In 1955, Henry Pleasants, the American music critic and intelligence officer, wrote in The Agony of Modern Music, “Serious music is a dead art. The vein which for 300 years offered a seemingly inexhaustible yield of beautiful music has run out.” Yet here we are, some 68 years later, and on any given evening in most large American, European, or Asian cities, one can find an orchestral performance, chamber-music recital, or opera to attend. (That wasn’t true of Asian cities in 1955.) Music departments in universities continue to offer courses in harmony, counterpoint, and Schubert lieder, even if the courses are no longer required of music majors. Record sales may have slumped—they have for all genres in the wake of streaming—but YouTube performances of pretty much any and every classical composition, minor and major, can be found with the tap of a finger.

“If classical or ‘serious’ music isn’t alive today, it isn’t quite dead, either.”

So if classical or “serious” music isn’t alive today, it isn’t quite dead, either. Certainly not dead enough for Hollywood, which recently trained its guns on Mozart and Gluck in the form of Chevalier. The film is based on the life of the minor 18th-century composer Joseph Bologne, aka Chevalier de Saint-Georges, who happened to be half-black. It opens with a wholly fabricated scene in which Bologne demonstrates he is a better violinist than Mozart. The story then moves on to the machinations in 1776 over the leadership of the Paris Opera; Bologne was indeed considered for the position, and his race may have had something to do with his not getting it. But the film presents racism as the sole explanation and proceeds to dwell on Bologne’s supposed superiority to the supreme opera composer of the mid-18th century, Gluck, who, in fact, had nothing to do with the matter. The film concludes with Bologne’s black mother leading him back to “his people,” culminating in an anachronistic Afro-Caribbean jam session.

The message of the film couldn’t be clearer: Classical music is an outdated, desiccated, white art form. Black musicians ought not to be playing it, even though they are generally better at it than their white counterparts. Instead, they ought to devote themselves to the vibrant, living music of their own people.

Bologne’s pleasant, anodyne music isn’t going to displace Mozart’s from the canon, although we are probably going to have to sit through a lot of it for the next few years. As Heather Mac Donald points out in her takedown of the film, the filmmakers obliquely acknowledge the superficial character of Bologne’s compositions by largely substituting music written by the film’s composers and arrangers for Bologne’s own compositions. No such requirement was imposed on an earlier potboiler purporting to initiate viewers into 18th-century musical life, Amadeus, which also had its share of anachronisms but trusted in the sheer beauty and power of Mozart’s music to hold the audience’s interest.

The threat Chevalier poses lies not in the nonexistent risk that Bologne will supplant Mozart in the canon, but rather in the way it seeks to undermine the entire notion of a canon—or, to use another term, of a “classical” music. The fantasies of Chevalier can, of course, be dismissed with the most cursory examination of the historical record. To call them errors, however, suggests that the filmmakers had any ambition to present an accurate overview of their subject. Rather, their aim was to tar Mozart and Gluck with the brush of white supremacy, while pushing the notion that loving their music makes you a racist.

The film wasn’t conjuring up this notion out of nowhere but, instead, dressing up ideas that have been floating about among academic circles for a generation. To give one prominent example, in 2020, Phillip Ewell, a scholar of music theory, got himself talked about by denouncing music theory’s “White Racial Frame” and dissing Beethoven (“Beethoven occupies the place he does because he has been propped up by whiteness and maleness for 200 years”). Ewell wouldn’t have chosen Giuseppe Tartini or George Cates for his little exercise in épater les blancs; blasphemers don’t bother with the lesser saints.

To be sure, Beethoven-bashing had been going on for more than a century before Ewell wrote his piece—see Debussy walking out of a performance of a Beethoven quartet, muttering, “Let’s go, he’s starting to develop”; Ned Rorem’s dismissal of the Ninth Symphony as “the first piece of junk in the grand style”; or  musicologist Susan McClary’s 1987 assertion that the climax of the first movement of that symphony represented “the throttling murderous rage of a rapist incapable of attaining release.” So what’s new? All these jeers—then and now—point not to Beethoven’s irrelevance, but to the vastness of the cultural shadow he has cast since his death in 1827.

