From The Wall Street Journal:
If you’ve attended any classical-music concert in the past 50 years, you’re likely to have heard a technically superior performance of old music, and no new music at all that you could understand or enjoy. The situation is exactly reversed from what it was in Europe for nearly the entire history of classical music: Technical proficiency was largely unacceptable by today’s standards, but audiences heard—and expected to hear—the latest works of living composers.
What happened? The answers are many and tangled, but nearly all critics and historians who take up the “crisis of classical music,” as it’s inevitably described, sidestep or ignore the scarcity of new music that engages the public today and instead dwell on the decline in cultural pre-eminence of classical music in general. Their complaints are familiar: Concert halls are full of silver-hairs, Mozart can’t compete with rock ’n’ roll, governments have cut funding to orchestras, and so on.
But these problems, if they are problems at all, are tertiary concerns next to the near-total inability of post-World War II America and Europe to produce more than a small number of classical works that any normal person would want to hear. That failure is slowly killing classical music. You can’t expect the public to remain engaged with works of the distant past if the present doesn’t produce anything interesting. Today’s concertgoers are not antiquaries; they, too, no less than music lovers in centuries gone by, want to enjoy and rave about the latest thing.
The great virtue of John Mauceri’s “The War on Music: Reclaiming the Twentieth Century” is that it acknowledges what many writers on the subject know but can’t say: that something went badly wrong in music in the 20th century, and especially after 1945. The time has come, Mr. Mauceri writes, “to ask why so much contemporary music played by our greatest musical institutions—and supported overwhelmingly by music critics—is music that the vast majority of people do not want to hear—and have never wanted to hear.”
Mr. Mauceri, an accomplished conductor and music scholar, blames the two world wars and the Cold War. After the cataclysm of World War II, he contends, the cultural arbiters of Europe faced a dilemma. In Austria and Germany, critics and academics could not, for obvious reasons, champion composers whom the Third Reich had elevated. But many of the composers the Nazis had declared entartete, or degenerate—Paul Hindemith, Erich Korngold, Kurt Weill, Arnold Schoenberg—had by the 1950s fled to America and were writing in a more tonal and “accessible” style. Some of them, such as Korngold and Franz Waxman, were writing film music in Hollywood—a sure way to be dismissed by the anointed.
“A simple solution was found,” Mr. Mauceri writes, “that involved a tacit agreement between the masses and the masters: Do not play any of it.” Central Europe’s musical establishment thus ignored music the Nazis banned and the music they promoted. Italy’s music critics, meanwhile, had a similar problem and took a similar approach, according to Mr. Mauceri. Opera composers “up to and including Puccini,” who died in 1924, could remain in the repertory; everything from the ’30s and ’40s had to go.
Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (PG apologizes for the paywall, but hasn’t figured out a way around it.)