Commentary Magazine


The Concert Audience

To the Editor:

In “The Death of the Concert” [December 1998], Terry Teachout writes that we must have new music else the concert as we know it will die out. But is it truly “new music” that we need? The new composers may be more tonal (and, admittedly, more pleasing to the ear than before), and their works may please conductors and critics, but do they please the audience? Does the audience go away humming a new piece, wanting to recall it at some future time? A modern tonal piece cannot be hummed like a Brahms symphony. As with religion, making classical music “relevant” to the modern-day audience may sometimes do more harm than good.

I understand Mr. Teachout’s concerns about the dwindling (and aging) concert audience, but I fear that emphasizing new music may ultimately turn off the very people who, if he is right, will be needed to guarantee the survival of the live classical concert.

Doron Becker
Silver Spring, Maryland

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To the Editor:

I doubt if orchestras are going to increase their attendance by performing more modern music, as Terry Teachout suggests. Unfortunately, the general public gets very little pleasure out of any music written since 1950 and, indeed, gets most of its enjoyment from music written before World War I. The new works are constantly being performed, but they do not endure. The public’s attitude toward modern music contrasts vividly with its attitude toward the modern in the visual arts (Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, and Sigmar Polke) or dance (George Balanchine, Merce Cunningham, and William Forsythe) or even the theater (David Mamet, Tom Stoppard, and David Hare).

But perhaps Mr. Teachout is needlessly worried about orchestra attendance. Some fifteen years ago Lincoln Center surveyed its audiences and was alarmed at how they had aged so markedly since the 1950′s. Still, today’s box-office percentages remain about the same as they were when the audiences were younger.

Robert W. Wilson
New York City

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To the Editor:

Beethoven was arguably the most innovative composer who ever lived. Yet within a few years, his compositions, including his difficult late quartets and sonatas, came to be loved by a large segment of the public. Why has 20th-century music not achieved this degree of popularity? There is a reason Mr. Teachout does not explore: maybe Beethoven is simply better.

If more modern music is not scheduled, Mr. Teachout believes that the children of today’s concertgoers “will stay at home and listen to compact discs or whatever newer marvel is designed to replace them.” A personal experience of mine suggests the opposite. I lived and taught in China in 1984 and again in 1989. The first time, many people were afraid to listen to Western music, which had been considered counterrevolutionary in the days of Chairman Mao and was still suspect. The second time, in 1989, Beethoven, Chopin, and even Berlioz were extremely popular among my college students, who were in the process of discovering classical music. Dissonant music, on the other hand, was greeted with scorn and expressions of disbelief: That cannot be real music! It is so ugly!

George Jochnowitz
College of Staten Island-CUNY
Staten Island, New York

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Terry Teachout writes:

I wonder what George Jochnowitz means when he criticizes “dissonant music.” Surely he is not thinking of the music of Samuel Barber, Aaron Copland, Benjamin Britten, Francis Poulenc, Dmitri Shostakovich, Sir William Walton, and Ralph Vaughan Williams, all of whom wrote compositions after 1950—Robert W. Wilson’s annus horribilis—that are scarcely more “dissonant” than Tristan und Isolde. If, on the other hand, he has in mind such nontonal composers as Milton Babbitt, Elliott Carter, Karlheinz Stockhausen, and Pierre Boulez, then I am with him all the way—a point I thought I had made clear both in “The Death of the Concert” and in the other pieces about 20th-century music I have written for COMMENTARY in the past few years. Alas, I cannot be sure what Mr. Jochnowitz has in mind, for he fails to name any of the composers whose music so displeased his students. Did they really not like any music composed since World War I? Or are Mr. Jochnowitz and Mr. Wilson merely tilting at straw men of their own making?

I do not mean to be frivolous, for an important point is at issue here, and Mr. Wilson has put his finger on it: why should concertgoers be any more reluctant to listen to the music of Copland or Poulenc than museumgoers are reluctant to look at the paintings of Henri Matisse or Edward Hopper? Not to partake of the masterpieces of tonal modernism is willfully to cut oneself off from some of the most beautiful music ever written. This, I think, has been the main “achievement” of the musical avant-garde: it has alienated music-lovers from the true masterpieces of the 20th century through guilt by association.

I readily sympathize with Doron Becker and other readers who have questioned my enthusiastic response to the new tonalists. For most of my adult life I believed firmly—with good reason—that the great tradition of classical music had come to an end in the 60′s, and would not be revived. As recently as a half-dozen years ago, I still thought it impossible that a new generation of American classical composers would choose to buck the powerful avant-garde establishment and return to tonality (just as it never occurred to me that the Soviet Union would collapse in my lifetime). Only time will tell whether these composers are writing masterpieces that will endure like the symphonies of Beethoven and Brahms, but I believe the best of them are writing good music, good enough to bring the electric excitement of the new back to our concert halls for the first time since the deaths of Britten and Shostakovich.

I might add that I, too, apply the “hummability” test to new music, and I invite Mr. Becker to apply that test to Lowell Liebermann’s Piccolo Concerto, Op. 50, composed in 1996 and just released on the CD James Galway Plays Lowell Liebermann (RCA Victor Red Seal 09026-63235-2). Anyone who doubts that the music of the new tonalists is both serious and accessible should hasten to listen to the first movement of this piece.

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