finance training can glance at the fundamental operating equation here-- a massive, professionally-compensated, unionized labor force generating a tiny amount of revenue from a small number of performances in venues with a fraction of the # of seats found in other entertainment venues-- and see that it makes utterly no economic sense and never will.

Which means that any analysis which bewails this or that EXTERNAL factor, cultural or social or economic or political, for the financial woes of a completely upside-down operating model is a waste of pixels.

The operating logic is clear: if the operation is not to hemorrhage money, either

a) the average ticket price has to go up significantly OR

b) the number of seats sold per performance has to go up several-fold OR

c) the labor cost per performance has to go down, by a nontrivial %.

Given the realities of the union structure and US labor laws, c) isn't going to happen, and a) is no longer possible given the long-term structural change away from an American economy based on millions of households buying stuff they don't need with money they don't have toward one where building up savings against a rainy (stormy) future trumps all leisure purchase decisions.

So I'd be curious to hear from our assembled experts about the prospects for b), above. Naive or not-so-naive q's for y'all:

1. People still pack massive sports stadiums with dreadful visibility in order to cheer on their teams and/or partake of the collective frenzy/fun. What's stopping orchestras from playing-- many times, say, 16x per year, as US footballers do-- 20,000+ fan venues, perhaps with lighter programs where the fans, oops, concertgoers can talk, drink beer, hoot and holler from the cheap seats etc?

2. Cisco's done a poor job of publicizing it, but the networking systems giant is currently in the early stages of using advanced collaboration technologies to revolutionize the stadium experience by connecting fans to each other inside and outside the stadium, as well as to centralized databases inside the stadium, to enable all kinds of sharing/social media experiences in real time. For example, fans at the new Cowboys Stadium will be able to create and share their videos of the action so that someone sitting in the endzone nosebleed seats will see, on his device, in real time, the view from the 45 yard line row 6 seats, etc etc etc.

What is stopping orchestras from reaching out to the high tech device makers and network providers like Cisco (let alone the social media software vendors) to enable a networked, social media onsite experience like this?


3. Re the supreme importance of music education, a thought: maybe the musicians' guild could offset the financial drain their pay scales create through some demand generating activity aimed at where music-loving parents are? That is, by TEACHING music in the public schools for one day per week? The logic of the exchange is simple: musicians have to teach, and in return the orchestra avails itself of the most effective marketing campaign imaginable for attracting new visitors to concert performances.

I'm as opposed to vapid cultural relativism as anyone - I just say, with most rational people, that there are many ways to be excellent (and just as many criteria for excellence). We don't have to speak just one language. But I was just observing - some of Ms Mac's stuff elsewhere is pretty right of centre.
It's a curious fact that anyone opposed to vapid cultural relativism is considered 'rightwing' and patronisingly derided by its adherents. Chauvinism with a goatee, one might say.
Wow, that site is so fun - it's like a madhouse (I mean - and I see Dymitry has made some big comments there. Man, oh, man - I think I've found the antithesis of everything I hold dear in music. It has to be a joke, right? Right?
Yes, more reactionary brain death on

Meanwhile, the grownups know that the best way to celebrate and love classical music is in a context of celebrating diversity. To think in terms of one rule for everything is simply childish. Sandow rocks. Ms Mac Donald with the extra space seems to be some sort of right winger.
"I barely meet any intellectuals (including many of the world's leading classical musicians - eg. the fab Brodsky Quartet, with whom I did a gig of my (and other) music last week) any more who don't orient themselves that way"

