Classical music: R.I.P.?

Published June 27, 1997 4:25PM (EDT)

when the new book by British music critic Norman Lebrecht, "Who Killed Classical Music?" arrived at our offices, several people expressed surprise -- though not exactly dismay -- to learn that the most enduring Western musical art form had kicked the bucket. Who knew? Here in San Francisco, the conductor of the local symphony, Michael Tilson Thomas, is a household name whose mug graces billboards all over the city, and the local Tower Records displays posters of Renee Fleming as prominently as those of Mariah Carey.

Still, conventional wisdom has it that classical music is indeed dying, its demise hastened by the growing influence of popular music. Using Lebrecht's book as a point of departure to discuss the issue, we pitted our pop music columnist, Sarah Vowell, against classical music critic Paul Festa in an e-mail duel debating the merits of both forms of music. To see who's left standing, read on ...

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Dear Paul:

Nicely brittle in style, and crammed with research, Norman Lebrecht's death knell "Who Killed Classical Music?" mourns the decline of what he sees as a spiritual art murdered by money. The felons here are businessmen: managers, yes, record moguls, certainly; but also the star performers whose grandiose salaries are strangling workaday orchestras into oblivion.

If, as Lebrecht's title suggests, orchestral music has been killed off, then
my question is this: Who cares? If greed didn't slay the dragon,
irrelevance would have. Fact is: Forms die. All the time. Flying
buttresses, emblem books and daguerreotypes have all seen better days.
Certainly this century has cultivated some fine musical minds expanding the
symphonic form: Bartsk, Stravinsky, Penderecki and the like. But the fact
remains that modern audiences continue to prefer (when they listen to
"serious music" at all) the 18th and 19th century masters. As
Lebrecht writes, "It is as if the 20th century has been expunged as too
disturbing, too redolent of conflict and unpleasantness. 'People go to
concerts to enjoy themselves,' says the promoter, 'not to be reminded of
things they came here to get away from.'"

This is a century about -- at its best -- a creeping democratization, mass
culture, the thrills of electricity and the glamour of stardom. Why would a
hierarchical, precious, European musical tradition thrive in the face of
anyone-can-do-it, sex-symbol-charged, hit-parade rock 'n' roll? Shouldn't we
be surprised the form has lasted this long?


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Dear Sarah,

Thanks for your letter, which I enjoyed so much more than that tedious book. The only thing that compelled me to keep turning Lebrecht's turgid pages was the sex. Conductors masturbating their underage players, prepubescent violin prodigies running around in wet T-shirts, Isaac Stern running out on his wife -- Lebrecht makes the music business sound like much more fun than it actually is, at least according to my sources.

Sarah, isn't this a strange assignment? I feel like we're on a blind date set up by our parents, except instead of going out to dinner and a movie we're supposed to fight. The trouble is that after reading over your letter a couple of times, I realized I totally agreed with you! Classical music has had it. However much we may have liked it at one time, the healthy thing to do is face reality, give the tradition a decent burial and a glowing obit, and move on to the next thing, which, as you rightly suggest, is rock 'n' roll.

But before we move MTV into Lincoln Center and make Courtney Love the dean of the Juilliard School, there are just a few practical difficulties, which I'm sure we can iron out in this correspondence.

The first is that I'm not exactly sure how rock is going to fill the void (however small) left by "serious art music." It's probably not realistic to expect seriousness of "anyone-can-do-it, sex-symbol-charged, hit-parade rock 'n' roll." But we could do without seriousness, which is overrated in art as in life. As to whether rock is either art or music, I remain agnostic. But I did have a small epiphany on the subject the other day when I listened, on your recommendation, to Sleater-Kinney's new album "Dig Me Out." I had such a visceral reaction to this disc! A few measures into the first track, I was compelled to approach my wardrobe, where, sort of bobbing my head back and forth to the beat, I found myself fingering my clothes, inspecting them and pushing the hangers to the side one by one. Only when I had gone twice through all my clothes did I realize that I was listening to the perfect commercial lubricant for thrift store shopping! It's frenetic enough to speed the process of going through all those racks and messy enough to make you more tolerant of whatever tears or stains you find in the garments.

I'm not saying that rock is good only for thrift store background. For long-distance road trips I recommend Throwing Muses. For casual sex, Cocteau Twins. For cocktail parties not rock but cocktail music, Combustible Edison. For shakin' your booty, Prince. For smoking reefer (duh), Pink Floyd. So I guess my point is that everything has its place, and I'm just a little worried that Sleater-Kinney isn't going to work so well in Carnegie. Although I suppose we could move the coat check into the hall ...

