Musicians attack Jordi Savall for saying classical music has no future

Musicians attack Jordi Savall for saying classical music has no future


norman lebrecht

July 27, 2017

The veteran Catalan musician, 75, is under fire for some injudicious interview comments in La Stampa.

Savall said, among other things:

– The meaning and value of classical music are in decline

– At this time in the classical world there is no more creativity. There are great performers, great composers, but they do not know how to create, improvise.

– In the eastern world, the soul of music is improvisation. Every time the result is different, even unpredictable. It is a musical culture that is preserved and renewed.

There has been an onslaught of responses.

Among the most savage is a blast from the Bologna cellist, Roberto Gini, who accuses Savall of being personally responsible for the decline by blurring the lines between western and eastern music, corrupting both.

Caro Jordi, “il significato e il valore della musica classica sono in declino” anche grazie al tuo contributo, alle truffaldine Follie che pasticci da anni sempre peggio, alle tue Tarantelle, alle nacchere con cui accompagni la musica di Marais, alla tua Barak Norman a sette corde con cui suoni Ortiz accompagnato da ogni strumento possibile fuorché il richiesto dall’autore, alla viola italiana a sei corde amplificata con cui al contrario hai suonato musica francese a Bologna, alle tue insalate miste di programmi da profumeria di grande magazzino, alla tua approssimazione, alla faccia tosta con cui sai imbonire il pubblico vendendo prodotti commerciali talmente ripieni di ogni diversità che ciascuno vi riconosce qualcosa e ha l’illusione di aver partecipato, comprendendolo, di un evento musicale imperdibile.



  • Mihail Ghiga says:

    Unfortunately, Savall is right, western classical music is no more an organic part of society, it’s just one consumed music among others and it is not really cost effective. In time it will go more towards film music, rock and so on just to survive.

    • John Borstlap says:

      These will not be musical forms that are serious art music forms. It seems to me that it is more probable that classical music wil continue to exist, but as a more elitist interest of the more developed pockets of society, maybe on the scale (relatively speaking) of the 18th century. The entertainment of the masses will do their job and taken away by the wind of oblivion.

    • pooroperaman says:

      If classical music’s no longer an organic part of society, how come the Albert Hall was so rammed for The Planets on Tuesday night that I could hardly breathe?

      I wish it was a bit less popular, to be quite frank.

      • John says:

        The Planets? Sounds like you got your answer right there! 🙂

      • Una says:

        Because it’s the Proms, and a sort of cult, and they all know I vow to thee my country from Princess Diana’s funeral!! Just bog-standard repertoire for the masses. All the Proms are not all sold out. I’m going to six in a week at the end of August.

        • pooroperaman says:

          ‘Big standard repertoire for the masses’ is still classical music. Ergo, people still want to hear it, even if they don’t want to explore beyond the famous stuff – although that audience was also very appreciative of the Vaughan Williams 9 in the first half.

          And what’s wrong with The Planets, anyway? It has some of the finest harmonic writing and orchestration of the early twentieth century. If there are famous bits which people come for, then that’s fine, because they’ll also have to hear the rest of it.

          I also only took The Planets as an example because it happened to be the other day. The place was also packed out for Barenboim doing Birtwistle and Elgar, Nicola Benedetti playing Shostakovich, and Haitink in Mozart and Schumann.

          Those are all big names, of course, but all three have become big names by doing serious repertoire and not compromising or dumbing down. If they and others can take people with them, then of course serious music has a future, just as Shakespeare and Caravaggio do.

  • Analeck Kram-Hammerbauer says:

    I appreciate his honesty and the guts of telling the uncomfortable truth in public.

    • Una says:

      Couldn’t agree with you more. Amazing that people can just get personal about someone who has the courage to say something. Okay, someone doesn’t agree but this personalisation is more appalling and says more about that particular person than the original contributor.

      Thanks S for contributing. You most certainly have a valid point and, no, the demise of classical music is not your fault!!

  • Ungeheuer says:

    The elephant in the room and Savall had the courage to speak out.

    • John Borstlap says:

      So many people have discussed the elephant that Savall’s is hardly to be considered an unexpected voice. And he does not seem to be aware of the many attempts to approach the problem more constructively. HIstory is not the movement of blind forces but of decisions being made by humans.

