Over the last century, classical music has grown increasingly estranged from a mass audience or popular musical forms, retreating into an elitist silo. This is not the fault of individual musicians: the development of their art is inseparable from wider social and political trends. Capitalism first created the space in which such music could flourish, and then took it away, leaving behind a frozen, formalized tradition.
One of the problems in discussing what has happened to classical music is identifying what we mean by the term. What distinguishes it from jazz, rock, hip hop, or any other genre?
It is not that it is a uniquely serious music. Plenty of “classical music” is humorous or even downright silly, from Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s A Musical Joke (1787) to György Ligeti’s Aventures (1962–63). By the same token, there are many pieces from other genres that are very serious. I can think of songs by the Beatles that match up to Franz Schubert’s work in their intensity and complexity of emotion and style.
There is no single form or style that we can associate with classical music, even within the same period, let alone over the course of centuries. If you were to listen to two piano works composed within a few years of each other — for example, Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Klavierstücke I-XI (1952–56) and Dmitri Shostakovich’s 24 Preludes and Fugues (1950–51) — it would be very hard to discern what they have in common stylistically. Yet they will sit together under the letter “S” in most classical music shops.
It would perhaps be better if, instead of speaking about “classical music,” we referred instead to a tradition of European music. More accurately, although less elegantly, we should think of it as the European/Western bourgeois tradition. If we understand it in those terms, it becomes much easier to see what all the composers I mentioned above have in common. We can also better understand the rise and fall of this musical genre. However, since “classical music” is such a widely recognized term, I shall use it interchangeably with “European music.”
The rise of the middle classes, and the expansion of leisure time available to them and to the upper classes of their societies, conditioned the emergence of classical music. For most of the medieval period, music was reserved for religious services, holiday dances, or the occasional visit of a troubadour.
The birth of opera in seventeenth-century Venice was mainly a commercial venture, in a city rich from trade. Johann Sebastian Bach, although he was employed by churches, had the status of an artisan, and frequently took private commissions to write works. By the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, many great opera houses and concert halls were being built, and orchestras were created with the backing of commercial enterprises.
For example, the first major concert hall in London was the Hanover Square Rooms, which the Italian entrepreneur Sir John Gallini built and ran with the composers Johann Christian Bach (son of Johann Sebastian) and Carl Friedrich Abel. Musicians set up many of the major orchestras still in existence, such as the Leipzig Gewandhaus, Berlin Philharmonic, Vienna Philharmonic, New York Philharmonic, and Boston Symphony, with the support of private capital and the sustenance of paying audiences.
Around the same time, the phenomenon of the celebrity performer arrived. Figures such as the violinist Niccolò Paganini, the pianist Franz Liszt, and the singer Jenny Lind became rich and famous touring the world and giving concerts backed by publicity campaigns.
Musical form and style also closely matched the social transformations wrought by the birth of capitalism. We can hear the “storm and stress” artistic style associated with the period of the American and French Revolutions manifest itself in the increasingly dramatic tension in the music of Bach’s sons and Joseph Haydn. Ludwig van Beethoven, whose whole adult life was shaped by the turmoil of the French Revolution and its aftermath, took this style to its furthest point.
When the revolutionary period gave way to reaction, composers retreated from the epic style to a much more introspective and personal style known as “romanticism,” as can be heard in the works of Robert Schumann and Frédéric Chopin. The revolutions of 1848 inspired the great music dramas of Richard Wagner. In Tristan and Isolde, he opened the door to chromaticism and the kind of unstable harmonies that would lead ultimately to twentieth-century atonality.
Wagner’s Ring Cycle, as well as being musically revolutionary, is a story of social transformation, betrayal, and greed, heavily influenced by his experiences of 1848 as an active participant in the revolution in Dresden and subsequent exile after its bitter defeat. Giuseppe Verdi similarly expressed the upheavals surrounding the Italian Risorgimento.