Anxious to know how you think we should proceed,

Yours sincerely,


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Dear Paul:

Now I feel like we're in one of those cheap women's prison movies where the
two antagonists, after some vicious, clawing cat fight, figure out they're
actually sister-friends and join forces to overthrow the warden or something.
Let's just say I don't hear the phrase "I totally agreed with you!" that
often ...

I'm thrilled my column sent you to Sleater-Kinney. We can save analyzing
why their songs made you want to touch your clothes for another forum, since
alas, our project here is the supposed death of classical music.

Well. I'm reminded that you wrote, not so long
ago, the following about a new recording of Stravinsky's "Firebird": "I have
encountered a 'Firebird' recording so extraordinary it not only made the piece
sound fresh, but convinced me that my childhood was deprived and my musical
education bankrupt." Now, why should a newfound love for Sleater-Kinney
invalidate that response for you? In another column about this very topic, I
cited pop sociologist Simon Frith's wonderfully complicated book "Performing
Rites," in which he asked, "Can I really distinguish
between the pleasure that I take in Bartsk and the pleasure that I take in
H|sker D|? Am I describing something quite different when I say that I'm
moved by Fauri's 'Requiem' and by Sharon Redd?"

In this context, Frith's question begs back-tracking to why you and I fell
in (and out of) love with classical music in the first place. Speaking of
Bartsk, I can recall hearing his fifth string quartet on the radio as a
teenager, and it made me rethink what that form could be. Devastating.

I actually envy the people who can appreciate a lot of different forms of
music, but who never had to get involved with the culture of performing. I'm
a better listener now, years after seriously giving up those dreadful
practicing routines, than I ever was when I was playing. Keith Richards
himself once told Stanley Booth, "You see, to me, the art of music is
listening to it, not playing it. The real art of it is hearing it."

I'm not completely digressing here. What I mean to say is that I have a
GRUDGE against classical music, a chip on my shoulder the size of the "Ring
Cycle," and I'm wondering whether you do, too. My relationship with it has
always been shaky and complicated.

I started studying so-called "serious music" voraciously when I was 11.
My family had moved from Oklahoma to Montana, and I saw playing Bach as a
break with my country-gospel past. Over the next few years, I would learn,
to varying degrees of accomplishment, the recorder, piano, trumpet, trombone,
baritone horn and various percussion instruments. But I felt my real
calling was to be a composer. And for the five years between 15 and
20 -- what should have been my formative rock 'n' roll years as an American
youth -- I spent most of my spare time hunched over staff paper writing various
orchestral and chamber music compositions. By the time I quit, I was
throwing up every time I tried to notate even one measure. The process was
so daunting it made me literally sick. I just didn't see that I had anything
new to offer the form. Of course, it could be that I wasn't smart enough or
talented enough or visionary enough. Those things are true. But at
the time, and even now, composing string quartets this late in the century
strikes me as a completely decadent occupation. What little there is left to
be done lies in the area of refinements and polishing. The earth will no
longer move.

As a composer, which is to say as an egoist, I never quite understood the
passion of classical performers. Why on earth someone would want to spend
their lives interpreting someone else's ideas (at the hands of some
go-between tyrant with a stick) was beyond me. Ironically, as a composer, I
depended on such people -- one of the things I hated most about composing. But
since I was never very good at performing, I guess I never had the chance to
find out what it feels like to give a stunning interpretation. Nevertheless,
this brings us back to our question.

It seems to me the death of classical music has been postponed because of
recording technology. CDs have jump-started the corpse even further. At
first, there was a mad dash to record all the great symphonies and chamber
pieces. And in the last few years, as with every other musical genre,
there's been a mad dash to re-release such recordings. But re-releasing, as
we've seen in the last year, is no longer a growth industry. I haven't
looked, but I would hazard a guess that one could find at least one or
two inspired recordings of every single major classical
work -- and most minor ones. And while each new generation of performers and conductors will want
to make their own mark on the New World Symphony, say, it won't matter that
much to the audience. Let's face it, only the most rarefied of listeners
will care about the nuances of personality.

And speaking of nuances of personality, I'm now sick of the sound of my
voice in my head. How's about you take it from the top, maestro?

