Classical Music is Waging War

Tents have been pitched, flags are flying with various colors demarking the armies who have come to do battle. Soldiers are busy sharpening their weapons, polishing their armor, making sure every thing is ready to reap maximum carnage when the time comes. Leaders are rallying their troops, spurring them on with motivational speeches designed to prove their cause is just. Tactics are carefully planned to maximize the effectiveness of each arsenal. Each army convinced they will win the day.

The problem with this picture is the war being waged isn't against another foe, some foreign invader. The war in Classical Music is a civil war, armies which should be on the same side are fighting against each other. People who should be cooperating to look for the future of Classical Music are entrenching their ideas. Ideas are selective rather than inclusive. It is a Solomon's dilemma --do we hack the baby in pieces to appease everyone?

This battle isn't a one off, winner takes all. The various battles are dividing loyalties and laying waste to a ground that new supporters are hesitant to step on. So, not only are the various armies dwindling in size due to the casualties suffered, there are fewer and fewer new recruits to fill the ranks.

What are these battles?

AGE: Should orchestras attempt to woo a younger audience or should they continue to cater to the older audience which, historically has been their primary source of income?

PROGRAMMING: Should orchestras program new works, attempting to appeal to a new audience, or program more pieces from the traditional repertoire which have historically been popular?

ETIQUETTE: Should audiences be encouraged to applaud and even call out vocally whenever they want, or should all applause be held to the end of the entire piece?

To make matters worse, these battles are waged as gorilla warfare -- attacks come in subtle ways, often in the guise of support. A wealthy patron offers to provide a sizable gift, then makes demands as to the kind of programming they want to see (or don't wish to see). Avid concert goers attend a concert where the atmosphere wasn't as they liked so they complain threatening to never come back, until someone offers them a 'peace offering' of complimentary tickets or an invitation to a special event. Musicians feel unappreciated. Administrators feel taken advantage of. And the war wages on.

There are any number of clich├ęs which might provide guidance:

If you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem.

If you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all.

Why can't we all just get along.

The real problem is we are in a passionate industry. The musicians are passionate about what they're doing, the patrons are passionate about what they want to hear (and support), the audience is passionate about what they like (and don't like). These passions have come to rule the day and create divisions that don't need to exist.

I had a lovely, long conversation over twitter the other day. Several people were involved, with the divisions only growing deeper the longer the conversation went on. Some people were speaking out for the older generation, the 40+ crowd, suggesting this was the generation orchestras should be focused on. Other's were suggesting orchestras needed to look to the younger crowd, the 20-30 year old's. Attempts at trying to appease both were initially dismissed on all sides as pandering to the other 'camp.' In the end, the conversation took a turn and many of those involved realized that more than one solution was possible, and no single group should be the sole focus of an orchestra's marketing or programming.

I wonder how many people not actively participating in this conversation, left part way through? Left before there was agreement? How many people get involved in these kinds of discussions and disliking the contention, decide they are done, take their toys and go home?

Audience size is dwindling. Average audience age is increasing. While there are isolated cases bucking the trend, the overall industry is headed down a dark path. War isn't pretty. While I am not suggesting this is the death knell for Classical Music, the in-fighting is killing many of our potential allies. We need solutions that embrace multiple groups and perspectives, we need people who are willing to accept alternatives to their own ideas and we need to start working together.


Anonymous said…
I don't think that age or programming is so much a factor as taste. Classical music can't rely on old models of raising money or performance to support itself.

I think classical music needs to target the niche that enjoys it, and grow champions that help people discover the beauty of it.

I understand that tradition is such a large part of the classical music cannon, but I think it is holding the art back.
Anonymous said…
I think it's about supporting the niche of classical music. And I think that means recognizing that classical music can be divided up into many small groups.

A broad division is the older generation that supports the standards and old warhorse pieces. The other is the new classical music frontier.

To really stay viable, I think arts management need to play to these niches and stop relying so much on tried and true methods for supporting classical music. The entire face of the rest of the music industry is changing, so why should classical music still rely on patronage and ticket sales?

Sure, that may change the role of a traditional classical musician, but nothing ever stays the same forever. Tradition is a major part of the classical music cannon, but it's time we took control of the changing times upon us.
Chip Michael said…
BlueCavalier -

Great ideas and things that are certainly getting talked about --particularly the part about the music industry is changing. Classical Music needs to change, to adapt to leveraging social media, and reaching out to a new audience in a similar way as other music genres.

But there is a fine line between moving ahead and losing the people who current are the main base of support. The passion on both sides is pretty strong. I wonder whether we can actually get them talking together...
Rob said…
I've always believed that it's a good idea (some of the time at least) to mix programmes up, so you have some pieces which you expect to appeal mainly to older/more conservative audiences, and some targeting the younger/more adventurous demographic. You could programme a concert of art-related music, with Mussorgsky's "Pictures at an Exhibition", and mix that up with Korndorf's "The Smile of Maud Lewis" and Hindemith's "Mathis der Maler". That way you get the people who like traditional and familiar (Mussorgsky), those who like traditional-ish and less familiar (Hindemith) and those who like out-and-out minimalism. (Incidentally, I recommend the Korndorf - no recordings available but a streaming version here: ). Quartets and the like often put on that kind of programme: come to hear the Beethoven and get interested in the Tippett.
Chip Michael said…
A number of orchestras program a variety of different styles in a concert to introduce people to new works who might be coming to hear one of their old favorites. However, they also have to deal with the back lash of people who think it 'muddies' the water and spoils the evening for the other works (Yes, I've heard that comment).

Then you have the other's who want more adventurous music and really aren't interested in anything pre-20th century. If you only program 10-15 mins of new stuff it's not enough to get them into the hall.

I work for an orchestra who did a Schubert/Mendelssohn concert and struggled to get anyone into the concert. Couldn't fathom why... and yet it was at a Beethoven concert with a new work in the opening that people complained of 'muddying the waters.'
Anonymous said…
It's guerilla, not gorilla.
Eddie Louise said…
Hey anonymous! I thought Chip was making a joke by using gorilla instead of guerrilla.

After all, the chest pounding, territory squabbling and sneak attacks in Classical Music are very like gorillas fighting for dominance!

No matter what - we need to find ways to get along so that we don't lose our orchestras!
Catherine said…
As a 20 something that loves classical music and symphony orchestras, I am excited to see that so many people care about this topic and are calling for change!

This such an important issue for me that I have focused my master's research on this very topic. I plan to post updates on my research on my culture/arts blog.

Thank you, Chip Michael, for bringing attention to this crucial concern!

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