Classical Music Is Not Dead

Classical music audience members at Avery Fisher Hall. (Photo by Hiroyuki Ito/Getty Images)

Classical music audience members at Avery Fisher Hall. (Photo by Hiroyuki Ito/Getty Images)

The stale idea that classical music is dead has been repeated so many times that it’s not really worth being bothered by anymore. But an article published on Slate today argues the grim notion with such narrow-minded certainty that I can’t help taking issue with it.

In the piece, Mark Vanhoenacker goes in like a clinician conducting an autopsy. He cites several statistics to prove that American classical music is nothing more than a rotting carcass, such as the fact that public and commercial classical music stations are disappearing, concert attendance has fallen, concertgoers are increasingly senescent, music education in elementary schools has gone by the wayside, full-time music critics are being cut from many publications and only 2.8 percent of the albums sold in 2013 were classical albums, according to Nielsen.

“Only jazz, at 2.3 percent,” he writes, “is more incidental to the business of American music.”

But this is no small point. People have been proclaiming the death of jazz for years now—perhaps more so than classical music—and yet there are more jazz musicians than ever before, due primarily to a boom in jazz education at the university level beginning in the 1970s. Those who don’t follow jazz closely wouldn’t know that.

Perhaps there aren’t as many classical musicians; Mr. Vanhoenacker writes that only 2 percent of American adults said they had performed or practiced classical music in 2012.

Yet jazz and classical music have a lot in common, not only because they are genres with small audiences, but because they are often misrepresented by those who wish to write them off as moribund despite that they are doing pretty well—albeit on a small scale.

The music critic Ben Ratliff has pointed out that jazz—like classical music—is “a discipline that bears comparison to serious painting or poetry in that it is often accused of being dead yet continues to evolve and even find a modest audience.” 

“Modest” is the key word here. Classical music will probably never be as popular as it was in 1937 when, Mr. Vanhoenacker notes, “the median age at orchestra concerts in Los Angeles was 28.” Jazz will probably never be as popular as it was in 1945. Serious painting will appeal to that small class of serious people who like serious things. And poetry … well, poetry may never be very popular.

That doesn’t mean any of those art forms are dead.

The problem with the Slate piece—Slate pitch?—is that it is disingenuous. Being a musician today, as the music industry as a whole transitions through a rocky period and venues shutter right and left, is hard in general—no matter what style a musician chooses to play.

I don’t mean to misrepresent Mr. Vanhoenacker. He’s not out to get classical music, his article is well-researched and he’s even mildly optimistic at the end. “I cling to the forlorn hope that classical music has been down for so long,” he writes in the last paragraph, “it must somehow be due for a comeback.”

But there’s no reason for optimism. As long as there are instruments and people to play them, classical music will continue on its course.