In 1977, when NASA was pondering what music to include on the “golden record” aboard the Voyager spacecrafts intended for intelligent extraterrestrial life who may find them, astronomer Carl Sagan quipped, “I would vote for Bach, but that would just be showing off…”
Bach’s music has endured 300 years and two world wars, yet, pop culture critics believe the music of Bach and other great composers of the past is now dead. They cite declining sales and the recent bankruptcy of The New York City Opera as markers of the irrelevance of “classical” music today.
Perhaps classical music is taking a beating in the United States. Cuts in arts funding, absence of musical education in schools, reduced attention span of listeners, proliferation of competition for the entertainment dollar, and the treatment of “classical” music as elitist, conformist, and boring in the media, are contributing to the waning popularity of classical music. However, with the internet, music that was once limited to a select society is now available to an unimaginably large audience all over the world.
In terms of numbers, classical music is enjoying an unprecedented period of popularity. In fact, there has never been a better time to get into classical music. The 2014 BBC Proms Classical Concerts saw record attendance, 375 tickets sold every minute of the first hour of sales! Furthermore, the growing classical community in developing countries, particularly in Asia, and its application in development are creating a new generation of classical aficionados outside the Western realm.
Until the late twentieth century, classical music was composed, played, and listened to primarily by an elite slice of society in Western countries — and the perception that classical music is inherently elitist exists even today. “The idea that classical music is the province of some white-wigged old farts shows a failure of imagination and rank snobbery!” British actor Stephen Fry argued at a Cambridge Union debate in 2011. Unfortunately, classical music comes across as "posh" because people automatically associate the formality and etiquette traditionally surrounding it as esoteric and pretentious. Popular Hollywood films such as School of Rock and Rock and Roll demonize classical music as conforming to an archaic and boring norm. Classical music is unpopular in the West today, not because Beethoven cannot pull in crowds like Lady Gaga, but because people associate the music with the elite and refuse to interact with it.
The 1988 film Running on Empty has a great scene where a music teacher plays a Madonna number and a Beethoven piece and asks the class, “What’s the difference?” A young River Phoenix responds, “Ya can’t dance to Beethoven.” Large portions of modern music today are dance tunes — music that is portable — for running, to liven up a Saturday night party, or even as background for writing an op-ed piece. Classical music, even the modern material, does not lend itself to that world. It requires the listener to sit and actively engage and allow the music to take you on a journey — not exactly "fun" in the modern internet age.
There is a conscious attempt by the classical music community to alter this perception. To pull in crowds, symphony houses are giving free or heavily discounted tickets to students, and orchestras are opening their doors to pianists like James Rhodes who plays in sneakers and jeans and looks more like a Deadhead. Programmers are trying to make classical music approachable and fun by injecting humor and eschewing the formality out of performances.
However, there is a more transcendental aspect to classical music than just fun. In the Second World War, the British took the opening bars of Beethoven’s monumental Fifth Symphony: “daa, daa, daa, daa”, the Morse code for “V for Victory” and made it into a war cry on the wireless. In doing so, they took something quintessentially German, Beethoven, and appropriated him for larger purpose: a symbol of the resistance and a united voice against the Nazis.
“[Classical] music has to be recognized as an agent of social development, in the highest sense because it transmits the highest values – solidarity, harmony, and mutual compassion. And it has the ability to unite an entire community, and express sublime feelings,” says Jose Abreu, the founder of El Sistema in Venezuela. El Sistema provides free classical music education to over 250,000 young musicians, mostly orphans, across Venezuela. Its most famous achievement was the formation of the renowned Simon Bolivar Orchestra. For many of the children in the program, being a part of the orchestra goes beyond music. Here, they find a new home. The Applied Journal of Applied Psychoanalytic Studies found that participation in El Sistema “…promotes human opportunity and development for impoverished children improving concentration, attendance, and behavior in schools.”
Copycat schemes in India, China, Portugal, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom have seen similar success. The In Harmony scheme in the United Kingdom, in particular, has managed to introduce classical music to a new audience: the British youth. The growing popularity of the radio channel, Classic.FM, is testament of the success of the program. The informal approach of the channel has done much to allay the stigma of elitism associated with classical music.
The growth in classical musical education in developing countries, especially in Asia, ensures that while classical music might be culturally losing ground in the much of the West, it will be around for the time being, albeit elsewhere. Probably today, some teenager in the Indian subcontinent is discovering the wonders of Bach for the first time…