Is classical music dead? The National Endowment for the Arts reported in 2016 that in 2012, only 8.8% of Americans had attended a classical music performance in the previous 12 months, compared to 11.6% a decade earlier. If classical music is not dead, then this statistic is a sign that it is at least dying in the United States. It’s hard to know exactly why this is the case. But, before we examine it further, we should establish what classical music is.
What is classical music?
Classical music, called “Western art music” by academics, is the tradition of music rooted in Western culture, with advanced structural and theoretical concerns, and which is almost always notated. Of course, this is a vague distinction, and the border between “classical” and “popular” music is often blurred (consider Mozart’s divertimenti in the Classical period, or Kurt Weill’s score for The Threepenny Opera in the modern era). “Classical music” also refers to a particular period, and associated style, in Western art music, from about 1730 to 1820.
Is classical music still being made?
Yes! Classical music (symphonies, chamber music, opera, etc.) is still being written in and out of universities internationally. There is a belief that all classical music sounds like Mozart or Beethoven, but this is not the case. Though less known among the general public, modern classical music developed in radical directions with composers like Karlheinz Stockhausen, who composed electronic music, and a string quartet, to be performed with each composer in a separate helicopter, among other things, and Philip Glass, whose scores can be heard in many major motion pictures including Koyaanisqatsi and The Hours.
A Brief History of Classical Music
Western art music begins in the Medieval era, with the notation of Gregorian chant. Gregorian chant, also called plainsong, is monophonic, meaning it contains only a single melodic line. Polyphony, the use of multiple melodic lines, developed by composers of organa (Leonin, Perotin) and Latin masses (Machaut). Classical music during this era was almost solely vocal, with instruments only providing support for vocal lines. It was always religious.
The Renaissance saw the blossoming of polyphony in France (Johannes Ockeghem, Guillaume Dufay), Italy (Josquin des Prez, Giovanni Pierluigi de Palestrina), and Britain (Thomas Tallis, William Byrd). Rather than use a modal system as had been previously standard, composers moved towards the contemporary tonal system with major and minor keys (Naxos). The first great opera was birthed in this period, L’Orfeo by Claudio Monteverdi.
The Baroque period, the most famous composers of which are J.S. Bach, Georg Frideric Handel, Antonio Vivaldi and Domenico Scarlatti, was the beginning of classical music as we know it. The violin, the modern orchestra, concertos, sonatas and the harpsichord were invented during this period. The music was quite literally “baroque,” often extremely complex and academic. However, baroque music could also be lighter and entertaining, as in Handel’s Water Music.
The Classical period is the period of Joseph Haydn and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. It held melody, clarity, and balance as its main values. Art music became less complex, favoring homophony with chordal accompaniment. The orchestra was expanded and classical music became more spectacular. The period also birthed Beethoven, who is often considered to be the first composer of the Romantic era, and the greatest composer in the Western tradition.
The Romantic era held expressivity as its highest value. It begins with Beethoven and Schubert in the 1820’s and ends with (in my opinion) the death of Richard Strauss in 1949 and the performance of his Four Last Songs in 1950, having a significant overlap with the modern period. (Classical music trends in the 20th century are so variegated that it is hard to give the period a descriptive name, rather music from it is usually just referred to as “20th-century classical music”). Nationalism was a powerful artistic force, and the virtuoso was granted an elevated status.
The Early Romantic era (1820-1860) is dominated by Berlioz, Chopin, Mendelssohn, Schumann and Liszt (Naxos). The Late Romantic era is dominated by Johannes Brahms, Giuseppe Verdi (Italian opera composer), Richard Wagner (German opera composer), Claude Debussy and two symphonic giants: Anton Bruckner and Gustav Mahler. The romantic tradition (tonality, expressivity, chromaticism) was continued in the 20th century by Jean Sibelius and Richard Strauss, despite modernist provocations.
The modern period of classical music begins with the 9th Symphony of Gustav Mahler, Igor Stravinsky’s ballet The Rite of Spring, and Arnold Schoenberg’s early atonal works. Atonal music, especially in its extreme, systemized form, called serialism, dominated the modern period. Atonal music is keyless and does not conform to Western harmony. Serialist music is based on the repetition of a certain random series of the twelve tones in the traditional tonal system. It is easier to understand by ear; listen to Arnold Schoenberg’s Piano Concerto for a notable example.
