Who Killed Classical Music

Hi. My name is Sam Pawlett and am new to the list but have been lurking and unable to contribute due to lingering medical problems. I am a 26 yr old graduate in philosophy and economics from S.F.U. here in Vancouver. I studied Marxism and comparative economics with Mike Lebowitz whose fine work most of you are probably familiar with. Last time I spoke with Mike he was planning a book on Actually Existing Socialism, a kind of Reply to the Brus/Kornai Hayekian argument that any kind of planned socialism will inevitably lead to economic stagnation because of a lack of hard budget constraint and the absence of sufficient material incentives. My activist credentials are few, mostly revolving around a union i once belonged to, mental health issues and some solidarity work for the FARC/EP in Colombia where i have spent a fair amount of time. Anyway, I noticed a fair number of music fans here.

I once read that the great pianist Maurizio Pollini was a lifelong member and founder of the Italian Communist Party. Anyone know anything about this? Below is a little book review I just penned which i hope can spark off some discussion on matters cultural.

Capitalism Kills Classical Music.

Review of "Who Killed Classical Music" by Norman Lebrecht.

Norman Lebrecht's book, though seriously flawed, is an interesting behind-the-scenes look at the business side of classical music and its sleazy underbelly. His main argument is that the business side of classical music has destroyed the quality and the future viability of classical music as a public art form. The most important part of the book is its unmasking of the fortunes made by a select few classical musicians and their agents as a massive corporate welfare scam. Since nearly all symphony orchestra's,chamber music ensembles and performing societies are publicly funded, the public is in effect, funneling large amounts of money into the pockets of "star" performers and their agents. For example, the public pays violinist Isaac Stern 1.3 million dollars for a single lackluster performance of the Brahms concerto, a piece he has performed in public over 1000 times.

Lebrecht blames the sad state of classical music on the greed and selfishness of the agents and their clients who care nothing about the music, its tradition, nor do they believe they have any duty to the public(1). The behavior of most "star" musicians is not the behavior of the high minded artist dedicated to her art form but is the behavior of the huckster or snake oil salesman of the capitalist system. One of the least attractive features of the book is the Kitty Kelley style of biography uncovering the seamy side of the personal lives of the stars. Who Herbert Von Karajan (a favorite punching bag of Lebrecht's) slept with is of little interest of little relevance to the serious reader and to the music. Lebrecht successfully shows that the big stars of classical music are nothing but a clique of self-serving scumbags whose sole purpose is to enhance their own power,prestige and personal fortune.This is not surprising since classical music has always been known as a field with enormous egos, think of Wagner, one of the all-time great ego maniacs. In the end, Lebrecht's intense personal attacks on Karajan, Abbado, The Three Tenors, Zubin Mehta, Kathleen Battle and Jessye Norman amongst others is enough to turn one off of their music or at least make one stop buying their records( perhaps this is the authors intention.).(2) `

Lebrecht's description of the inner workings of the classical music industry are valuable not just to listeners but to students of the contemporary political economy.The classical music industry is shown to be just as corrupt, out of control, self-destrucive, exploitative, and as lacking in foresight as any aspect of the capitalist economy.Lebrecht's personal politics as far as I can tell are elitist liberal. He writes for the London Daily Telegraph, a Conrad Black owned reactionary newsheet. His critique consists of liberal complaining of the if-only-the-capitalists-were-nicer-the world-would-be-so-much-better variety found in the writings of William Greider and Richard Rorty. Where these critiques fall short is that they explain at the level of appearance and not the level of essence. It's not that star musicians and their agents are greedy, selfish bloodsuckers intent on bilking the public, its that they are simply acting as rational agents in an irrational, contradictory system. If asked, the agents would probably reply that they are simply doing their jobs, getting the best deal for their clients. That is, the agents and their clients are simply acting as any rational businessman or entrepreneur would, maximizing income while minimizing costs.Like capitalism as a whole, what is rational from an individual's standpoint is irrational from the standpoint of the whole economy. Examined from an individual's standpoint this strategy is rational but when examined from the standpoint of the whole(i.e. classical music as a whole) is irrational and hence self-destructive. The solution then is not for individual i.e. the agents and their clients to somehow become "nicer" but to alter the structural nature of the system from the standpoint of the whole where production and performance are not for profit but for need and enjoyment.

Lebrecht's critique focuses on the "star" system in classical music where star performers are hired as a kind of loss leader marketing scheme. The orchestra may take a huge loss in hiring a star performer for a single performance but the big names sell ticket subscriptions and records. When looking through the record racks of the 40 plus recordings of Beethoven's fifth piano concerto, a person is likely to purchase the big name performer rather than the unknown from Estonia, even though, the unknown's may deliver a more original and passionate performance. Many of the big classical labels like EMI pay for new performers and composers this way. The largesse from the big-name sales pay for the inevitable loss the label is going to take with the recording and marketing of a new composition or new performer. The classical labels are barely surviving especially with the upstart budget label Naxos. Naxos has, in effect, taken over the market through its excellent prices and decent recordings of unknown performers from the former Eastern bloc countries. Lebrecht goes into the fascinating story behind the rise of this label.

