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Norman Lebrecht and the death of classical music

Norman Lebrecht is a name familiar to all classical CD geeks, of whom I am definitely one. He has written vast books full of rage. The air is thick with the sound of nails being hammered on the head, and of thumbs being crushed with that same hammer. Excellent explanations charge headlong into ridiculous explanations for the same phenomenon, the phenomenon to be explained usually being the “death of classical music”, which is the phrase Lebrecht sometimes gives to the current travails of the classical music performing and recording enterprise. He sometimes gets that distinction right, and then in the next sentence quite forgets about it. He knows something important is happening to something important, and he hits nail after nail into the wood pile, hoping eventually to nail it all down. (He reminds me of how I write about Modern Art.) Take this latest broadside. One moment Lebrecht is referring to corporate execs complaining about the lack of new classical repertoire, which is definitely one of the real reasons why classical recording is coming to the end of its current phase of activity. Then a couple of paragraphs later he blames the excellence of digital recording, as if hearing a train going past a recording studio a quarter of a century ago is going to put me off listening to classical CDs for ever. On the other hand, he is right that if digital recording is excellent enough for the super-latest formats like SACD or whatever the hell they are called to be superfluous, then indeed, that excellence is a terminus, because there’s now no excuse – let alone reason – to re-record everything.

As to that lack of repertoire, here is an excellent piece about that, by … Norman Lebrecht.

Of all the turning points in the history of music, one is instantly audible to the innocent ear. Shortly after the soprano starts singing in the third movement of Arnold Schoenberg’s Second string quartet, the music takes leave of its key of F-sharp minor and veers off into an atonal abyss. In that instant, the harmonic laws that governed European music for 500 years are declared null and void. The rule that C, E and G can go sweetly together in a row but not B, C and D has been shattered. Beauty is no longer a musician’s highest aspiration. It has been superseded by the abstract.

You have to understand that when people like Lebrecht talk about the “history of music” they mean the history of their (our) kind of music. Music as such was doing fine around that time. It was just newly composed music done with violins and violas etc. that took a wrong turn. But apart from that little detail, the wrong turn is nicely described.

In other words, to refine the point a little, what we’re talking about here is lack of new classical repertoire that people want to listen to in sufficient numbers to pay the classical bills. Having lost all touch with its musical foundations (tunes, dancing, pop songs, etc.) new classical music wallowed about in that Schoenbergian abyss for fifty years, while the serious classical musicians were recording their Beethoven symphony cycles and their complete works of Orlando Gibbons (that latter aspect of the job is still being completed), and then when the recording industry surfaced from that and said: right then, what’s new that it would be nice to record? – they got their answer. Nothing. Not a sausage. No pieces whatsoever. Bugger all.

That’s an exaggeration for effect, Lebrecht style, but only a slight one. You can’t feed fifty world class orchestras only with the latest recordings of this year’s output by James Macmillan. The blunt truth is that those orchestras are there to celebrate and redo Beethoven, and those days will soon be gone. Oh, there is lots of classical music activity still to come, but most of it will be asset stripping. And Lebrecht is one of those typical artistic types who blames asset strippers for the collapse in value of the assets which the strippers are rescuing those other – still valuable – assets from. He blames the messenger for the message.

High in corporate towers, overpaid executives blame a lack of compelling new repertoire, of charismatic artists and of public tolerance for long-winded classics – in short, they blame everything except their own failure to invest in talent, allowing it to grow a personality as it steadily acquires a following.

Bollocks basically. Invest? This is the word always used by people recommending that other people should waste their money. I am as tolerant of long-winded classics as ever, and so are millions of others. It is merely that if you already own seventeen recordings of Dvorak’s New World Symphony, you do not need an eighteenth in order to indulge your habit.

Corporate greed? Corporate greed is a rude phrase meaning the recognition of economic reality. Corporate greed didn’t stop classical music recording getting started. In fact it encouraged it. But now the job is done, and Corporate Greed says: right guys, time to stop now. Sorry. Off you go. Time to turn these fancy classical studios into something else. If you want to carry on, do it in your spare time and at your own expense. (Which is what is now happening with those complete sets of Orlando Gibbons.)

Aside from digital recording being a potential terminus of excellence, the other thing that makes digital sound such a source of classical havoc is that it is so much easier to transmit, and store, and play half reasonably, than is analogue sound. I have already raved here about my new digital radio. Friends of mine are already turning all there CDs into computer files. One day I’ll do that too. But the problem is not passing trains. The problem is that people will have all the music they could ever desire either on their hard discs, or else on that great Collective Hard Disc in the Sky called the Internet. In that world, charging £17 for a bit of plastic in a shop with the latest Berlin Phil Beethoven Fifth on it makes no sense.