In case you don't believe him, DM, a list of these intellectuals is lovingly maintained at, under "Hip Pains".
Yes, Dmitry, you're right - you wouldn't listen to a food critic who knew nothing about Thai cuisine, nouveau cuisine etc etc as well as classic French sauces. It's possible to admire both Lully and the glories of Björk (but I wonder what you mean by "jungle noises"??) - I barely meet any intellectuals (including many of the world's leading classical musicians - eg. the fab Brodsky Quartet, with whom I did a gig of my (and other) music last week) any more who don't orient themselves that way (and it's been that way for at least twenty years, so to be stuck in the 60s may certainly be termed backward).
So someone who admires jungle noises, John Adams, and Bjork thinks someone who listens primarily to French baroque opera is backwards and unsophisticated. I really have nothing more to say.
Dmitry, the shortcomings may be in your mind only. It is backward to see classical music possessing some intrinsically priveleged artistic stasis - the facts don't bare out the myopic view. Evidence? The latest Björk/Dirty Projectors EP for one. But don't fall into the unsophisticated trap of using a single set of criteria to judge all music - that is as crazy as expecting premium beer to taste like wine.
I see that one post characterizes Sandow as the trendy guru that organzations are "inexplicably" following; while another one characterizes him as a patsy who is doing the bidding of those same organizations.

I guess both those narratives might be more comforting to some than the more likely story, which is that many different minds in the classical field are converging on some of the same conclusions, and there are many in the industry who don't like those conclusions. In any case, it falls to someone to point out that they are in direct contradiction.
I think you are both over analyzing.
If you could deduce that I "simply appear not to be familiar with any popular music" from what I wrote, then no doubt you must have been familiar with plenty of popular music that lacks the shortcomings I described. In the time it took for you to type those assumptions and cliches, you could have typed a few brief counterexamples; that is, if there were any.
Yawn, more predictable and uninformed repetition from Dymitry Wos. Like Adorno, you simply appear not to be familiar with any popular music, and you have one yardstick for music. It's no different from the 19th century English gentleman claiming there was no music in India, only drumming and chanting. There are many ways to make good music - open your ears, mate. You don't have to be a philistine.
Brava! Great response to Mr. Sandow's drivel. I think he's desperate for some attention...very sad.
"It is time to retire the term to a peculiar usage that lasted a couple of centuries and will soon die in the face of such great musical variety."

The term 'classical music' is certainly inapposite and anachronistic, but it's also rather ludicrous to imagine that a phrase like "great musical variety" should refer to all the different varieties of non-'classical'.

It's not much of an exaggeration to say that there's more musical variety in a single Mahler symphony than in every hiphop, dance, R&B, country, rock, indie, musical theatre, trad jazz (etc) track ever produced (and rolled together!).

And that's why 'classical' music will live on - on top of the thousands of dead composers whose music has yet to be 'discovered' there are so many talented living composers who will carry on writing, regardless of whether Sandow's beloved 'music industry' fails, self-promoting, self-performing and self-recording if necessary, for the small proportion of society who will always appreciate ART music.

I think you're both wrong, arguing through the lens of an antiquated definition of classical music. The term itself smacks of a kind of elitism that betrays the initial impulse to music. The pleasure and emotional resonance that attracts the human animal to music does not respond equally to the cerebral vanity implicit in a term that makes an artist or a listener of great import because they participate in a high art.

Surely classical music, high fashion and great literature is best left to be defined by a mass of humans left to their own resorts rather than guided by a deft editorial staff.

Brian Eno can be rendered in symphonic form, Philip Glass electronically, Mozart in brass, Vivaldi on guitars etc. The Portland Cello Project is no less music than a difficult mid-20th century composer; neither is someone as melodic as Faure.

We live in an age where an iPod shuffle can easily accommodate Arvo Paart and Lady Gaga played back-to-back. Clint Eastwood and John Wayne showed me how apparently formulaic schlock could be so well executed that it approached high art. Richard Strauss' waltzes may be in the same category but they are not as popular today as they were 30 years ago.

Is classical music doing well, you ask? Who cares I respond? Music is doing well in all its forms, as a reversal of a century-long trend of recorded music cedes to music's original Dionysian roots. Performance is all that will matter in a couple of more decades and music of mass appeal will be marginalized as more and more iPods allow for greater variety in sustainable genres, even within classical music.