Good luck,


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Dear Sarah,

How exciting to find myself in a women's prison flick! This has been one of
my most fervent secret lifetime goals, and until this correspondence I
could not imagine how I would pull it off. Another secret: I felt certain,
from the moment your first letter popped into my in box, that before long we
would be calling each other sister. And now we are doing just that, in

I am so glad you brought up the twin specters of grudge and the physical
ailments that inevitably accompany classical music training. Your
description of composition-induced vomiting brought a nostalgic lump to my
throat for my days at the Juilliard School, where the annual sacrifice
ritual of faculty juries caused among the student body gastric distress of
such gravity that the campus toilet paper dispensers would inevitably run
out, usually at the most inopportune moment, before the week was through.
You would think that after nearly 100 years that august institution
would learn to order extra TP in the spring; but such is life in the belly
of a moribund behemoth.

Speaking of physical ailments, I heard Mahler's Third Symphony last night.
Several people left the hall before the 95-minute work had expired. They
were quite right. In addition to being long, the work is inordinately loud.
The only thing louder than the symphony itself was the chorus of complaints
heard afterward in the lobby about the toll the uninterrupted performance
exacted on various body parts, particularly the rump. I sat in the second
row from the ceiling, and after about 45 minutes the heat of
several hundred performers and a few thousand listeners had risen and
settled in the second tier with the weight of a Wagnerian soprano. Now, at a
Red Hot Chili Peppers concert, everyone would have done what was natural
and stripped down. But as it was a classical concert, we sat there, clothed
and suffering, and then, at the conclusion of the longest hour and a half
in human history, we rose to our feet to holler our approval and gratitude.
This is not normal behavior.

Contemplating this apparently masochistic outburst, I begin to have second
thoughts about our project. I worry that we are dismantling an ancient,
elaborate and venerable sadomasochistic cult. I worry that we are depriving
the world of, in your words, "a completely decadent occupation." Could we
live with ourselves if we succeeded? During last night's concert the
minutes flew like hours; but they were hours of torment, bombast,
sentimentality, violence, banality, eroticism, melancholy and despair. It
was so long and so painful, dear sister, because it was an artist's vision
of the world. I know I began this correspondence infatuated with the notion
of converting Carnegie to a thrift store/rock hall, but I'm afraid I'm
getting cold feet. Perhaps I'm the quintessential hostage, sympathizing
with her captors. Call me Patty Hearst.

There are two questions facing classical music at this moment of supposed
crisis. The first is whether old music can continue to be performed.
Regarding your idea that the recording era has prolonged the life of the
tradition, I have to disagree. Records have had a pernicious effect on
classical music performance in the past hundred years, leading to a
regional and personal homogeneity of styles, and enabling us to tire of
music that is too easily brought into being. We would be far less sick of
"Rhapsody in Blue" if it were played only in concert halls instead of in
living rooms, television commercials and DC-10s.

The second question is whether classical music can continue to be written,
and as a composer you have a more intensely personal take on this. But the
notion that the tradition is tapped out is so old by now that it has become
classical music's mad aunt raving in the basement while the tradition
miraculously continues to flourish above her. You wrote in your first letter
that audiences still prefer to hear the music of the 18th and 19th
centuries. But the fact remains that this century's classical composers,
particularly those who have kept at least a toe-hold in tonality, have sold
zillions of concert tickets and records in their supposedly moribund
careers. I am not saying that any of them is as good as Schubert and
his contemporaries. But on the whole they have been comparably popular.

So I guess our prison flick has taken an unexpected twist in plot. I'm
siding with the warden, with law and order, with the status quo. I think,
though, that there is enough disorder in that world to keep me listening
for as long as I live, sore bum and all.

Yours in the spirit of the above,


PS: I promise to keep listening to Sleater-Kinney, at least while I'm
folding my laundry.

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Dear Paul:

I was trying on skirts at a store yesterday that happened to be playing
Sleater-Kinney, and thought of you. It's hard to unlace your boots when
you're dancing around to "Words and Guitar." Anyway: Thank God you've
returned to your senses enough to speak up for that old perfumed corpse of
symphonic bombast, because Lord knows I don't feel like it.

Congratulations on your sadomasochistic renewal. I'm sure the violinists of
America rejoice that there are still enough people like you screaming, "Thank
you, may I have another" to keep them in the discipline biz. Maybe I'm
jealous. I wish that I could feel that "violence, banality, eroticism,
melancholy and despair" you talk about. Because those words sound to me like
the very meaning of the word "alive." I'll concede, then, that classical
music isn't dead.