But what joy to be able to trawl through the collected nail hittings and thumb crushings of Norman Lebrecht. Sooner or later the idea of typing the words “Norman” and “Lebrecht” into Google would have occurred to me. Thanks to Arts & Letters Daily, I got straight to his latest piece. To say nothing of trunk-loads of other goodies such as this.

21 comments to Norman Lebrecht and the death of classical music

  • Brilliant. Thank you. I keep thinking of writing more about classical music, but what would be the point when you keep churning out pieces like this and I can just link to them?

    I rather like what little James Macmillan I’ve heard. Not as much as Beethoven though.

    If you came to classical music relatively late in life as I did, then this a marvellous time to be buying recorded music given the amount of brilliant performances by great artists that can be had for next to nothing. I fully understand, of course, that that also makes it a nightmarish time to be a performer.

    And I’m sure there is lots of wonderful new music being produced in the world – I just don’t know where to find much of it.

  • Alan Peakall

    ”Invest? This is the word always used by people recommending that other people should waste their money”

    As ”Yes Minister”’s Bernard Woolley would put it:

    I invest,
    You spend,
    He has filed for bankruptcy.

  • Craig Bryant

    It almost scares me to stick my nose in after a post like that–by your standards, I’m a VERY minor fan of the classics. But I appreciate everything in your post and agree with all of it, to the extent I have any kind of informed opinion. The orchestras can’t run forever on the glories of the past–even our theaters, as dedicated to Miller and Shaw and the liturgical glories of Shakespeare, are part of a vibrant and living tradition. But where is the vitality in orchestral music?

    I’m a great fan of American Minimalism, but relatively few others are, and I believe that orchestras have thrown down their instruments rather than finish a Philip Glass opera. So there’s really no salvation there. And it seems the barriers for entry into the orchestral repetoire are insourmountable–with Beethoven’s Ninth or Mozart’s Requiem to compete with, what conservatory student has got a chance? Is orchestral music then “played out?”

    I actually have a good ten or twelve recordings from Schoenberg, Berg, etc., and every so often I dig them out and really, really try to give them a good listen. I mean, there must be something in there, right? The whole world of composition can’t have simply gone barking mad for the better part of the 20th century, can it? Of course, every time I run that little experiment, I become more and more convinced that they did all go barking mad–but I can’t tell them what they should have been doing instead. Whoever can answer that question may just save the orchestras from becoming quaint museum pieces.

    Well that was a rambling comment, but I relished the original post so much, I had to scribble something down. I’d love to see more in this vein.

  • milllo

    I recently went to a concert in a church in venice and listened to vivaldi’s ‘the four seasons’ live. Even though they didnt play it as well as the recording I have of Perlman, it was still a very enjoyable experience and I returned to see it again before I left.

    I have also thought about this topic, and came to the conclusion that there are great composers and not so great composers – Vivaldi was great, Mozart was great, Bernstein was just ok. Is there anyone in the 20th century whose symphonic pieces can make you awed?

    I havent heard any. Complexity does not equal greatness. I heard a violin concerto that people said was very complex, but to me it was so bad it was uncomfortable.

    Greatness doesnt happen every day though. Be patient, when a great composer comes along his work will be self evident and will live on, regardless of whether or not it is recognized in his lifetime. BTW, it may be heresy to say in this context but I think Roger Waters of Pink Floyd fits this category and could produce some great symphonies if he tried. Tell him if you see him hehe

  • R. C. Dean

    The whole world of composition can’t have simply gone barking mad for the better part of the 20th century, can it?

    Indeed it can, and did, and has. Same for the “fine” arts, for the most part. It became a social game for a hermetically sealed group of insiders. Hoi polloi not invited.

    Tchaikovsky, perhaps?

  • From where will we get our modern classical music? From theater and film. It’s the only source of melodious classicist music today.

    I’m off to listen to the Lord of the Rings soundtrack again.

  • Brian Micklethwait

    Since Tchaikovsky (who wrote 6 symphonies as well as much else) died in 1893, he hardly seems much of an answer to any question about twentieth century symphonies, but I probably missed that point.

    There are, however, a really quite impressive number of seriously good twentieth century symphonists. In no particular order, I love and have multiple recordings of: Jean Sibelius (1865-1957 – 7 symphonies – the last 6 are c20), Carl Nielsen (1865-1931 – 6 symphonies – the last 5 are c20), Edward Elgar (1857-1934 – 2 symphonies, both early c20), Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958 – 9 symphonies – all c20), Dimitri Shostakovitch (1906-1975 – 15 symphonies of variable quality but at best (5, 8, 10 and maybe also according to taste 1, 4, 7, 9, 11, 13, 14, 15) outstanding).

