Saving the Symphony
Attend a classical music concert or opera and you’re struck by the proportion of the audience that is older than 65. This has been deemed a crisis for the industry, and it is, in a sense: symphonies are expensive operations. Operas, perhaps even moreso. 1
Therefore, classical players and aficionados have taken to proposing fixes. Pianist Stephen Hough suggests removing the intermission and shortening performances to “60 to 80 minutes,” tops. However, the current length (roughly two hours with an intermission) doesn’t seem to stop young people from watching professional soccer, or American football, or many rock concerts. The problem runs deeper.
To put it bluntly, classical music does not have pride-of-place in 21st century American culture. On the contrary, it has been reduced to an extreme niche: the province of rich people and ringtones (which people don’t even use anymore). There are a few realities about the way classical music is experienced by the broader population:
It’s unfamiliar. Kids get little to no exposure to classical music in public schools: kids who learn an instrument in “band” tend to play movie themes and instrumental renditions of popular songs rather than older standards. Cartoons, too, have moved away from classical music: if you’re not watching Bugs Bunny anymore, you don’t immediately associate Wagner with “Kill the Wabbit” and Rossini with Bugs himself. You might not even recognize those themes--even the more ubiquitous ones--when they appear in television commercials.
It’s inscrutable. Music lessons--a previous touchstone of middle class respectability--have declined in the face of increasing demands from other leisure activities. If you’re not learning piano or violin, you’re likely not getting any exposure at all to classical music. You would have no idea what to listen for or what was happening at any given time; it’s just a pleasant collection of sounds. It’s less immediately accessible than popular music, and without the classical music training, it is little more than noise.
It’s impersonal. We don’t know much about the composers that created the classical canon. We have no concept of the context in which they wrote, or the sources of inspiration that led them to their creativity. These are by and large fascinating individuals, but their personal histories are neglected.
It is no wonder that young people don’t go to symphonies: most would have no idea what they were listening to, and there is a proliferation of alternatives--popular music, television, movies, sports, video games, smartphones, etc.--that are both cheaper and more immediately satisfying. Reducing the length of a show alone isn’t going to solve this issue.
The problems identified above--that viewers don’t have much familiarity with the performance, that viewers don’t have any connection to the key players, and that the public viewing is difficult to understand--have been tackled and (somewhat) solved in another entertainment industry: professional sports. Imagine trying to watch an American football game with only a vague understanding of the rules and no color commentator. It would be sheer chaos, a cacophony of bodies slamming into one another and periodic starts and stops.
The reality is that symphonies are like this, for the uninitiated.
Sports broadcasts are hit-and-miss on this stuff, but the answers are there, in some capacity. The shows attempt to build compelling personal narratives by focusing on specific individuals, rivalries between players, and the broader significance of the game. Then, once the game starts, the commentators provide useful detail about what is actually happening: they identify matchups to watch, players who are making exceptional plays and/or mistakes, and the strategies behind various decisions.
Live music is different than live sports, though, because you can’t have a play-by-play broadcaster and color commentator speaking throughout. Therefore, classical concerts must fill the entirety of this role of contextualization, stage-setting, and introduction prior to playing their piece.
Right now, this is solved in two ways: conductors will usually give a piece a 1-2 minute intro, usually glossing over some detail about the theme of the piece or the composer’s life. You’ll also get a program they hand you as you descend into the theater. But no young person is reading it; they’re on their phones. The program is an afterthought. You have to force-feed the context; people in the target audience have no interest in supplying it themselves.
The proposal, then, is simple: every classical piece that is played should be preceded by an interactive, 10-15 minute presentation and introduction. Piece introductions should be a combination historical lecture and music appreciation class, complete with musicians from the orchestra participating by playing small snippets of the piece they’re about to play. I’ll give some examples of how this can work below.
Identify Themes Attendees Should Listen For.
Let’s take a classic theme and variations piece: Edward Elgar’s “Enigma Variations.”
In Elgar’s piece, the theme is played fifteen times: once as the main theme, and then in fourteen separate variations representing different people in Elgar’s life. But some of the variations bleed into one another, so it’s periodically hard to tell where one begins and one ends.