  • ppim says:

    Sadly,i also agree with him.else we would be forced to listen to time and again one yuja after one Lang Lang and then a yundi. Even though, out of the blue we are lucky to have hj lim, Trifonov, but they only couldn’t help.

    • John Borstlap says:

      Solutions can be found in the direction of education and the spreading of the findings of neuroscience; even the most steelhard materialists would be willing to expose their children to experiences that appear to improve their capacities in one way or another. Classical pop star presentations are not very effective in the long run, because classical is not pop.

  • Nik says:

    The views expressed by Savall are arguable, but the attack on him from this cellist (who is he, exactly?) is laughable. He effectively accuses Savall of ruining classical music by mixing it up a bit in his programmes and taking creative liberties with instrumentation. Sorry, but this this man really think that the route to salvation lies in rigid preservation of whatever standard of accuracy he thinks himself the guardian of?

    • Pianofortissimo says:

      Those comments are presumably highly relevant to purist HIP musicians and their enthusiastic public. If you think, like me, that it is OK to play Bach’s violoncello suites like Casals or Fournier did, the discussion is irrelevant.

      I wonder why Mr. Savall hates the West.

  • Eyal Braun says:

    I would go ever further than Savall- The meaning and value of nearly all forms of high culture are in decline in most western countries.

    • John Borstlap says:

      True. It is a further stage in the ongoing emancipation process of the masses, thereby providing ever expanding markets for nonsense, and – through the democratic weight of numbers – negatively influencing politics, resulting (among other things) in populism.

      But it also should not be forgotten that due to the media and IT we do KNOW so much more about the masses.

  • Mark Henriksen says:

    What he said “isn’t right, its not even wrong”, to quote W. Pauli. Meaning, that even to be wrong takes relevant assumptions behind an opinion. “they do not know how to create, improvise” is the root of the irrelevance of his assumptions.

  • John Porter says:

    I think he is correct. When 20th century practice separated out composers from performers, from conductors, from improvisers, well, it all became somewhat sclerotic. Gone are the days when everyone performed, composed, conducted, improvised, etc. Now you have performing musicians who can’t play much beyond the page and view the composers and conductors as others.

    What’s interesting to me are the artists who are bringing back what was the common practice for centuries. It starts with the performer-composers and builds from there. Its a shame that the conservatories are all designed to reinforce the 20th century practice.

    So yes, I think that Savall is essentially correct is recognizing the damage done by years of musicians who can’t “create” music, but rather play what has been given to them.

    • John Borstlap says:

      That is too simple a conclusion. To bring a score to life, be it an orchestral score (conducting) or a piano score, or chamber music or ensemble, or playing your part in an orchestra wel and thus contributing to the overall effect, all this requires creative investment and not merely ‘playing what is given to them’. Playing things the right way is in itself a creative act.

      This comment in fact complains about the professionalization and specialization of music making and that is unreasonable, we expect the same professionalism from our dentists and plummers, I would not want them to improvise in their job.

      But indeed it would be better if on the conservatories, budding musicians would also learn to improvise and to compose (it’s not so difficult to write simple music and it is fun too), so that their awareness of music as a process would be enhanced and any mechanical aspect transcended into soemthing creative, however modest (I am thinking about the triangle player in Brahms IV and the 1st Liszt piano concerto).

      • Una says:

        If I had wanted to be a composer, I’d have studied composition but I have been a professions singer and also a good amateur pianist, guitarist and violinist. Yes, simple music is easy to write – had to do that for my music degree – but it never helped me to be the singer I was, and neither was the end result worth the bother or the paper it was written on. Oh, yes, didn’t break any compositional rules but total rubbish for the bin!’ The American system is so different to Britain and Continental Europe.

      • John Porter says:

        I believe that Savall is trying to make the point that two few classical musicians are actually creating music, rather than interpreting it. It’s all the conductors who are never taught composition, when the great ones of the past all composed. Where once all pianists composed and improvised, only a distinct minority do so today. Opera used to allow for improvisation, likewise the vast majority of instrumentalists who could compose and arrange. When the composers and improvisers become a small subset removed from the mainstream of classical music, at odds with his things worked for centuries, one might argue there is a lack of creativity. And the conservatories are organized so that only the odd ones perform and compose. The violin teachers don’t want their students wasting their time learning to compose, arrange or improvise. And no one, not me nor Savall, its talking about a percussionist improvising within a Brahms Symphony.

  • Maria says:

    I happen to like symphonies.