    Honourable mentions: William Walton no. 1 (of 2), Sergei Rachmaninov no. 2 (of 3), Serge Prokofief (1 and 5 are particularly loved), Bohuslav Martinu (all 6), Arnold Bax (7 of them), Malcolm Arnold (9 of them) and I’m sure lots of others I would have included if I had remembered them.

    E.g.: what about the USA?: Copland, Bernstein, Hovahness, Hanson, … the list just goes on and on.

    There is also the small matter of Gustav Mahler (1860-1910). Twentieth century symphonies by Mahler start with 4, and continue with 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, plus Das Lied von der Erde which is a symphony in all but name. All massive works. Plus there’s a 10 in partial form. Not bad for one decade.

    However, the point here is that all of these pieces without exception were written in a pre-Schoenbergian – or maybe one should just say non-Schoenbergian – idiom.

  • Bob

    Is there a web site profiles “good” modern music?
    I am trying to find it on the radio, but coming up short. Great post!

  • Doug Collins

    20th century: My vote-

    George Gershwin

  • Alan Fleisig

    ,(?4,X4iny thought invoking Cultural History 101.

    Serious music never happens in a vacuum, and the 20th Century in Europe devolved into — arguably — the ugliest, bloodiest century in Western history. To expect Strauss waltzes or Beethoven’s 7th to have been written — by whom, squirreled away in an attic in Warsaw perhaps? — in the midst of the ugly conflagrations, genocides, homicides and incinerations would be to expect the imagination capable of symphonic complexities to spend enormous resouces mirroring some gentle, pastoral world that simply didn’t exist.

    I know, the Napoleonic Wars were terrible, but one could still find a peaceful salon in Vienna/London/Paris/St Petersburg, contemplate nature and lose yourself in kind thoughts. There was no European capital in the mid-20th Century where one could have pulled this off.

    Popular music alone, remained vivid in its own world of simple sentiment and harmony, carrying a mere suggestion of a reminder of what music was and could be across two generations of suffering. It is no surprise, then, that those huge (and growing) numbers of people claiming to be “music lovers” should listen almost exclusively to popular music. It has always been such, and has only been a hair’s breadth more pronounced across this era.

    With the return of at least a “cold peace,” and then — to put it rather too simply — 20 years of the “end of history” under our belts encouraging the return of an untroubled aesthetic, it is not surprising that we should find ourselves wondering where the “beauty” in serious music has gone.

    Let me just say — with the experience of having managed for seven years a relatively adventurous New York City chamber orchestra — that there are scores of good, serious young composers out there, who write music that soothes and enthralls sophisticated and unsophisticated listeners alike. That these composers have at least one thing in common, which is their open-ess to popular music in all its forms — not having been able to escape its ubiquity, they have co-opted it. But with a serious or intellectual cast, not a commercial one. Which is to say, that neither Paul McCartney nor Roger Waters will ever write a great symphony, but that the next great symphony will be written by someone who listens as readily and as often to Paul McCartney and Roger Waters (and Jimi Hendrix and Miles Davis) as often as to Mozart, and who understands why those musics appeal so easily to the enormous numbers of people to whom they so obviously do appeal.

    As this trend continues to grow out of the coffee shops, nightclubs, universities and samizdat venues in which they currently rule, there will be an abundance of interesting new symphonic and other serious music readily and profitably available for high-res download to an ever-expanding global market.

    Unless of course, we continue our descent into the new dark ages and holy war, but that is another post.

  • Yeah, Copeland is good, and so is some of John Willliams’ non-movie work. (The 1984 Olympics theme is one of the supremely recognizeable pieces of classical work to come out of the 20th century, and has in fact completely eclipsed his later Olympic themes.)

    But hey, what about Zappa? He had difficulties getting his classical work produced, but there’s still a bunch of it around, waiting to be recorded.

  • Robert Dammers

    Of course film music naturally follows on from the Romantic programme – imagine how poor our musical experience at the cinema would be without the ground laid by Mahler, for example. Although we now tend to decry it, I think that it may be that the roots of the next generation of enjoyable “serious” music may lie there (and in church music).

  • biff

    re. simplicity vs. complexity in 20th century music (cf Millo’s comment)– try Gorecki’s 3rd Symphony. A very simple piece, but with staggering power.

  • Woodland Critter

    I have thought about this problem over the years and have concluded that the art world suffers from the paradox of quality.

    Art varies in quality based on the skill of the artist and the quality of the artists “message”. A painter can be skilled with a brush and not have an idea worth communicating. Similarly, the painter may have great ideas and have no skill. A great product only exists when the artist is highly skilled and has a profound idea.

