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What's happening in music? Is orchestral music to be forgotten forever in the face of such challenges as ... Britney Spears? I think not, and it would appear that I'm (for once?) not alone in my opinion.

The (U.K.) Guardian ran an article entitled Classical music could become the new rock n roll just recently. Someone pointed it out to me, and I thought about what was said there, some of which got me thinking...

Puccini was indeed the last of succession of composers of wonderful Italian opera, but I am not sure that this can be taken as evidence that something funny happened in the twentieth century. There are periods in music that carry particular themes. Pop music in the last fifty years is no different from orchestral music in this; the only real question is how long a period will last.

Look at some other examples. The Romantic period also concluded in the twentieth century, with no one stepping in to carry on the tradition after Rachmaninoff. Others that came before him were Strauss, Mahler, Bruckner, Brahms, Tschaikovsky, Wagner, Liszt, Berlioz, Chopin, Schumann, Mendelssohn, Schubert, and Beethoven in his later years, ensuring the production of such music virtually uninterrupted for about 100 years.

Before that was what we now call the classical period, including Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven. Interestingly enough, it was during this period that concerts came to be held not just for the aristocratic benefactors of the composers, but for the public in general. I don't know this for sure, but I suspect that this has something to do with the fact that orchestral music is typically known as "classical" today. The period ran for something like seventy-five years or so.

The Baroque period ran longer, over 100 years, including Vivaldi, Handel, and J.S. Bach. Opera came into being in this time period. Music produced here almost always had a benefactor, typically the aristocracy.

Did anyone living in 1650 have any sense that he was fifty years into a period of music different from the Renaissance period that preceded it? I'm inclined to think that this kind of thing is only obvious when looking back with some historical perspective. There are lots of things happening in modern music, of course. One might be able to make a case that we've been living through the avant garde period that would include composers like Cage and Stockhausen. Or all of that might turn out to be an academic sideshow and what turns out to be the really lasting music from this period are movie themes like Williams' Star Wars. (I doubt it, but how can we possibly say right now?)

Whether a random citizen happens to know of John Cage doesn't seem to be to be a particularly good measurement of lasting popularity. I'm not sure that a random citizen would happen to recognize names like Verdi or Puccini, despite the tremendous popularity of their music. (I'll concede that it would probably require some work to find people who haven't ever heard of Bach, Mozart, or Beethoven, though I suspect a that relatively few would be able to tell much about them or match pieces of music to the correct composer.)

As for performers, there seems to be no shortage of gifted performers playing orchestral music in person. Even on compact discs, a lot of interesting things are happening, rearrangements of music for performers other than full orchestras. (Yo Yo Ma has a disc from a few years ago that has some tracks that fit this description particularly well: I have specifically in mind an arrangement of Rachmaninoff's "Vocalese" that featured Yo Yo Ma on cello and Bobby McFerrin singing a part where violins were made to sound like vocals in the original score.)

I would like to test the hypothesis that the relative success of pop music has a lot to do with economics as much as anything else. By putting most things into three-minute samples, there is a lot of flexibility that can be built into any creation of "content" (think: radio) such that people won't tune out for the greater part of an hour if something they don't like happens to come on. The music becomes pervasive because delivery mechanisms are easy, so people hear it, and tend to like what sounds like other things that they've heard. Additionally, orchestral music is expensive -- having an orchestra of nearly 100 skilled musicians playing something is simply going to cost way more than four people singing along with a Casio™ drum machine. The stuff can be produced without any certain return because the cost of writing it off is comparatively low.

That said, it's worth pointing out that orchestral music has never been the "music of the people" at any point in history. Even in the Classical period when concerts opened to the public, the music was still supported by the aristocracy. How does the availability of orchestral music compare today with other time periods? I suspect that it compares remarkably well. Even so, it's probably nowhere near as good as it could be if musicians would get over their fear of not being taken seriously if appreciated by the public, something that has been happening, as is pointed out in the article. I'm reminded specifically of the trend that emerged several years ago for rock bands (like Metallica) to start playing orchestral versions of their work. About five years ago, I heard a recording by a group called Apocalyptica, three cellists performing Metallica covers.

Maybe we're just winding down a fifty-plus-year period in music that would retrospectively be called "Electric" that will look like a blip on the radar caused by a sudden influx of technology and economic forces once we've got a few hundred years to look back on what the heck happened in the twentieth century. Or maybe it's just a few decades into a long-lasting period where every variety is available to everyone and we'll continue to see all of these small subsets of the world of music, each with unique history, influence each other even as they continue to be categorized, studied, created, and marketed (gasp!) separately.

Created by cmcurtin
Contributors : Lynn David Newton graciously provided helpful remarks on an early draft.
Last modified 2005-03-27 11:53 PM
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