New York Times Sunday Dialogue: Is Classical Music Dying?

About ten days ago, Les Dreyer, a retired violinist with the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, had his letter to the editor published in the New York Times. Evidently his writing generated some interest—in fact, enough interest to be featured, along with 12 or so others in “Reader’s Reactions.” Mr. Dreyer’s letter is the focus of this week’s Times, Sunday Dialogue (11.25.12) . The subject–Is Classical Music Dying?

The responses, both agreeing and disagreeing with Mr. Dreyer, follow below, or find them here at the Times website. You will read a thoughtful response from Bruce Ridge: Chairman, International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians .

We would like to hear from you. You can keep the conversation going by posting your comments. Don’t be bashful.

–Ramon Ricker


To the Editor:

A schoolboy recently asked me if Richard Wagner was a pitcher for the Yankees. At that moment I feared that classical music in America was doomed.

Or is it? The dying of the classical recording industry, which began in the 1990s, is indeed a cause for despair. There seem to be, sadly, other harbingers of the death of classical music in America:

  • The recent labor disputes of American orchestras due to decreased budgets and donor support.
  • The reduction or outright cancellation of Metropolitan Opera and New York Philharmonic tours and concerts in the parks.
  • The demise of classical music radio stations across America.
  • The increased media focus on rock and pop superstars, while classical music managements have difficulty booking concerts for their artists.

Nonetheless, there is a glimmer of hope that classical music can be saved. The New York Philharmonic has just announced a partnership with the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra. The Metropolitan Opera introduced live telecasts of its performances nationwide. New venues are springing up to accommodate the excellent classical ensembles and soloists emerging from music conservatories. Symphony orchestras have at least temporarily settled their labor disputes.

The future of classical music lies with the younger generation, which must be weaned away from the cacophony of rock and the neon glitter of “American Idol”-type TV shows. Instead of dragging children to concerts, where they squirm with boredom, rent some old movies featuring soundtracks of classical music.

Even toddlers can be exposed to classical music through animated films like “Fantasia” and “Peter and the Wolf.” Elementary schoolchildren would love “What’s Opera, Doc?” (1957), with its thrilling Wagnerian soundtrack as Elmer Fudd chases Bugs Bunny. Tell them the great music is by Richard Wagner. At least this audience will not think that he pitched for the Yankees.

LES DREYER New York, Nov. 16, 2012

The writer is a retired violinist with the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra.


Readers React

Les Dreyer accurately describes the steady decline of classical music, and his points are well taken. That said, when he calls for parents to pull their children away from the cacophony of rock, he is making a generational error, for it’s not today’s children who have been missed by classical music, but their parents who grew up on rock and roll.

The failure to bring younger audiences to classical music happened more than 30 years ago. Now, while classic rock remains a vibrant radio format, and artists like the Rolling Stones, Billy Joel, The Who and Elton John continue to be popular, middle-agers who never migrated to classical music are content with the songs they grew up on. Too many of those listeners were never introduced to the power of Beethoven, the elegance of Mozart or the soulfulness of Mahler, and if they were, it was the aural equivalent of “eating your vegetables.”

But it’s not too late. What is needed is a well-funded national plan — probably via philanthropy — to market this great music. It needs to be packaged as an experience, not an education; passion needs to be reintroduced. Then we need to re-brand classical radio. That doesn’t mean dumbing down; it means taking what is great and putting it in a package the target market recognizes.

So it’s not hopeless, but arresting decline is not easy. What is in our favor, however, is that the product, the music, is incredible and can transcend generations.

ANTHONY RUDEL, Stamford, Conn., Nov. 19, 2012

The writer is the author of “Classical Music Top 40” and was on air and served as vice president of programming for WQXR FM and AM.



As a lifelong player and lover of music, I have to sadly shake my head and say, Mr. Dreyer, you don’t get it. Classical music is dying because it is and long has been an expensive, mannered and stuffy enterprise as far as the public is concerned.

For the past 40 years, rock has taught us that emoting and participating with our bodies and voices are part of the show. You can’t do that in a concert hall. The entire society dresses informally now; concerts still involve formal wear by the audience, as if back in the 1890s.

Popular music has been growing exponentially in terms of newly created music; classical orchestras are just “cover bands” playing the same old tunes. Pop music has happily commingled every genre under the sun; classical remains, well, classical.