Still, it's dead for me. I think that the reason I've come to prefer pop
songs over the last decade or so is that I've become increasingly obsessed
with the human voice -- its directness, its push and pull, its profound ability
to embody the purest musical representation of individuality. You might
point me in the direction of opera at this point, or instruct me to follow
the lieder, ha ha. But classically trained voices sound too contrived to me.
Too garish, too fake. And all the worst vocal pop music sounds that way,
too (see Celine Dion). My favorite singers -- Kurt Cobain, Little Richard,
Jonathan Richman, Kim from the Fastbacks -- have never sounded "good" in the
classical sense, because classical goodness is all tied up in control.
There's a kind of freedom you can hear in the out-of-tune warblings of my
beloved baddies, voices so personal and so real and so wonderfully flawed
that they can't help but represent what it means to be alive. Or at least
what it should mean.

So R.I.P. if you like, but I'll take Little Richard hollering "RIP IT UP!"


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Dear Sarah,

Before moving on to some broader points, I want to distinguish between two types of self-punishment in classical music. The first kind is usually physically manifested and is suffered primarily by performers (e.g. composers vomiting after work), though sometimes by the general public (e.g. audiences sweating in uncomfortable seats). The submission to this first kind of pain is not considered worthwhile in itself, but indicates that the music being produced is worth the agony. This cannot be said of rock, whose adherents do not fully submit to the agonies created by their music, but instead drug themselves into (sometimes permanent) anesthesia or distract themselves by working out, driving their cars or shopping while they listen. Hence my initial point about thrift stores.

The second self-punishment, more pleasurable, was celebrated famously by Aristotle in reference to drama and is derogated inexplicably in Lebrecht's book by the promoter who doesn't think that people go to concerts "to be reminded of things they came here to get away from." The promoter is wrong. The primary reason to go to concerts, to plays, to operas, is to experience in the safety of a theater things at least as terrible as those we encounter in ordinary life. "After playing Chopin," says Gilbert in Oscar Wilde's "The Critic as Artist," "I feel as if I had been weeping over sins that I had never committed, and mourning over tragedies that were not my own." Naturally, serious art music is capable of evoking not just despair but the full spectrum of human emotion. And herein lies one of classical music's incontestable superiorities over rock, which is primarily concerned with evoking glandular fluctuations.

In my last letter I briefly addressed whether older classical music could still be performed, and suggested that the recording era had in one way caused us to tire unnecessarily of certain pieces that non-artistic industries, particularly advertising, have kidnapped and tortured. Musicians who program the same core pieces year after year are guilty of the same crime to a much smaller degree. But I want to point out that a staggering majority of Americans have never sat down and heard the whole of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, or "The Four Seasons," or "Also Sprach Zarathustra," and of the minority that have, only a fraction have been able to listen meaningfully to the piece they were hearing. Why? Because, as you quoted Keith Richards as saying, there is an art to listening -- and that art is not being taught. The reason isn't that Jessye Norman is getting paid too much or that some conductor took advantage of his second stand violist, as Lebrecht suggests, and it isn't that classical composition is tapped out and there is any conceivable replacement value for it in the music of U2 or Alanis Morisette, as you suggest. The reason is a deep-rooted American anti-intellectualism that results in families of means neglecting to provide their children with a musical education, poor families unable to access that education because the public schools 86'd their already threadbare music programs, and orchestras and other musical organizations struggling with deficits because Newt Gingrich and his glorious revolutionaries gutted the NEA while the American people either cheered or averted their eyes. As a result of systemic neglect, most American lives are musically impoverished.

You may argue that we should be providing the nation's youth with electric guitars instead of teaching them to play Haydn quartets. But that is the exact equivalent of shredding high school Shakespeare texts and replacing them with John Grisham novels and Beavis and Butt-head scripts. The idea has a kind of naughty charm, but it strikes me as somewhat regressive. But, then, we live in regressive times.

Before I quit I want to clarify two things. The first is that, thanks to your somewhat eccentric thesis, we have been discussing classical music vs. rock 'n' roll. Obviously, there are many other kinds of popular music in the world, and I want to be clear that I am not discussing jazz or American popular song, which would necessitate a more complicated comparison. The second thing is that I refuse to be dismissed as some anti-rock egghead. I may be an egghead but I am as devoted to the shallow pleasures of rock as the next head-banger and have a Tower Records bill to prove it. My gripe is that to compare even indirectly the music of today's rock stars with that of Schubert or Richard Strauss or even Rossini is an irresponsible cruelty to the former. Prince's sexiest ballad goes limp next to Mendelssohn's most air-headed melody. AC-DC's most ear-splitting wail is drowned out by Carter's most casual motivic expression. Rock's gestures are so small, its musical (as opposed to material) ambition so mild, its harmonies and lyrics so banal, its rhythmic patterns so predictable. There are exceptions, but for the most part it's like eating burritos. There are crummy burritos, and there are excellent burritos worth biking across town and waiting on line for. But at the end of the meal it is still a burrito. Don't make it square off with a five-course meal at a four-star restaurant in Paris. It will lose.