    As a consequence most art is created by persons with insufficent skill, no message, or both. I have come to the conclusion that 95% of all art falls in this category. Of the remaining 4% is executed by skilled artists with a minor message (decent art) and 1% or less is great art. Consequently, in any given period of time, most of what is produced is in the 95% category (hereafter referred to as Crap) or the 4% (its got a good beat and you can dance to it Dick, I’ll call it Pop).

    One of the other observations of human nature is that humans have the capacity of filtering Crap and Pop from our library of art over time. Consequently, the art that we have from the past is has been filter and what remains is, for the most part, great art.

    Now consder the plight of a poor young composer, lets call him Phil. Phil can compose in the traditional idiom, and compete against Beethoven, Bach, and Richard Strauss, or he can compete for attention in the latest craze. It is much more rational for Phil to follow the latest craze than to try to compete against the greats.

    As a result, artistic styles change, moving away from traditional forms, seeking the new so that Phil can compete against Crap and Pop rather than against the great works.

    This works as long as technology develops new artistic media forward. However, true advances in media are rare. As a result, even more Crap is produced. Consider, the evolution of the orchestra occurs substantially in parallel with the great orchestral music. Asthe orchestra becomes a mature medium, composers have an increasingly difficult time creating works that fit in the “great” category.

    In fact, consider poor Phil, who has been gifted with an understanding of composing that rivals Bach. If he composes in that style, his works are considered derivative, unoriginal and are quickly forgotten.

  • Kirk Parker

    Brian, your list of 20th-century worthies is great, but did you really mean to omit Holst? And Ravel?

  • Brian Micklethwait

    I did, because I was confining myself to symphonies. The scores there are Holst: 0; Ravel: 0 – unless I’ve forgotten something.

    Looking back through the comments to see why I stuck to symphonies, I think it must have been millo’s comment, referring to “symphonic” composition, but I probably reacted wrongly in assuming that only meant things actually called symphonies.

    After all, there are lots of fine concertos that I didn’t mention either.

    Personally I’m especially fond specifically of symphonies, and don’t much care so much for Holst or Ravel, but that’s a different issue.

  • Is there anyone in the 20th century whose symphonic pieces can make you awed?

    Occasionally, yes. Arnold’s 9th Symphony, a lot of Hovhaness’s music and very obscure and rarely recorded Russian composer Viktor Suslin.

    But you said symphonic and all I’ve heard of Suslin is chamber music. Must it be limited to symphonic music?

    Anyway, there’s a lot of great modern classical music; the problem is finding it. The style wars haven’t helped. We have all these academics who have set themselves up as the high priests of music and if a young composer wants to gain admittance to the inner circle he has to accept the rules of the high priests as gospel. If the high priests say melody is taboo then you’d better not compose anything too melodious or you’ll find yourself in Hollywood with no hope of ever being taken seriously as a composer. Listeners are cofused and disgusted by all this and turn to something they understand: either the past or pop music.

    However, I do not believe that the sky is falling as Lebrecht is constantly crying. Classical music has a lot of competition but there will always be a few devoted fans and a few small, independent labels who are willing and able to give them what they want.

    BTW, related post here:

  • cheney_usa

    We have top scientist trying to bring back Zombie Mozart so music execs can have new classical music.

    His tunes won’t be as lively, though.

    Is Dickens coming out with a new one this year?

  • Cornelius

    Well, this is a very interesting – and important – discussion, and I personnaly listen as much to Schubert, Ravel, Mahler, Rachmaninov, Debussy, Shostakovich as I listen to Pink Floyd (Roger Waters is a genius!), The Beatles (Mccartney, of course, another great great 20th century genius), and very often I try to get into contemporary composers but most of the times it’s painful and very unrewarding.

    But there are exceptions, and I recommend everyone here who has doubts about “modern music” to check out JEAN-LOUIS FLORENTZ, a french symphonist/organist who wrote amazing tone poems somewhere between Ravel, Debussy, Dutilleux and Messiaen and lots of exotic influences (African music, etc). It’s just beautiful music that sounds like 20th century music without being abstract or unintellegible, and without being purely rhythm-based (like the minimalists). It’s just pure beauty to my ears, and this genius (RIP) deserves to be heard! He”s my “hope” for the future of music!

    Those were my two cents.

  • I’m a great fan of American Minimalism, but relatively few others are, and I believe that orchestras have thrown down their instruments rather than finish a Philip Glass opera. So there’s really no salvation there. And it seems the barriers for entry into the orchestral repetoire are insourmountable–with Beethoven’s Ninth or Mozart’s Requiem to compete with, what conservatory student has got a chance? Is orchestral music then “played out?”