Prior to starting the piece, someone (either a violinist or a pianist) should slowly and meticulously demonstrate the basic theme. Then someone can play the same theme with a slight adjustment--say, with the rhythm, to show how a single theme can be modified for a theme and variations piece or movement. Then once more, with a significant adjustment. In short: teach your audience how to appreciate what they’re hearing. This approach generates a psychic payoff for the viewer. Every time they hear the theme, they get the satisfaction of having identified it and watched how it develops.
Without doing this first--without demonstrating where the theme starts and stops--the listener, if they even know that it’s a theme and variations piece, has to grapple with determining where one variation starts and the other stops. There is no reason for it to be so complicated.
Even in other styles of piece, it’s useful to describe what the listener should look for. The presenter should give auditory landmarks/signposts. “When you hear this, that means that .” But it’s silly to describe when you can demonstrate. Have a musician play the particular auditory snippet on the spot so that the listener is prepared.
For any piece that uses leitmotif--or a musical theme that represents a particular character or idea--the listener should be aware of what those themes are prior to going into the performance. I’ll use a more modern piece for accessibility: John Williams’ Star Wars orchestration. It’s probably the most famous use of the leitmotif in modern classical.
Below is Luke’s theme from Star Wars. The true leitmotif begins around 2:30.
Likewise, here’s Leia’s theme. The leitmotif appears around 0:40 in:
And, most famously, Vader’s theme. Perhaps the most famous leitmotif in cinematic history begins around 0:23 in:
If you watch the… now seven movies, 2 you’ll hear these themes constantly recur in different forms, as the characters appear and act within the cinematic universe. Listening for those themes is one way to appreciate the music more. People love the Star Wars music because they can immediately associate the melodies and themes with concepts and moments in the beloved story. Imagine being able to have the same associations with a much more distant piece, like Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique, which also makes great use of a leitmotif. If you’re not aware that they’re there, you’d miss out on the payoff.
Tell Stories about the Composers.
Robert Schumann wavered between two sides of a personality (that he identified himself): his “passionate” Florestan and his dreamy “Eusebius.” Georges Bizet challenged the norms of French Opéra-Comique with Carmen and died months later, perhaps in part due to the public reaction. Gustav Mahler was intensely superstitious and avoided writing his ninth symphony in an effort to cheat death. Franz Liszt inspired “Lisztomania,” where onlookers and fans at his performances would “fight over his handkerchiefs and gloves.”
These are genuinely interesting human stories that deserve to be told, and can put the music into a different light. Concert programs are often wonderful for getting into the background behind various pieces and the mindsets of the composers who wrote them. But the people you’re trying to attract aren’t going to read the program. That means that you have to spend more time focusing on the composers as people. Fortunately, many are fascinating.
Separate out the Constituent Parts of the Orchestra.
This one, I think, is the most important, and that’s to help the listener differentiate between the various sections of the orchestra. (Baroque music in particular is famous for its elaborate, constant bass parts, and they are utterly fascinating to listen for in a live performance. But breaking up the sound into the various parts is difficult, especially if you’ve never played in a band or orchestra. Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 2 is one example of a piece that uses many different parts simultaneously.
There’s a simple way to demonstrate how this works: have the orchestra sections each play segments of their parts separately, prior to beginning to perform the piece in full. Listeners can then seize on portions of the sound to target in their listener, while periodically moving in and out of the main melody. The score below demonstrates that there are four separate parts playing simultaneously. Why not hear what they sound like separately, before hearing their glorious synthesis?
Ultimately, all of this is about demystifying what the attendee is seeing and hearing. Help the viewer listen better, and move beyond the undifferentiated wall-of-sound. Encourage them to spend a performance staring at the cellos, or the trumpets, to see what’s going on. And have fun with it! These can be opportunities for improvisation, displays of virtuosity, self-deprecating humor, etc.
We still want to keep the show at two hours in length. What this suggests is that if the show had 4 scheduled pieces, one of the short-to-mid-length pieces should be removed in favor of contextualization sections for each piece.
Classical music can be made more accessible, but not unless it grapples with the fundamental realities of twenty-first century entertainment. That means accepting that people don’t actually know what they’re hearing, and helping them understand.
This grew out of some back-and-forth conversation on Twitter with Michael Drew. I appreciate his insight and thoughtfulness.