It is time to retire the term to a peculiar usage that lasted a couple of centuries and will soon die in the face of such great musical variety.
While I agree with and think Mac Donald has a great point, that we now have greater access to a greater diversity and artistic mastery of "classical music" than ever. I do think we should be willing to consider that simply maximizing access and artistry does not necessarily constitute a vitality with in the classical music "community" (or whatever it is called).

While I prefer and feel more communicated by great "classical" performances (the Andreas Scholl performances are a great example, thanks :) - I must say that in comparison with what I have experienced attending my younger brothers' band and friends in the "indiepost-rockwhatever-new-word-they-use" music community, my experience of the classical music community has been rather "sterile" despite the expressiveness of its music.
It may very well be "hard to get excited about an area of culture that has its head so stuck up the past". With that in mind, then no one should listen to minimalist "composers" or pop "musicians" as both of them overwhelmingly produce simplistic repetitive works that have been surpassed in melodic fluidity, counterpoint, form, thematic development, and instrumental/vocal technique centuries ago.

The only "wonder of popular music" is a marketing one.
It's hard to get excited about an area of culture that has its head so stuck up the past, however wonderful. We don't go to cinemas to only watch silent films - why treat music that way?

Thank goodness we do live in a golden age of music composition, with the beauty produced by people like Osvaldo Golijov, Errollyn Wallen, John Adams, Terry Riley and Gavin Bryars. Mentioning some of this glory in with all the old (plus the wonder of popular music and many other genres) would make you much more persuasive.

Greg Sandow wins hands down, sorry Ms Mac Donald (sic).
I agree with your premises wholeheartedly. Sandow is not intellectually sturdy enough to enter into a debate of facts.
Great rebuttal.
"...lance a particularly noxious gasbag floating around in the far reaches of the classical blogosphere."

And that is exactly what Mr. Sandow is. Those who hire him should be ashamed, especially schools since they are already the first rusted link in the chain that is the declinist problem.

If there was ever an effigy that needed to be burned, it is Mr. Sandow. I hope his upcoming book gets panned for the claptrap it is shaping up to become and he is forever laughed out of this business. Any publisher seriously considering his book should likewise be ashamed.
Thank you, Heather, for these two wonderful articles, which effectively lance a particularly noxious gasbag floating around in the far reaches of the classical blogosphere. It is one that has been filling up with hot wind for years - emanating from a small group of navel-gazing Declinists.

Those of us who love the art form, promote it vigorously, and see its vitality on a daily basis appreciate this rarely-heard perspective (at least on the web), and the light you have thrown on the subject.
The only thing I agree is it's popular and less elitist (not always a good thing, IMHO). In terms of the level of artistry? no. I think orchestra and conducting are still very good. Pianists and opera singers are rather underwhelming, Lang Lang & Anna Netrebko? Maybe overall it isn't worse than say 15-20 years ago, but is it a new golden age?
I apologise for doubling in, but I think Mr. Barnhill has a point, though perhaps an accidental one. If a municipal orchestra or any such thing is spawned from the federal tax coffers, then its health and reality are in doubt. Such creations are cultural golems and require perpetual nutrient from people who have no interest in them, and that harms the culture seriously.
I have not read Mr. Sandow, and I won't. I will read and reread your article on the evolution of an American audience for the 'standard repertoire'---a repertoire that continues to be enrichened from the several hundred years of musical accumulation we enjoy in western culture.
One cannot help but suspect Mr. Sandow of being a tout for government support and patronage in the arts. That would explain a lot about his pessimism.
Well said, both times and THANK YOU. It is very tiring to hear all the time how classical music is at the end!! I enjoyed your articles.
You have written a good article; as a direct reponse to Sandow's statements, it is truly excellent.

