Who says classical music has to be ‘relevant’?

Who says classical music has to be ‘relevant’?


norman lebrecht

November 06, 2015

Jed Gaylin music director of Bay Atlantic Symphony, has a fresh take on many aspects of the issue, including the pre-concert talk:

George Szell was fond of telling a joke about how everyone, when they die, ascends a staircase with a sign “to heaven,” except Americans. We all go up a stairway with a sign “to a lecture on heaven.”

But why must the lecture be so removed from the joys and explorations of the concert experience? Why can’t the conversation on heaven (the concert) contain some of the heavenly aroma? Why should there be separate staircases? Stravinsky has an apt line about how we have all been taught to appreciate music too much, and to love it too little.

And this:

To me, relevance is a quality, like innocence. Some works have it, some performances have it. As a performer, I cannot make music relevant any more than a defense lawyer can make the client innocent. I can work to uncover what is so singular, “in-relief” about a work, for me, at that moment. If my artistic sensibilities and capabilities are hot and firing smoothly, it will be relevant. I can commission works from composers whose music I believe is vital, and who aware of our current musical milieu. But it is for a composer to write something that is relevant—and perhaps even timeless.

More here.

Your thoughts?

jed gaylin concert


  • Milka says:

    It’s a clever fun read pretending to insights.As for the MacArthur grants to the “arts ” spare
    us .

  • Eddie Mars says:

    You want relevance? Fidelio. Le Grand Macabre. Turangalila. Peter Grimes. A Survivor From Warsaw. Britten’s War Requiem. King Priam. The Consul. We Come To The River. Oedipus Rex. King Roger. The King Goes Forth To France. Akhnaten. Nixon In China. Many more.

    Oops, you won’t find these in ‘classical pops’ concerts.

    • Gonout Backson says:

      Fidelio? This counter-revolutionary celebration of “enlightened” absolutism?

      • Eddie Mars says:

        aka “a tyrannical state keeps innocent men locked up in a secret gulag. No trials are held – men are locked up on the personal orders of the Minister”

        Now how could an obscenity like that remain ‘relevant’ a year before Obama is due to leave office, eh? How could anyone believe that, in 2015?

        • Gonout Backson says:

          I would guess your notions of what a “gulag” is seem rather approximative, but I have a different question: in this interesting world of yours, is Obama the Good Guy or the Bad Guy?

          • Eddie Mars says:

            Remind us which ‘Good Guys’ run gulags?

          • Max Grimm says:

            What sort of a question is that? Mr. Obama is an American and seeing that every child knows that Americans are evil (or at the very least moderately wicked), a “good guy/bad guy” needn’t be asked.

        • Tom Hartley says:

          And all of this began with Obama, right? Or it was a good war on terror until the black guy ruined it?

          • Eddie Mars says:

            It began with the United States Of America, the country which runs this stinking obscenity. As you ought to know, ‘Buddy’.

            Congrats to America for keeping Beethoven ‘relevant’. Nice going, Ronald Dumbsfeld for opening it, and Obama for keeping it open.

        • Ellingtonia says:

          “aka “a tyrannical state keeps innocent men locked up in a secret gulag”…………worth noting that by all accounts something like 30+% of all the “innocents” released from Guatanamo have gone back to terrorism.

          • Eddie Mars says:

            And what ‘accounts’ would they be? The same lying accounts which put them there in the first place? With no charge, no evidence, no trial, no rights, and no term. *Those* accounts??? Did you ever secure a single conviction on a single one of them??

            The same ‘accounts” which claimed there were WMD in Iraq??? Found them yet??

            The same ‘accounts’ which claimed the Kunduz Hospital was a terror cell?

            Your credibility is dragging on empty.

          • Max Grimm says:

            So the detention and treatment methods were acceptable for those remaining 70% as they were only helping the cause of sifting out the baddies??
            Unless they were self-delusional lip service to begin with, certain principles and ethics should be absolute in their application by morally upstanding peoples.

  • Boring Fileclerk says:

    This subject comes up ever couple of years. This is still the best article on the subject.


