Escapism, entertainment and a televised shuffle of familiar faces – is this the deadly future of an art that sold its soul?” laments critic Norman Lebrecht in his 1997 book Who Killed Classical Music? He names avarice and vanity as the twin serpents strangling the art.
Lebrecht joins a timeless chorus of doom-prophets, like those who predicted in 1913 that Stravinsky’s innovations in The Rite of Spring would destroy Western music. Or in the 19th century that Wagner’s operas would lead to moral decay. Or a century earlier, that flashy Italian virtuosos would undermine private music-making in English country houses. And earlier still, that Monteverdi’s expressive style would snuff out madrigals.
It’s sometimes salutary to blow the dignified dust off history. The “good old days” – when Joseph Haydn and three generations of Esterházy princes so blissfully wed genius and wealth to beget great art – never existed, claims music historian Nicholas Tawa in his 1995 book American Composers and Their Pubic. Two hundred years ago, a musically gifted person, if born a peasant, would have had to content himself with shaping melodies in his head while til-ling the field. If a woman, her options would have been cramped by social and educational conventions. Even an acclaimed artist would have enjoyed at best the rank of a pampered servant, his artistic impulses tethered to the whims of his patron.
The truly gilded age for serious music, amazingly, turns out to be the immediate past – from the mid 1940s to the late ’80s. Not only did this era witness an unprecedented social and creative emancipation of the arts, but an astonishing economic liberation too. For orchestras and opera houses, it betokened opulent government subsidies and unstinting corporate largess. At the period’s peak in the ’60s, Congress created the National Endowment for the Arts while the Ford Foundation earmarked $82 million in grants for orchestras. It was a time when more Americans attended symphony concerts than watched baseball. A time when concert halls sold standing-room-only tickets, and new subscriptions only became available after someone had died. A time when pianos ranked No. 3 in average household purchases among middle-class Americans – right after refrigerators and cars.
For many reasons – the rise of pop culture, urban flight, a global economy, the digital revolution – those golden days are gone. But it’s wise to remember they were only a blip in classical music’s grand history of abuse and neglect.



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