The lost art of listening
Has classical music become irrelevant?
Sometimes, while performing the Funeral March from Chopin’s Piano Sonata No. 2 in B flat minor, I am struck by the fact that everyone in the auditorium is marching towards death at the exact tempo of the piece: 54 crotchets per minute or thereabouts, one foot in front of the other, until by movement’s end we are eight minutes closer to our collective destination. It is not an unpleasant thought, encapsulated as it is by the music: the pity it seems to extend to us all (including its long-dead composer), its moments of rage against the dying of the light. But its largest consolation lies in its inexorability. Even when this hall’s occupants are long gone this march will continue. I am only its carrier organism, its vector; in a hundred years, there will surely be another pianist on this stool, contemplating mortality in the key of B flat minor, before another audience, shedding tears for lives that have not yet begun.
It is the consolation of the humanistic tradition, of being part of a larger cultural project, but recently I have found such consolation harder to come by. Although we might all be marching towards death at the same tempo, it is difficult to escape the fact that my audience is several decades further down the road than I am. And I am less and less confident that a new audience will come marching in to replace them.
There is a conventional wisdom that you come to classical music later. Maybe you have a road-to-Damascus moment, in which Beethoven finally speaks to you. Or perhaps it is something more mundane: as you become an older thing yourself, you come to prefer other older things (although, ironically, much of the musical canon was composed by young men, with Mozart, Schubert, Chopin and Mendelssohn all dying in their 30s).
It is reassuring to imagine that our audiences will naturally renew themselves, but last year, on tour with my trio, Seraphim, I started to have my doubts. We began in Macedon, Victoria, where we delivered eulogies for two cherished audience members who had recently passed away; we then performed Beethoven, who did the job better. Up in Queensland, a chamber music society president confessed that since many of her former subscribers could no longer leave their homes, the society was drawing down its financial reserves and would soon shut up shop. In New South Wales, our presenter revealed that he was suffering from dementia, and was not sure how much longer he could continue.
That our audience is older than us is old news. It has been like that since we started playing together, 21 years ago. Occasionally, backstage, one of us might report the sighting of a brunette amid the sea of silver – a peer! – like a rare and glorious bird. These occasions are rare; the interloper is typically revealed to be a music student or a family member.
None of this ever troubled us. Our audience members are loyal and knowledgeable. They make us feel cherished, as our grandparents might, plying us with country hospitality after concerts, laughing at the bad jokes we make onstage. (Possibly, this has engendered a distorted sense of our own youthfulness: even as we approached 40, we continued to congratulate ourselves in publicity material on our “youthful vigour”.) But over the course of this tour, something began to nag at me. Regardless of how much we had aged ourselves, we did not seem to be gaining ground on our audience.
American figures suggest that the average age of attendance at a symphony concert in 1937 was 30. Australian census data does not exist from that time but the demographic is likely to have been similar. The Australian Bureau of Statistics has reported that the largest proportion of attendees at classical music concerts in 2009–10 was the cohort aged 65–74. Carl Vine, the artistic director of the independent performing arts organisation Musica Viva, remains unperturbed: “What would bother me would be if they were over 80. At 60, we still have 20 years of subscriber left.”
I feel less sanguine. Might there be a concert a few decades hence in which – God willing – my trio is still performing, but only to an audience of one? And if that listener were to perish mid performance, would we keep playing?
Reports of the death of classical music are not new. There are those who have made a career out of eulogising it, such as the English journalist Norman Lebrecht, who has written the same book on the subject several times; the late pianist and musicologist Charles Rosen quipped that “the death of classical music is perhaps its oldest continuing tradition”. Classical music has absorbed a number of deaths already – the death of patronage, of the composer-virtuoso, of tonality. Clearly it is made of stern stuff, but can it survive the death of its audience?
