Commentary Magazine

The Death of the Concert

In 1965, the pianist Glenn Gould made a casual remark that attracted worldwide attention. As he later recalled:

In an unguarded moment . . . I predicted that the public concert as we know it today would no longer exist a century hence, that its functions would have been entirely taken over by electronic media. It had not occurred to me that this statement represented a particularly radical pronouncement. . . . But never has a statement of mine been so widely quoted—or so hotly disputed.

At the time, Gould’s prediction was generally dismissed as the special pleading of a brilliant neurotic. A near-incapacitating case of stage fright had forced him to stop giving concerts in 1964, and thereafter he played only in the recording studio and on radio and TV. To anyone who cared to listen, he stated with assurance that his personal inhibitions were, in effect, the wave of the future.

As it happens, in the 33 years since Gould announced the coming death of the concert, no other classical performer has followed his hermit-like example. Pianists, violinists, and singers continue to crisscross the country, donning evening dress and performing for enthusiastic audiences in concert halls, gymnasiums, and multipurpose arts centers; since 1980, more than 110 new orchestras have been founded in the U.S. “Forget the Stereotype: America Is Becoming a Nation of Culture,” read the headline in a frontpage story published earlier this year in the Wall Street Journal.

Yet in private—and sometimes even in public—promoters and managers are far less sanguine. The loyal concert subscribers of the 60’s and 70’s are fast approaching retirement age, and younger listeners are so far failing to replace them in sufficiently large numbers. Though opera attendance is up, ticket sales for traditional concert programs are declining: the Phoenix Symphony, for example, claims that it sells about 90 percent of the tickets for its pop concerts, but only 55 percent for its classical programs. (Significantly, opera singers have become the only classical musicians whose activities are routinely covered by the mass media.) At the same time, new recordings of the classics have stopped selling, and many of the major labels are concentrating on pop-flavored “crossover” music.

Why are Americans losing their taste for classical concertgoing? The stock explanation is that secondary schools are devoting less time and money to music education, thus reducing the likelihood that children will be exposed to the classics. This is true enough. But other, more complex historical factors are also at work; if they continue unchecked, Glenn Gould’s seemingly outrageous prophecy may well come to pass.



More often than not, a classical concert is a two-hour-long event in which three or four large-scale works by well-known composers of the 18th and 19th centuries are performed by a celebrity soloist (or a celebrity conductor and orchestra). “Modern” music—by which is usually meant music composed between 1910 and 1945—is occasionally heard, but popular soloists rarely program pieces written in the last 50 years.

This is not the way things used to be. In the 19th century, opera companies and symphony orchestras programmed new music as a matter of course. In addition, most of the major composers of this new music, including Hector Berlioz, Felix Mendelssohn, Franz Liszt, Frédéric Chopin, Richard Wagner, Richard Strauss, and Gustav Mahler, also had active careers as performers, in the course of which they frequently played or conducted their own works.

Surprising as this may sound, the music that dominates today’s concert programs—the works of the past that, taken together, comprise what is known as the “standard repertoire”—was largely unfamiliar to 19th-century concertgoers, as indeed it was to many performers. Baroque music, for example, was heard only in romanticized transcriptions. Of the large-scale instrumental works of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven, only a few were performed with any regularity, and Schubert’s instrumental music was all but unknown.

The change occurred as 19th-century music grew technically more complex. In time, it became increasingly common for conductors and instrumentalists to leave the job of composition to specialists, while they themselves came to specialize in the art of performance. These new, noncomposing virtuosos were naturally more inclined to explore the output of older composers, and their programs came to be increasingly devoted to the music of the past. By World War I, the age of the composer-performer was drawing to a close (Sergei Rachmaninoff was the last important composer who also toured extensively as a celebrity virtuoso), and soloists and orchestras were programming old and new music in roughly equal proportions.



The decline of the composer-performer coincided with the rise of the modern movement in music. The listening public initially resisted modernism, but no more so than it had resisted such “advanced” composers as Liszt, Wagner, and Brahms. For a while, therefore, it seemed reasonable to believe that the music of the tonal modernists—Béla Bartók, Aaron Copland, Paul Hindemith, Francis Poulenc, Sergei Prokofiev, Igor Stravinsky, Ralph Vaughan Williams, and their many followers in Europe and America—would eventually find favor among concertgoers.

