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Cue Sheet entry

CLASSICAL SMACKDOWN

Heather Mac Donald and Greg Sandow have been feuding very entertaingly over whether classical music is now in a golden age (Mac Donald) or in decline (Sandow). To simplify linkage, I’ll send you only to Mac Donald’s presumably final rebuttal to Sandow here, and from there you can follow links to her original article and to Sandow’s five-part argument against her theses.

Sandow’s basic point these past several years has been that classical music is doomed because it has strayed so far from today’s dominant culture, and must find ways to engage with the “real” world if it is to survive. I have had some sympathy with his points, but Greg is really arguing from a false assumption: that what we call “classical music” ever played a significant role in mainstream culture. Mac Donald has a succinct answer to that:

A seventeenth-century mass by definition is remote from the twenty-first-century world around it; it is silly to wish away the irreducible foreignness of the music of the distant past. Either you are willing and able to enter that foreign world, with its lost language of feeling, or you are not. No amount of allegedly “audience-friendly” tweaking with our performance tradition is going to overcome the initial division between the modern world and music that came out of a courtly tradition.

For now, I’m inclined to side with Mac Donald, and dispute Sandow’s notion that classical performances and presentations need to interweave more thoroughly with pop culture. The reason that classical music has any appeal, I think, is that it’s different from so many other things; otherwise, why pay any attention to it at all? The same can be said of jazz, most folk music, and just about anything else that isn’t oversaturated on Top 40 radio. The motto of Austin, Texas is “Keep Austin Strange”; if classical music is to have any appeal, we need to keep it “strange”—that is, distinctive—as well.

Read the arguments and see what you think.

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About Cue Sheet

James Reel's cranky consideration of the fine arts and public radio in Tucson and beyond.

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Classical Music