My concern is not exclusively with the fate of the formal recital, which is only a 19th-century invention, and not the only way to experience music. Much of what we consider the musical canon pre-dates it. At its worst, it can feel moribund, a historical re-enactment in period dress. The musician walks onstage and bows like a footman, before moving through the standard emotional simulations. The audience sits quietly and applauds in the correct places, tut-tutting those who do not. It can be a difficult thing to love. And yet, at its best, in a spellbound hall, when a performer spares herself nothing onstage, it is an experience like no other: a room full of people, meditating communally on human experience, framed by a silence that is rare in our lives today.
The musicologist Lawrence Kramer dates the “invention” of listening to the 18th century, alongside the concept of the inner self. In his 2007 book Why Classical Music Still Matters, he writes, “All music trains the ear to hear it properly, but classical music trains the ear to hear with a peculiar acuity. It wants to be explored, not just heard … it trains both the body’s ear and the mind’s to hearken, to attend closely, to listen deeply, as one wants to listen to something not to be missed.”
Some classical music was composed as background music – for a royal banquet or to soothe an insomniac count to sleep – but most of it makes greater demands on our attention. As the invention of the written word allowed texts of magnificent complexity to be composed, so did the invention of notated music. It unfolds as a narrative in sound, with time as its canvas.
Sometimes this can be a large canvas indeed. Robert Schumann celebrated the “heavenly length” of Schubert’s Symphony No. 9 in C major, a compliment difficult to imagine today, when – despite increased longevity – most of us feel “time-poor”. In Western lives loaded with stuff, time is our contemporary scarcity. Last year, the Australian Chamber Orchestra presented a concert called ‘Timeline’, charting the course of music over 42,000 years. It concluded with a mash-up by the Australian electronic dance music duo The Presets, and in the program notes The Presets’ Julian Hamilton wrote, “I personally count it as a win if I am able to hold a fan’s attention right through to the chorus of a new song before they click on another link to some place else.”
It would be foolish to lament the coming of the digital age. As a word-processing woman, I have no desire to return to the 19th century, much as I love its soundtrack. And yet there are elements of modern life that seem inimical to the appreciation of art music. The advent of recording allowed music to be everywhere – in the car, in the supermarket, in the bathroom – and yet we attend to music less than ever. As Les Murray writes in his poem ‘Music to Me Is Like Days’:
they lost the off switch in my lifetime
the world reverberates with Muzak
The smartphone wreaked further havoc with attention spans. In his 2013 book Focus, the science journalist Daniel Goleman describes digital technology’s capacity to rewire our brains and erode our capacity for sustained attention. Our thoughts shrink to fit the smartphone screen; the brain starts tweeting even to itself.
Earlier this year, my trio collaborated with the street artist Peter Drew for a project called ‘Beethoven in Melbourne’. On a Tuesday morning in March, we constructed a makeshift concert hall backdrop out of paper and surprised the morning commuters in Campbell Arcade with Beethoven’s “Ghost” Trio. This was not designed – like the famous experiment in which renowned violinist Joshua Bell was largely ignored by passers-by at a metro station in Washington, DC – to score points against contemporary society. It was simply intended to bring some beauty into a public space. If people would not step into the sanctified sphere of the concert hall, perhaps the concert hall could come to them.
Pedestrians poured past us as we performed, snapping our pictures with their smartphones but rarely removing their earphones to listen. I admit that the cards were stacked against Beethoven: these were people on their way to work. And yet there was something about that gesture – of a thousand smartphones taking our picture, collecting the moment without occupying it – that spoke to me of a fundamental dislocation. Beethoven and today’s commuter do not only occupy different eras: they occupy different versions of time.
Not so long ago, a familiarity with classical music was considered part of cultural literacy. Beethoven was in the kit alongside Shakespeare. When did this change? At what point did art music come to seem – that dread word – “irrelevant”? The American musicologist Richard Taruskin identifies “a trahison des clercs – a defection of intellectuals to pop culture that was a by-product of the social and cultural turbulence of the 1960s”. He makes the point that although intellectuals “distinguish between commercial and ‘literary’ fiction, between commercial and ‘fine’ art, between mass-market and ‘art’ cinema”, the “distinction in music is no longer drawn, except by professionals”.
