Wednesday, February 05, 2014

Who Killed Classical Music?

Last week BBC Radio 4 ran a provocative program called Who Killed Classical Music?, hosted by producer & composer Gabriel Prokofiev. Unfortunately the audio is already gone from the Website, but it was an informal account of how contemporary classical music became hyper-refined, appealing only to an elite, minority audience. In Mr. Prokofiev's account, political movements played a role. One of his interviewees observes that the extreme serialism of the Darmstadt School can be seen as a reaction to World War II in countries which had been Fascist or complicit in Fascism, specifically Germany, Italy & France. The large audiences in traditional concert halls, with their synchronized applause & crowd mentality, looked like a class enemy to some composers. If  bourgeois audiences didn't like your music, then you were doing your job. Writer Stephen Johnson, though, thinks audiences just found the music "immensely boring." At the end of the program, composer Tansy Davies suggests that "The concert hall is not appealing to the younger audience, who don't feel that they own the space." The speculation is that contemporary music will forward by moving into new venues.

§ Who Killed Classical Music?
BBC Radio 4
Gabriel Prokofiev, with contributions from Arnold Whittall, Stephen Johnson, Alexander Goehr, David Matthews, Ivan Hewett and Tansy Davies
Broadcast Tue 21 Jan 2014 11:30 and Sat 25 Jan 2014 15:30


Unknown said...

And yet you had people like Stravinsky (virtually) rejecting serial composition and embracing "neoclassicism" after WWII as a response to extreme modernism. And then there were 20th C composers like Britten who's #1 guiding principal was that his music be understood and accepted by the masses. I'm really tired of people proclaiming "classical" music dead and then offering up flimsy explanations to support this argument. It's become the dog pile du jour.

Axel Feldheim said...

I summarized probably 5 minutes of a half hour program, so to be fair, the show does discuss Britten, Shostakovich & Prokofiev as composers who remained connected to a wider audience, for instance. (Also, they are from anti-Fascist countries during WW II.) But I think it's still valid to say that serialism & its extreme descendents have been a failure with audiences. By ending the program with Tansy Davies, a composer who combines classical & rock, I think the program was actually saying classical music is still very vital.

David Lasson said...

Well, I don't think that serialism or atonality are the villains here; after all, Berg's Lulu and Wozzeck are not only admired by other musical eggheads, but deeply loved by the public. (I acknowledge that Berg used tone rows in a less formally strict way than Schoenberg and Webern, but he did use them.)

As to Stravinsky, he did indeed rail against serialism--only to become a convert himself during the last dozen or so years of his composing life! But, like Berg and Webern, not in the strictest Schoenbergian sense: listen especially to his Requiem Canticles, Agon, and Canticum Sacrum.

Axel Feldheim said...

David: I'd definitely argue that Berg's music works so well because, though he uses serial techniques, he cheats a lot. SF Opera has fine productions of Wozzeck & Lulu, but I don't think I've ever been within 400 miles of a performance of Moses & Aaron.

Interestingly, the radio program makes no mention of Stravinsky. Perhaps he doesn't fit within the political framework of the show's thesis. (Though I've seen audience members walk out of performances of The Rite of Spring as well.)