If classical music were truly dead, as Pleasants already contended 70 years ago, people desperate today to signal their “anti-racist” bona fides or grovel over their wrongthink would probably choose some other cultural target, while those fearful of drowning in a rising sea of barbarism would find a different islet on which to haul themselves ashore. Classical-music critics at The New Yorker and The New York Times, not to mention various opera and orchestra managers and executives from Peter Gelb at the Met to Simon Woods of the League of American Orchestras, have recently indulged in an orgy of self-flagellation for their devotion to this “blindingly white” art form, to quote New Yorker music critic Alex Ross. Yet the very fact of these self-abasing pronouncements from the critical establishment attests to the enduring power of classical music—a power that neoliberal monoculture finds deeply intolerable.

The current agitation for “de-centering” classical music’s “whiteness” is an update—with a change of labels and actors—of a story that began much earlier when the classical-musical establishment began attempting to convince audiences that there was particular type of music that they “should” be listening to. The music of ideologically approved composers of color has simply replaced the 12-tone music of academic white male composers.

This story began with Richard Wagner, whose reputation and operas reigned over European culture in the late 19th century and early 20th in a way that no single figure’s had before or has since. Wagner had left composers—and, indeed, “classical” music itself—with several as-yet unresolved problems. He left behind him a technical challenge, having taken the harmonic language of European art music to its tonal limit; in simple terms, after Tristan und Isolde and Parsifal, there was little left to explore that didn’t risk destroying the sense of key upon which European music had depended for intelligibility since the early 17th century.

Some responded by dethroning the central role of harmony and harmonic development in classical music. Debussy’s elevation of musical color from a decorative to a structural element and Stravinsky’s radical treatment of rhythm constitute the paradigmatic examples. Other composers—Arnold Schoenberg, most importantly—were determined to maintain harmony’s primacy but to transcend the limits imposed by the need to retain the sense of key. The so-called 12-tone, dodecaphonic, or “serial” system Schoenberg devised—in brief, every note of the chromatic scale must be sounded before a given note can be repeated—prevented listeners from intuiting any tonal center or tonal direction to a given phrase.

Schoenberg and his contemporaries—both those who worshipped Wagner and those who hated him—had interpreted their challenge either as figuring out a way to continue the harmonic implications of the Wagnerian project (Mahler, Berg) or replacing it with something else (Debussy, Stravinsky). But they all took Wagner’s cultural and social position as a given. After all, hadn’t composers since Beethoven’s time occupied the central role of “artist” in music and in the wider culture? The task at hand appeared a matter of establishing one’s claim as the legitimate successor, with the legitimization coming from fellow composers and other elements of the coalescing musical establishment: critics, theorists, scholars, impresarios, performers. As for audiences, well, wouldn’t they follow along meekly?

Back in 1955, classical composers still preened as the “lineal descendants of Beethoven,” to quote Pleasants again—lineal not simply as in working within the tradition, but imagining that they occupied the same cultural space in their time and place that Beethoven had in his. Pleasants wrote of “an attempt to perpetuate a European musical tradition whose technical resources are exhausted, and which no longer has any cultural validity. That it continues to be composed and performed and discussed, represents self-deception by an element of society which refuses to believe that this is true.” More recently, the reality of dwindling audiences and increasing cultural marginalization—not to mention the bankruptcy of the entire 12-tone or serialist movement—has broken through that self-deception. The result has been something close to panic as impresarios and producers flail about with attempts to be progressive to lure back audiences into concert halls and opera houses.

“The classical-music establishment can still dictate much of what is performed.”

Nonetheless, the classical-music establishment can still dictate much of what is performed and recorded in its own bailiwick. It has the power, if it chooses, to banish Brahms, Sibelius, and Tchaikovsky from concert programs in favor of nothing but white male academic serialists or female composers of color. It didn’t do so back when Pierre Boulez characterized the composers of any music other than 12-tone as “useless,” and it may resist for a while the demands of today’s woke commissars to “de-center whiteness,” but the option is there. There is nothing new about the ability of the classical-musical establishment to ignore its fans; as composer and music theorist Milton Babbitt famously sneered in 1958, “Who cares if you listen?”

But perhaps critics, scholars, musicians, and polemicists on all sides of recent controversies are missing something critical. That something is what the late musicologist Richard Taruskin labeled the “poietic fallacy—the conviction that what matters most (or more strongly yet, that all that matters) in a work of art is the making of it, the maker’s input.” Taruskin traced the origin of the poietic fallacy to—who else?—Beethoven.