The traditions of art music live on in film via their scores but – as if cinema cannot afford to acknowledge the debt – classical music itself is often either the butt of comedy (American Pie’s “This one time at band camp …”) or shorthand for snobbery or evil genius. In The Silence of the Lambs, Hannibal Lecter snacks on a human face while listening to Bach’s Goldberg Variations; in the Die Hard franchise, Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony – that great ode to freedom – becomes a leitmotif of terrorism. Our metropolitan dailies devote virtually no space to art music. In August, the Sydney Morning Herald did not bother to commission an obituary for the distinguished composer Roger Smalley – born in Swinton, near Manchester, but resident in Australia for most of his adult life – but syndicated one from the Telegraph. A year ago, the Arts Issue of this very magazine celebrated “the best of Australian arts 2014”. No classical concert music was mentioned.
Banished from the mainstream, classical music gets drafted into the luxury industry, becoming, in Taruskin’s words, an “upscale niche product”. It is the image problem of Bronwyn Bishop arriving at the opera via limousine or what Mark Latham describes as the “jewellery-rattling rows of the Opera House”. Certain concert presenters cultivate this demographic, marketing classical music as proof of taste or discernment. “It’s all part of beautiful living,” a woman gushed to me earlier this year, at an “exclusive chamber music weekend” in a winery, after one of Beethoven’s eviscerating late quartets.
My teacher, Eleonora Sivan, is unsentimental about her childhood in Stalinist Russia. “And yet,” she tells me, “when materialism is not an option, other things flourish.” In 1942 starving musicians performed Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 7 in Leningrad while the city was under siege. The musicians were given an hour-long ovation, and the concert was broadcast to German forces as a form of psychological warfare. Even today, Russian audiences consume art music with a particular urgency, a hunger. It is not part of beautiful living.
In the 19th century and the first part of the 20th, the piano was the spiritual hearth of the middle-class home: a gathering point and (as Jane Austen testified) the location of interminable recitals. This is not some distant European custom, but part of our own heritage. At the start of the 20th century, Australia boasted the greatest number of pianos per capita of any country in the world. They were a symbol of affluence and aspiration, but they also represented cultural continuity in a world in flux. Many people who loved Beethoven’s symphonies or Verdi’s operas never heard them performed live, but experienced them in a drawing room in an arrangement for four hands. Music was designed to be read and touched as much as listened to, a tradition that dates back to Bach’s collection of solo keyboard music, The Well-Tempered Clavier, created as a “pastime of those already skilled in this study”; in the 19th century, with the industrialisation of the printing press, sheet music became more readily available, and piano miniatures designed for the amateur flooded the market.
The advent of recording led to a boom for classical music but also – paradoxically – sowed the seeds of its redundancy. You no longer needed to make music to enjoy it at home; classical music belonged instead to the professionals, whose immaculate craft was pressed into disc for eternity. This led to a new expectation of perfection from the performer, alongside a conformity of interpretation based on “classic” recordings – neither of which had an enlivening effect on the concert stage.
By the 1960s, families were less likely to gather around the piano than around the television; by the 21st century, they were no longer gathering around anything, but communing with private screens in their own private rooms.
Last year, at my son’s primary school Christmas concert, the children did not sing a single Christmas carol. I thought this might have been because the word “Jesus” was verboten, but the principal later reassured me that it was not. I can only assume carols were deemed to be no longer “relevant”. Instead, there was a celebration of Santa and the getting of stuff, set to the ubiquitous drumbeat of contemporary life. Despite all the enthusiastic dancing and bopping, my feeling was one of cultural impoverishment.