And besides, why pit them against each other in the first place? I recommend eating both, but making sure to know which is which. The person who cannot distinguish between the pleasure taken in hearing Bartók and Hüsker Dü simply hasn't listened to either. I say listened, not heard. Ducks, Stravinsky reminded us, also hear.


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Dear Paul:

Be right with you ... just gotta polish off my burrit -- I mean, salade nicoise,
and turn down the Prince, er, Mendelssohn.

Gee. What's with the bait and switch? Not only are we no longer prison
pals, now we're starring in entirely different movies. I happen to have Neil
Young's "Decade" on. While I was reading your letter I kept glancing
over at the stereo to see if the profundity that is Neil bore out any of your
hysterical anti-rockisms. These songs strangely live up to your criteria for
"serious art music," which you call "capable of evoking not just despair but
the full spectrum of human emotion." Ooh: the unmistakable cool of
"Cinnamon Girl" just shifted into the murderous mystery of "Down by the

So let's talk about listening. You're right; it's not being taught. But
when has it ever been? I will say this: I received one of the finest public
school music educations available in this country. By the time I graduated
from high school, I'd been taught to play several instruments, to move easily
between pop, jazz and classical styles, to speak semi-cogently about music
history, to arrange and to compose. But you know what? Even though I spent
(wasted?) about three or four hours a day in rehearsals and lessons and
theory classes, I learned more about listening to music -- all kinds -- hanging
out after school with the black-clad rock 'n' roll weirdos than I ever did in
orchestra practice. Rock 'n' roll fans, at least the best of them, are
far from anti-intellectual. There's a real dialectic involved in this secret
debating society, an honorable questioning, a means, to cite the ducky Simon
Frith yet again, "to flirt and fight." It's the most participatory,
passionate subculture I know. Glandular? Not always (though Richard Hell's
"Love Comes in Spurts" is just the funniest). Small gestures? Please tell
me what's small about the idea behind "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction"? That
is just about the hugest expression of human longing I can think of and I'd
stand it up against "Ode to Joy" any day of the week. OK?

Hope I die before this gets old,


PS: You don't stick me with Alanis and U2 and I won't bring up Aaron
Copland and Bruckner. Deal?

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Dear Sarah,

I think I've twisted my own words quite enough in this correspondence
without your getting into the act as well. I did not describe either rock
musicians or rock fans as anti-intellectual, only the churlish streak of
the American character that righteously neglects music in education and
other appropriations. In this I don't think I would even get an argument
from Meatloaf.

As for my argument about glands, I'm afraid I've portrayed classical music
as some cold and sexless brain quivering on Salome's platter, when it is
nothing of the kind. The whole of musical romanticism, for example, could
be described as an extended meditation on the difficulty of getting to the
top of an orgasm. I will let "Ode to Joy" speak for itself, but putting "Satisfaction" next to selected erotically charged works of
Franck or Ravel, not to mention the sex farces of Da Ponte and Mozart,
should demonstrate once and for all that the contest between classical
music and rock is that of an 8-foot-tall dominatrix facing down a troop
of feckless Boy Scouts playing doctor.

The last point I would like to confuse is my position on education. Yes,
there has been criminal neglect of our country's musical life, starting in
the schools, and if I were in charge no American would graduate junior high
unless she could read a Haydn string quartet on sight. But the fact remains
that to love this music does not require any formal education or any skill
in playing it. For any of the millions of musically impoverished souls I'm
weeping over in these letters, appreciating classical music is only a
matter of buying a tape of "Appalachian Spring" or "The Firebird" or Schubert's
cello quintet and listening to it a dozen times over the course of a month.
Not in the car or at the mall or while vacuuming, but sitting down,
closing your eyes, putting your fingers to your temples and concentrating
on nothing else. Art is approached with devotion. It is not something you
happen to have on. It is not air freshener or wallpaper or juvenile sex
or an advertising tool or a commercial lubricant or a burrito. Each of
these things has its place. But finally, art has to be able to sustain the
undivided and repeated attention of the art lover, whose pleasure it is
to shut everything else out, shut his own mouth and just listen.

And now I intend to do just that.

By Sarah Vowell

Sarah Vowell is the author of "Radio On: A Listener's Diary" (St. Martin's Press, 1996) and "Take the Cannoli" (Simon & Schuster, 2000) and is a regular commentator on PRI's "This American Life." Her column appears every other Wednesday in Salon. For more columns by Vowell, visit her column archive.

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