    How does an orchestra improvise a symphony? Or film music for that matter.

    If some people like their music improvised, that’s fine, but please don’t claim to speak for everybody. If music is good, I don’t care how long it’s been around.

    • John Borstlap says:

      In fact, in postwar modernist music for orchestra there are often passages where the players are asked to improvise. Sometimes these passages are carefully embedded in an overall narrative (Lutoslawski). But the results are always, without exception, poor and ineffective since there is no musical vision behind it.

      But the greatest performances of symphonies are the ones where all the preparations and careful rehearsel focus result in the effect as if the music is indeed being improvised and being born right on the spot:

      Debussy wanted his music give the impression as if it were improvised. Therefore he precisely calculated all the effects down to the smallest detail so that it should sound entirely spontaneous and free:

    • John says:

      I’d like to add to Mr. Borstlap’s comments that musicians simply aren’t trained to be spontaneous enough to freely improvise. John Cage created Atlas Eclipticus (sp?) with opportunities for improvisation by principal players, but when the NY Philharmonic performed it, the players mocked the whole affair with obvious glee, which left Cage heartbroken because they didn’t see the freedom this was offering them.

      I’m not sure that orchestra players have changed very much in this way since 1962, so I’m not optimistic that this will be a direction you’ll see orchestras going in. That said, this doesn’t have to be the only factor in how to advance the symphony genre.*

      I think that back in the late 1960s Leonard Bernstein opined that the symphony orchestra as a performing body was perhaps becoming obsolete. But that doesn’t have to doom symphonies from being written. Remember that Mozart’s symphonies were conceived with much smaller groupings in mind.

      (* Note: Naturally, principal players do have a chance at some self-expression in how they perform solo passages, depending of course on the will of the conductor on the podium.)

      • John Borstlap says:

        The Cage story is a good example of the simple-minded way the art of performance is sometimes seen. Orchestral players are trained to become highly-skilled performers who can turn little black dots and lines and all kinds of mysterious indications into a free-sounding musical experience. The exhiliriating experience of playing in the middle of a group of some 90 musicians with an inner freedom and in te same time, perfect interrelatedness with the others as if being a memebr of one large body, as a communal achievement, an experience where the dead letter of the text has been internalized so strongly that the music freely floats as one voice in a communal synthesis, is the freedom which has been struggled for by years and years of study and training, carried by love for the art form. It is difficult to explain this if you are not an orchestral musician of a (good) orchestra yourself, and then the simpletons step-in with their blind and deaf projections. Minds like Cage’s, drag everything they find in life down to their own level, as with Cage’s misconceptions of eastern philosophy or the I Tjing. I always found that Cage’s real vocation and level was in searching for mushrooms.

  • John says:

    I applaud Savall’s bravery in saying what many have been thinking for some time. I sadly mostly agree with his view.

    Of course classical music — however you define that — will be around as a niche interest for as far as I can see. But as has been said here, look at all the other musics (‘markets for nonsense’ as the sniffy Mr. Borstlap would have it) that have attracted the interest of the wide and diverse spectrum of our many global families. And yes, music encompasses a truly a global market now. (Some years ago when I heard someone in the depths of some African country listening and enjoying a CD of Madonna, it made me wonder where those (underscored) musical traditions were going.)

    As an early music ‘star’, Jordi himself exists within a rarified niche that pretty much didn’t even exist when I was born in the mid 1940s.

    When I was born, Toscanini was a household word, part of the cultural firmament. NBC Symphony concerts were broadcast to many millions and each concert was a major event. Then, when I started as a music teacher in the 1960s, teens who worshipped the Beatles and The Rolling Stones still knew that Beethoven was a composer and could identify a few of his most familiar works. But by the 1990s, young people would recognize Beethoven as the family dog in a cheesy series of family comedies that bore the pooch’s name!

    The Ravinia Festival in Chicago where I went to hear good classical music in the 1960s and 1970s was almost all classical. Anything popular or non-classical was viewed as ‘niche’. Having looked at their Web site the other day, I see the situation has just about reversed. And when I moved to California in the 1980s, Hollywood Bowl’s summer schedule was packed with classical offerings. Now, I believe you’ll hear classical only on certain week nights, and probably not on prime time weekends. Oh, and don’t look too hard for anything outside the ‘top 100’.