However, the current extreme of "performance culture" is in itself potentially disastrous, with the early music crowd being among the worst offenders. When the problem of the majority of living composers writing "music" that is physically painful to listen to is deemed less important than the problem of hearing harpsichords played in a=440 instead of a=415, priorities need to be reevaluated. I do appreciate the effort put into authentic and precise performances and will pay a premium for them, but it is more crucial that the youth of today can have good opportunities for writing music with an emphasis on aesthetic content and technique.

As the listeners are the largest demographic involved with music and source of its funding, it is important to view the classical/art music situation from the perspective of a listener, as you have done; however, no art form will truly thrive when the considerations of the people creating the material are neglected. I know from personal experience that visual artists would not consider painting to be thriving if the only paintings being made presently were exact replicas of famous historical paintings (nor would they consider it any kind of solution to "open up the repertoire vault" of paintings being replicated) so why should musicians be any different?
Fed up orchestra manager August 14, 2010 at 1:44 PM
In response to Eric Barnhill's mast recent comment below, Mr. Sandow draws the level of attention he does becasue he's become an exemplary mouthpiece for those who have been forming his own ideas.

The League of American Orchestras, the Mellon Foundation, Arts Journal, etc. all preach the same sort of flawed philosophy he does and they reward him for being a good shill by getting the very sorts of consulting jobs you mention.

Universities hire him because he gives them a way to make it seem like they are doing something for students but in fact, his prescribed alternative career solutions will damn them to low paying career paths with no ability to buy health insurance or earn a living wage.

Simply put, he's a perfect patsy in that he doesn't realize it. And if he does, then shame on him.

It is obvious that his impending book and his notion of "un-sustainability" is his motivation. He's become so enveloped in serving as the industry darling that he'll say and do anything that will help him reach his goal of self-sanctioned sainthood.

He is an unfortunate blight in this industry and makes the jobs of good managers twice as hard by preaching his false gospel.

Shame on Mr. Sandow and shame on those who buy into his nonsense.
"Classical music’s idiom is by now so far from contemporary culture that acclimating one’s ears early on to this foreign language is almost essential to being able to understand its significance."

So, you and Greg agree that classical music and contemporary culture are idiomatically at odds, but your solutions for healing the rift differ. Greg would make classical music more in tune with contemporary culture (and frankly, I'm never quite sure of exactly how Greg means to do this). You, on the other hand, would prefer to educate the young to hear classical music on its own terms. Perhaps a little of both would be in order? They are not mutually exclusive.

In any case, as a music educator I applaud your insistence that "acclimating the ears" of the young is essential. I am amazed at how many students in my elementary general music classes find Beethoven symphonies "scary" (their word) because "the music stops and starts and gets louder and softer." That's how corrupted their expectations have become by the never-changing tempi, dynamics and harmonic inflections of most current pop music. (And I say this knowing there are some wonderfully talented new music-makers out there, especially among the indies.)

Thanks for a thoughtful, if sometimes a bit ad hominem, debate on an important subject.

- Ken LaFave
(See immediately below:

Sorry, the hyperlink didn't show up. That should read:

Your rebuttal above is mentioned here: Donald
Sandow more than deserves this. He's inexplicably seen as a guru of some sort by many of the trendies of American 'postmodern' musical culture, and it doesn't seem to make any difference to them how ludicrous his assertions are or how much he twists facts and arguments to suit his incredibly dogmatic world view.

Your rebuttal above is mentioned here.

This won't be the last of this you hear from Sandow, however!
Eric Barnhill wrote: "There's a reason that a substantial and increasing percentage of symphonies and big classical music orchestrations are consulting him, and a reason he's had teaching gigs at Juilliard and Eastman for many years now. Your opponent is quite credible in the industry, and when you misconstrue his arguments and then call them narrow, poorly argued, 'bizarre' and/or ill-informed, it doesn't make you look particularly credible, nor do you make a constructive addition to the debate over the current state and future of the industry."

Talk about "bizarre"!

