I really should be more worried about this. It’s my living, after all. For 20 years I’ve been presenting a kind of music so wildly varied in time (seven centuries and more), in style (Morris dances, Joplin rags, Mahlerian stairways to heaven, Copland cowboy ballets), and in instrumentation (shawms and zithers along with the violins and cellos), that the term “classical” is as inadequate in describing it all as calling the United States of America, Dusty Gulch, Nevada, just to avoid the complexities. But we call the music Dusty Gulch anyway, and there’s trouble in Dusty Gulch. Always has been, to tell you the truth.
Problem is, very few people listen to it. Many classical radio stations are either jumping ship to more vibrant formats-mostly news/talk-or sticking with it out of loyalty, but with reduced expectations. Major orchestras are building up big debts because too few of their plush red seats are showing signs of wear.
Music, and especially serious music, is a transport to the heavens. Great musicians amaze us all with an art that is nearly uncanny. Yet what happens when a critical mass of people simply don’t care anymore? The music, in terms of the numbers of listeners who know it and are devoted to it, has been “dying” for decades. Yet a new wave of well-publicized teeth-gnashing and clothes-rending occurs whenever some new calamity or outrage-National Public Radio’s “gutting” of its classical music program, “Performance Today,” for example-seems to make life in Dusty Gulch, which was already pretty bad, more imperiled than before. Much like passenger train travel in this country, there’s a strong sense that classical music should be there, that it should be a central part of the culture, even though almost no one uses it.
This all brings up an interesting question about change and loss, about the relationship between progress and decadence. If classical music becomes even more of an endangered exotic curiosity than it is now, is it a tragic loss or an evolutionary casualty? Is it any more tragic than the rise of writing and the corresponding withering of oral traditions and well-developed memories? The art of illuminated manuscripts fell victim to Herr Gutenberg. Not many of us mourn the layers of dust accumulating on classics by Milton and Cervantes. If classical music performance were to completely die away, would we be poorer for it? Certainly. But I’m also poorer for not being able to recite 10,000 lines of iambic pentameter on demand, and I don’t actively suffer for it. Does one necessarily need music-serious or silly-to live a rich life of inquiry and poetry and curiosity and art and analytical facility and great love?
The novelist Vladimir Nabokov, for instance, wrote fiction of frightening complexity in two languages, was a serious lepidopterist, translated Pushkin, was a memorable teacher of literature, came from a musical family, enjoyed an unusually happy marriage with his beautiful wife, Vera, regarded music as “an arbitrary series of essentially annoying sounds,” and had no use for it at all.
It’s a tricky thing, preserving a cultural artifact. It requires maintenance that the natural enthusiasms of the culture don’t give it. Classical music resembles a coconut palm in a Pullman greenhouse. Heroic efforts will always keep it alive and as glorious as it would be in a Brazilian jungle-or late 18th-century Vienna. But the world outside the glass is cold and indifferent. In other words, the music is never going to occupy a central place in our culture again, if it ever did. Our culture is too democratized; it offers too many choices. No one voice has the authority to dictate taste and make anybody listen.
We are losing something as this music moves further to the margin. But we’ve suffered 10 thousand other irretrievable and-at the time-tragic cultural losses, from which we tend to recover and over which we cease to grieve. No collective teeth-gnashing over Dante’s disappearance from the best-seller lists. Yet Dante isn’t dead, only wandering the underworld, available for anyone to discover.
In the same way, the music and its performance will never die. And with recordings preserving music as an artifact, the same will be true of Beethoven’s late string quartets and Charles Ives’s symphonies. They won’t-and don’t-occupy a prominent place in our culture, and jobs (like mine) connected with classical music may go the way of the blacksmith. But the music will be there, in some form, and ultimately it’s up to the implacable forces and whimsical tastes of each of us whether to take it or leave it.