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The Crisis of Classical Music 18

img  Tobias
The classical record store in my town has changed. Suddenly, its window displays are no longer just filled with the latest CDs by Anna Netrebko and Rolando Vilazon, but also carry bottles of wine from all over the world. An entire section in the back has been turned inside out and now sports Bordeaux, Pinot Grigios and assorted beverages of regal enjoyment. There can be no doubt what they’re getting at: What could go better with Beethoven than a good glass of wine?

My local classical record store is by no means the only proponent of this policy. Trips combining visits to the opera with excusite food are becoming more and more popular, the “ARIA Wine & Music set” by the Metropolitan Opera was 2007’s favourite Holiday gift, while visitors to the Anton Philipszaal in The Hague no longer need to restrain themselves: Wine or coffee are now included in the ticket prices – as much as anyone can drink.

The message is obvious: Classical music is about indulgence, enjoyment and pleasure. It is an exclusive gift to yourself, best reserved for special occasions. Most of all, it has a sensous quality absent from contemporary composition (too intellectual), techno (too stupid), pop music (too bland) and rock (too raw).

Political and social conventions have long preceeded this attitude. Whenever an important treaty needed to be signed, whenever borders fell and people were liberated, whenever hands were shaken and cocktails stirred, classical music was there to provide for the emotional accompaniment. In Germany, if you’re thinking back to the festivities surrounding unification, you’re hearing “Ode schöner Götterfunken” in your head.

There is, of course, a sense of truth and a logical line of reasoning to this phenomenon. Classical composers would actually write with the dinner situation in mind. Performing this kind of “food music” in concert halls with people sitting still, afraid to cough or to even budge in fact means disappropriating it from its original intent. Original practise, in this case, would mean unpacking your lunch box and treating yourself to some chicken wings and sandwiches during the performance.

That, however, is not what the abovementioned sales tactics are all about. Their train of thought is much simpler. If wine and champagne are suitable to festive moments and so is classical music, why not create a link and make profitable use of it? The general trend of changing classical events into meet and greets with the stars and into spectaculars hardly anyone can afford anymore is also pointing in the direction of classical music as a genre which accepts the position of an elite – though not of a cultural, but a commercial one.

There is something incredibly ironic about all of this. For years, musical pedagogues and arts-circles have tried to defend and sing praise about intellectual enjoyments. Classical music, they insisted, might take more time to be understood, but its pleasures would eventually be longer-lasting. Now, this maxime is being turned upside down again.

The real problem, lies in the generalisation of an entire genre by those who should know better. While some classical music may indeed be festive, quite a lot of pieces were written for non-secular events (masses) or for quite un-celebratory occasions (requiems). Others were intended for dance parties. The late classical period and romanticism were marked by an absolute view of a composition and by a non-functional character. Beethoven or Tchaikovsky would probably have cringed at the thought of their symphonies being used as aural wallpaper, background stimulation or as an acoustic digestive.

Another issue is that emphasising the sensous and emotive side of classical music is creating a wall between the marketing image and reality. If you’d walk into a store, got yourself a nice bottle of red wine and chose a CD of Mahler’s 7th symphony, I doubt you’d ever set foot in that establishment again – it’s simply not a good match.. The history of classical music, for all of its drama and emotions, has always been one of the mind as well as the body. Neglecting that means creating dissatisfied consumers who are being sold things they didn’t expect – or even want.

As much as classical music is about indulgence, enjoyment and pleasure, it also about sadness, melancholy, intimacy, catastrophes and miscomprehensions. If classical record stores start selling wine, they could soon be offering cigars, pasta and expensive holidays. It may sound rediculous, but don’t forget that MTV used to be about music, too, in the past.

By Tobias Fischer

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