"Industry"? "Markets"? What do you imagine is being discussed here? Pork bellies? Your purblind, ideology-driven economics understanding of what Mac Donald has addressed, both in her original piece and in her response to Sandow above, is almost a very definition of "bizarre" in this context. Industries and markets are the purview of the suits of this world; culture, the purview of thoughtful writers on the arts like Mac Donald.

We got to thank Wagner for making concerts a quiet affair, freeing them from extraneous noise, human interruptions etc. as great music can only be enjoyed with full concentration. Classical music is still alive and kicking whatever its detractors might say, attested by the full house attendance at the Dewan Filharmonik in Kuala Lumpur when Christine Brewer (in superb form and whose voice is sheer beauty personified, ergo, with her still around who needs past singers...I don't miss them) performed Strauss Four Last Songs, when Joshua Bell did the Brahms Violin Concerto, Robert Levin (but unfortunately, I missed that one)and so forth. I have with me, on vinyl, a wonderful 1982 recording of four of Buxtehude's sonatas by the superb Boston Museum Trio. Whatever might be said of the merits or demerits of the performance, "sterile" it certainly ain't! And in that Berlioz story...could it have not been the same priest that said the mass where the 14yr. old Mozart attended to hear Allegri's Miserere and later transcribed it from memory? Ha, ha.
I don't know how many Juilliard alums you have that drop by Manhattan Institute events, probably a few, but in any case I was one. Years ago I swung by a few events held by your institute including the first of the "Fabiani Society" parties. They were fun; eventually marriage and children pushed attending political things out of the picture for me, but I've been a fan of City Journal since the Giuliani days. So maybe you'll lend me an ear when I suggest that your hagiographic articles about the present state of classical music are not accurate and they are not helpful.

Statistics don't lie but statisticians do, and an outsider could watch you and Sandow go back and forth for quite a while and not know who to believe. I'm not up for commenting on the statistics here, but suffice it to point out that insiders -- which is by no means everyone performing in the industry, but those who have taken the trouble to look at demographic and other trends -- mostly seem to believe that Sandow is on the money. There's a reason that a substantial and increasing percentage of symphonies and big classical music orchestrations are consulting him, and a reason he's had teaching gigs at Juilliard and Eastman for many years now. Your opponent is quite credible in the industry, and when you misconstrue his arguments and then call them narrow, poorly argued, "bizarre" and/or ill-informed, it doesn't make you look particularly credible, nor do you make a constructive addition to the debate over the current state and future of the industry. And his arguments are not any of those things, nor does he draw only negative conclusions.

More surprisingly, though, as a friend of your Institute, I just can't believe you would jump to celebrate an industry that is so obviously a product of government bloat and overreach. You mention that the Ford Foundation seeded American orchestras -- that's a selective reading from what I recall. The main seeder of American orchestras was LBJ's new National Endowment for the Arts. Orchestras sprouted up thanks to a top down allocation of funds from Washington -- and they showed about as much energy and creativity as top-down projects coming from Washington usually do, that is, next to none. The sixties, in fact, marked the end of when classical music earned its keep by playing to any sort of legitimate market. Since then its financial model has been dominated by government subsidy and tax-deductible corporate sponsorship, both here and in Europe. (In the latter case, of course, corporations will only get a tax break if they sponsor certain kinds of art coming out of certain kinds of institutions, a classic example of government picking winners and losers.) The average age of the concert goer is now steadily propelling up into senior citizen range, and its cultural footprint is next to nil, with sales of a few hundred, often to libraries, propelling one to the top ranks of the Billboard classical list.