I recall the thrill of hearing Beethoven’s Fifth when I was a child 50 years ago. But has the business of classical music made any significant advances in its appeal to the public since then, or kept up with societal changes and consumer tastes? Not that I can see. It should not surprise us, then, that this genre is on the ropes financially.

GRANT WIGGINS, Hopewell, N.J., Nov. 19, 2012



As someone who grew up thinking I was the only one my age who listened to classical music, I am as concerned as you are. But you say we need to be “weaned away from the cacophony of rock.” This is where you lose me.

That argument is, frankly, condescending and counterproductive. Nothing about classical music is intrinsically superior to any other kind of music. You will find as much artistry in certain parts of the rock world as you will in classical music, albeit of a very different kind. Young people need to come to classical music on their own terms, and telling them they should abandon another kind of music that they love is not the way to accomplish this.

Also, think of how many great classical pieces were condemned as cacophonous when they were premiered: Beethoven’s “Grosse Fuge,” for example, or Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring.”

I appreciate your concern for the future of classical music, but please, please, never pit classical music against rock, because the latter will almost always win, and it isn’t a choice anyone should ever have to make anyway.

CHARLIE VOLOW, Williamstown, Mass., Nov. 19, 2012



It is not children who should be wooed to the classical canon, but young and early middle-aged adults. Although I was lucky enough to attend Leonard Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts as a child, it wasn’t until my late 20s that I realized, as a sometime rock musician and composer, that the New York Philharmonic was as thrilling in concert as The Who or Eric Clapton.

Once one comprehends the high level of precision that goes into classical performance, the multitude of varying melodies presented by each piece and the emotional ride that a symphony orchestra can provide, there is no going back. In addition, pop music often doesn’t wear well with the years, and its audience is pining for new adventures in music.

BERNARD LANGS, New Providence, N.J., Nov. 19, 2012



Exposure to classical music (and sneaking it in through movies and cartoons) is fine, but what is really likely to make a difference is experience playing classical music. Until recently this was possible only for children whose parents had the means to buy instruments and pay for private lessons.

But El Sistema, an intensive orchestral program begun in Venezuela, is now spreading throughout the United States and other countries, in schools and in after-school programs. All children in an El Sistema program play an instrument in an orchestra, and they start young.

Performing powerful compositions puts music not just in the ears of children, but in their fingers, heads and hearts.

ELLEN WINNER, Chestnut Hill, Mass., Nov. 19, 2012

The writer directs the Arts and Mind Lab at Boston College, where she is a professor of psychology of art.



Yes, classical music is dying in America, of a wasting illness that goes back to way before the 1990s.

Technology has been replacing live musicians since the ’60s, first in live radio and TV, then in Broadway orchestra pits, now even in recording studios, leaving the symphony orchestra as the most labor-intensive, and therefore most expensive, enterprise in music. Given the economics, the only solution is the one most other civilized countries adopted long ago — government support for the arts.

But the more serious, more obstinate problem is in the education of our children. In the 1950s, between the ages of 7 and 12, I spent every Saturday morning at the Cleveland Music School Settlement, learning music theory and history, to read and write musical notation, to recognize instruments by ear. I learned to play the clarinet and sang in the choir, and I did so with other working-class kids of all colors, at a price working-class families could afford.

How many of our grade-school children can read music today? Or recognize the difference between Bach and Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven, Verdi and Wagner?

We have responded to our multigenerational failure to educate by cutting the budgets for music, art, foreign language, even physical education, and diverting all our resources to “core” subjects. But even if we succeed in teaching our kids reading, writing and arithmetic, we will have failed to teach them their place in their own cultural history. We will have failed, in short, to civilize them.

DAVID BERMAN, New York, Nov. 19, 2012



Classical music is not dead; it’s not even resting. The classical world is evolving. Live listening experiences are incorporating new elements like video feeds, audience chats, short lunchtime or dinnertime programs and late-night cocktail concerts. The old major record labels have been largely replaced by new majors (Naxos and Harmonia Mundi chief among them) and a constellation of specialty labels.

Yes, radio stations are abandoning classical formats, but the sounds still echo on streaming sites like Spotify and YouTube, and online shops like iTunes. Last year, I watched the Glyndebourne Opera’s “Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg” live through a feed on my laptop screen.

Does my own perspective influence my optimism? Undoubtedly. I am 23 and felt no qualms watching Gerald Finley sing Wagner while I was clad in my pajamas. My generation is shaping the musical world in the same way that Mr. Dreyer’s influenced his.