Beethoven may have started life as the quintessential young hustler on the make, dazzling audiences with his brilliant improvisations in the manner of Hendrix or Herbie Hancock, but the heroism, struggle, and inward looking self-examination of his mature style seemed to crystallize in sound the American and French revolutions, the “rights of man,” the Napoleonic Wars, the replacement of a ossified aristocracy by a rising bourgeoisie, and the birth of the Romantic soul. In the process, he became the preeminent symbol of the Romantic type, answering only to his inner voice, uncompromising, opening up sensual and spiritual vistas otherwise inaccessible to ordinary mortals. And not through his performances—his deafness rendered those impossible—but through the notes he put on a page.

Thus was born the notion of “serious music” as the product of geniuses wrestling in isolation. Not, as it always had been and would continue to be with other forms of music, a fusion of performance (amateur and professional), composition, and the participation of listeners singing, dancing, and clapping along to the music. The text—the notes on the page, not the oral traditions or what one heard at this or that concert—became the “music.”

Composers in the generation after Beethoven’s death may not have known what to do with his compositions—that would have to wait for Wagner and Brahms later in the century; Mozart’s exquisite balance of chromaticism and grounded tonality had a far greater technical influence on composers such as Chopin and Mendelssohn than did Beethoven. But they certainly knew what to do with his image: imitate it, if not to the point of deafening themselves, then at least by striking poses of social eccentricity and affecting to answer only to the call of art. It worked because it gave the audiences of the time what they wanted. Not only was the music soul-stirring, but music lovers also found themselves fascinated by the lives and personalities of the “great composers,” as they came to be known, with Bach, Handel, and Mozart recruited retroactively to start the procession. Artists in other genres looked on with envy; it wasn’t until nearly the end of the 19th century that another art form—painting—had any success in competing with the central role that music occupied in the culture of the time: its ability to mesmerize audiences, to give them the palpable sense that they were in touch with the infinite.

The musical architecture of a symphony by Beethoven or Brahms—and the way that architecture can be perceived over time by the listener, the shattering climaxes that Wagner and Bruckner could command, the sublimity and glimpses of eternity that permeate Bach’s music, the aura of civilized conversation that characterizes Haydn’s string quartets, the transparent intricacy and sheer dramatic power of the great ensembles in Mozart’s operas—these are simply beyond the reach of today’s “classical” composers. It isn’t that no one with the genetic endowment of a Bach or Mozart is born today—musical genius is randomly but fairly evenly distributed through human populations. Rather, the golden age of European classical music occurred not simply because of the millennial evolution of the musical language, but because of the convergence of just the right institutional, cultural, economic, and social developments.

This is a recurring story in cultural history, whether it is the theater of Elizabethan England, the ink painting of the Song dynasty, the sculpture of Renaissance Florence, the woodblock prints of Edo, or the jazz that came out of New Orleans and Kansas City. A school of great artists—and an enduring body of work—emerges out of a fortuitous combination of factors that we don’t fully understand; individual artistic genius is only one of those.

Classical-music audiences sometimes wonder why composers today won’t give them the musical highs they get from Brahms or Rachmaninoff, as if composers were stubborn, mean, or selfish. Critics turn around and say, quite rightly, that it can’t be done—that we live in a different age and to demand of composers today that they do what Brahms and Rachmaninoff were doing will lead, at best, to sterile and imitative works, inferior copies of the real thing.

Instead, so goes the line, audiences should be opening themselves up to the music of our time. But in 1955, that would have meant walking out of Carnegie Hall and taking the A train to Harlem, not insisting that orchestras program more music by white male academics such as Roger Sessions and Donald Martino. Today, audiences are admonished to clamor for diversity and inclusion. But while pretending to adore music you loathe—or are willing to tolerate or even rather enjoy—may be enough to get you out of your seat and shout, “Bravo!,” it isn’t enough to conjure up the kind of sustained passionate devotion that classical music must have if it is to survive. For the moment, there is just enough that the Metropolitan Opera and the New York Philharmonic could reopen as the pandemic waned, albeit under straitened finances. A similar tale could be told in many other cities.

“How do you foster the passionate devotion that allows an art form to survive?”