There are wonderful examples out there of classical music earning its keep, often bundling performance, creative innovation and education; and finding them would make a nice article for City Journal. You did not find them. Rather, when you attack Sandow's appeal to fiscal "sustainability", you turn on its head what I see as a principal mission of your institution, the support of the spontaneous order that liberty gives rise to and of which markets are the central mechanism. I think of the Manhattan Institute as a place that values markets and both the local information they provide and the material rewards that they allocate to their most productive uses. It seems to me Sandow would like to see an industry of classical music that is genuinely cultural -- by earning its keep in the cultural market rather than floating along on corporate tax breaks and the government dole. (I doubt he'd put it that way but I would.) But if I want to keep up with that kind of genuinely interesting culture, it looks like I'd better stick to reading Reason.
"Sandow’s program for 'sustainability' rejects the one true imperative today—music education—in favor of making music organizations 'more in tune with our current lives.' Classical music’s idiom is by now so far from contemporary culture that acclimating one’s 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."

Apropos your above and music education, I suppose I should have noted that I've voiced much the same numerous times on S&F, the latest of which reads (from an April 2010 S&F entry titled, "The Three Fronts"):

"On the Educational Front, we must see to it that music is made a required subject in all public schools, and taught beginning not with junior or senior high school (that's way too late, for as we've a number of times written, if you don't get 'em very young, you mostly don't get 'em at all), but with pre-kindergarten classes. And when we say taught, we do not mean via so-called 'music appreciation' courses which are almost always a joke and a quite bad one at that. We mean teaching music the way language, math, biology, or history is taught; viz., as a discipline and as an important and necessary field of knowledge in a well-rounded education, which teaching must always include the learning of a musical instrument no matter which, and no matter the gift or lack of it of each individual student. We cannot possibly overemphasize the importance of that last as absent that context the rest is more likely than not to fall on deaf ears because too abstract."

"That a celebration of musical richness and the evolution of musical taste could provoke such animus in him is frankly bizarre."

Actually not bizarre, but expected. Your original piece made hash of his entire perverse "crusade", not to even speak of making before-the-fact hash of his yet-to-be-published book.

BTW, neat and measured response to his five out-of-control, fevered rants.

I think there is an important question here that you all should consider. Here is the question:
In terms of classical music, how will future generations look back on this era (eg. 1950 – 2010)?
It is because of this question that I personally side with Heather’s perspective. I genuinely predict that in the next 50 years the popularity of classical music will decline so much that the era we are in now will be looked back on as a ‘golden era’. I think the financial implications of staging orchestral concerts and operas combined with a lack of public appreciation for these art forms will eventually bring about their demise.
Therefore people in the future will look back and say that this was a golden era for classical music.

As I posted on Greg's blog, you two are just talking past each other at this point. You both have valid points and you're looking at the classical music world from very different perspectives. I have long felt that Greg is overly pessimistic but find many of his ideas challenging and interesting. Your original article is a breath of fresh air because you challenge a lot of the pessimism and self-criticism those of us in the industry frequently indulge in. You ought to both take a deep breath, come together and talk. What a fascinating forum for debate that would be! I'd pay to see it.
Strong case for either side, of course. I have said many times that the term 'classical music' is outdated, generic and is a weak term for the rich variety of music from the last four centuries. Whether we believe it or not, the hands of the future of music is in the children attending school right now. How we attract them to old works, new works (which I strongly support and get commissioned) and performance/recording/teaching must eliminate any negativities based on old practice, sales etc. These children were not raised during the 20th century, and find these ways antiquated, thirsting for new ways to enliven traditional music and cultivate new music and styles. It is about the future, not the past--we must move forward.
Years ago as I relaxed in my own sunroom, listening to something heavenly and "classical" on my own little record player/CD player/ radio---whatever----I thought of how fortunate we peons of the (then) 20th century were to have at our fingertips access to such exquisite gifts that, when composed, were available only to royalty and the composers' patrons.
The popularity of the classical canon in a postmodern era rankles; Mere beauty is an anachronism which exists due to ignorance, don’t you know? This is the subtext of Sandow's response. For "decline" read "social irrelevance" and you will get the drift..What is truly irrelevant in every sense of the word is the atonal pretensions of the "serious" music of our era. Literature and fine art lends itself to deconstructive analysis, not so classical music; it remains an eloquent testimony to the achievements of the human spirit. Long may it prevail.
Bravo! I am not a music scholar... just like all kinds of music. In my ignorance, I could not fully appreciate many of the point you made.