I had recently returned from Germany, where a woman had asked me whether Christmas in the Australian summer could possibly be gemütlich. I sang one of the confected Australian carols I had learned as a child: “Out on the plains / the brolgas are dancing, / Lifting their feet / like war horses prancing … Orana! Orana! Orana! To Christmas Day!”
“Oh wow,” she marvelled. “That sounds really awkward.”
This awkwardness was writ large at my son’s concert. It was a Christmas concert in search of identity; never mind Christ, there were not even any references to Christmases past. It spoke to me of a larger Australian malaise: because we dare not confront the realities of our own past, we prefer to imagine there was no past. Instead, we busy ourselves with our home renovations and hero ingredients, and forget the Western humanistic tradition. We celebrate culture if you can eat it. (If we do acknowledge a heritage, it is frequently one of failure: Gallipoli, the Eureka Stockade, a suicidal swagman. This might look like the championing of the underdog, but nothing in today’s national actions suggests that we champion the underdog.)
There is clearly something ersatz about celebrating a European Christmas in the Australian summer, and yet some of my happiest memories are of singing carols at primary school, as Mrs Vaughan pounded out the accompaniments on her ancient piano. The doors of the activity shed were flung open, and the smell of peppercorn and eucalyptus drifted in from the playground, as we sang ‘Away in a Manger’ and ‘O Little Town of Bethlehem’, carols that had passed through the mouths of my parents and grandparents and great-grandparents in this same hot country. The joy was partly the anticipation of Christmas, but it was also the joy that comes from access to beauty, and to myth: a silent night, a little donkey, a star in a night sky, new life. Even secular children deserve some contact with the numinous.
In this year’s federal budget, the arts minister, George Brandis, redirected $104.7 million of the Australia Council’s funding to a new National Program for Excellence in the Arts. One of the consequences has been an exacerbation of a scarcity mentality among artists: a wedge driven between innovative arts practice and what is being called (horribly) the “heritage arts”, as if the two were natural antagonists. Surely the two belong on a continuum, and surely that continuum is what we call culture. This may be expressed more clearly in music than in any other art form, as it takes memory as its very material.
The continuum is larger than many of us like to imagine, holed up in our little music ghettoes; jazz and rock and classical and pop have common roots. In his 2014 John Peel Lecture, Iggy Pop emphasised the “importance of study”: “I played in my high school orchestra and I learned the joy of the warm organic instruments working together in the service of a classical piece. That sticks with you forever.”
One theory of music is that – like poetry – it evolved as a mnemonic device. Memory is the key structural element of any one piece of music, allowing us to make sense of its processes, its developments and recapitulations. On a larger scale, even before the advent of “historical programming”, composers have always addressed each other in their music. It is an even more pronounced “anxiety of influence” than in literature, as the very language of music only has meaning in the context of what has passed before. The conversation creates the language.
This occurs in ways that are both hidden and overt, through quotation, key meanings, adherence to and subversion of forms. Occasionally a composer raises a voice to address a peer in the distant past. The opening chord spacing of Bach’s first Prelude and Fugue in C is embedded in Shostakovich’s Prelude and Fugue in C, which picks up a conversational thread 230 years later. Bach’s co-operative polyphony is re-imagined in a Soviet context, implying alienation within the crowd, and yet there is vast comfort in that conversation: across cultures, across ideologies, across the ages.
Classical music may be a notated art, but playing an instrument is an oral tradition, passed from parent to child or teacher to student. The music – the sacred object – is passed literally from one hand to another, down the generations, even across cultures. The Austro-Germanic tradition spread to Russia via the imperial capital of St Petersburg; the subsequent Soviet diaspora populated the orchestras of the world, and provided me with a teacher in suburban Adelaide. Intrinsic to this is the winnowing JM Coetzee describes in his essay ‘What Is a Classic?’:
If there is anything that gives one confidence in the classic status of Bach, it is the testing process he has been through within the profession … Bach is some kind of touchstone because he has passed the scrutiny of hundreds of thousands of intelligences before me, by hundreds of thousands of fellow human beings.