    • John Borstlap says:

      Babbitt’s article is a notorious blurb of complete misunderstanding of what serious music as an art form is. He treats it as science, and applies notions of ‘progressiveness’ and ‘efficiency’ to an art where they have no place: Bach is not outdated by Boulez (thank God), as Velasquez is not by Picasso. Babbitt is a perfect example of what went wrong with serious music in the 20th century: assuming that ‘relevance’ means comparable to the relevance of science. Later-on, ‘relevance’ got defined in economic terms, equally nonsensical but even more dangerous since economics form an important part of the realization of music in public space, and redefining the wine according to the bottle is turning the art form upside-down, inside-out.

      But Babbitt’s article is, to refer to the subject, completely irrelevant to music.

  • Boring Fileclerk says:

    *every* couple of years. Apologies.

  • Kee says:

    The topic WHO KILL CLASSICAL MUSIC is more relevant to music. I am talking about the pianist Yundi who was forced by the Secret Agent of communist China to apologize for the performance that went wrong in Soul Korea. According to some Chinese media, it was not Yundi who stopped the performance, instead, it was the conductor David Robertson who stopped the performance simply because he felt Yundi was too fast for him to conduct properly. For such interruption, Yundi was so very angry with the conductor that he cancelled the autograph signing session that night and there was rumors that Yundi blamed the conductor the mishap. But, two days later Yundi suddenly changed his attitude and apologized, but in his apology, he mentioned that when he checked with the organizer of the concert, he was told that there was no audience asking for any refund. Yundi also mentioned about checking through the posts dropped by some Korean audiences after that performance.

    I believe Yundi was trying to tell the world that although I have to apologize, you can get the truth from the posts dropped by some Korean audiences that it was truly not my fault.

    Why must Yundi apologize for the conductor’s wrong doing? Because Yundi has been controlled by the Secret Agent of communist China since 2008 – by the way, this has nothing to do with the present Chinese leader General Secretary Xi Jingpin. What do you think is the reason for Yundi to disappear from the world arena after 2008 while he was at the peak of his career? This Secret Agent had actually forced him to stay away from the society for sometimes. He was not even allowed to have contact with his family during that time. I suspect that he was more or less under some kind of house arrest for sometimes. When he finally re-merged in 2010, he had become totally a YES man to this Secret Agent . He had to mix himself with pop song singers, fashion designers etc etc. He was even forced to interrupt his duty as a judge of Chopin piano competition to fly back to China in order to attend a wedding of an Chinese actor. He had lost completely his freedom. The Secret Agent had planned all these to make it look as if Yundi has lost interest in classical music and he has become so deteriorated that he often makes tons of mistakes. The Secret Agent has a troop of posters to verify all such claims at many websites. People who are able to think logically refuse to believe all such nonsense claimed by these posters. Listen to Yundi’s CD’s , how can all such claims be true if Yundi ‘s is able to play so well? It will be useless trying to get any truth from Yundi;s lips as his lips has been completely sealed – being very scared of this Secret Agent.

    I know all these because I have watched Yundi’s development closely since his winning of first prize of Chopin piano competition. I even wrote some reviews for his CD’s at Amazon using the nick name Kee.

    Please read the posts dropped by me at the bottom of the webpage Yundi crashes in Chopin concerto given on November 2, 2015 by norman lebrecht in order to understand beer the whole situation:


  • Anne63 says:

    I find it difficult to see absolute music as relevant or irrelevant. In my experience, the accusation of irrelevance generally means “music enjoyed by people I disapprove of”.

  • John Borstlap says:

    Classical music as an art form is ‘relevant’ by nature and should not need any ‘defence’ or ‘justification’.

    The more materialist a society gets, the more its underlying spiritual dynamics erode (see the late Roman empire).

    From the (excellent) article;

    “And let’s hire and promote performers and composers because their art moves people, and—yes—because they connect with people about that art and in human ways, too.” That removes quite a lot of contemporary music from the consideration.

    • Gonout Backson says:

      + 1 with both hands.

