Every century classical music is judged by the music listening public and found lacking. Growth is small, if not stagnant, compared to genres that crank out best selling songs with speed and frequency such as pop or country music. To outsiders of the historically rich genre, classical music appears outdated. There is a common misperception that Chattanooga Symphony and Opera’s (CSO) attendees are all 50+ years old. Tickets can be expensive and the requirement of formal attire can be intimidating to many. But if the death of classical music is eminent, and has been for years, then why is it still around? Why was the best selling CD of 2016 “Mozart 225: The New Complete Edition,” a 200 CD box set of every piece of music by Mozart, rather than a Kanye or Beyonce album? (1)
Classical music is timeless. Throughout the course of history, classical music has gone through various style and developmental changes different from previous time periods. The Baroque Period, known for its use of contrast to communicate emotions and ideals through music and invention of the basso continuo, which contributed to the development of harmonies, differed greatly from the Romantic Period, which was known for the expressive nature of the dramatic and emotive portions of life. Though there have been several large stylistic changes throughout the centuries, the essence of classical music has remained the same. They still tackle subjects of love, war, tragedy, and nature, even to this day. One example of modern classical music can be seen in film and television soundtracks, which sets the tone for the visual aspects of the stories.
Taylor Brown, the principal double bass player of the CSO, mentioned that the biggest problem for this genre is institutional sustainability. He said, “ A generic answer of how institutions remain sustainable, is that they are able to manage cost, while drawing upon a broad range of funding- as not to become entirely too reliant on any individual source. These institutions remain sustainable when they understand their role in their community. It is my belief that an institution’s role is not simply to sell concerts, but instead serve a community by bringing high-level artists into the community and connecting them in meaningful ways.” Institutions like the CSO have contributed to the community by offering programs such as the Youth Orchestra Program, which had 200 participants this past year.
If classical music was still not relevant, then there would not be students studying it in schools and graduating to play, conduct, compose, or contribute professionally.
There have, however, been challenges for classical music aficionados. Fans and attendees of performances are typically of an older demographic (50+ years old) that are used to sitting through an hour–long symphony performance. Samantha Teter, the executive director of the CSO, has noticed how younger generations, including her own teenager, struggle with accessing information not available in 140 characters, 10 second SnapChats, or short YouTube videos. With that in mind, she wants to make sure programs such as Ensembles in Schools and the CSO’s Sensory–Friendly programs engage children in a way that will help children appreciate and understand classical music as they get older.
Classical music also has emotional appeal exclusive to its genre. When asked why she loved it so much, Samantha said, “For me as a Gen Xer, having had no real exposure to classical music growing up, the live experience of a symphony concert can be emotional, uplifting, and transformative. It speaks to me in ways that pop music today just can't do. I learn something new every day in my job about classical music, and I hope that others in my age category and younger will become interested and active listeners to what is still a very relevant art form.”
In conclusion, this is not the death of classical music. This may, in fact, be its next evolution. Classical music has adapted to the culture of its time while retaining its rich history for the appreciation and learning benefit of those who have come after it. With the continued sustainability of music schools and organizations like the CSO, we see that there is still a group of people devoted to the genre’s teaching and making it accessible to the community. Who knows? The next marriage of culture and classical music may be a Beyonce opera, and imagine the ticket sales to that event!
Footnote: 1. Daley, Jason. "How Mozart Outsold Beyonce in CD Sales in 2016." Smithsonian.com. Smithsonian Institution, 16 Dec. 2016. Web. 06 June 2017.