Originally published on May 9, 2011

Has Classical Music Become Counter Cultural?

All Alone

I started the 2010-2011 school year presenting the argument that 21st century Americans live in a world dominated by popular culture. I maintained that virtually everything we embrace culturally is something which is produced by some kind of business and which is valued only after mass-production and mass-purchase. The profit motive seems to define us as a nation.

This argument spans across all aspects of American culture including food (MacDonalds, Pizza Hut), clothing (Nike, Abercrombie & Fitch, any sports-related apparel), movies, music, DVDs, CDs, MP3s, MP3 players, computers, television, literature and even cell phones. So much of who we are today is defined by the things we purchase. Sometimes out of necessity, sometimes out of convenience, but sometimes to achieve social connection and enhanced self-image. The social connection aspect is one many of my students are very aware of. Wearing a garment with a name brand or identifying with a particular pop song can be a kind of personal statement, a way to expresses oneself, a way to be part of a group.

Accepting the notion that everything evolves–but not always for the best–interest in classical music seems to be losing more and more ground in the face of ever increasing and profitable popular styles. For most of my students, the choices in popular music are so overwhelming that classical music inevitably rates low. It seems the only place they ever experience the classical style is in my very own classroom; that today’s kids are growing up in families who merely reflect the greater cultural tendency to lose sight of or just ignore art music of the past.

For the world of classical music, this is a particularly threatening situation which was not something I experienced while growing up.

As a child of the 1950’s, I experienced the classical masters from an early age. When 4 or 5 years old, my parents came home one day with a pile of used 78 rpm records which included works by Brahms, Mozart, Beethoven, Khachaturian and Shostakovich. They put the 78’s and an old record player in front of me in my bedroom and I played each and every disk.

My parents had no formal musical background. Neither graduated high school and both struggled to raise five kids in a tiny house outside of New York City. But they had the good sense to nurture my interest in the sound of the orchestra.

This would have been around 1955 when rock was first emerging as a new form of popular music and when television was making its way into every household in America. Jazz was waning, rock was growing and there were ample opportunities for classical musicians to perform on television’s 3 networks. The Philadelphia Orchestra (which filed for chapter 11 bankruptcy in April of 2011) and the NBC Symphony Orchestra under Arturo Toscanini were among major symphonies to regularly perform on early TV. The Voice of Firestone Orchestra, conducted by Harold Barlow, accompanied major opera stars in live performances.

The pinnacle of symphonic performance on early television would have to be the Young People’s Concerts led by Leonard Bernstein, which appeared from 1958-1973. Starting in Carnegie Hall and later moving to Lincoln Center, Bernstein had a profound impact on me as a child and as an adult. Here was a world-class artist who brought a world-class symphony orchestra to the stage in front of several thousand children and adults, and then several million-television viewers for a class in music. Sometimes theory, sometimes appreciation, but always engaging, Bernstein’s genius was his ability to bring sophisticated musical concepts to the masses in an entertaining and informative way. When the series began in 1958, rock was well established as the new pop standard. But to many, it was still viewed as counter-cultural, anti-educational and anti-establishment, while classical music still enjoyed a wide audience. In his 1964 episode What is Sonata Form? Bernstein brilliantly used the Beatles song And I Love Her to both connect with his young audience and drive home a great lesson on musical form. But he also contributed to legitimizing rock by bringing it to Lincoln Center, the high altar of classical performance, in front of millions of television viewers on a major network. When the series ended in 1973, the Vietnam War was over and the Beatles had come and gone. The numerous anti-establishment, anti-war songs of the sixties and early seventies further legitimized rock and roll as its as creators and listeners came of age. And as they came of age, personal preferences for rock remained unchanged.

I do not believe we will ever see anything quite like the Bernstein phenomenon again.

And I often wonder how many Baby Boomers with PhD’s can name ten great novels, ten great rock hits, but can’t name ten great works of classical music? (No, Beethoven’s Symphonies do not count as 1 through 9.)

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When I consider the role corporations play in shaping contemporary American culture, I often think about what it must have been like in late 19th century rural America. It seems to me that even with industrialization and the growth of manufacturing, a century ago rural culture was more community based then it is today; most things that were important were within reach and were produced near the home or within the family. One-third of Americans were farmers. Music, dance, food and dress did not necessarily have to be bought and could easily be made within the family, town, church and school. Folks lived and died in the same community, often in the same home. Communication and travel was much slower and, in general, everything took much longer than it does today. While corporations did have an impact on American culture, popular trends were fewer then what we see now and the consumer driven economy was nothing like it is today. By contrast, virtually everything we use today is mass-produced for quick consumption and disposal.

And such is the world of today’s pop, which dominates music around the world. In our fast-paced, consumer driven world of instant everything, we need to think carefully about the importance of classical music and make it a regular part of our listening experience. More importantly, we need to think about how we teach children to appreciate the classics so that they will grow up wanting to hear more; so that in turn their children will appreciate it as well. For many classical music may be too long, too complicated or too unfashionable to endure. But like a great novel, a great work of music takes time and focus in order to be fully understood. And as I have discovered in my own classroom, when children are taught well and are inspired about hearing the classics, they take the initiative to hear more.

Otherwise interest in classical music will continue to fade.