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Is Classical Music Dead?


Is Classical Music Dead?

by Kenneth Lyen

This question has been asked repeatedly over the past few decades. Writers have declared that classical music was effectively killed off when atonal music displaced tonal music’s domination. Audiences fled from discordant classical music in droves. Young people listened instead to the popular music of their day. They listened to jazz, country and western, bebop, rock and roll, rhythm and blues, punk, alternative, techno, hip hop, rap, etc.

Classical music did not entirely die out, and relied on its survival by a small but loyal group of supporters. These are the same group of people who attend concerts, listen to classical radio stations, and buy the CDs. The repertoire has been more or less frozen since the early half of the 20th century, with virtually no new works joining the catalog.

Why did classical music fail to evolve and rejuvenate itself? What will be the next Big Idea in classical music? These questions were raised in the Aspen Music Festival held in Colorado on 7 August. Answers may not be forthcoming for a while yet.

However, there is a glimmer of hope on the horizon. The Denver Post on 22 August wrote: "In many ways, classical music can be compared to baseball. The audiences for both are static and perhaps even decreasing in the United States, yet in other places, especially Asia, interest in these pursuits is spreading like Starbucks franchises."

One of the fastest growing audiences for classical music is in China. Indeed China’s newfound eagerness gives it the greatest opportunity for widening its appeal. But even earlier, Japan and Korea had already preceded China in their almost fanatical appreciation of classical music. Thus Asia may be the scene for a phenomenal revival of this music genre.

As for me, I have never believed that classical music ever died or was in danger of dying. It survives. It’s all over the place. You hear it everyday. But you may not even realise it. Most of you have been looking in the wrong place. You hear classical music whenever you watch a film. Music carpets most films. Film music is largely made up of music in the classical idiom. Until we recognise it as such, we will miss out on this very large and ever-expanding volume of classical music.

I think we should incorporate all great film music and their composers into the fold of classical music. Names such as Wolfgang Korngold, Franz Waxman, Max Steiner, Bernard Herrmann, Jerry Goldsmith, Elmer Bernstein, Ennio Morricone, John Barry, John Williams, Rachel Portman, James Horner, Danny Elfman, and many others. They deserve to be recognised.