Who Cares About Classical Music, Part 3

In yesterday's New York Times, Edward Rothstein took up the question, "Who Cares About Classical Music?" in a review of Lawrence Kramer's recently published book, Why Classical Music Still Matters.

Rothstein rightly notes the desperation in Kramer's title, commenting, "it is the kind of title that would not have been used a generation ago...What has changed is not how much the tradition means to its devotees, but how little it means to everyone else."

Kramer's argument, which Rothstein criticizes and then implicitly accepts, is that classical music describes a unique kind of complex subjectivity, similar in scope and significance to that represented in the great 19th-century novels.

Rothstein summarizes: "Music of this period [1785-1915] is shaped in the form of a narrative." In these musical narratives, "bourgeois audiences could hear something of their own lives enacted in symphonic splendor -- the dramas of desirous, independent citizens, yearning, struggling, loving, brooding, recognizing, regretting, learning -- ultimately bound into a single society by the more abstract society of intertwined sounds...."

This is wonderful prose, nicely capturing the grandeur and sweep of the narratives it refers to. It makes me want to reread Jane Eyre or listen to Beethoven's Seventh.

But I can't get past the elegiac tone of this argument and the clear but questionable implication that the decline of classical music's fortunes signals a more general societal decline. (It's worth noting that the great 19th-century novels, like symphonies, aren't revered like they used to be -- at least not in their written form: as vehicles for elegantly appointed films, they're still unbeatable.) If the symphony is in decline, and love of great literature is in decline, too, then clearly something important has changed in our culture. But what? And what does it mean?

For some reason, neither Rothstein nor Kramer draws what seems like the obvious inference from their association of classical music and the grand narratives of 19th-century novels. Both get sidetracked lamenting the loss of this great tradition, and Kramer in particular devotes his book to explaining why we shouldn't let it happen.

But maybe the very thing these authors consider most valuable about classical music explains the decline in its popularity. Perhaps Rothstein and Kramer have the answer right, but they can't quite focus on it because the answer makes them unhappy. They love the tradition too much. That is, they identify with this kind of narrative and hate to see it in decline.

However, it's obvious that classical music is not important to most people. Why not?

The obvious implication is that classical music, like 19th-century narrative, is not popular because its form of narrative has become antiquated. The great tradition of classical music is not "timeless" but entirely temporal, just like every other human creation -- and this is especially so of "subjectivity," the story that we tell to define what it means to be a "person." ("Timeless" is the term we use to describe creations that, seen historically, are slightly less transient than we are. The ancient Egyptians thought their gods were "timeless," too.) People still yearn, struggle, love, brood, etc., and seek stories in which to express and understand these feelings. (The end of the symphony is not the end of music.) But the grand narratives of Beethoven or Melville seem alien to most people. This is not the form in which they understand their lives.

This change probably has something to do with education in the broadest sense (the ways our culture teaches us how to be a person). But to blame it on the lack of arts education in the schools is highly simplistic. Although we no longer teach music appreciation, we still teach English in schools. Nevertheless, relatively few people read Dickens or Brontë or Tolstoy or for that matter Hemingway, Ralph Ellison, or Virginia Woolf seeking relevant answers to life's problems. (Shall we start another thread entitled, "Who Cares About Virginia Woolf?") The symphonic music and great literature of the 19th and early 20th centuries are no longer popular because they emanated from and resonate with a certain kind of subjectivity, and this kind of subjectivity is no longer widespread. We could teach people to "appreciate" this conception of the self. But we cannot make it current again.

I genuinely agree that this is too bad. I love this music and these novels. But I don't understand why it should seem controversial or shocking to acknowledge that they are no longer paradigmatic. Today, 19th-century representations of subjectivity are just not compelling to most people, but serve as entertainment, background music, or the superficial emblems of "cultured" style.

Perhaps it is the scholar's job to lament the end of this episode in the history of subjectivity, to argue that the passing forms still matter, and to propose elaborate ways to convince the culture to care for what it is discarding. I spend enough time myself in this futile, though personally rewarding, pursuit.

But why would we assume that "subjectivity" and its representations cannot change without declining? Shifts in the texture of subjectivity are responsible for the demise of old art forms just as they are responsible for the creation of new ones. Isn't it worth our while to look for (and listen for) the emerging forms that tell the story of contemporary subjectivity? What living form, barely acknowledged by scholars of today, will scholars 100 years from now lament the loss of?

What is our "classical" music?