    So while I see there is a way forward, I think we reached the apogee for classical music — here in the US, at least — back in the 1950s and 1960s. At 71, I’d say Jordi is speaking the truth. I’ll settle in for my twilight years going to concerts everywhere I can still go and hang tight to my few thousand CDs and DVDs to enjoy Lenny, Herb von K, Carlos, the VPO, the NYPhil, the Guarneris, (and many more) performing all the great masters I grew to know and love. At least I’ll be ok.

    • John Borstlap says:

      As said before, serious art music has always been a niche interest for elites, and that it cast a wider net midway of the last century, was an exception rather than the goal of music making all along. The unexpected thing is that the immensily increased accessibility of classical music through the modern media channels and recording techniques, has not been able to stop the pressures of populism on the music, which has causes elsewhere. It seems more likely that the field will shrink back to an elite activity, which is in itself not a bad thing – only, the danger is that the funding of the art form will become undermined for being ‘not compatible with popular tastes’.

      And then: me, ‘sniffy’? Only for observing an obvious fact? Crazy.

      • John says:

        I found your term, which I read as being dismissive of other genres of music, to be sniffy. Whether it is or not, people who prefer techno-pop or hip-hop certainly don’t see their music as something less.

        Some time seek out an interview with the jazz artist Esperanza Spalding and you’ll find her to be as deep into her art as anyone taking the stage in Carnegie Hall. Her process in creating the music she performs is as fascinating as its performance is exciting.

        If my observation about ‘sniffiness’ is off, please accept my apology. I love and cherish my lifetime with classical music, but I have never felt a need to elevate it above any other genres. It does quite well on its own.

        Otherwise I’m in total agreement with what you’re saying here.

  • Cubs Fan says:

    No art form can be considered vibrant and important to any society as long as it is mired in the past. Our symphony concerts are nothing but aural museums, repeatedly playing a select handful of works – masterpieces all, I understand. Go through the upcoming season of American orchestras and the problem is clear: “festivals” of Brahms, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Mozart. Too many concerts these days consist such old music that the concert could have been played 100 – 150 years ago! I realize that a lot of 20th c music is tough for audiences, but there were a lot of very user-friendly composers who were tragically neglected, whose music could have freshened up the repertoire and kept audiences interested. But too many conductors, managers, and audience members and board members couldn’t change with the times. You have to feel sorry for composers these days who will never attract an audience unless they write for the movies or video games. There were conductors of the past who warned this would happen – Beecham and Koussevitsky made valiant attempts to keep contemporary composers on their programs, and neither went down the atonal/ugly road. I hope the era of great classical music isn’t over, but the current situation makes me quite nervous. The battle between high culture and pop culture is over; the latter has won.

    • Una says:

      I’ll find that is more in America with its emphasis on philanthropy, which we don’t have with government grants. Gives us a lot of freedom in general with repertoire. Can’t vouch for London as I don’t live there anymore but certainly not the case with Mark Elder and the Halle in Manchester or Leeds.

      Good old BBC gets all the commissions, which bring in a lot of extra money in on top of the licence fee, Arts Council and government funding. Think you’ll find more to our Proms than The Planets and Tom Jones singing Delilah at Midnight!!!!!!

    • John Borstlap says:

      The ‘old repertoire’ is, in itself, not ‘old’. It may be true that orchestras don’t invest much time in exploring unfamiliar music which is compatible with the central performance culture (i.e. not modernist stuff), but the ‘classics’ have written music which remains entirely accessible and enjoyable for contemporary audiences, because based upon universal musical dynamics. It’s the quality of the music which keeps it alive. Even the Chinese love it nowadays and they come form a very different place, in all respects.

    • Una says:

      Yes, sadly in the west the pop has won!

      • Ellingtonia says:

        I think the clue is in the term “popular music”………………… will get it eventually!

  • John says:

    Is Shakespeare’s King Lear old and irrelevant today?

    Is Leonardo’s Last Supper old and irrelevant today?

    • Cubs Fan says:

      No and No. But you cannot keep a culture alive when spend too much time and effort worshiping the great achievements of the past. History has winnowed out the musical masterworks and has done a fine job. Yes, a great art work can still inspire us. So why can’t modern composers write music that is relevant to us? So much of it seems to be artificial and mathematical. Some composers of choral music still can reach the human soul, but orchestral composers? Not so much. What is the last piece of music added to the so-called standard repertoire? Short Ride in a Fast Machine maybe? Very poor stuff. Fun, but totally irrelevant and meaningful.