The classical-music establishment may have to face head-on a question it has been dodging for a century now: How do you foster the passionate devotion that allows an art form to survive? For if the art form is relegated to nothing but recordings and scores—useful study material for film composers but too “problematic” to allow an untutored public to hear it—it will become impossible to justify the outlay of resources to stage credible performances of Beethoven’s Ninth, Mahler’s Second, or Tristan und Isolde. No more classical music devotees? Well then, no more live concerts.

The classical-musical establishment knows this, which is why the bulk of any given opera house’s season is still devoted to some combination of Mozart, Rossini, Verdi, Wagner, Puccini, Strauss, Bizet, and Donizetti; why Messiah, the Creation, the Christmas Oratorio, the requiems of Brahms, Verdi, and Fauré, the St. John and St. Matthew passions, and the Mass in B Minor remain mainstays for large choral groups; why recitals and orchestra concerts continue to feature the music that Pleasants poked fun at almost 70 years ago—what audiences are supposed to listen to sandwiched between the lighter fare that kicks off the concert and the culminating Romantic war-horse with which it closes.

Perfunctory renditions of Beethoven and Rachmaninoff don’t really help the cause of classical music, and endless repetition of the same old standards can be as deadly as forcing onto audiences music they can’t be made to love. But the lesson to be drawn is to face reality: that classical music has become something akin to the Noh and the Kabuki in Japan—a priceless tradition that depends for its preservation on culturally rooted performers and institutions in symbiosis with coteries of passionate devotees who love the tradition they are carrying forward. And then doing whatever necessary to cultivate those devotees.

In his seminal text, The Classical Style, published in 1971, Charles Rosen wrote: “Perhaps no composer used the seductive physical power of music with the intensity and range of Mozart.”  Rosen added that Mozart “cannot be fully appreciated without recalling the uneasiness and even dismay that it so often evoked in its time, and without recreating in our own minds the conditions in which it could still seem dangerous.”

Dangerous? The music of that avatar of 18th-century wigs, formal bows, and gracious manners with its poignant melodies and aura of sweet melancholy? Absolutely. Direct experience of Mozart exposes the banality and shallowness of the worldview that underlies denunciations of his music as “white.” Today’s elite—in service of the drive of oligarchical capitalism to convert the world into a single, undifferentiated market—seeks to dissolve all differences. The administrators of the new world order fear and hate great art, because it stands in the way of a world of commodified, wholly fungible human beings—as they do real religion or any remnant of traditional culture that resists disintegration.

But the music of Beethoven, Mozart, and Gluck is still out there. It still moves people. In this light, Chevalier can best be understood as a sort of vaccine directed at the subversive danger of great art: an attempt to immunize people who might stumble onto a performance of Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto, conditioning their souls to reflexively push away its ineffable beauty with the notion that to be moved by it is to somehow be racist.

That is where the deadly threat to the classical-music establishment lies. It is a truism that audiences are aging—as any attendance at a concert or opera today makes immediately obvious. But if younger people can be taught that classical music is somehow “wrong” or “problematic” before they have any significant contact with it, they won’t start going to concerts as they grow older. They won’t buy recordings or support their local orchestras, opera companies, and chamber-music societies.

“The soundtrack our elites are preparing for us will be ear candy.”

Mozart’s and Gluck’s place in the culture won’t be replaced by Joseph Bologne and Florence Price. Nor, for that matter, do Charlie Parker, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, or Billy Strayhorn risk having their central position in the history of great music shoved aside by some minor contemporary of theirs decreed by the commissars of our cultural life to be, for patently non-musical reasons, someone we must listen to. The threat is elsewhere, menacing the music of Bologne and Price as well as that of Mozart, Gluck—and the jazz greats. It lies in the implicit warning of films such as Chevalier or articles such as Ewell’s: that to allow any great art to make, channeling Kierkegaard, a “fool” of one—or even to acknowledge that such a thing as great art exists—risks putting oneself beyond the pale of the politically and socially acceptable. The soundtrack our elites are preparing for us will be ear candy with room only for the thump-thump-thump of algorithm-driven pap—neither dangerous nor subversive.

R. Taggart Murphy is professor emeritus of international political economy at the University of Tsukuba and the author of Japan and the Shackles of the Past and The Weight of the Yen.

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