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What is Killing Classical Music?

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Many a thing has been accused of killing classical music over the years. Fortunately, none of them have. Since its first mentions, from roughly the 11th century, until present day, Classical Music has gone through different obstacles and overcome them all. Will it be able to continue its quest for centuries to come? Only time will tell. For now, we will just look through all of the rises and falls, beginning with the early 14th century.

The year is 1324 and popular music is staring to climb its way into people’s preferred genres of music. Its tunes are faster, the melody – cheerful, and the lyrics – easily distinguishable, especially with the lead singers being so articulate. You see, when it all began in the Middle Ages, music was sung slowly and without rhythm or harmony. Everyone sang the same thing. Composers rarely could write their music down, since only the Church could afford to buy what was needed to compose music – people outside the church were too poor. Somewhere around the 13th or 14th century though, the Secular music started creeping in, brought on by traveling musicians, called troubadours, who sang love songs and used different instruments, such as drums, harps and bagpipes. Their music was still not written down – they learnt by ear – but it quickly became popular, especially when compared to the boring disharmonic Gregorian sacred music, performed in churches. Pope John XXII even spoke about them in his Docta Sanctorum Pactum, heavily outraged: “The voices incessantly rock to and fro, intoxicating rather than soothing the ear, while the singers themselves try to convey the emotion of the music by their gestures. The consequence of all this is that devotion, the true aim of worship, is neglected, and wantonness, which ought to be eschewed, increases. We hasten to forbid these methods, or rather to drive them more effectively out of the house of God than has been done in the past.” Needless to say, popular music did not manage to kill the classical, but certainly became its equal rival.

The 14th-century religious persons might have had some problems with the new type of music, calling it lascivious, but not until the early 16th did they come across true blasphemy in the form of music. With the blossoming of the Renaissance, a lot of musicians took the liberty to compose a bit more frivolous pieces. And even though this period is known for the most prosperous for this art – a lot of new instruments were invented, the musicians were split into Guilds and could actually write and exchange music – some people were not speaking favorably of it. Henry Cornelius Agrippa wrote, in his “Declaration of the Uncertainty and Vanity of the Sciences and the Arts” the following: “But nowadays the unlawful liberty of music, is so much used in Churches, that together with the Canon of the Mass, very filthy songs have like tunes in the Organs, and the Divine Services is sung by lascivious musicians hired for a great stipend not for the understanding of the heavens, but for the stirring up of the mind. But for dishonest lasciviousness, not with manly voices, but with beastly seeking, while the children bray the Discant, some bellow the Tenor, some bark the Counterpoint, some howl the Treble, some grunt the bass, and cause many sounds to be heard, and no words and sentences to be understood, but in this sort the authority of judgement is taken is taken from both the ears, and the mind.”

17th century began with the famous Artusi-Monteverdi Conflict. In his work “On the Imperfections of Modern Music” he never mentions Monteverdi specifically, but it is obvious that he is aiming his critique at him and his madrigals, as well as the changes in music theory. About Monteverdi, he says “Such composers, in my opinion, have nothing but smoke in their heads if they are so impressed with themselves as to think they can corrupt, abolish, and ruin at will the good old rules handed down from days of old by so many theorists and excellent musicians, who are the very ones from whom these modern musicians have learned awkwardly to put a few notes together.” In present day terms, one could say he was ‘throwing shade’. Nevertheless classical music survived this too. Also in the 17th century, the world of classical music was overwhelmed by the use of the Figured Bass, but it was soon stigmatized as the “lazy” way by Adriano Banchieri in 1609. Later in line, at the end of the century, money took part in the conflict – classical musicians didn’t have enough profits to continue working in the Baroque period, but fortunately genius cannot be contained – in this case, the genious of Bach, Vivaldi and Handel paved the way for the popular explosion of classical music.

As surprising as it may seem, in the 18th century the controversies were aimed towards an otherwise beloved instrument – the violin, impersonated in a certain paper, and called an “abortion and pygmy”. This was in middle of 18th century, but by the beginning of the 19th the foul-speakers had a new victim – Beethoven. The true problem was that he had imitators who would “display as much harshness, as much extravagance, and as much obscurity, with the little or none of his beauty and grandeur” as stated in a letter to the Quarterly Musical Magazine and Review. By the end of the century this crisis had passed and it was time for the piano to take the blame – as Heinrich Heine exclaimed in 1843 “This piano-playing is too much to bear!”

Throughout the 20th century, the biggest problem of classical musicians was, once again, money, presented in different form and shape, or the lack of it. Other culprits from this century include Debussy, for whose music Camille Belaigue states that “it contains germs not of life and progress, but of decadence and death.” As for the instruments – the player piano was not left out of the pile and claimed to be an “injury to music” by John Philip Sousa in 1906. When the gramophone was invented in the middle of the century it was called a long and descriptive list of degrading names, which included “an epidemic of canned music” and “mechanical music” by Joseph N. Weber, who feared that because of the widespread popularity of the gramophone, orchestras would no longer be needed and musical genius will be a thing of the past. When this too passed, until the rest of the century the classical musicians’ problem were nothing but money.

With the coming of the new millennium modern technology started to threaten more and more the good old rules of classical music. The compact discs of 2009 and later on the boom of Youtube in 2013 were seen as literal weapons of destruction for classical music, especially with Seth Colter Walls’ work named “Why CDs are Killing Classical Music”. One angry pianist even exited one of his performances when he noticed that a member of the audience was filming him on a mobile phone, saying that Youtube was destroying music.

And finally, the last and most recent problem that classical music encounters – the aging audience. Demographic researches show that younger fans are not converting to classical music as they age. The last generation of classical music lovers may slowly be aging out of existence. It is up to us to change that or see it go away and be only “a thing of the past”.