    • John Borstlap says:

      To elaborate a bit: the qualities as formulated by the author: art that moves people in human ways: these qualities are mostly related, by performers and audiences alike, to OLD, traditional music. Most contemporary composers do not seem to pursue those qualities – why not? Because decennia of postwar propaganda of new music relegated these sort of notions to the glass box of a museum culture, as if they were merely belonging to a 19C aesthetic as a product of bourgeois, restricted taste. In spite of the assumption of a free, democratic, pluralistic society, contemporary music is surrounded by grave taboos about notions of beauty, meaning, greatness, and expression, all supposed to be no longer ‘relevant’ to our Brave New World. The article says the opposite, because coming from the territory of practical performance and the continuing reality of dealing with beautiful, meaningful, great and expressive works of the OLD repertoire.

      The only possible conclusion is, that the qualities as formulated in the article should be picked-up by contemporary composers – but that would mean getting into the labyrinth of taboos and identity problems: ‘I am a contemporary composer writing old music – I’m no longer relevant’. In other words: if the article’s assessments are right, they run counter established notions of modernity in music.

      And if the article’s assessments would be taken seriously, they would suggest that these notions of modernity in music are wrong on a fundamental level and should be corrected. Quite a task.

      • Milka says:

        Art that moves people in human ways as opposed to art that moves people in inhuman
        ways ?????? and more nonsense from Julia Fischer …..

        • John Borstlap says:

          It’s not so crazy…. At universities, there still is something like ‘the humanities’ – which do not need the existence of an Inhumanity Faculty because the world already offers ample examples of it. ‘Human’ in the context of the article and as used by Ms Fischer means, as can be sensed, a music that relates to the human sense of being civilized and developed, i.e. a music that is aspirational, addressing life experiences and a way of ennobling these and stimulating the more positive drives of the human being (yes, they do exist…. otherwise nobody would listen to classical music any longer).

  • M_von_Kolinahr says:

    A very interesting article, bringing in perspectives that aren’t often heard, e.g. the possible boost to orchestra support as a result of the Cold War! I too often wonder if we are somehow encouraged to think about and appreciate classical music almost too much, as opposed to just losing ourselves in it totally, and reacting to it instinctively, and loving it. And indeed, as Jed Gaylin points out, what may be deemed “relevant” by certain powers-that-be may not necessarily end up being “vital”. When it comes to music, I suppose I’ve always tried to look for both virtues – to give one example, the very popular German comedian Loriot (1923-2011, real name Bernhard-Victor Christoph-Carl von Bülow – distantly related to one Hans von Bülow) once had this to say concerning Wagner’s “Ring”:

    “The protagonists in the most epic drama in musical history are actually a really nice bunch. Just one common passion unites them in what ultimately seals their fate: they seek to own more than they can afford, and to wield more power than they are entitled to. In their blind, loveless pursuit of material gain, they end up destroying themselves and their world. … Fortunately, of course, such things happen only on the opera stage.”

    (from “Loriot’s ‘Kleiner Opernführer'” (2003), Zurich: Diogenes Verlag AG, 150 pp; my own translation).

    Provided one’s prepared to take it that way as well of course, and perhaps also taken in conjunction and in context with the late US astronomer Carl Sagan’s famous “Pale Blue Dot” quote – http://www.planetary.org/explore/space-topics/earth/pale-blue-dot.html – with regard to today’s world and its humanitarian and environmental problems, there really still ought to be enough universal, timeless “relevance” to draw on there to sink a battleship. By way of a brief disclaimer: I hereby also duly and openly acknowledge the various controversies and other points of view regarding Wagner, and the various question marks that (may always) hang over him. No matter what one thinks of him, however, he does work at an extraordinarily visceral, all-encompassing (holistic) “vital” level, which is no doubt also part of why his music has ultimately prospered for so long against some considerable (admittedly (… ahem) also “self-inflicted”) odds, and numerous attempts to deconstruct him and cut him down to size.

