Can classical music survive the private to public transition?

It is impossible to avoid Shostakovich's symphonies in the concert hall, on BBC Radio 3, and in the outpourings of the classical 'influencers'. But when did you last hear about Shostakovich's arguably equally great string quartets? Similarly we have overload of Mahler symphonies; but whatever happened to Beethoven's quartets? Coming to that why are the symphonies of Mozart and Haydn so neglected in the concert hall? And why is the greatest of them all, J.S. Bach, conveniently relegated to the authentic performance niche? 

Why do classical 'influencers' ape the worst kind of tabloid journalism? Why do BBC Radio 3 presenters stipulate how listeners should respond to a work? What prompted Proms audiences to start applauding between movements? Why do the new generation of wunderkind conductors rarely venture beyond the Sturm und Drang repertoire, and why do these wunderkind throw themselves around on the podium like rejects from Strictly Come Dancing

It is all explained by classical music's enforced transition from private experience to public spectacle. A society-wide technology driven culture shift means the boundary between our public and private lives is becoming increasingly blurred. Everybody makes the most intimate details of their lives public on social media. Success is no longer measured by private satisfaction, but by public approval in the form of 'friends', 'likes', 'followers', 'retweets', etc etc. And following the dictates of groupthink, classical music is following the trend from private to public. But is that a good thing?

Every ridiculous gimmick has been tried to lure new audiences into the concert hall. But no effort has been expended on discovering why people actually go to a concert. The audience is not there for the disco lights, for the scanty dress of the soloist, to tweet during the performance, or for a collective rave between movements. As the Latvian composer Peteris Vasks has explained, "... people go to the concert hall because they are looking for answers". Just as an earlier generation used hallucinogens to briefly experience altered consciousness, so audiences keep returning to classical music to experience a similar consciousness fix. (Before dismissing the previous statement as psychobabble, please consider the research identifying an increase in secretion of the neurotransmitter dopamine when listening to music - dopamine is also an active agent in hallucinogens.) 

Great music is a tool of consciousness, and this distinguishes it from other forms of music which are tools of entertainment. But tweaking consciousness is an intensely personal and private experience, whereas entertainment is a shared and public spectacle. By enforcing the transition from private to public experience in the pursuit of bigger audiences, classical music is destroying its very raison d'être. Translating the conundrum into the vacuous language of marketeers, classical music's USP (unique selling point) is its feel good factor. But by repositioning classical music as a mass market experience, its vital USP is destroyed.

Much space on this blog and elsewhere has been devoted to the perils of dumbing down classical music. But dumbing down is just the most visible manifestation of the transition from private to public experience.  This transition is an inevitable consequence of classical music's 'bigger is better' strategy, which in turn is an inevitable consequence of the aspirations at the top of the classical food chain. I don't know if classical music can survive the transition from private to public experience. But I do know that, as a totally unrepresentative sample of one, I very rarely go to concerts these days, and I have never bought a Gustavo Dudamel or Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla CD. But I do spend a lot of time listening to chamber music at home. 


Andy Rubio said…
I feel your pain. Some R3 folk are bringing the station down. Elizabeth Alker, Tom Service and Sarah Walker among the worst offenders. They seem to be in a race to the bottom. Yuja Wang, great pianist but why the attention-seeking performance style?
Pliable said…
Andy, I share your views and find it very difficult to listen to BBC Radio 3 at all today. Just one example was the egregious pre-performance introduction by Kate Molleson to Sir Donald Runnicle's recent outstanding performance of Mahler's Ninth Symphony with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra.

But the destructive public versus private tension is found throughout classical music, not just at Radio 3. At present the strategy of the whole classical industry is to transition to a public spectacle. It is sad, but not surprising, that Radio 3 is pursuing that strategy.

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