This notion of “passing things down” may now seem redundant. Thanks to technology, our lives have less in common with those of our parents than was true of any previous generation. Heirlooms no longer take up floor space; instead we renew our furniture at IKEA. Once our pianos were passed down the generations, and with them some of the music they contained. But we are unlikely to pass down our laptops, or our status updates, or our funny cats. We live in an age of the continuous now, with all the disposability this implies.
Of course, ahistoricism is not exclusively an Australian problem. In a 2014 essay for Aeon magazine, the American historians David Armitage and Jo Guldi lament the failure of memory that even extends to history departments, in which the vast body of research is now limited to the recent past:
The mission of the humanities is to transmit questions about value – and to question values – by testing traditions that build up over centuries and millennia. And within the humanities, it is the discipline of history that provides an antidote to short-termism, by giving pointers to the long future derived from knowledge of the deep past.
It is unfashionable to speak of “values” encoded in music. As even George Steiner – that valiant defender of the classic – acknowledged, “after 50 years of teaching, the question remains, ‘How to explain those who sing Schubert in the evening and torture in the morning?’ … I’m going to the end of my life haunted more and more by the question, ‘Why did the humanities not humanise?’”
Singing Schubert is clearly not enough to cure genocidal impulses. But is it possible to make a more modest claim on the music’s behalf? If we properly engage with it, surely it offers an experience of empathy, and not just any empathy, but a transgenerational empathy, in which we try on human feelings from another era. Some of these feelings fit comfortably; others tug in places. Some of the underpinning values may seem quaint or suspect: chastity, honour, heroism. But great music transcends its origins, as indeed does human nature. So much of Schubert is a homecoming: his vulnerability, his ambivalence. Humanity has become a flabby word, but it has a rigorous core. It is the condition of being human, as well as humane. It is that intimate fact that lies at the heart of the humanities: we are all the same beneath our clothes.
In his brilliant essay on the impact of television, ‘E Unibus Pluram’, the American novelist David Foster Wallace laments the modern-day scourge of irony: “Anyone with the heretical gall to ask an ironist what he actually stands for ends up looking like an hysteric or a prig. And herein lies the oppressiveness of institutionalised irony, the too-successful rebel: the ability to interdict the question without attending to its subject is, when exercised, tyranny.” He fantasises about the emergence of “some weird bunch of anti-rebels … who dare somehow to back away from ironic watching, who have the childish gall actually to endorse and instantiate single-entendre principles”.
Classical music is not always single-entendre (Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony has a bruising subtext), but in an era dominated by irony there is something restorative about its sincerity. In an article by Alex Ross for the New Yorker, the pianist Mitsuko Uchida explains the purpose of the Marlboro Music Festival in Vermont, in which young musicians are immersed in nature: “The kids have to become more naive. Because there is something very naive about this music that they play, even the very greatest. What is it about? Mountains, trees, birds, young love, that kind of thing.” When I recently listened to a recording of the pianist Wilhelm Kempff playing Beethoven, I found myself thinking he had a beautiful soul. These words sound foolish today, in a way they would not have 150 years ago.
At Gough Whitlam’s memorial service last year, the actress Cate Blanchett quoted from his 1985 book, The Whitlam Government 1972–1975:
In any civilised community the arts and associated amenities must occupy a central place … Of all the objectives of my government none had a higher priority than the encouragement of the arts, the preservation and enrichment of our cultural and intellectual heritage … Our other objectives are all means to an end; the enjoyment of the arts is an end in itself.
It is difficult to imagine any of our leaders speaking this way today. Since Paul Keating – who claimed to have reformed the Australian economy “off the back of Gustav Mahler, Anton Bruckner and Mr Shostakovich” – few have had the vocabulary. Perhaps Malcolm Turnbull will surprise us, but for some time the arts have not been an end in themselves; there has only been one end, and that is Growth. The essayist William Deresiewicz has lamented “the death of the artist – and the birth of the creative entrepreneur”; in Victoria, the Ministry for the Arts has become the Ministry for Creative Industries.
