THE BLOG
12/02/2013 05:00 pm ET | Updated Feb 01, 2014

Classical Music 101: Epilogue

Before investigating the apparent disappearing audiences for classical music, we might attempt to assess the 20th century itself when it comes to classical music. Having spent the last 20 years of that century encountering composers and connections, I never knew anything about --even though I had committed my life to music in the 1960s -- I was particularly interested in how arts institutions themselves -- not the pundits and critics -- decided to wrap things up as we entered the 21st century.

New York City prides itself as being the cultural capital of the world. On New Year's Eve 1999, the New York Philharmonic celebrated the end of the 20th century by playing Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, which was completed in 1824. Nothing American, nothing from a century of Philharmonic commissions and history, and, indeed, nothing from the 20th century itself. Only the pre-recorded 12-tone bell motifs selected from the music of Schoenberg, Berg, Webern, Bernstein, and Stravinsky, and used by the Philharmonic from 1965 to 2005, recalled the waning of old century as they called the assembled into the hall to hear a program of Bach and Beethoven.

New York's Metropolitan Opera performed a "Millenium Gala," based on act two of Die Fledermaus (1874). The only music from the 20th century was from the Broadway musicals South Pacific, Carousel, On the Town, and Man from La Mancha. There were two arias from Puccini: "Vissi d'Arte" (1900) and "Nessun dorma!" (1924). And there were operetta arias by Victor Herbert, Franz Lehar and a Hollywood song, "Because You're Mine," from the 1952 Mario Lanza film of the same name, and which includes the lyric by Sammy Cahn, "That isn't thunder, dear. It's just my heart you hear." No Berg, Henze, Stockhausen, or Berio. Not a note of Benjamin Britten, John Adams, Philip Glass, Sam Barber or Gian Carlo Menotti.

Of course, much institutional discussion went on to choose these programs and one does not want to draw too much from these data. However, if one compares the two programs with, say, the opening of Philharmonic Hall in 1961 (Beethoven, Mahler, Vaughn-Williams, a world premiere by Aaron Copland) and the 1966 opening of the "new" Metropolitan (the world premiere of Samuel Barber's Antony and Cleopatra), the contrast is quite startling.

In Berlin, Claudio Abbado conducted the Berlin Philharmonic in final movements of a number of symphonic works that just barely took its audience into the 20th century -- excerpts from the 19th century's Beethoven and Dvorak, mixed with highlights from Stravinsky's Firebird (1910), the finale to Mahler's Fifth Symphony (1902) and Arnold Schoenberg's super-Romantic Gurrelieder (1900-1911). No Webern, Boulez, Carter, or Morton Feldman.

And no world premiere commissions from the living masters. A search in the archives of that night will provide more sobering data on how classical institutions chose to end the century. Those facts directly confront what we read about the 20th century and what was important in it from a philosophical and esthetic point of view. It is as if we are living in two parallel universes: one that is what we actually experienced and one that seems more of a wish that keeps demanding to be true.

At the same time, we also read about the aging out of audiences and falling attendance figures at orchestra concerts. So where did the audience go? I tell you it is there. Howard Shore's monumental two-hour symphony based on his scores to the three Lord of the Rings films drew a worldwide audience attending live orchestra concerts in the millions of people. (It is not played with the movie, by the way.)

If you have turned up your nose to this bit of data, you might ask yourself a question about how you define classical music. Mozart, Haydn, Liszt, Verdi, and Wagner would not understand why you just sniffed. They all wrote commercial music -- because they were paid to compose what they wrote. They all adapted their styles to the needs of their audience and those who hired them -- whether that was rewriting an opera for Parisian tastes as Verdi did with Il Trovatore and Aïda, composing for a drunken party of students as Mozart did, or creating descriptive music synchronized to stage movement as Wagner did, while currying the favor of the king -- who paid him with land, a theater and a house!

