Contrary to what we hear from many critics, classical music activity in the U.S. is certainly greater today, by any tangible measure, than it was 20 years ago.
– Douglas Dempster
Some people are lucky enough to live in the midst of a rich musical culture — Vienna, New York, New Orleans. I’m not one of those people. I was born in a small town in Arizona and raised in a small town in southern New Mexico. I still live in New Mexico — only 60 miles from where I grew up — and have spent my entire life in a literal and cultural desert.
If not for my hometown’s high school band (about 60 members in a good year), I would have known nothing about live music when I was growing up. I was dependent on radio, television, vinyl records, 8-track tapes, and the local library to teach me about music. From Jimi Hendrix to Leonard Bernstein, the recordings I heard at home and in my car taught me what great music sounded like.
In Listen to This, music critic Alex Ross has included a chapter titled “Infernal Machines: How Recordings Changed Music.” Ross addresses the issue of whether technology has destroyed classical music or helped it thrive. Ross points out that he discovered too much of his favorite music through LPs and CDs to lament technology’s impact on classical music.
I’m in the same camp. Like Ross, I can’t believe that recordings have destroyed classical music. What else could a desert dweller think? For me, technology created a sanctuary in a cultural backwater. I’ll concede that recordings may rob music of the spontaneity of a live performance. However, I will always be grateful for electricity and the technology it powered because that's how I learned about Beethoven and the Beatles.
Technology has provided an easy and relatively inexpensive way to access the greatest musicians in the world performing the most beautiful and enduring music ever created. I'm not one to complain that recordings have destroyed music.
For several years I taught a high school humanities class with music history as a central element of the curriculum. I learned from teaching the class that we should have no reason to wring our hands about the death of classical music. Almost every day I spent teaching high school students I was a witness to the truth of Benjamin Zander’s TED Talk proclamation that “everybody loves classical music, [some people] just haven't found out about it yet.” I was rarely discouraged about the future of classical music when I was explaining it to teenagers.
After learning a little about the language of music, my students generally liked the pieces they heard. Once my students understood both the content and historical context of the classical pieces I played for them, few left my class disliking what they heard. It shouldn’t be difficult to help young people appreciate the first movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony or the last movement of Berlioz’ Symphonie Fantastique — and it wasn’t.
Before we lament the perceived decline in the audience for classical music, we should remind ourselves to give the world's greatest music more credit for its power to endure. The music created by master composers such as Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven contains enough beauty and power to survive a long time. As a desert dweller, if I had not had the benefit of the recordings that make music ubiquitous, I may have never known about the great music that could turn a dusty, gritty small town in New Mexico into an oasis.
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For an explanation of why we should not bemoan the death of classical music I recommend an article by Douglas Dempster titled “Wither the Audience for Classical Music?” The article was published in 2000, and some of the data Dempster provides may be out of date. I suspect, however, that Dempster's central point is as true today as when he wrote the article.