Acquiring a musical instrument for a child and teaching them to play it costs money. Achieving expertise as a musician demands an almost unrivalled investment of time: “It takes ten years before piano even starts to share its secrets,” my teacher used to say. In 2011, the Tertiary Music Education Task Force reported that the “dire position of the sector calls into question whether the country will have an effective national music education system in five years’ time”. Four years later, our cash-starved conservatoriums are doing the sums, and finding one-on-one lessons too expensive; increasingly, it seems we can no longer afford the humanities.
But even if our leaders do not share Whitlam’s commitment to cultural heritage, there are good pragmatic reasons to invest in music education. Ironically, it might even contribute to Growth. Countless studies reveal that music education will improve our children’s executive function, social ability, literacy, numeracy, concentration, brain function, fine motor skills, creative thinking, working memory, study habits, and even their self-esteem.
Asian parents value the study of music as a discipline and craft: without exception, students of Asian background have dominated every Australian piano competition I have adjudicated over the past decade. It is a trend with repercussions for our conservatoriums, which are increasingly reliant upon the fee-paying Asian market to stay afloat.
Finland is a world leader in music education for children, with the value of music enshrined in the curriculum by government legislation. In the United Kingdom, the new Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, has undertaken to invest in musical education for all children. No such undertakings have been made here. The 2005 National Review of School Music Education announced a government policy goal of “access to music education that is continuous, sequential and developmental, regardless of geographic location, socio-economic circumstances, culture and ability”. Research suggests that only 23% of government schools offer “continuous and developmental” music education, compared to 88% of independent schools.
None of this bodes well for audience renewal, and, more problematically, it is a serious equity issue. Children of privilege enjoy the benefits of early music training, and the gap widens. It is no surprise that classical music becomes elitist, when only the privileged are taught its language.
Preparing for this essay, I spoke to a number of highly respected colleagues. Many of them denied there was any problem. When I asked why classical music was important, almost all were lost for words. Why this reticence among musicians to defend our art? Perhaps it is fear of grandiosity. The risks are many, as enumerated by Taruskin: “pious tommyrot, double standards, false dichotomies, smug nostalgia, utopian delusions, social snobbery, tautology, hypocrisy, trivialisation, pretence, innuendo, reactionary invective, or imperial haberdashery”. Yet in the absence of other advocates it is we who must invite the audience back.
The music that is closest to my heart is chamber music. It is music on a human scale, a single voice to a part: the solo piano repertoire, the lied, the piano trio, the string quartet. A true child of the Enlightenment, the string quartet was described by Goethe as “four reasonable people conversing”. Once, this conversation began in the home and only continued in the concert hall.
Last month, as my trio toured with the Beethoven piano trios, we started inviting audience members to sit between us on the stage, three at a time. It was an attempt to bring our audience into the fabric of the music, to share some of the purchase that comes from the playing of it. I was concerned that these extra presences would be disruptive, throwing interference into our connection, but they had the opposite effect. Whether schoolchildren in Roxby Downs or subscribers at the Melbourne Recital Centre, they sat with such attention that it funnelled our own. After each movement, they silently vacated their seats and were replaced by another three.
In my darkest moments, I wonder whether a transgenerational empathy is still possible, or whether we are drifting so far from the world of Beethoven and Schubert that they will soon have nothing to say to us. And if Beethoven becomes mute, Shakespeare cannot be much further behind. On a bad day, I fear for the entire Western humanistic tradition; classical music is only the canary in the coalmine. But on a good day onstage, something takes hold. Like a ouija board in a séance, the music goes its own way, guided by everyone and by no one. These are the rare moments of flight, and I can feel my heart pounding because the stakes are so high. Last month, as our audience members sat within our music-making, I did not look at their faces, but I could hear they were listening.