Later in the modern period, electronic music was pioneered by the German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen. Serialism was taken to an extreme by the Frenchman Pierre Boulez. Iannis Xenakis, a Greek composer, made perhaps the most incredible music of the period. His music was inspired by his work as an architect, featuring extremely large string orchestrations which pushed the boundaries of sound. Some scholars consider classical music to still be in its modern period, and that tradition persists, but most significant classical music today is apart of a new movement, Postmodern music.
Postmodern music, by its definition, is hard to define. The music author Daniel Albright identified three common elements of postmodern music; Polystylism, Randomness, and Bricolage (the use of nonmusical objects in music). John Cage, a composer who utilized the prepared piano (a piano with its strings modified by the use of inserted objects) and random-chance procedures to generate his music, is considered the father of postmodern music. Charles Ives, an American composer of the 20th century who interpreted popular music and was one of the first composers to write with semitones (the tones in between the traditional 12) and polytonality (the use of two musical keys simultaneously) is considered a predecessor.
Tonal music has also had a resurgence in the postmodern age. Philip Glass and other minimalists, as they are called, created a style of composition based on the repetition with variation of short, highly tonal phrases.
Classical music in the modern era is perhaps more diverse than it has ever been. The number of composers and artistic movements is innumerable.
For more information on the history of classical music, see the articles “History of Classical Music” on Naxos and “Summary of Western Classical Music History” from Columbia University.
So why is classical music dying among the general public?
Again, it is hard to say. One argument has to do with concert performances. Before the recording era, concert performances were at the heart of classical music culture. Today, they are often incredibly expensive and overly formal. This has doubtlessly pushed away many would-be fans of classical music.
Classical music education, and arts education in general, is narrowing in public schools. Also, as reported by USA Today, classical music is no longer a part of popular culture in any significant way, as it once was in the 1950’s and 60’s, when the classical music recording industry was more successful than any other.
I hope that there can be a resurgence of classical music love among the general public. It was not too long ago that one could hear men humming Beethoven’s Fifth.
Appendix: Introductory musical recommendations
The organa of Léonin and Pérotin
Ordo Virtutum (Bingen, morality play)
Messe de Nostre Dame (Machaut, vocal mass)
Missa Pange lingua (des Prez, vocal mass)
Missa Papae Marcelli (Palestrina, vocal mass)
Spem in alium (Tallis, motet)
L’Orfeo (Monteverdi, opera)
Dido and Aeneas (Purcell, opera)
Messiah (Handel, oratorio)
Brandenburg Concertos (Bach, orchestral)
Mass in B minor (Bach, orchestral mass)
The Creation (Haydn, oratorio)
The Seasons (Haydn, oratorio)
Piano Sonata No. 14 (Mozart)
Cosi fan tutte (Mozart, opera)
Symphony No. 41, “Jupiter” (Mozart)
Symphony No. 3, “Eroica” (Beethoven)
Symphony No. 9, “Choral” (Beethoven)
String Quartet No. 14 (Beethoven)
Les Troyens (Berlioz)
Symphony No. 4 (Brahms)
Ein deutsches requiem (Brahms, orchestral mass)
Otello (Verdi, opera)
Tristan und Isolde (Richard Wagner, opera)
Parsifal (Richard Wagner, opera)
Symphony No. 8 (Bruckner)
Symphony No. 9 (Mahler)
Pelleas et Melisande (Debussy, opera)
Symphony No. 7 (Sibelius)
Vier letzte lieder (Strauss, art songs)
Symphony No. 4 (Ives)
Le Sacre du Printemps (Stravinsky, ballet)
Lulu (Berg, opera)
Symphony: Mathis der Maler (Hindemith)
Quatuor pour la fin du temps (Messiaen, chamber music)
Piano Concerto (Schoenberg)
Déserts (Varèse, orchestral/electronic)
Metastaseis (Xenakis, orchestral)
Gesang der Jünglinge (Stockhausen, electronic)
Pli selon pli (Boulez, orchestral)
Sonatas and Interludes (Cage, prepared piano)
Music of Changes (Cage, piano)
Sinfonia (Berio, orchestral)
Einstein on the Beach (Glass, opera)
Rothko Chapel (Feldman, orchestral)
For Philip Guston (Feldman, chamber music)
Plexure (John Oswald, electronic)
Powder Her Face (Adès, opera)
String Quartet No. 6 (Ferneyhough)