Instead, history intervened. The Russian Revolution and the subsequent Nazi takeover of Germany led to the installation of reactionary cultural commissars who sought to extirpate modernism from the European musical scene, if necessary by brute force. At the same time, dozens of famous soloists and conductors emigrated to the United States, among them the pianists Vladimir Horowitz, Artur Schnabel, and Rudolf Serkin; the violinists Jascha Heifetz and Fritz Kreisler; the conductors Serge Koussevitzky, George Szell, Arturo Toscanini, and Bruno Walter; and the members of the Budapest and Busch String Quartets.

Not surprisingly, these extraordinarily talented artists quickly found favor with American listeners (particularly in light of the fact that there were as yet no native-born conductors or instrumentalists of comparable distinction). But few of them played any but the most conservative of new music. The only famous émigré to take a serious and sustained interest in American music was Koussevitzky, under whose leadership the Boston Symphony became the sole first-tier American orchestra consistently to premiere new scores by young American composers.

Much the same thing was true of the Central European émigrés who would thereafter make up a significant portion of the American audience for classical music. For them, the canon of 19th-century classics was a source of emotional reassurance—a way of reconstituting the lost world of prewar Europe. And many, one suspects, came subconsciously to associate musical modernism with the political chaos they had gratefully left behind.

By war’s end, a seemingly unbridgeable chasm had opened between younger modernist composers and conservative audiences. Many such composers retreated into the academy, there to write willfully abstruse music that was in turn ignored by most listeners. Thus it was that the postwar classical-music business came to be based almost entirely on performances by celebrity artists of the standard repertoire.



The introduction in 1948 of the long-playing record served to consolidate the hold exerted by the music of the past on the classical-music industry. Between 1948 and 1970, the major labels released hundreds of top-selling recordings of the standard repertoire by a new generation of musical celebrities, including the sopranos Maria Callas and Elisabeth Schwarzkopf; the baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau; the pianists Van Cliburn, Glenn Gould, and Dinu Lipatti; and the conductors Leonard Bernstein, Herbert von Karajan, and Georg Solti.

To be sure, these artists were also powerful presences on the concert stage. But it was recordings, not concerts, that made them stars. And although Gould was the only one who ultimately decided to specialize in recording, there is no question that the others took it every bit as seriously as live performance—if not more so. “I do not want to give any more concerts,” Lipatti told Walter Legge, his producer, not long before his untimely death in 1950, “except perhaps as rehearsals for recording. Let us give our lives to making records together.”

But the success of the LP also created the conditions that eventually brought about the current crisis of the concert. With the advent of the digital compact disc, it became possible to reissue the classic recordings of the 50’s and 60’s in a durable, modern-sounding format; the major labels, having long ago amortized their investment in these recordings, thereupon proceeded to market them at lower prices than new versions by younger artists. The result was the near-total paralysis of the classical-recording industry. For why would the average record buyer, having purchased a digitally remastered CD of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony by Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic, want to acquire a more expensive, less interesting new recording by a younger conductor?

Nor did the unintended consequences of recording stop there. By the mid-60’s, it was possible to purchase high-quality renditions of virtually every important piece of classical music composed prior to 1910. Similarly, good-sounding hi-fi systems had become cheap enough for anyone to own. An entire generation of music lovers thus became accustomed to experiencing classical music not in the concert hall but at home. As the Horowitzes and Bernsteins died off, these listeners began to question the need to attend any public performances of the classics, whether by callow young artists or by middle-aged celebrity performers who had already committed their repertoires to disc one or more times.

To understand the implications of this change in attitude, one need only look at the programs of the famous soloists who are performing at Carnegie Hall this season, most of them playing works they have previously recorded. Thus, among pianists, Daniel Barenboim is doing the Liszt B-Minor Sonata; Alfred Brendel is offering a series of recitals devoted to solo piano music, chamber music, and song cycles by Haydn, Schubert, and Mozart; Maurizio Pollini is playing the Schumann C-Major Phantasie and the Chopin B-Flat Minor Sonata; and Andras Schiff is performing Bartók’s three piano concertos.

No doubt all of these concerts will be worth hearing, and some may well be exceptional. But to what extent is it reasonable to expect that Alfred Brendel has something so dramatically new to say about the Schubert A-Major Sonata, D. 959, that it is worth paying $60 to hear him play it in person? For the veteran concertgoer, the answer is obvious: recordings are at best a pale substitute for the immediate experience of live performance. But for the younger person who can sit in his living room and listen to the same sonata being performed by Pollini, Schiff, Vladimir Ashkenazy, Richard Goode, Murray Perahia, or Artur Schnabel—not to mention Brendel himself—this argument is unlikely to withstand close scrutiny.