All of the late romantic music of Richard Strauss, Anton Bruckner, and Giacomo Puccini was built on a very grand scale, epitomizing the supreme confidence of a fast industrializing and globally dominant Europe. Concert events began to assume grandiose proportions: around a thousand musicians performed at the Munich premiere of Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 8, with more than three thousand people listening in the audience.
Socially and musically, something had to give. As we know, the rapid growth of the European powers and their imperialist rivalries led to the two world wars and the crises and revolutions that separated them. The increasingly large and complex musical structures also started to break down due to their internal contradictions.
As tonal centers became increasingly stretched and less easily recognizable, unity began to disintegrate. Classical forms such as the tripartite structure of sonata allegro that had anchored music for over a hundred fifty years were tired and often barely discernible any longer in compositions, if composers were using them at all.
One could try and ignore this, and instead remain fixed in a groove of grand, lush harmonies that still resolved. This approach characterized the music of Edward Elgar and Erich Korngold: while often very good, it led nowhere in terms of developing the musical tradition or responding to new sounds and social changes. Indeed, what defines the music of both composers is a hankering for the certainties of pre–World War I Europe.
Others, however, met the challenge of the times. Already in some of Mahler’s final works, a post-tonal and post-classical form world is apparent. The first movement of his last completed symphony, the Ninth, has far more in common with twentieth-century modernism than nineteenth-century romanticism. The younger generation who took inspiration from Mahler would take European music in a direction that would shape it for the next hundred years.
In Pierrot lunaire (1912), Arnold Schoenberg left tonality behind completely. In this piece, he also developed sprechstimme, a form of singing that is much closer to speaking and thus a much flatter style than normal singing. This was music that expressed dislocation, a high state of anxiety, and a sense of wandering. As such, it perfectly reflected the social crises of the period and would influence much of the European music that followed it in various ways.
The rise of fascism and Stalinism delivered further hammer blows to European music. These regimes suppressed the new style of atonalism pioneered by Schoenberg and promoted kitsch throwbacks to grand romanticism instead. It was during this period, I believe, that European music as a living tradition was killed off. It was not a sudden death, but a poison was injected into this music’s relationship to society that has been largely responsible for its marginalization today.
While the tradition is rooted within European bourgeois society, it had been continually renewed and developed through its relationship to more earthy forms such as folk music and dances, and later African American spirituals, jazz, Japanese sonorities, Tin Pan Alley pop tunes, African drumming, and much more. There has perhaps been no decade more exciting for music than the 1920s, when one could hear all of these influences in the music of composers such as Igor Stravinsky, Béla Bartók, George Gershwin, and Maurice Ravel, amongst others.
But the Nazi ban on “degenerate music” and the trumpeting of “socialist realism” in the USSR under Stalin snuffed out these developments, scattering many leading lights of the 1920s into exile, or into a form of internal exile in which they had to repress their own artistic instincts. To take one example, the German composer Paul Hindemith produced some wonderfully idiosyncratic pieces in the ’20s, infused with jazz, some atonality, and even electronica. He attempted to resist the Nazi regime in works such as his opera Mathis der Maler (1934), but quickly found his compositions banned. Hindemith was forced into US exile, where his music lost its dynamism and retreated into a dull academic formalism.
By 1945, many of the key composers of the earlier period were either dead (Bartók, Gershwin, Alban Berg, Anton Webern), in lonely exile (Stravinsky, Schoenberg), or still laboring under repressive conditions (Shostakovich, Sergei Prokofiev). A younger generation was now emerging of people in their twenties whose early lives had been badly scarred by fascism and war. The Nazis had murdered Stockhausen’s mother in their euthanasia program, while his father, an enthusiastic Nazi, had died fighting on the Eastern Front. Hans Werner Henze’s father was also a Nazi who died in combat, and Henze himself had been conscripted into the German army, ending the war in a POW camp.
