Less interest in classical music because of less arts education?

To grasp the nature and scope of the problems faced by Gilbert and the Philharmonic, it is useful to consider the career of Beverly Sills, who died a few days before [Alan] Gilbert’s appointment [as the next music director of the New York Philharmonic] was announced.

In an age of short cultural memories, it is noteworthy how wide-spread an outpouring of regret attended the death of a seventy-eight-year-old opera singer who had retired from the stage nearly 30 years before, especially a singer who was poorly represented by her records, few of which were made when she was in her prime. This means that relatively few of the people who mourned Sills’s death could have had any real understanding of why she became famous in the first place–yet they mourned her all the same.

The reason for their sorrow was to be found in Sills’s obituaries, all of which devoted much space to describing her regular appearances on such popular TV series as Tonight, The Carol Burnett Show, and The Muppet Show. These appearances won her the affection of millions of people who would otherwise never have heard of her. Taken together, they may well have been the most consequential thing she ever did.

Sills was not the only American classical musician of her day to reach out to a mass audience. Leonard Bernstein did the same thing, albeit in a more sophisticated way–but his message was the same. Among the first Young People’s Concerts that I saw on TV as a child was a program about American music. At the end, Bernstein introduced an ordinary-looking man in a business suit who proceeded to conduct the finale of a work he had written. The man, Bernstein explained, was Aaron Copland, and the piece was his Third Symphony, one of the permanent masterpieces of American art. Young as I was, I understood the point Bernstein was driving at: the making of classical music is a normal human activity, something that people do for a living, the same way they paint houses or cut hair.

Sills sent the same message every time she appeared on TV. As she explained in an interview conducted a year before her death:

    In general, [people] thought of [opera singers as] big fat ladies with horns coming out of their heads. They also thought that opera singers were primarily foreign. I think Johnny [Carson] felt that a lot of people thought we were hothouse plants and that I could help change that image by showing that we led ordinary lives with families and children and problems.

At the time Bernstein and Sills were sending this message, in their different ways, relatively few American classical musicians knew how urgently it needed to be received. Now they–and we–know better.

Selling Classical Music,” by Terry Teachout, Commentary, September 2007 (footnote omitted)
But see “Is arts education a luxury?
Hat tip ALD

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Posted in: Caught Our Eye

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