Where Did Classical Music Go?

 (I figured if I had a picture of a nearly naked woman on the cover I would get somebody’s attention – Read On…)

While researching some statistics about the state of the Classical music industry to present some facts for this article, I stumbled upon the following quote. “Don’t get me wrong, I love instrumental music, especially soundtracks. But I’ve never really understood why people like classical music so much. It’s not really that enjoyable to listen to. Like, I understand that it’s extremely complex technically, but it honestly doesn’t sound that great. The Final Fantasy X Piano Collections Soundtrack is better than any classical music I’ve ever heard. And that’s from a video game!”   WTF?  Huh???

When we were designing Quirky Carousel Records department, we took into consideration all the love we had of good music and wanted to represent just about all genres of music, independent of just that which would “sell”.  Of course, you have to have the greatest concentration of music that people actually want to buy, but there is so much music out there and it is a worthwhile endeavor to help expose people to all of the music that make up this one common language of understanding that all humans share – MUSIC.  Yeah, yeah, Joe! But what is the deal with Classical Music?

There are a great many problems with the Classical music industry and I will not get into that in this piece. I just want to offer some clarity and a point of common reference for what we all can get out of this music. In the marketplace, the genre of music labeled “Classical” was only 2.8 percent of albums sold in this past year. By comparison, Rock was about 35 percent; R&B 18 percent; and Soundtracks was 4 percent. Only jazz, at 2.3 percent, is more incidental to the business of American music.  The 2.8 percent number is down from about 21 percent in the 1970s and was just under 15% in 2008.  What this really shows is that that the less your society listens to one type of music, the less enjoyed and understood it is by that society.

See, so even my friend who wrote the quote above is more spot-on the charts with their mention of Soundtracks as Classical – reduced to just being grouped into instrumental music from a lot of people’s experience.  By the way, the classical music for the soundtrack mentioned belonging to the Final Fantasy X game is from the first movement of Debussy’s ‘Sonata for Violin’ – surely something that would be considered “classical” music.  The problem is that it is a soundtrack and is purposely designed to accompany something and establish a mood, not to be listened to on its own. In the market, video games are getting higher budgets, and consequently are attracting better composers and performers.  Maybe they should mine more of the classical music repertoire as there is over 400 years of the great works by many of the most gifted geniuses that mankind has produced. They are not called masters or prodigies flippantly- these people knew what they were doing and were respected by appreciative audiences accordingly. Very, very few people can write good classical music.

That brings us to music that was the popular music of its day for almost 500 years- what we now call “Classical Music”.  Music is that one common language that is shared by all humans.  Every culture has its own unique musical signature.  Music tells a story about what is common to everyone and what is distinct to our own culture.  Over the past 500 years or so, Western societies flourished after the Renaissance and developed a complex notation and expression system for writing down music that became the cornerstone of what we consider Classical music and really, all annotated music.

What is known as the Classical Period of music occurred in the 18th Century (1700-1800) and culminated in the zenith of the perfection of the language we now use to describe and present music.  For the first half of that century, the conditions in Europe were a time of rules and regulations and of getting those rules and regulations to be as exactly right as possible. This is what makes classicism – this bringing of rules to a pitch of perfection. It was the movement that produced classical architecture, classical drama and classical music. As Leonard Bernstein, the great American composer once said, “That’s what classical music really means: music written in a time when perfect form and balance and proportion are what everybody is looking for – music which tries more than anything else to have a perfect shape – like a beautiful ancient Greek vase.

During the Classical Period, Bach is the most relevant of the composers from the first half of the 1700s and is the one who took all the rules that the composers who lived before him had been experimenting with, and fiddling with – and he made those rules as perfect as a human being can make them.  The second half of the century of this “Classical” period belonging to Mozart.  Now Mozart changed everything while still being true to the Classical Ideal.  Mozart considered Bach’s music as too old fashioned and boring with all these fugues, partitas and sonata forms used in his compositions. For Mozart the melody was key and the accompaniment had to support the melody while underneath supporting the perfection of form and movement.  But this underneath could not “sound” complex as that would interfere with the melody.

Compare this 100 year period to that of our own culture for the past 100 years.  Think of the birth of jazz and blues (‘20s-‘30s), crooner Pop music of the ‘40s-‘50s, leading to Rock and Roll, R&B, punk, metal, Hip Hop and so many other offshoots.  Except what we call Classical Music is really a 500 year history of music with many great periods – think of all the untapped music we could be listening to.

So what is the problem with Classical Music in America?

For me and my family, we never left the genre as we were raised in the standard music education tradition of the times.  I, and my son after me, grew up in a structured that included early classical training starting when we pretty much first learned to walk, performing in ensembles and as soloists and forays into other genres we had the tools to bring with us to that experience.

Part of what the problem is within our contemporary culture that fosters an outsider, elitist association with Classical Music.   The problem exists for many reasons including; 1) music education has virtually disappeared from our schools, 2) the atmosphere of a “standard” classical music performance is isolated, impersonal and out of reach for most families, 3) the performance takes place in an intellectual vacuum; the performer dressed in formal wear walks onto a distant stage, plays, then walks off, no interaction with the audience – the end and 4) the only people who show up are 60+ and, for all that our younger generation know, those in attendance could have been born into that period when the music was first written in the 1700s.

So what is being missed by this music not being more accessible?  Compositions of this type of music are long-form stories written to tell a story.  Composers are equally driven by their stories and have the ability to transform these stories into music. These are not necessarily stories that make sense in terms of a clear plot; sometimes they are just emotional journeys, but they tap into something universal to all humans: a fundamental desire to share, relate and identify with the stories of others. It is the reason we love watching movies and reading books or sharing YouTube videos about a dog and a duck who have become best friends. We see elements of our own humanity reflected in these encounters and it inspires us, saddens us or makes us laugh.

If we acknowledge that music is a language, isn’t its primary purpose is to communicate?  Beethoven said “of all mortals, composers are closest to God because they speak the same language“. I believe what he meant is its attribution as the language of a Higher Spirit or Calling and for that it is most relevant. If you imagine all the music you have heard in your life and you can come to the conclusion that that language knows no boundaries and is one of the few things that is a common denominator to all human beings, whatever culture, social class, religions or geographical region, they may derive from. Whatever genre of music is your favorite, just remember that there are so many genres that have so much to offer us in the richness of portraying the story of or human experience.

We welcome you into our shop to go beyond the bins of your “absolute, must-have music from this section” and experience something new.  After all, Good Music can still speak to everyone…

-Joe B. 

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