America’s classical music is ‘run by apologists’

America’s classical music is ‘run by apologists’


norman lebrecht

July 28, 2017

The organist Paul Jacobs has a blast this weekend at the powers-that-be:

‘So much of our understanding of the arts in this country is bound up with the individual tastes of the listener or consumer. The primacy of classical music as an artful or superior genre has gradually diminished. Increasingly, classical musicians are not so much advocates for their art as apologists. This is not a trend I observe, however, in great art museums…

‘But those who promote classical music are often pressured not to point to its historical primacy, instead to exhibit it in a manner which equates it to more recent musical genres, manufacturing its image as “cool,” “hip,” and “relevant.” It’s presented as just one of many styles of music, alongside jazz, rock, bluegrass, hip hop, and so forth. But this is misleading, not to mention emasculating, for what we casually refer to as “classical music” is actually the bulk of the West’s musical history—an immense creative legacy of over 1,000 years, from plainchant to Cage and beyond. Classical music is our history—everyone’s history—and knowing history is important. As our cultural inheritance, it’s also something to cherish.’

Read on here.


  • Ungeheuer says:

    Bravo. Ironically, the Anglo (UK and USA) powers that be of classical music are helping destroy it with their popularizing push. Their push reaches to the Continent, infecting even once venerable labels such as Deutsche Grammophon (DECCA is a long lost cause of their own making). But it ain’t working and won’t. But the debasement continues apace. They don’t and won’t learn.

    There are fortunately many smaller labels that have resisted the pressure and we are the richer and better for holding their ground.

  • Robert Fitzpatrick says:

    Paul, I vividly remember your graduation recital at Curtis when you played Bach’s St-Anne Prelude and Fugue (18 minutes) after a 50 minute Messiaen opus. I will not comment on my vivid emotions as your teacher walked out to catch the last train to NYC!

    I read this interview with interest and agree with many points that you make so eloquently. However, I wonder who is writing the “new” works for organ and whether you and other virtuosi are commissioning them. I confess my ignorance here.

    Museums, including art museums, are the display windows of culture, past, present, and future which depend on the quality of the works displayed through the skill of the curators who present them. Music, IMHO, Is more like theater which lives in time and not space and depends on the vitality and imagination of the creators and the re-creators including, but not limited to, the stage directors (conductors) and actors (performing musicians). Theater is alive and well and so is “classical” music in spite of the advocates, apologists, naysayers and critics. Beware the “ivory tower” syndrome.

    Music has historical significance but can also be “cool, hip, and relevant’ across many genres.

    New York will have a magnificent organ in a major concert venue when YOU convince a donor like the current Chair of the Juilliard Board of Trustees to fund it and create an endowment to support the care and maintenance of the instrument in perpetuity. We’re counting on you!

    I believe that there is a place for both you and Cameron Carpenter performing great music, classical or otherwise, at the highest level. Curious to hear your proposals for the future of music, classical or otherwise, including organ repertoire.

    Bonne chance, Monsieur from a voice from your past.

  • J. says:

    Pop music = monkey business.

  • Christopher Culver says:

    It is hard to swallow any claim that presenting classical music as just one more option in the musical menu, is “emasculating”, when countries where classical music is in fact doing well in the public consciousness, such as Finland, do precisely what he says he doesn’t like: they emphasize the variety of musics available to us today and they encourage any listener to find what is right for him. As the state takes funding of music in general very seriously, classical music continues to get its slice of the pie next to jazz, “world music” and local pop artists.

    Anyone who is passionate about classical music (and spends a good chunk of their money on concerts and recordings) under the age of 40 is very unlikely to listen solely to classical music or even consider it “superior” to other stuff. People listen to all kinds of music these days, and they aren’t inclined to praise one of those styles at the expense of another. If any institution presented classical music as a style that must be believed better than others, it would simply be alienating many classical music listeners, who might still enjoy their library of recordings but start to be wary of supporting that institution with their patronage.

    • Paul Emmons says:

      I’m probably preaching to the choir here, and I realize that you are not one of those cultural relativists arguing that various musical genres are equal in merit. But these people exist, and here is an objective reply: If what they say is true, then the public, whatever their musical tastes, should be just as interested in buying high-quality audio systems to listen to it as they used to be. But they are not. I would like to upgrade mine but do not know where to turn to shop for one, other than a nearby Best Buy. If this interest were as widespread as in the past, why aren’t shops offering fine stereo components easier to find? To be sure, things can be tailored to some degree according to a customer’s taste (which is one reason why such retailing is needed)– but basically, accurate reproduction is accurate reproduction. It can be measured by engineers, and the equipment doesn’t care what sounds it reproduces.

      The fact that all kinds of merchandise is bought and sold on the Internet nowadays is no explanation in this case. You can’t assess a high-quality system by listening to it through a low-quality system. You must hear it in person. Nor is everyone too poor to afford it: there is no shortage of customers for numerous other luxurious gadgets. I submit that there are few sales points because there is little interest in the product. Wondering if it were just my ignorance, I found this:

      What if the deeper problem is that the real low-quality system, the insurmountable bottleneck, has become the human ear rendered insensitive after years of street noise?