    Meanwhile, I also have to think of a statement by the German violinist Julia Fischer, when she said that “the lines between art and entertainment are often blurred, but to me art is what survives the distance – and that’s why we still concern ourselves with Bach after 300 years.” Perhaps that’s also a way of acknowledging that when it comes to (lasting) relevance – or timelessness – ultimately, history itself really will have the final judgment, no matter what, whether it’s about classical or (e.g.) rock, or something else entirely, and so we may never have more than comparatively limited control over that. Meanwhile, when it comes to musical change and development, and the anti-emotional, anti-beauty, etc. “rarifed” nature of a lot of contemporary music, I’m put in mind of a famous statement by Pete Townshend, originator of the rock operas “Tommy” and “Quadrophenia” (which are actually holding their currency pretty well themselves after 40+ years): “If you are going to progress, then you must take the people with you.” Here, I’d venture to suggest that Townshend, of all people, wasn’t thinking primarily in terms of purely commercial “market viability”, or otherwise “relevance” as if prescribed from above, at all, but rather in producing truly vital music as a communal experience and even as a potential medium for social growth and change, in which he himself even functioned as a kind of conduit. Say what you will about rock if you don’t like it (and to be sure, not everyone has to), but in this aim he was ultimately very successful and perceptive, and able to reach a huge audience.

    • John Borstlap says:

      A sympathetic contribution but rock music has nothing to do with classical music. In contrary: ears polluted by it, will probably be less accessible to classical music. So, audience successes of rock music may actually damage the public image of classical music.

      • M_von_Kolinahr says:

        … yes, well, in that case I confess I may have polluted my own ears just a bit too much with rock at times in the past, and am now consciously atoning for it in some ways! – it was partly out of general curiosity when I was younger, and at the time also to show my (sometimes very sceptical) peers that I was at least in principle open-minded when it came to other music, although I had indeed been brought up in a classical tradition from a very young age. In doing so, I suppose I also tried to remain true to Leonard Bernstein and his quip: “There is no such thing as ‘serious’ and ‘popular’ music, only good and bad music!” Anyway, I thought Townshend’s quote was rather interesting, and he had a point.

        Otherwise, yes, in a lot of ways rock and classical may well be really diametrically opposed, most especially now, more so than a few decades ago; I have also heard it explicitly said that classical should be thought of not so much as “just” another music genre, but really as a whole separate medium, because amongst other things it relies very heavily on the written score as its basis for its immortality, i.e. in that sense it is also truly literary. If that’s so, perhaps that’s something else which could potentially be emphasised more, as a crucial point of difference from rock/pop, where of course a performance by anyone other than the original artists tends to be just a “cover version”.

        • John Borstlap says:

          Common sense, all this… If I remember well, in antiquity, rituals of Dionysos and Apollo were celebrated together, and at the back of the theatres statues of the two defined the value framework. Pop- and rock concerts celebrate the dionysian dissolving in instinctive communal rapture without any relationship to the ‘Apollonian’. In that sense it is much more primitive than what presumably was experienced in Antiquity where both sides of experience were considered two sides of the coin of existence, so to speak.

          There is a tension between the highly formalized format of the classical concert and the often quite wild music itself thus presented, for instance a really good performance of Beethoven VII or Stravinsky’s Sacre forms a slightly absurdist contrast with the regular rows of entirely silent listeners, frozen in their attention. It is the price paid for the accessibility of live music. (Fortunately, recordings allow one to more related reactions at home.)

  • herrera says:

    Know what’s less relevant than classical music? classical music lovers.

    • Anne63 says:

      And, least of all, your comment.

    • Geoff says:

      There are three involved with classical music: composer, performer and listener. I am one of the listeners. To listen, because I like ( “love” ) the music, but I rarely talk of my love as I am not a composer, I know nothing about g minor or a flat, I do not read music and I play no musical instrument so my ability to make conversation about music is very limited. So I just listen and appreciate and on occasions applaud. Just a classical music lover, Mr Herrera.

      • Milka says:

        Wat do you mean by “classical music lover “

        • herrera says:

          To begin with, everyone who wrote a comment on this page.

          By “relevance”, I mean no one cares what we have written here except (PERHAPS) the other people who are on this page.

          Anne63 seems to take offense at her irrelevance, but that doesn’t make her any more relevant.