Recently, I was talking with some folks who were lamenting the dwindling size of classical concert audiences, and we were trying to think of ways to rebuild them. It’s a nearly universal phenomenon.
I think I understand one of the reasons why classical music (concert or recording) is such a hard sell these days.
Or rather, time and focus.
Both, it would seem, are in precious little supply these days. There is more to do, there are shorter deadlines, there are more things vying for our attention.
And a symphony takes, say, 45 minutes. Nobody has 45 minutes in one block anymore. And that’s just listening time. If you’re going to a concert, you have to include travel time, intermission…you get the idea. And to get to the concert, you’re probably going to have to fight traffic, not conducive to preparing one for focused listening. Oh, and don’t forget to turn off your phone before the concert (and check if there’s anything you need to attend to immediately?). After the concert, when you turn your phone back on, it will be sure to alert you if you missed anything.
But then, people go to pop concerts. Since the time commitment’s the same, what’s different? Well, there’s more moving around on stage, possibly dancing. People have their phones out taking pictures or videos, tweeting. There might be a light show* and pyrotechnics. I don’t advocate pyrotechnics for a classical concert (except in the case of the 1812 Overture, then definitely). And it’s hard to dance with a cello.
And, the obvious, the songs are shorter, the form of the music is easier to grasp, and the tempi are probably faster. James Gleick, in his book Faster,1 explored the speeding up of modern life; others have noted the same trends. You can have your groceries delivered if you have no time to shop, and make dinner in an Instant Pot cooker if you have no time to cook. Texts have replaced emails, which replaced written letters (cursive writing is facing near extinction). We are in the age of the tweet and tl;dr (too long; didn’t read…thank you for your continued reading!)
What was the complaint about Glenn Gould’s Goldberg Variations in 1981? Oh yeah—too slow. Was he trying to tell us something?
Schubert’s sonatas have been said to unfold “at heavenly length.”**
When was the last time you had the luxury of that kind of time?
So, what do we do about these concerts? I wish I had a surefire answer. We might make them more approachable, more lively. We might change the programming a little; in the early 20th century, one might hear a sonata movement, not the entire sonata. That’s not necessarily true to the composer’s intent, but now, if something catches your ear, you can probably hear the rest of it on demand and explore. Others have noted the tyranny that audio recording has imposed on live performance—there is less risk-taking, because people want to hear what they heard in the recording, which is flawless, immaculate (and the product of numerous takes and editing). I’d prefer to hear someone playing from their soul, taking some risks, even if it means a few mistakes are made.
Or we can hope that the pendulum will swing back, and people will begin to turn away from the relentless jangling go go go of getting and spending,2 quick, easy, fast, now living, and turn more toward a slower, more deliberate pace, with focused attention and the taking of time. And, with that, the savoring of classical music.
Thank you for your precious time and attention, now and always.
*The organist Virgil Fox had light shows at some of his concerts. But then that was the 1970s…
**Robert Schumann first applied it to Schubert’s Symphony in C Major; it was later more broadly applied to his sonatas.
- Gleick, James, Faster. New York: Pantheon Books, 1999.
- from William Wordsworth’s The World Is Too Much With Us, via poetryfoundation.org. It was written around 1802, published in 1807 (also see Written in London. September, 1802).
Image attribution: Difficult times via https://imgur.com/gallery/Mb8q5.