Classical music: the need to keep the flame alive
Do young people know who Bach, Mozart and Beethoven are? If they don’t, they have received very poor service.
Editor’s Note: The essay below was written as a foreword to Observations on music, culture and politics by Daniel Asia.
reaniel Asia is a composer and teacher of classical music. They are very good things to be. He’s also a spokesperson for classical music – another great thing to be. He defends music, champions music, evangelize for music. All very important.
âClassical music has taken on great cultural success in America since the late sixties,â he writes. Yes it is. Classical musicians featured on the cover of Time magazine, as many of us note. Toscanini has appeared on the cover three times! Beecham, Szell and Solti also appeared there. Flagstad, Tebaldi and many other opera stars too.
Opera stars have been seen and heard on Tonight’s show, too much. Johnny Carson obviously loved them. He had big names, like Pavarotti. But he also had Judith Blegen and Martina Arroyo. Beverly Sills didn’t just appear on his show, she was invited for him. Johnny also had instrumentalists as guests: violinist Eugene Fodor, for example, and pianist Byron Janis.
âNow they won’t let us talk,â RenÃ©e Fleming told me about ten years ago. What did she mean? The great soprano meant that classical musicians – mainly singers – are still invited to appear on talk shows occasionally. And they can sing or play. But don’t sit down and talk to the host like before.
The decline and fall of classical music is an old theme, which I have often laughed at. “The death of classical music,” said Charles Rosen, the late pianist-scholar, “is perhaps the oldest tradition in classical music.” Still, there is a legitimate reason for concern.
Research shows that the main determining factor in whether a person attends classical concerts or operas is: Did the person study an instrument as a child? Did he really touch an instrument with his hands? Composer Thea Musgrave pointed out to me that people can consume tons of music these days – through YouTube, for example (that gift from heaven). But such consumption is fundamentally a passive activity. There is no substitute for making music yourself.
Music education in America is very, very low, I understand.
Dan Asia has a front row seat (as we would like to look away). âStudents come to university without having heard of Bach or Beethoven,â he wrote, adding, âI’m not kidding.
He tells us that âthe professional class of previous generationsâ knew classical music, thanks to âplaying an instrumentâ. They had a musical training – however modest – from elementary school to college. They were also exposed to music by attending concerts and plays featuring music. âEssentially, this has been lost,â Asia writes.
Yes, but speaking of Asia: There is a great appetite for classical music in China, Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, etc. Western conservatories are full of students from East Asia. When I asked Lorin Maazel, the late conductor, about the future of classical music, the first words from his mouth were: “Thank God for China”.
As you might have understood, I’ve interviewed quite a few musicians over the years, and you’ll forgive me if I quote them. In 2002, I spoke with Ned Rorem, the American composer, who deplored the status of his class, that is to say contemporary composers of classical music: at the expense of the music of the present.
Dan Asia wrote about the âprofessional classâ. And the intellectuals? Rorem said they knew visual art, past and present; they know literature, past and present. But if they know any music, it’s pop. âMe and my siblings are not part of their family,â he said.
What about the general public? The audience “has no idea what we composers are doing,” Rorem said. Performers are more important than composers – much more important – in the eyes of the world. âWe are a despised minority,â Rorem said. “In fact, we are not even that, because we do not even exist, and to be despised, you must exist.”
I assure the reader that Asia is less gloomy. He is generally a happy warrior, or at least a determined and fiery warrior. But surely he knows what Rorem is talking about.
SSomething in this book made me think of my own experience. Asia writes, âMost universities have historically supported great performances of Western artistic music on campus as part of their educational mission for their students as well as the surrounding community.
I grew up in Ann Arbor, Michigan, home of the University of Michigan and a small capital of the arts. It was in the 70s and 80s. There were as many concerts as there were sporting events. I thought it was normal. As I walked around the world, I saw that was abnormal – and I knew I was very lucky.
In his collection, Dan Asia tackles various musical issues, including political correctness. Does the PC exist in classical music? Oh, my God, yeah. Twenty years ago the late composer Patrick Kavanaugh made a funny remark to me. It looked like this: “If you want to grab attention or get funding for your music, just add gamelan.”
Gamelan is a musical tradition from Indonesia. It’s a beautiful tradition, I’m sure. But it was comically fashionable in the West for a long time. I don’t know how it is today.
Composers, Asia writes, like to âfeast onâ us with messages about poverty, sexual liberation, war, workers’ rights, environmentalism, and so on. For a while, I heard a lot of âenvironmentalâ plays. Shameless puner, I nicknamed this kind of music âthe green roomâ.
I think of Krzysztof Penderecki, the late Polish composer, who said: âI don’t write political music. Political music is immediately obsolete.
One of the many things I admire about Daniel Asia is that he’s not afraid to express an opinion – to plant his flag whether you or I plant it there or not. It is not vague. In Dan’s opinion, Stravinsky and Schoenberg are “certainly the two most important composers of the twentieth century”. Certainly. I appreciate this lack of shyness.
He says what a lot of people think but fear to say – about Pierre Boulez, for example. This composer was supremely honored in his time. He was undoubtedly smart as hell. Will his music be honored by posterity? I wouldn’t bet the ranch, and neither would Asia. Fashions come and go, whether in sewing or in music.
Asia quotes Boulez as saying that if you don’t compose twelve-tone music, your music is “irrelevant” to the “needs” of your “time”. You will forgive me if I quote more from interviews that I have conducted.
Lee Hoiby, the late American composer, said: “I felt the warm breath of the composition font on my neck every time I wrote a major third.”
Elliott Carter, another American composer, was very, very different from Hoiby: he was an example of modernism. (He was also one of the smartest people I have ever known.) When asked what he thought of “neo-romantics” like Samuel Barber, he replied, “Well, some of us felt that the kind of music Sam wrote had already been done, only done better than anyone could do now. So there was no point in doing it now. With a smile, Carter added: “What Sam did was deplorable”, but the music, nonetheless, “is pretty good”.
I should say. And don’t forget the words of Duke Ellington: “If that sounds good, that is good.”
What about John Cage? Many of us think he has no clothes on, no matter how smart he is. Dan Asia designates him as the boy who designates the emperor. There are many, many people who agree privately with Asia – but only privately.
They also agree with him when he writes: âFor the most part pop music is a bad thing. His tunes are harmless, freeze-dried, devoid of any substance. Its rhythm is basic and never changes. Music doesn’t start anywhere and go nowhere. . . “
Land I don’t leave the impression that Asia is a mere opponent or a crab. No, it’s a great booster. As I read it, I remembered my old affection for Robert Beaser, an American composer born in 1954. I intend to listen to him again. Also, Asia sent me to listen to a violin concerto by Stephen Jaffe, and music in general by Stephen Albert. These are two Stephens that I had not known.
I will come back to this crack from Charles Rosen: âThe death of classical music is perhaps the oldest tradition in classical music. I believe classical music will go on and on. I believe he is invincible, just as beauty, soul and intelligence are invincible. But classical music will always, always be a minority taste.
Let me quote one of my own words: âThere’s a reason they call it ‘pop’ music, you know: it’s popular. Â»Classical music is not Assumed be popular.
But he must be loved and nurtured by a minority. Composed, performed, sung, conducted and listened to by a minority. How healthy is this minority? How healthy is that in the United States, which has been a major hotbed of classical music for about a hundred years? The minority needs to be strengthened. And no one can say that Daniel Asia – talented, irrepressible and invaluable – is not doing his part.