Those who came from outside Germany also went through the wringer of those terrible years. Luciano Berio was a conscript in the Italian army: a wartime injury to his hand ended his hopes of a career as a pianist. Ligeti, a Hungarian Jew, lost most of his family at Auschwitz. Iannis Xenakis had half his face blown off by a British tank shell while he was fighting with the Greek Communist partisans after the liberation of Athens.
The music such figures created in the 1950s and ’60s was highly experimental, often exploiting the new technologies such as tape recording and editing and the greater possibilities for manipulation of electronic sounds. They also, sometimes almost fanatically, rejected any hint of classical tonality or form. This was a reaction in large part against the marshaling of classical and romantic music as a cultural weapon by fascism.
Stockhausen once remarked that he had a hatred of music in 4/4 time because it reminded him of the incessant marching music that he heard on wartime radio. Pierre Boulez wrote that all sentimentality had to be rooted out of music. This accorded with the philosopher Theodor Adorno’s argument that the grand musical tradition had been particularly useful in providing a cultural gloss to fascism.
In view of their formative life experiences and the plight of European music as they found it in 1945, it is hardly surprising that much of the work by these composers ended up being very astringent. It was shocking to the ear and the sensibility — an alienating and unpleasant experience for many listeners.
Some composers like Henze recoiled and tried to retrieve something from tonality and classical forms. Others believed that shocking and disturbing their audience was itself the point. They saw this as a way of inoculating both their art and their audience from being seduced by any emotionalism that could be harnessed to authoritarian political ends, or in the postwar context to the rapidly increasing commodification of culture.
However, this stance could quite easily lead to elitism, best summed up by Milton Babbitt’s 1958 article for High Fidelity, “Who cares if you listen?” The title was meant half-humorously, but Babbitt’s essay advanced a serious argument: in order for a composer to maintain their artistic integrity in the face of populist culture, he insisted, they must withdraw from the commercial world and ensure their works have “little or no commodity value.”
Over the following decades, it was jazz and popular music that picked up the mantle of experimentation while maintaining a mass audience. Classical music increasingly became one of two things: either a museum of the past, played in gilded halls with performers dressed in ostentatiously Victorian garb, bestowing a sense of high culture and good taste on its listeners, or else a resolutely serious modernism that challenged audiences to measure up to its high intellectualism.
In both cases, the European musical tradition was largely abandoning any desire or hope of renewed relevance to a mass audience. In place of a living art, it was becoming a social and cultural signifier of refinement and elitism.
Insofar as there have been attempts to appeal to a mass audience, it has often been in the most trivial and crassly commodified terms. Examples include the spectacle of overhyped, overpaid tenors singing old-time hits from Italian opera using microphones in huge stadiums, or the rather creepy marketing of young female violinists with sexualized images as the cover art on their albums.
For the audience, too, in a world of late capitalism with its hyper-commercialized lifestyle cults, along with a decreasing amount of time for leisure, as more of us work harder and longer for less, the kind of psychological space needed to enjoy much of classical music has diminished considerably. One of the things that distinguishes classical music pieces is often their length. Compared to medieval as well as modern popular music, classical works are significantly longer.
Aaron Copland’s Second Symphony (1933), nicknamed the “Short Symphony,” is fifteen minutes long — longer than almost all pop songs, and most jazz tracks. A standard classical sonata, quartet, or symphony will last around thirty minutes or more. At the outer limits, Mahler’s Symphony No. 3 (1896) takes around a hundred ten minutes in performance, while Morton Feldman’s String Quartet No. 2 (1983) demands over six hours of your time.
Quite apart from the length, much of this music demands a level of concentration and engagement for which many of us simply don’t have the time. As the pace of society has grown faster, the time left over for leisure is reduced. People frequently have to use their remaining time off for rest, relaxation, and recuperation, rather than seeing it as an opportunity for more intense concentration. The five-minute pop song is much more easily digested than an hour-long abstract piece of music.
