When Heather Mac Donald’s piece “Classical Music’s New Golden Age” came out in the summer edition of City Journal, I tweeted it enthusiastically. Articles like this are one of the reasons I’m a City Journal subscriber. In a world where we’re constantly bombarded with doom and gloom predictions about classical music’s future, it was refreshing to read to a contrarian perspective as a corrective. As a bit of a contrarian myself, I can especially appreciate this. One need not believe that the article is in fact literally true in order to enjoy the different point of view.
This piece prompted classical music writer Greg Sandow to pen a series of rebuttals (see here, here, here, here, and here). Sandow was obviously irked, and his tone shows it. I thought perhaps he’d taken Mac Donald a bit too literally.
Then it turns about that she took herself a bit too literally too. Not content with 7,000 words in print, she responded to Sandow’s series with a 5,000 word online diatribe titled, “The Unsustainable Declinism of Greg Sandow.”
But that’s mostly for another day. What I’d like to discuss are some of the reasons that Mac Donald gave for being so insistent this is for sure a golden age, which, believe it or not, is a topic relevant for cities. Among her reasons:
1. We have access to far more classical music today than ever before. While previous generations where limited to a narrow slice of the repertoire or only current hits, we have instant access the best of all of Western music.
2. There are more orchestras than ever, more people studying classical music than ever, and we spend more money than ever on it.
3. Musicianship today is a level of technical excellence never before seen.
4. Performers today have stripped away the tendency of previous generations to alter or bastardize works to suit contemporary tastes, and have instead have recreated music in line with the composer’s intent, the way it was originally intended to be heard and as close to the way it originally was heard as we can make it.
While one might possibly quibble with these, I’d have to agree with them. And in that regard today’s musical world is far healthier than many might give it credit for.
But abstract these to generic propositions, and one could make an argument that today is a golden age of pretty much anything. We’re fortunate to live in a wealthy, mostly peaceful and free society, one that values inquiry, and in which we have tremendous technology and techniques available at our disposal far exceeding those people of the past ever dreamed. I dare say its true that we have more of pretty much everything, more people studying everything, amazing technical excellence in every field, and incredible scholarship about how almost everything really was in the past.
Consider philosophy. I can instantly download a vast array of works from the entire history of human kind, not just in the Western tradition but any global tradition. Where once philosophy was the pursuit mostly of the leisured classes, today it is accessible to all. There are probably more students than ever. And we probably know more about Plato and Aristotle than they knew about themselves.
So ask yourself: is today a golden age of philosophy? Or of literature? Or of religion? Or of art? Or of food?
By Mac Donald’s criteria I think we could probably answer Yes to all. So in that sense I think what she’s actually doing is making an observation about the times we live in rather than a particular point on classical music.
And it’s a valid point. I must say, I’m glad to be alive today. It doesn’t take much consideration of what people lived like and what they went through even a short time ago to make me thank God I’m alive right now. While the future could get better I suppose, now is still pretty darn good, the present economy notwithsanding. This is clearly a special epoch in human existence to date.
Now back to the question. Whether one judges this a golden age must depend on what you value. Do you value being able to consume the best of what the world has ever produced with a few clicks of the mouse? Today is your time.
But will anyone tomorrow in retrospect judge this age, or any age of consumption, a golden age of classical music, philosophy, etc? It strikes me as very unlikely. Presumably, by Mac Donald’s standards, tomorrow will be even more golden, so today will rapidly lose its allure.
No, when we think about a golden age in the past, we think of the time in which those greatest of works were produced. We talk of the golden age of Athens, when those most primal works of western civilization were created. Would you rather be here reading Plato talk about Socrates, or would you rather have had a front row seat at his trial? Or, perhaps yet, would you have rather have been engaged on the field of battle, to have been one of the participants of those great debates on the ultimate questions of human existence, to strive to be one of the names written in the history books?
Would you rather applaud politely at the end of yet another perfect modern performance of Beethoven’s fifth, or would you have rather been in Vienna with Mozart, Beethoven, Hayden, Schubert and the rest? Do you want to listen to authentically performed early music, or be the composer future generations are still admiring, listening to, researching, performing hundreds of years hence?
Which era is likely to be judged the most golden, the one where the great works are consumed, or the ones where they are produced?
There’s a word for civilizations that featured an excess of luxurious golden age consumption at the expense of creation: decadence. And few decadent eras had staying power in history, except as bywords.
Fortunately for us, our creative energies are alive and well today, in areas ranging from technology (where it doesn’t seem a stretch to suggest this is an Athenian era) to popular music. But not in classical music. Indeed, the rise of imitating as perfectly as possibly, even slavishly so, the styles of the past proclaims our own lack of cultural self-confidence in the field.
Today may perhaps be a golden age, but that all depends on how you define it, and what your own personal ambitions are. We’ll see what the future holds, but I am pleased to see that contemporary composers are increasingly creating works that you can actually listen to again, so let’s hope for the best.
The applicability to cities is obvious. Do you want to be in the place that is already at its apex or at the place where the seeds of tomorrow’s great cities are being sown? I’m always struck walking around cities seeing the bronze statues of heroes and great leaders past. Who, I wonder, will merit a statue tomorrow from our own generation?
If you want to enjoy the best a contemporary American city can offer, then San Francisco is your place. I’ll admit, it’s my favorite city in the US. But I don’t imagine that if I moved there (as opposed to Silicon Valley) that I’d get to witness any great historical happenings, or play any role in defining even that city’s urban future, much less creating America’s next great metropolis.
For those who want to consume urbanism, move to San Francisco or someplace like it. For those who, like the cathedral builders of Europe, want to be a part of creating history and a legacy for tomorrow, even though that might not be recognized in their lifetime, it’s probably best to look elsewhere.
How do you define your own personal golden age? That is the question.