Despite this failing, I do agree that we live in a wonderful age where music (from a peasant's flute solo, a Koto drum or symphonic perfornce is available to me at two in the morning with just a flick of a few switches.

Heather: Ya tore his a** up!
It seem like Sandow's real gripe is about young Westerners rediscovering their own heritage.

Martin Amis, who can be a real pain the butt, said that college editions of our majors poets and novelists were not only incredibly cheap but often came with superb introductions and a selection of critical essays by people who actually loved literature.

Post-modernism is a fad, or maybe that should be pseudo-fad, that has already passed its sell by date.
Dear Heather,

You win.

I was in your corner before reading this article, I am a better informed fellow advocate for classical "classical" music.

Speaking as a classically trained musician of middle age, I have to wonder if the truth isn't somewhere in between:

I for one am grateful for the many marvelous performers we have today, but there IS a conspicuous tendency toward safe, innocuous, vacuous performances - perfectionism without risk, sound-alike singers.

Orchestras today are stunning, but most young star conductors are just marking time, seem incapable of articulating the music.

It is also alas undisputable that beginning in the 60s, classical music was no longer a taken-for-granted cultural reference even among the upper classes in Europe and the US.

This disconnect has healed somewhat, and the early music movement has helped, but classical music reaches only a tiny number of people, and only occasionally - as another flavor that must compete with 47 other "styles."

Classical music cannot survive solely in the minds of listeners who attend 1 concert per year and own 2-3 classical recordings.

It cannot survive as antiquarianism.

How many educated people know who Ligeti and Messiaen were?

Until the answer is: all of them, then musical illiteracy is still the norm, and classical music is important to a tiny minority only.
As a frustrated musician from a musical family, I've seen this spat along with the other "major issues" in the musical community my entire life. I read Sandow's critique a few days ago, and I must admit I fall on Heather MacDonald's side on most of the issues he brings up.

I have a dear friend who is a successful artist, oil on canvas. His paintings will never show up in the New York museums--because they celebrate beauty and attempt to arouse a certain harmonic symmetry we associate with the word, 'beauty.'

No doubt Sandow would call my friend's sublime canvases "anachronistic" and attempt to deconstruct them. He seems the type more to be excited by a crucifix in urine than any attempt to approach the sublime with a degree of reverence.

F*ck him.
Miss Mac Donald -

You might be interested in a comment I left today on Sandow's blog


You say:

...whether anything in classical music today is sustainable. If it's not sustainable, then we're hardly in any kind of golden era.

I do not live in America and am not familiar with the American music scene, so I reserve my opinion on the substance of the debate between you and Miss Mac Donald. However, the sentence quoted above is clearly nonsensical. The concepts of a golden age and that of sustainability are antithetical. If something is sustainable, it is not a golden age; it is humdrum normality. Golden ages, by definition, do not last.

Consider some of the golden ages of the past: the age of Shakespeare in English letters, the 5thC in Athens, the age of Tu Fu in China, the Spanish Siglo d'Oro. All were over inside a century - most of them in much less. A peak of achievement is just that: a peak. So you might both be right. We might be living in a golden age: in that case it is certainly not going to be sustainable.

On the main issue: anyone who is disappointed with he state of music in America ought perhaps to move to Britain. Compared with my teenage years (the 1950s) awareness and enjoyment of classical music is high. Compared with the scanty offerings of 50 years ago, record and music shops bulge like an elephant in the 23rd month of her pregnancy - and nobody stocks what they cannot sell. Professional music here is flourishing. Concerts, festivals and other special events are well-attended and the standard is high. Most cathedrals have choirs of professional standard. Amateur and semi-professional music abounds; we still have local choirs and orchestras, many of them of a truly notable standard. In the North where I live the brass-band tradition still continues. Admittedly some musical snobs might deny brass bands the 'classical' label, but what they play is often of permanent value and interest, and the best bands are crammed with soloist-standard virtuosi.

