Hooked on classics

Sir Peter Maxwell Davies says classical music is on the brink of extinction. He is wrong - but it is suffering a creative crisis due to its reliance on established masterpieces of the past, says Robert Maycock
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The Independent Culture

Reports of the imminent death of classical music have been greatly exaggerated. Consider the events listings for any European capital, particularly in the old musical centres such as Prague and Vienna; the specialist radio stations; the thriving conservatoires from Manchester to Shanghai; the new centres springing up in places as unlikely as Gateshead or provincial Finland - these are hardly signs of terminal illness.

Reports of the imminent death of classical music have been greatly exaggerated. Consider the events listings for any European capital, particularly in the old musical centres such as Prague and Vienna; the specialist radio stations; the thriving conservatoires from Manchester to Shanghai; the new centres springing up in places as unlikely as Gateshead or provincial Finland - these are hardly signs of terminal illness.

Without having to adopt the position of Pangloss, most unbiased international observers must conclude that putting so much activity to rest would require a concerted effort of mass elimination. Yet Sir Peter Maxwell Davies is a wise old bird, vastly experienced in the nuts and bolts of composing, performing and educating, and in choosing last Sunday for his first major public speech as Master of the Queen's Music to suggest that classical music could easily become extinct, he is issuing a wake-up call. His follows other high-profile warnings such as that of Sir Simon Rattle on the need to invest in music education.

For if the art itself shows every sign of being not dead yet, there are a large number of very public examples that all is not well within its well-defended and often exclusive world, particularly in the countries that until recently were regarded as "the West". At the heart of the problem is a creative crisis. All of the other traditional art forms, from literature to painting to architecture, are centred on a ferment of new work, which surrounds itself with critical debate, intense public interest and frequent controversy.

Not so contemporary classical music. The great majority of audiences and performers get through life by paying attention mainly to the established masterpieces of the past.

There is a tendency among composers to castigate the public and the profession for its lack of adventure, but the causes are more profound. In some ways they began with Beethoven, or rather with his time, poised between Enlightenment liberation and Romantic individualism.

Beethoven became the original heroic figure of composition, pursuing his ideals at whatever cost they might bring in isolation or lack of understanding. He was a model impossible to resist. A gap opened up between the creative pioneers and ordinary mortals, a chasm that widened in the 20th century until new music began to resemble research rather than art.

The work even had to be funded in the same way as science. The period between 1960 and 1980 saw a big expansion in the grants available for commissioning music. There were two consequences. First, one premiere was often followed, not by a string of repeat performances, but by the next premiere. And second, the pieces did not have to pay their way, because the public purse would open again.

With a changed artistic and economic climate, the situation in the past 20 years has improved somewhat. Simplicity, and even melody, are no longer anathema to classical composers. Some have become successful in worldly terms, often by making links outside music. Philip Glass is a tireless pursuer of multimedia contexts for new work; Sir John Tavener is the very embodiment of an association with ritual and religion.

But there is a sense that it is almost too late. Even Sir Peter, prolific as he is, has to face the reality that only two of his works, lightweight ones at that, have become widely loved in the way of previous generations' music. The American composer John Adams, pressed to describe what it feels like to compose after Western classical music seems to have reached its ultimate limits, came up with "playing among the ruins".

The situation suggests that many participants have been wearing blinkers. In a globalising world, they have kept their focus within the confines of a secure tradition. By doing so they have helped a living art to turn into a heritage art.

If that goes for the creative front line, then the surrounding world of performers and managers have flocked to follow. Orchestras are among the most notorious offenders. Their repertoire is stable and new work rarely gets more than a toehold. Audiences are ageing.

In Britain, the least racially disharmonious nation in Europe, they usually look like whites-only zones. Even if you accept that the arts speak to the middle classes first, at least other forms are holding middle-class interest, whereas in music there are just too many competing attractions.

The remedy is often said to be more money, but whether public or private it may not be the cure for underlying ills. In the United States the legendary fund-raising culture just about keeps musical institutions going, but it is the same uphill struggle to widen the social spread of audiences.

In the countries of Western Europe that have given more lavish subsidies, such as Germany and France, the conditions for performers are more secure and rehearsal times are longer, but now that these subsidies are coming under pressure, the difficulties of adjustment are even harder to manage than in their less generously funded British counterparts.

One reason why money alone is not the answer is the labour-intensive nature of orchestras. If you need 100 people to play a Mahler symphony, then you can't cut numbers by more than token amounts. Rather, as salary levels rise, orchestras use up everything that goes into them.

In recent years, as arts management has become a profession in its own right, what they have spawned new levels of bureaucracy too. This season's concert programmes for the London Symphony Orchestra carry a list of 41 office staff, excluding the LSO's "Discovery" education programme, which employs another 23.

