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As if classical music needed another pledge toward the oft-alleged crumbling in the United States, here it is. Joseph Horowitz, who has also written books about Toscanini and Claudio Arrau, unveiled this history in 2005.
To put it briefly, this is a long (606 pages hardcopy), extensive (goes back nearly to Plymouth Rock before reciting the origins of the Boston Symphony), and boring history of the alleged rise and fall of classical music in America. The book is full of historical facts and tidbits, choricles the ascent and descent of the symphony, opera, composer and performer in America, and concludes saying because classical music is not native to USA and we have not produced our own Beethoven or Bach (Bernstein or Ives are hardly substitues, he argues), classical music is destined to a long, lingering death in the United States.
One big trouble is he could have said this in 100 pages in more entertaining and interesting style like Norman Lebrecht did in The Life and Death of Classical Music. Since this book is so long and dull, it has become a timeless hit in academic circles and with serious members of the classical music industry and press that share his pessimism over the inevitable death of classical music in USA.
However, aside from big city orchestras no longer finding it easy to do fundraising and having to adjust to the new downsized economic America in love with gadets, and Michael Tilson Thomas failing to become a television star as big as his mentor, Leonard Bernstein, I find the "evidence" that classical music is dying to be myth built upon myth or proof of Napoleon's postulate that, "History is lies agreed upon."
While anyone reading this probably knows nothing about it, these were all the same arguments professional hockey made during its epochal 2004-5 season, when an owner lockout and player intransigence over salaries twice as high as they should have been gave rise to cries that hockey was on its way to extinction. A stoppage and/or major change would kill the sport, they said, given that hockey was a lowly No. 4 of American-interest team sports, badly trailing professional football, basketball and basball in fan and television interest.
Turns out the strike/lockout didn't kill hockey; it came back stronger than ever with lesser lights in places like Tampa and Hartford finally having a chance to compete for championships against financially well-heeled franchises in New York, Detroit and Montreal. There wasn't anything wrong after all; just a marginal financial adjustment was necessary, same as the parallel between baseball's Federal League collapse at the end of the 19th century and cries over extinction during the 1994 lockout that wiped out the World Series. It came back, too.
And neither has some economic downsizing killed classical music in America. A few things have changed that affected classical music. First and foremost, financial support for public schools in the United States has declined to levels on a per capita basis as a percentage of personal income unseen since before World War II. The truth is Americans no longer financially support public education, nor do our elected officials.
This is critical to classical music since most American kids' exposure to performing classical music is through church or school band or choir, where they might play a trumpet voluntary, a march, or sing Handel's Messiah. With less money being afforded public education, the chances of kids being exposed to classical music decline greatly.
The other great influence on the growth of classical music in America has been National Public Radio. While the federal government has continued to fund public radio, stations have changed format and/or downgraded the music offered, in part because they no longer have access to as much free material from distributors and manufacturers, adherence to silly rules about not playing music in a minor key or lenghtier that 12 minutes at a time, or for who knows what other reasons.
The public airwaves used to be one of the primary sources for people getting to know new recordings. No more. Now most public stations have to buy their recordings like the rest of us. Everyone can hear the sound bytes free on Amazon or elsewhere and most things eventually end up on YouTube.
And of course there are no longer any stores available where you can browse and see everything that is new. The counterbalance to Horowitz's and other arguments that classical music is in decline is not supported by the facts. While a couple of mid-major cities have lost their orchestra, more music id available today in local production, in cyberspace and YouTube than was ever available in the days of Tower and its predecessors.
In fact, anything you want anywhere in the world is available by a few clicks of your mouse, a trip to one of those languague conversion sites, and an email or two. Don't take my word for it, try it yourself. Or compare CD, download and MP3 classical sales in 2011 to LP sales in 1965 or 78 sales in 1940.
Aside from that, the sky has fallen crowd should get out in the community with more live music today than ever before, fundraising, strike and payroll troubles in Philadelphia, Detroit and elsewhere notwhithstanding. Just about every university (and many community colleges) has a public music program where you can attend concerts for $8 or less. Most communities of 5,000 or more have orchestral societies, choral societies, and other musical outlets.
So far in 2012, I have attended a Schubertiad at my local university on the composer's birthday, a spring orchestral concert from my 6,000-population hometown's orchestral society, saw a performance of St. Saens' Violin Concerto No. 3 by a virtuoso at the unviersity, and performed with a local choral society and it all cost me about $40 which includes $20 for the score I bought for the choral society.
I agree it wasn't Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau singing, James Ehnes fiddling, or the Vienna Philharmonic playing but so what? It was classical music being performed in concert where I live, played by people I know, performed at a cost anyone can afford. If I want to hear Fish Dis, Zukerman or the Vienna Philharmonic I'll put on one of hundreds of CDs I've bought from Amazon vendors for $5 or less. This is my answer to the rise, decline and eventual fall of classical music in the United States.
The United States has changed, there's no question about that, and many nations have surpassed us producing classical music talent. China has changed, too, and that's where the next Beethoven is likely to come from. With about six times as many people as USA, it's only a matter of time before a Lang Lang-type composer sweeps the world. Finland is another place that has created composers of varying quality in recent years, the modern mastero the symphony Einojuhani Rautavaara being among the better known.
Still, arguments that classical music in America is on its death bed are nonsense being foisted on us by elitists that long for the days of Toscanini and Bernstein on TV, big record stores on every corner, and the return of top hats willing to pay $1,000 a seat to attend big city orchestras and opera. This part of America is either dying or has died, I agree, but that hardly means classical music verges on extinction in America. Quite the opposite is true.
Horowitz's book has historical value but the concluding argument is water in a sieve. Read this dull book if you like music history. It also has a lot of nice pictures of people from America's classical music past that will help keep you awake during the trudge.