Truly charismatic performers, of course, will presumably always be able to draw enthusiastic crowds. But charisma is in remarkably short supply among the present generation of instrumentalists. This season, for example, Carnegie Hall is presenting in recital only one instrumental soloist under the age of fifty, the pianist Evgeny Kissin, who can genuinely be said to have something of the same galvanizing appeal as the great virtuosos of the past.



Given all this, how can the public concert continue to compete with the concert-hall-of-the-mind that has been made possible by the introduction of the compact disc? Is there a musically serious alternative to the lowest-common-denominator pops programs that are becoming increasingly prevalent outside America’s major cities? Consider two recent orchestral concerts, one in New York and the other in San Francisco.

In September, the New York Philharmonic, America’s oldest orchestra, opened its season with a two-week-long Beethoven festival conducted by its music director, Kurt Masur. Not only is Masur a superlative interpreter of Beethoven, but this was the first time the Philharmonic had performed the nine symphonies in chronological order since Toscanini led a similar cycle in 1942. Yet critical responses ranged from measured praise to open hostility, and it was hard to escape the feeling that by launching the season in so conventional a manner, Masur and the Philharmonic had demonstrated yet again the extent to which they are out of touch with the changing realities of contemporary concertgoing.

In the same week as the first installment of Masur’s Beethoven cycle, Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony presented a program that typified a radically different approach: Charles Ives’s From the Steeples and the Mountains, Henry Cowell’s Music 1957, Samuel Barber’s Knoxville: Summer of 1915, and the Mahler First Symphony. It was obvious on entering the hall that the audience was far younger than that which turned out to hear Masur and the Philharmonic. No less surprising was the way the concert began: Thomas came on stage and spoke lucidly and engagingly about the complexities of the Ives piece. As a result, the audience, which might otherwise have found the composition impossibly difficult, responded to it with unfeigned enthusiasm.

I should stress that there was no significant difference in the musical quality of the two concerts. The New York Philharmonic is a better orchestra than the San Francisco Symphony, but not by much, and Thomas and Masur are both greatly gifted conductors. The difference, rather, was in the program—and the attitude behind it. The German-born Masur remains deeply attached to the traditional concept of the public concert as an occasion for music-lovers to hear live performances by well-known musicians of the accepted canon of 18th- and 19th-century classics. Thomas, who was born and trained in America (and who is seventeen years younger than Masur), believes just as deeply that in order to attract younger listeners, it is necessary to offer them a different kind of musical experience, one that goes beyond merely duplicating what is readily available on record.

The electrifying effect that Thomas has had on San Francisco audiences suggests one possible solution to the problem of the concert: change its focus from old music to new. Especially now that atonality and serialism have run their course, there is no good reason why American soloists and orchestras, as often as they perform the music of Beethoven, Brahms, or Tchaikovsky, should not also be playing the masterpieces of the earlier tonal modernists, including the Americans among them like Ives and Barber—as well as the accessible yet challenging music of such “new tonalists” as Daniel Asia, Aaron Jay Kernis, Paul Moravec, Lowell Liebermann, and George Tsontakis.1



Why do we need new music? Because without it, our musical culture will sicken and die—as it came perilously close to doing in the 60’s and 70’s when “new music” more often than not meant ugly music, and concertgoers learned from hard experience to reject in advance any piece composed after 1945. Throughout this period, concert-goers were forced to look exclusively to performers, not creative artists, as sources of novelty and vitality. The resulting concentration on celebrity performances of the standard repertoire, though understandable, was nonetheless unhealthy: even the greatest masterpieces can temporarily lose their savor from overexposure. This is exactly what has happened to much of the standard repertoire, and it is why the institution of the classical concert is in trouble.

To be sure, Kurt Masur and the New York Philharmonic are not having trouble selling tickets—yet. Beethoven cycles and Tchaikovsky nights continue to draw crowds, and the celebrity system is still the backbone of the classical-music business. But the point of diminishing returns, especially outside the largest urban areas, has clearly been reached, and the recent experience of the classical-recording industry suggests that it is no less essential for soloists and orchestras to rethink the way they do business.

If they do not, the concert hall will someday become a place where old men and women gather forlornly to listen to the same symphonies and concertos they first heard a half-century ago, while their children, if they are interested in classical music at all, will stay home and listen to compact discs or whatever newer marvel is destined to replace them.



1 These composers, and the larger musical movement of which they are a part, are discussed in my article, “The New Tonalists” (COMMENTARY, December 1997).


About the Author

Terry Teachout is COMMENTARY’s critic-at-large and the drama critic of the Wall Street JournalSatchmo at the Waldorf, his first play, runs through November 4 at Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, Connecticut.

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