The finest classical music critic in the country writes for the Washington Post. Her virtues are enormous but her work inadvertently shows why classical music has lost so much ground in public consciousness around the world.
I am not writing this to be unkind to Anne Midgette. I admire her work tremendously but she has the same blind spot as nearly everyone who has made a career of studying classical music in the last hundred years or so.
There’s no doubting her affection for classical music. She knows so much and writes with such apparent ease I am jealous. Her pieces are crisp, lively and knowledgeable. She even has a charitable spirit. When she’s not impressed with a certain artist or a certain concert her attitude is that of tough love. She doesn’t get nasty just for the sake of nastiness.
That’s a long list of virtues. Nonetheless; she is part of the problem.
When someone as thoughtful and educated as Anne Midgette clings to a false assumption it illustrates just how pervasive classical music’s self-deception has become.
Though they mostly deny it, the classical music elite have worked to isolate their music from society for more than a hundred years. They imagine they are emulating Beethoven but in fact they are emulating the dodo.
Fortunately, there are signs of recantation, at least in the case of Ms. Midgette. She’s on the verge of embracing YouTube Legacy Lesson #10, “What is said about a concert before and after it takes place is more important than the concert itself.”
This is heresy for the faithful elite indoctrinated with the myth that performance is everything. Any suggestions to the contrary violate a basic tenant of the critic’s profession.
No, that’s not just another one of those cheap shots at critics. You’ve heard the jokes: “Those who can do, those who can’t write reviews that shoot the wounded on the field of battle,” etc. etc.
Anne Midgette and the top echelon of her colleagues don’t deserve that. For the most part they are genuine fans of music who have been lead astray. What’s passed for musical thought for the last hundred years or so rejects the whole idea of music as a social phenomenon. To her credit, Ms. Anne Midgette is trying to come to grips with all the damage this has caused.
Here’s a piece of the most recent evidence, posted on her blog last June 10:
It’s well worth reading in its entirety. You’ll sense, I am sure, that she’s uncomfortable with classical music’s status quo but she’s even edgier about what it might take to make things right.
The critic’s lot is not a happy one.
Here’s her key line, which you can find in the fourth paragraph:
“I wonder if to some extent it’s a question of marketing — which plays a bigger role in all of this than music purists might wish.”
Good for you Anne! You’ve taken the first step toward recovery.
Despite what they tell you, today’s “music purists” have no idea what the word “quality” means. They don’t even know what music is supposed to do.
Until modern times classical music was intended to influence the right side of our brains where feelings and emotions dwell. During the twentieth century the self styled “purists” tried to change it to an intellectual exercise for the left brain. Twelve tone, minimalist and atonal composers were celebrated by those who should have known better for providing a clever but sterile and cerebral approach to music.
Any composers who clung to the idea of writing an appealing melody or otherwise trying to entertain the crowd were shunned as old fashioned sellouts.
A handful of people in the audience may actually have been pleased by this compositional gamesmanship but most people yawned their indifference or simply left the concert halls. No one took their place.
Despite what the music “purists” might try to convince you, music’s quality can quite reasonably be measured by the social phenomenon which it creates. Modern classical music’s phenomenon is best summarized as lack of interest. By contrast, Mozart and Rossini and Verdi and Liszt and Wagner and many other serious composers were phenomenal celebrities in their day because they wrote for the emotions not the intellect. That’s what music does.
Any pretence to the contrary is simply that: pretence.
And pretence fares poorly in the market place.
Yes, Anne, “to some extent it’s a question of marketing;” but only to some extent. And no, marketing doesn’t just mean publicity. It means realistically assessing the strengths and weaknesses of a product’s appeal, making changes where you can, and endeavoring to attract a public which might benefit.
You’re right Anne, classical music might need to undertake “marketing — which plays a bigger role in all of this than music purists might wish.” You’ve taken the first step down the road to recovery. I know this is uncomfortable for you but it reinforces my confidence that you’re the best. I am proud of you.
Now you’re ready for the next lesson: Good marketing will only make bad music fail faster but if you provide audiences with a music that makes an emotional connection it will flourish.
The musical “purists” you fret about are better described as puritans. They seek few joys themselves and live with the gnawing fear someone somewhere might be enjoying a pleasant tune.