Lebrecht traces the origin of the star system in classical music and how it has evolved through the music's history. The star system began with Handel who was an artistic genius as well as an astute businessman. Today, the star system is bankrupting the symphony orchestras and the chamber music societies. Lebrecht also highlights the extreme inequalities within the system as a star performer may earn more in a single night than the combined members of the orchestra earn in a single year. This only heightens resentment, causing tension on the concert stage leading to poor overall performance. On the downside, Lebrecht does not mention exceptions like Holst who was a socialist and a follower of William Morris who did his best to reverse the prevailing nature of the system. Lebrecht does not offer any creative solutions to the enormous problems facing the music. He merely offers more of the same; more corporate patronage and "philanthropy" and suggests that musicians should clean up their act if they expect to have a place to plat and an audience to play for. Lebraecht does not even mention the problems that corporate involvement in the arts has created.(3) Corporate involvement has transformed classical music into the public relations department of large corporations. Orchestra's and performing societies have less to do with music than as transits for social prestige and as enhancers of the corporate image. Corporations can blackmail the artists into supporting the company line as Philipp Morris did with regards to ant-smoking bills in New York City(4). Lebrecht does nothing to elucidate the nature of labor-management relations in the industry which has experienced some strikes as bitter as any.

Lebrecht gives us no hint as to why the audience for classical music is shrinking and why that diminishing audience is composed primarily of petty-bourgeous and bourgeois types trying to show that they are sophisticated and ":cultured" and in the process distancing themselves from the hated unwashed masses. The truth is that most people who attend concerts do so for the social prestige and to be "seen". The musical experience is secondary. Still, there is no reason why classical music and popular music cannot be one and the same.

Lebrecht does not criticize today's music from a musical point of view. He could have pointed out that today's music is often played cold and clinically with most of the performer's attention and effort spent on technical details rather than the emotional and psychological aspects of the music. Lost is the 19th century style of playing where a particular performance depended as much on the performer as on the composer. These performers practiced a kind of hermeneutics where they placed themselves in the shoes of the composer trying to understand and recreate the feeling and meaning of the work as it was understood by the composer. To revitalize itself, classical music must regain this romantic notion of the individual's interpretation as paramount, perhaps at the expense of technical detail. The great interpreters, say Schnabel's Beethoven or Rubinstein's Chopin, gave a sense that they were engaged in a titanic struggle to understand and to come to terms with the piece they were playing, viewing the composition as an organic totality and not simply exercises in finger dexterity and sight reading. This type of playing and feeling towards the art must be regained if the music is to attract new listeners and regain old ones. The contemporary state of musical education is deplorable. 99% of the population cannot read music. Even musical appreciation classes in the public school system would be a boon.

Further, Lebrecht does not examine the state of music in the former Soviet Union, the only example we have of how music survived under an alternative system. Musicians were treated well(by Soviet standards) and held in high esteem. Musical education was emphasized and tickets to the USSR's world class orchestra's and operas were sold at low prices so anyone who wanted to attend a concert could. Of course, composers and performers had to follow the guidelines of the commissars most of whom were ignorant of music and opera. The most famous instance was Shostakovich having to issue a formal apology to Stalin for his opera "Lady Macbeth'". The Soviet commissars eschewed what they deemed to be "formalism" i.e. modernist composers like Stravinsky and Shoenberg. The Soviet policy towards music turned many musicians and composers away from radical and progressive politics and towards mysticism where one could escape from the problems of today's world in another form of reality.

In sum Lebrecht's book is worth a look if you are interested in classical music or the workings of the political economy of the arts/entertainment industry. His "insider's viewpoint is valuable. Lebrecht knows or has known many of the people he discusses in his book. His critique is flawed and his sometimes gossipy research is off-putting. The book is overwritten in places too, spiked with some very pretentious prose.

1) Lebrecht often falls into an elitist-aristocratic type critique accusing businessmen of being philistines who know nothng about music and therefore should not be "running the show" so to speak. Classical music like everything else in today's hyper-capitalist world is thoroughly controlled by the business class.

2)To his credit, the author rightly denounces the extremely reactionary politics of some star performers e.g. the Naziism of Karajan,Gieseking and Furtwangler. The great anti-fascist cellist Pablo Casals refused more than once to perform with Furtwangler because of his politics.

3) see the fine article by Chin-tao Wu in New Left Review 230.

4) ibid.

Sam Pawlett



I don't know if Pollini was actually a member of the Italian CP, but he was around the left in the 70's. I have a DG recording of some works by Luigi Nono, which includes a piece entitled "Como una ola de fuerza luz"(Like a wave of power and light), a tribute to a leader of the Chilean MIR who was killed in an accident in 1971. Pollini is the pianist on the recording, which mixes live and taped performances. If I remember correctly some of Nono's work was feature in Kubrick's 2001.

I don't know what Pollini thinks these days, but the last programs I have noted that he performed in his annual trip to NYC seemed pretty conservative. Schumann, Beethoven, Chopin etc. Of course, very few can play the chestnuts like he can.

You are right about the malignant effects of the star system in classical music, but how is it any different than what has happened in sports and the rest of the entertainment world? A few performers are able to leverage a king's ransom in wages from the capitalists, as the rest sink into poverty. Capitalist apologists wring their hands, but the system appears helpless to stop the trend.

Jon Flanders