However, it doesn't feel rich and rare, like a golden age. It just feels normal. Perhaps I ought to wake up to its transience and enjoy it while we have it.
In one way, I am glad of Sandow's criticism: It gives me the opportunity to say how much I appreciated the article "Classical Music's Golden age", and to have more of your thoughts on the subject. Thank You. I hope you will continue without the need for negative motivation from people like this critic.
You guys should get a room.

Reads like the third grade girl hitting the boy...

It's not April 1st, so I assume you are both taking yourselves seriously.

No worries, in another year or two, there won't be any funds for grants or support of music.

So I guess in some weird way, Heather will be declared the winner.
Do I detect a yearning to deconstruct in Mr Sandow's response? It is surely the only way to defuse the tension between the unabashed beauty of the classical canon and the unbearable self-conscious atonality of contemporary music. That's the subtext here, methinks : a barely concealed affront at the fact that beauty is prized in a post-modern era.
And consider the range of informal groups gathering for all sorts of performances. Here's one example out in the Bay Area using the Meetup software. Note the variety of events including gathering in a neighborhood bar (SoCha) to hear chamber music.
Thank you, Heather! Classical music is doing just fine. One of the best things to come along is the home recording studio using the computer or the Mac. I spend a lot of time listening to musicians perform in high quality videos and audio recordings online, whose recordings you can purchase with the click of a button.
For someone who doesn't have access to an orchestra, this is like water to a parched man in the desert.
Damn the critics, full speed ahead.

Hello, Heather MacDonald....

Never mind the Sandow's case, he's probably mad because you left him holding a flaccid baton, blowing a trumpet with leaking valves, and curled the ivory on his Yamaha's keys...... he's a flapping sail in a doldrum.
I do not detect "bile" in Sandow's writings, just an honest disagreement about what is happening and its effect on the future of a musical form that you both love.
Sandow believes that action needs to be taken to rejuvenate music and (mostly) performances. You presumably believe noi change is necessary.
I don't see why this should be a fiery argument.
Yessir. Indeed. Big 10-4. Look, I live so far back in the Alabama Piney Woods, we have to bring in sunlight by truck. On any given day I am either in my barn on on the tractor 12 hours per day. During hunting season, I spend a lot of time in the Jeep. ALL of them a wired up for Sirius-XM Classical. I am grateful for the "boom" in classical music that allows me to enjoy--OH--Mozart, Gorecki, Beethoven, Puccini (whoever) any time, anywhere. We do not get a lot of concerts in Pin Hook, Alabama. So what? I love the stuff.

So if it ain't declining in Pin Hook, it sure ain't declining in NooYawk. Tell Sandow to kiss off. Ain't no thing to kick his butt. Just call or write.
Yessir. Indeed. Big 10-4. Look, I live so far back in the Alabama Piney Woods, we have to bring in sunlight by truck. On any given day I am either in my barn on on the tractor 12 hours per day. During hunting season, I spend a lot of time in the Jeep. ALL of them a wired up for Sirius-XM Classical. I am grateful for the "boom" in classical music that allows me to enjoy--OH--Mozart, Gorecki, Beethoven, Puccini (whoever) any time, anywhere. We do not get a lot of concerts in Pin Hook, Alabama. So what? I love the stuff.

So if it ain't declining in Pin Hook, it sure ain't declining in NooYawk. Tell Sandow to kiss off. Ain't no thing to kick his butt. Just call or write.
Both H. MacD's articles were very good.
For the record: Fontenelle's
"Sonade, que me veux-tu?" was not directed to chamber music as such, but against the exuberant Italian Baroque style, too much, too busy, for the Classical French palate.