      • John says:

        Your comment is way too general to me to even begin to respond to. A lot of good thoughts, though. All of the arts have undergone a 20th century crisis. People don’t write plays like Shakespeare, but how many people go to hear “Waiting for Godot”? People don’t paint like Leonardo, but is Andy Warhol somehow a lesser artist?

        My point was that great music has a universality that will survive. And that includes 20th century works, including music being written (and yet to be written) by “modern composers”. Trouble is, we aren’t clairvoyant. Only time determines longevity and the masterpiece written yesterday won’t be considered ‘classic’ until it has shown itself to have that universal quality.

        But I’m prepared to agree with Jordi Savall. And I agree with John Borstlap that while ‘classical music’ had a strong run, it isn’t a given that it will just continue to go up and up and up and up and up. It’s OK if it becomes more of a niche interest. Hell, it has to be ok.

        • pooroperaman says:

          ‘is Andy Warhol somehow a lesser artist?’

          Er, yes. No technique or skill, beyond having a few ideas, which were actually carried out by other people.

  • John says:

    I’ve been out of the music profession for a long time, so I no longer claim a clear view of my old profession, but here’s my thought. As I have reflected on this declining trend in the classical music realm, it has caused me to wonder about the many hundreds or thousands of music schools, especially the better ones. Is there still a demand for all of these professional players who we’re turning out of music schools and conservatories today?

    It has been written in these columns about the hundreds who show up to audition for a single spot in an ensemble. When all is said and done, will all those hundreds of losers who didn’t get the job end up being in one ensemble or another in five years? Or are they in some other line of work? So I wonder if we have too many schools turning out wildly talented musicians for whom no job awaits. Any thoughts?

    • Sue says:

      I know too many musicians who run more than one job (most outside music) and who don’t earn much money. One fine organist I know is a barista on the weekends at a local cafe. How is Bach compatible with beans? It’s just awful.

      So, some hard questions need to be asked at the end of school. Why not combine a professional career outside music with amateur music-making (form your own chamber group, etc.) and some teaching. People must learn to make consequences when dealing with realities. Talent just isn’t enough, I’m afraid.

  • John Grabowski says:

    I first got into classical music around 1979-80. At that time I was hearing it was dying, that film music was where it was going, hence the popularity of Star Wars, Superman, Chariots of Fire, etc. Audiences were shrinking, orchestras were in need of cash, the future was all rock and roll. To stay alive gimmicks were needed: disco classics, classics on synthesizers, pop music classics, sexy female performers, chanting monks. Forty years later, classical music is still here. And those other fads that were going to “save” it have all gone.

    Funny about that.

    • Mike Schachter says:

      Totally agree. Haydn was very populat with the upper-middle class and the aristocracy in late 18th century London but that doesn’t mean that cooks and apprentices were whistling his symphonies (not easy to do I agree). When I go to chamber music or symphonies or opera or the Proms the venues are totally packed. So someone is still interested. As for Savall his attempts at pan-Mediterranean potpourri are very inclusive and universal and all sorts of other commendable sentiments but not sure who it appeals to. It all sounds a little self-indulgent.

  • John Grabowski says:

    > I think that back in the late 1960s Leonard
    > Bernstein opined that the symphony
    > orchestra as a performing body was
    > perhaps becoming obsolete.

    And yet here it still is, probably performing a fuller calendar than when Mr. Bernstein said that. Yet all the changes to classical music that were going to “save” it from “oblivion” have come and gone. A lesson no one wants to pay attention to.

  • Michael Byrne says:

    Charles Rosen said it best:
    “The death of classical music is perhaps its oldest continuing tradition.”

    • John Grabowski says:

      It is no use shutting our eyes to the fact that the sales for big musical works are depressingly small, and that, if it were not for these wretched theme songs and the mass production of musical rubbish generally, the recording companies would not be able to give us any big works at all. Our present civilization is based on successful commerce, and it is no use expecting a recording company to be more altruistic than an artificial silk company. I regard a civilization based on commerce as disastrous … I really cannot see why we should expect big commercial concerns to show an idealism which the average individual is incapable of showing himself or even of appreciating in others. I am afraid that I am writing as if I were disillusioned, but a bitter wisdom is not necessarily disillusionment. — Compton Mackenzie, Gramophone’s first editor, 1929.