Indeed, as someone who habitually listens to classical music on commutes — frequently the only time I can find on a workday — I often find it frustrating that I don’t have enough time to listen to an entire piece. I end up picking shorter pieces or single movements from a larger piece. Because I am not focusing on the music properly, I gravitate toward those that I am already more familiar with. Basically, these limitations force me into the Classic FM bite-sized approach of listening to well-worn classics.
In short, we can trace the rise and fall of classical or European music as a mass art form along an historical arc. It ranges from the revolutionary opportunities offered by the birth of capitalism in the seventeenth century, through the profound crises of the twentieth century, to the degeneration of the bourgeoisie and the space for cultural life today.
There is a more positive aspect to the increased marginalization of European music. Forms of music that European imperialism and its concomitant cultural arrogance had previously marginalized have captured the imagination of people all across the world, including the Global North.
The American avant-gardist John Cage once remarked:
We live in a time not of mainstream, but of many streams, or even, if you insist on a river of time, then we have come to the delta, maybe even beyond a delta to the ocean.
He meant that as a positive reflection on the waning dominance of classical form, tonality, or in his case even of traditional expectations of the musical score or musical sound. Yet for many others, this has meant the death of what they consider to be “serious” music, or rather the loss of classical music as the core of what comes to mind when we think about music.
I side with Cage in regarding the proliferation of musical forms and styles as basically a good thing. The hegemony of the classical tradition in music was also the hegemony of White European culture as supposedly representing the acme of civilized art. The growth of jazz and later rock music gave recognition to the high value of black American rhythms and sounds. Since then, the influence of Latin dance, or the sounds of the sitar and the steel drum, have massively expanded the aural palette that we can access and enjoy.
Boulez recalled traveling to the Caribbean and South America as a young man and discovering for the first time the spiritual music of Candomblé, a religion associated with the descendants of black slaves in Brazil. The sounds of these regions found their way into many of his pieces, from Le Marteau sans maître (1955) to Sur Incises (1998).
In earlier periods, classical music was often open to such influences. Today, however, it has largely sought to insulate itself from them. There was recently a hysterical reaction when the Grammy Awards announced the nominations in the category for classical music, which included Jon Batiste and Curtis Stewart, two people of color who use popular, jazz, and blues techniques in their music as well as classical ones. The howls of outrage were blatantly elitist and also, if more subtly, racist.
This is not to say that the door is entirely closed. US minimalists like Steve Reich and Philip Glass have taken inspiration from African drumming and the songs of David Bowie, respectively. The long neglected African American composer Julius Eastman was able to fuse a heady mix of minimalism, pop rhythms, and atonality. The British composers Mark-Anthony Turnage and Thomas Adès have also experimented with ska and other pop styles in their music, while Gabriel Prokofiev’s Concerto for Turntables (2006) is an engaging attempt to bridge vast spans of musical traditions.
Batiste and Stewart, whose nominations sparked such fury among classical music snobs, are by any measure enormously gifted musicians rooted in the classical tradition, while remaining in touch with popular forms. Stewart’s album Of Colours (2016), for example, includes an amazing jazz-infused reinterpretation of Anton Webern’s Four Pieces for Violin and Piano (1910).
All the same, concert programs and recordings remain dominated by music that was composed a hundred or two hundred years ago. Most composers in the European or classical tradition today work for the most part with forms that are many decades or even centuries old. Very few relate directly to contemporary popular forms in the way that Haydn did with his minuets, Maher and Bartok with folk song, or Stravinsky with jazz.
Recently, there have also been efforts to recover the work of composers long neglected because of their gender or race. As a result, the works of truly great composers such as Eastman, Ruth Gipps, and Florence Price are finally getting their due and helping to freshen up the repertoire. Even so, we are mostly mining the past. In short, the term “classical” has come to denote a tradition that largely no longer imagines what it could be, but instead tries to hold onto what it once was.