Yet there are notably successful orchestras, the LSO being one of them. What they have had had to do, as businesses under pressure in a shrinking market, was diversify. Several have seen a need to fill the gap in musical education provision, and put their energies into building up the expertise to meet the demand.

Media partnerships are another line. Some, including the LSO, the Hallé and most recently the London Philharmonic, have launched their own record labels. The LSO is now going into legitimate downloads of its recordings.

Several, including the Philharmonia, have developed links with Classic FM - the institution that is an example of classical music growing from scratch to success in a short time, having identified the scope for broadcasting music in a way that older media did not provide.

These are practical answers to an apparent situation of decline, enabling those who think them up to continue surviving at the very least, and at best to improve their position. Radical ideas have helped. Whatever the debate about in-school provision, there is no doubt that orchestras, as large employers of top-quality classical musicians, are well placed to lend a hand.

The education works both ways round. For two seasons now the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra has run a programme called "Harmony", trying to address the institutionalised racism of the classical world by working with artists ranging from the Bollywood composer A R Rahman, of Bombay Dreams fame, to the city-based group Black Voices. It has learnt to cross the divide that stops people accepting that if you want to change the audience, you also have to change the art.

Few of the CBSO's peers have acted on this truth yet, but another idea has started to gain ground, at least in theory: that an orchestra can be a larger pool of musicians, not necessarily all classical, who form various groupings for various purposes. A small step in this direction has been taken at Gateshead's new performing centre The Sage, home for both the Northern Sinfonia and Folkworks.

Individual musicians who go down the "crossover" route are also being practical. Whether or not purists approve of Vanessa-Mae playing to backing tracks or the London Sinfonietta playing with Radiohead is beside the point. They have seen a way of prospering and have indirectly helped to improve the classical economy. However, they haven't fundamentally changed anything. For that, the impetus has to be artistic.

At its most elemental, this simply involves what a business would see as opening up new markets. In many parts of east Asia, traditional classical music has become a growth area in its own right. It started in Japan, with a burgeoning of orchestras and a phenomenal record market, and it has continued as other countries develop, from Korea to China.

This advance shouldn't be confused with the cultural imperialism of 19th century; India, where in colonial times Western music made very little headway, has hardly begun to show the same level of interest, but in the long run musical progress is inevitable.

More creatively, many people see Asia as one of the sources for reviving the moribund Western composing tradition. When the Chinese conservatoires reopened after the Cultural Revolution, they produced a generation of composers who immediately left to seek their fortunes in America. But for the West the consequences have been fascinating, as émigrés such as Tan Dun and Bright Sheng have started to compose in Western forms while managing to sound profoundly Chinese. This is not yet a populist phenomenon, admittedly, although Tan's film score to the film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon points the way.

This kind of fusion is one source of revitalisation. So is the multi-media approach: music can be an equal partner in installations, theatre and film, not to mention opera, which doesn't have to be as high- budget as Covent Garden.

And the loosening up of the concept of an orchestra will bring a boom in small, high-quality groups that can play in smaller, more user-friendly and maybe more youthful surroundings. Many are already making waves, from string quartets to one-offs such as The Gogmagogs, who act dramas while they play. If the classical world thinks laterally and looks for a broader take on musical creativity, it is surely too soon for obituaries.

Orchestral manoeuvres

* BBC Radio 3 and Classic FM are the torchbearers for classical music in the UK, but represent only a tiny 1.4 and 4.4 per cent of audiences.

* In 2002, classical music accounted for £60m in sales, less than six per cent of total UK music sales. 2003 brought a slight rise to £65m, driven by compilations, soundtracks and the rise of glamorous musicians.

* Bond saw their first album sell 95,000 copies in 2001, while Vanessa Mae's first album The Violin Player sold 3.5m copies.

* Polish composer, Gorecki's Symphony of Sorrowful Songs sold more than 600,000 copies in 1992, making him the best-selling living classical composer. Rachmaninov's second piano concerto consistently tops the Classic FM poll.

* There are 55 orchestras in the UK, four of them in Scotland. The past 15 years have seen a boom in chamber orchestras and contemporary music groups.

* Box office takings at the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic have increased 44 per cent in three years, the Birmingham Symphony Orchestra is becoming increasingly popular with Asian audiences, while the London Philharmonic's audience has risen by three per cent in three years.

* The average musician's salary is just £25,200 a year. There are about 30,000 membership of the Musician's Union, a quarter of them teachers.

* Arts Council funding for the music sector is set at £412m a year until 2008.

* Music is designated a shortage subject in the training of secondary school teachers, but unlike other shortage subjects, there is no golden handshake for trainee music teachers.

* The blend of PR and classical music can be seen in the Operababes, Vanessa Mae and Born, fusing fashion and pop with classical instruments and melodies.

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