In the 1940s, Max Steiner, the Viennese-trained composer (one of his teachers was Gustav Mahler) who composed over 300 symphonic film scores including Gone with the Wind, was called "the father of film music." He responded by saying, "Nonsense. The idea originated with Wagner. If Wagner had lived in this century he would have been the Number One film composer." Perhaps it is worth noting that the first film scores were written by opera composers: Saint-Saens, Pietro Mascagni, and Richard Strauss, whose themes were subsequently published to be used to accompany silent films.

Last month, a contemporary music concert of orchestral music by Danny Elfman, consisting of more than an hour and a half of music that he composed over a 27-year period for the films of Tim Burton, arranged by the composer for concert performance, sold out the 4,000 available seats in London's Royal Albert Hall in two days -- seven months before the event took place and without advertising. The response was so great that three subsequent concerts were added in the UK. On October 29, 30, and 31, that program came to Los Angeles' Nokia Theater, which seats 6,000 -- three times the seating capacity of Walt Disney Concert Hall. The first of these concerts sold out in ten minutes, encouraging the presenters to add two more concerts. During the past month I have led the BBC Concert Orchestra, the Hollywood Symphony Orchestra, the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra and the London Symphony Orchestra in responsibly rehearsed concerts of music composed for the film, and it should be noted that each of these orchestras played with immense commitment, passion, and joy -- and the audiences responded in kind.

When people use the phrase "contemporary music," or "new music," they really do not mean that, for surely the Elfman program is a concert of music that is new and contemporary. The London Philharmonic program that included six masterpieces for orchestra, composed between 1960 and 1980 for films, was obviously a concert of 20th Century orchestral music, but few viewed it as a classical concert. For many, the adjectives "new" and "contemporary" signify a certain style of music -- a music that represents a tradition of experimentation that began a hundred years ago, and was revitalized in the Cold War Era. Many still hold onto that definition of what constitutes 20th century classical music, and also use those two adjectives to imply what is good and valuable in new music. For one thing, it is "serious" music -- another adjective that must await further discussion.

And so we have two classical traditions and we are poorer for that because audiences are made to feel they have to choose one over the other. Sadly, our major newspapers do not even admit to a dialogue on this subject. There is only one kind of "new" classical music that is reviewed and judged and this "other music" -- a music that seems to have no name -- is generally dismissed or ignored altogether. The Elfman program, which, as of this writing, has been heard in eight cities in the U.S., Canada and Europe, and by a young, passionate and knowledgeable audience of 35,000, has never been reviewed in a major newspaper. The London Philharmonic program, which was part of a year-long festival exploring 20th century music, was also ignored in the press, even though five of the six works were receiving their London concert premieres.

It is no secret that I believe we should play the great symphonic music composed for the medium of the cinema, but generally, I do not believe we should isolate it. It should be played alongside the classical composers from whom they sprang and with whom they studied and who inspired them. Relegating it to pops concerts (the one-rehearsal horror) is insulting and unacceptable. We do not need to show movies in order to play this music. That just begs the question of whether the music can stand on its own, even though the "live to film" concerts are fun and becoming something of a trend. I submit that many of the great scores endure a lot better than the films themselves. Imagine if we only could experience Aïda as a film from the original production in Cairo and you will understand what I am saying. Dramatic film scoring is a direct outgrowth of the orchestral music composed for plays in Europe. That is what Beethoven was doing with Egmont. That is what Mendelssohn was doing with A Midsummer Night's Dream. That is what Schubert was doing with Rosemunde. Haydn's Symphony No. 60 is adapted from his incidental music to a comedy, il Distratto. And Shostakovich's music to the 1963 Soviet film of Shakespeare's Hamlet is one of his masterpieces, though it had to wait until 2008 for its first concert performance.

And so I leave you as I started: There is nothing to worry about. The repertory is there. Right now there are composers all over the world ranging from the age of 20 to 85 who are writing new music for the symphony orchestra. Perhaps you will find new music that you love in the concert hall. Perhaps you will find it in your local cinema. Maybe both. Whatever your opinions, the one data point that is irrefutable is that the orchestral music written for the movies, with its wide embrace of styles, remains the most heard orchestral music in history.