  • Marc Parella says:

    My opinion has always been that classical music needs to stay classical. Whatever has emerged as a fusion of popular idioms into contemporary concert music has failed to attract new listeners. I agree that trying to make classical ‘hip’ really is a poor attempt at marketing the genre. It is not ‘hip’; it is classical: music that has endured the test of time. But the answer that I have promoted in my years as an artist and manager is that artists themselves are the problem. They do little to promote music and far too much promoting themselves.

    There was a brief period in the US during the late 50s through the early 70s when classical music was a major genre. This can attributed to what I call the Bernstein Effect: Lenny talking about music with an effusive energy that was never seen before. It helped that CBS gave Bernstein a platform and that Bernstein was a powerful orator. You can see the Bernstein effect in pop culture as television shows of that period featured classical artists as characters along with the media covering classical music like they cover entertainment and celebrities today. That has been lost because no one took over from Bernstein and the concert industry is flooded with talent tripping over itself trying to be something it is not. What the industry needs is a salesperson who can passionately talk and demonstrate the value of becoming a classical music listener, not a bunch of marketing mavens thinking they can reinvent it.

    • John Borstlap says:

      Entirely agreed.

    • Christopher Culver says:

      It was easy for a single personality like Bernstein to captivate a nation when television was limited to a few channels and the nation would addictively tune in to those few channels due to the novelty of the medium. Today, with all the media available to consumers, you can be as brilliant an orator about an art form as can be, but only a relative few are going to hear what you have to say.

    • Peter says:

      I so much agree: Bernstein really helped make classical music accessible by showing its greatness, not by dumbing it down or making it seem like something it is not. It is similar to what Wynton Marsalis did for jazz in the 1980s. The closest thing we have to Bernstein now is probably Benjamin Zander, who relishes guiding the public about through various symphonies, but he’s not Bernstein!

  • Brt. says:

    Classical music and Pop music are different things. It’s more like apples and oranges.

    It’s without a doubt though that “classical” music posses much more profundity, quality and creativity to it.

    Trying to equate Van Gogh with the kind of Modern art that consists of throwing paint at the wall is intellectual and artistic terrorism.

    Unless 2+2 does equal 5

    • Haydn 70 says:

      “Classical music and Pop music are different things. It’s more like apples and oranges.”

      No, more like gourmet food (classical) and fast food (pop).

      • John Borstlap says:

        Indeed. But given the pyramid of humanity, a majority will prefer the fast food when given the choice. It’s one of the mysteries of evolution. But there is nothing wrong with a majority rejecting classical music, the problem only arises when such majorities have influence upon the position and funding of musical institutions and deny their right of existence.

        Interestingly, museums are not under populist threats: probably because they make less noise, and because they exhibit objects clearly from the past and in case of moma’s: nonsense. If a person, suffering from a cultural inferiority complex, visits – by chance or because a family member has blackmailed him/her – a museum, old collections won’t be intimidating because they don’t refer to the present, and concept art is a generous confirmation of his/her stage of cultural development; but classical music concerts clearly are something happening in the present with contemporary people listening to something that is performed in real ‘now’ time – and mostly music that is as old as the old stuff in museums but obviously and enthusiastically operating in the present. Here, the populist is painfully reminded of his condition and thus, he/she would be much happier knowing if classical music would no longer exist. Hence the criticism and attacks on the art form, while nobody forces the patient to a concert (except perverse family members).

    • Peter Ruark says:

      A better comparison might be equating Van Gogh with a Marushka, or whatever else Hobby Lobby is selling these days.

  • John Borstlap says:

    Agreed, with the exception of the mention of John Cage, who was not a composer but a concept artist and a charlatan, like Marcel Duchamp.

    • Anonymous says:

      Totally agree! First of all he just liked talking about music in order to get attention. He “borrowed” many ideas from others (Henry Cowell and even Maurice Ravel worked with prepared pianos many many years before him). Also he talked a lot of “b…s..t” about magical squares and that he composed pieces with them but none of them are based on magical squares but a misconception based on misunderstanding. Indeed, composers like Arnold Schoenberg, Anton Webern and Johann Nepomuk David wrote music based on magical squares but you can only do that if you have a deeper insight into harmony and counterpoint, something that Cage certainly didn’t have. Could give you many more examples about the charlatan but who cares about him anymore. He will be forgotten…

  • Cyril Blair says:

    Emasculating? So classical music is male?

    • John Borstlap says:

      I checked yesterday and indeed it is still male.

    • AnnaT says:

      Cyril, it certainly seems to be, according to those–many, many of them on these pages–who obviously consider themselves the voice and standard-bearers of the art form. “Primacy,” “emasculation,” etc., all speak to larger issues, however.

  • Stephen Limbaugh says:

    …wait, you mean bedazzling one’s shoes, becoming a “radical feminist,” mohawks, and extreme personal flamboyance aren’t a hit with the millennials???