Is classical music dying?

WE'VE RECENTLY been experiencing another wave of dire statements about classical music: It's dead, it's dying, the audience is aging, standards are decaying, support from governments, patrons and societies is disappearing; it's almost all over now.

And there's plenty to be alarmed about since orchestras are in trouble, recording companies have drastically cut back and also are pursuing bizarre marketing concepts that many serious artists deplore, Broadway theaters are looking for robots to play in the pit and music education for our children is threatened everywhere.


And yet each winter at Carnegie Mellon's School of Music we hear hundreds of wonderful auditions from young people totally committed to this life, and each fall an amazing new group arrives at the university full of enthusiasm and commitment.

Why is this, and what will become of them?


The impulse to make music is truly a need to make music; it is a fundamental condition of humankind. Among the first things our earliest ancestors made were articles of bone, branches, reeds, stones and clay - musical instruments. They sang and played to express love, mystery, pride, identity; to nurture, to celebrate, to soothe, to excite, to mourn and to carry their present into the future, making something permanent out of memory.

Many of these purposes are served by all kinds of music - every mother singing a lullaby is a great musician. But that last element belongs to art that we call "classical." It speaks with an unmistakable intention, across generations of human experience, across boundaries of society, race and class. It carries the present into the permanent.

Classical music performance is difficult. It takes preparation, technique, mastery, determination, discipline, sheer staying power.

It's often observed that no form of education takes as much teaching time and learning time as music. The classical musician is someone who knows the fascination of the difficult and knows that there are results that can be achieved no other way except through a kind of dedication most people seldom know.

Every classical music performance is also an exciting risk, combining a thrill like that of athletic performance, the drama of theatrical emotion and the challenge of performing masterpieces that the informed audience will know through and through, submitting one's self to often fierce judgments. The risk is great, but the reward for both performer and audience can be dazzling.

Works of visual art have a terrible fragility and unique identity that is, in turn, part of their fascination and value. Classical music traditions have a different fragility, just as they have a different kind of permanence; they live in the lives and performances of each succeeding generation.

This is a treasure simply too great to be lost, and as I hear new generations of students from all over the world auditioning each year, full of hope and determination, love and spirit, I know that we - that they - will not permit it to be lost.

Classical music sings in two ways - as an authentic witness to the time of its creation and as an authentic part of the immediate present.


A voice major singing the Countess from The Marriage of Figaro is literally the voice of Mozart, of the 18th century, of a time long vanished, and yet is simultaneously herself and all she has to say about the 21st century. There is a meaning in this unavailable in any other way.

The social and economic structures supporting classical music will certainly change in our time, as they have always changed. What Beethoven knew of concert life is entirely unlike what Toscanini knew, and we can't expect circumstances to remain the same. Some things succeed more, some less. Classical music was once something most middle class families made together in their homes. At a different time, it was something all aristocratic youths concentrated on. In Korea in the late 20th century it meant something different from England in the 19th century or Italy in the 16th century or Flanders in the 15th century.

What we can say with assurance is that it has endured through many changes of fortune and social meaning because it has an enduring importance.

If our students thought of music only as a job or thought of their futures only as careers, they might be in for a tough time. But students who make music with everything they've got - emotionally, physically, intellectually, spiritually - will find a way to make it live, and to live in it.

Alan Fletcher is head of the School of Music at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.