Many things will change, but some will not. Artists are as plentiful and talented as ever before. Audiences are engaged by new twists on concertgoing traditions. And nothing can ever diminish the power of the music.

BRIAN REINHART, Dallas, Nov. 19, 2012

The writer is a critic for MusicWeb International.



While some of the litany of concern for the future of classical music rings true, focusing entirely on the negative ignores overwhelming evidence of the resiliency of symphonic music in America and throughout the world.

There are far more orchestras working in harmony than struggling through contractual disputes. For every orchestra that has faced a difficulty, there are orchestras that have been setting fund-raising and attendance records since the recession.

Unfortunately, the positive stories do not receive the sensationalistic coverage of the negative stories. And that is, to some degree, a fault of the classical music field itself. Success is not as easy to headline as failure.

The next generation of music lovers will have greater access to music of all types than those who have come before. Mahler is as available to them now through iTunes (and other sources) as Lady Gaga. Great music of all styles does not have to be in competition. The more you love any music, the more open you become to loving all music.

Orchestras remain strong economic engines for their communities, vital educational organizations for the next generation and monuments to the elevation of the human spirit. Orchestras will remain so if we stop emphasizing the negative litany and reach out in more authentic ways to our audiences, both present and future.

BRUCE RIDGE, Chairman, International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians

Raleigh, N.C., Nov. 19, 2012



I can pinpoint the exact moment when I stopped attending live classical performances. While on a university trip, I noticed that the Boston Symphony Orchestra was playing, and with Seiji Ozawa conducting I had to attend.

Being dressed in khakis and a polo shirt, I was underdressed compared with the rest of the crowd. No big deal until a woman asked me if I thought I should dress better for the occasion. “Not unless my clothes affect my hearing” was my reply.

Here in Buffalo, where there is an excellent symphony, I have detected the same kind of condescension and class snobbery. So it’s the radio and iTunes for me.

KEVIN STEVENS, Buffalo, Nov. 19, 2012



I disagree with Mr. Dreyer about the value of dragging kids to concert halls. Live music, especially orchestral and chamber performances, may be the best way to introduce anyone to the wonder of what composers and musicians and instruments can create.

However, if someone is used to frenetic pop music with lyrics and videos, don’t bludgeon them with Bach, Beethoven and Brahms. Instead, let them see and hear performances of some of the great modern short pieces, which can be frenetic or languid, but never boring. Expose every seventh grader and a parent to John Adams, Toru Takemitsu and Christopher Cerrone, to name just three of the many, many contemporary composers whose work would never be lumped with the dreaded “classical music,” and we might be on our way to a new generation of listeners.

CHARLIE HATHAWAY, Tenafly, N.J., Nov. 19, 2012



I am a classical music lover — in my 60s, of course. As much as I admire Mr. Dreyer’s optimism, I think classical music lovers are a dying demographic.

Some of the reasons are familiar: Music appreciation isn’t taught in schools. Also, the sadly diminished resources going into performing arts are going mostly into “Glee”-type vocal music and various schools of rock, not groups that aspire to the classical canon.

Demographics are changing rapidly. Classical music is rooted in Europe, whereas today’s children look at least as much toward Latin America, Asia and Africa for their cultural roots. Performing arts groups overwhelmingly program works by dead men, not living men or living women.

Even efforts to expand audiences aren’t working well. From what I hear, the Metropolitan Opera simulcasts are attended by an overwhelmingly white-haired audience.

Maybe this can be turned around, largely by more intense involvement by classical musicians in schools as well as performances that don’t look or feel like conventional concerts. Alas, it’s an awfully heavy lift.

RICHARD LAMPERT, Philadelphia, Nov. 19, 2012



I disagree that young people need to be “weaned away from the cacophony of rock and the neon glitter of ‘American Idol’-type TV shows.” Those forms of popular entertainment thrive because there is a mass market for them. Classical music can exist alongside and in spite of these entertainments, but it must present itself as equally relevant to potential listeners.

Reaching that audience is daunting. Performers’ costumes remain the same as those mocked in the cartoons of a half century ago that Mr. Dreyer cites. Rather than relying on unimaginative formulas, concert programming must stimulate feedback, debate and speculation. Accessibility to classical music should be improved through performances outside the concert hall (clubs, galleries, and so on). Concert times should be similarly handled. Not everyone is available for a concert at 8 p.m.; why not earlier or later?

Young people can be encouraged to attend through grants that underwrite the cost of their tickets, something the Cleveland Orchestra does. Musicians must be visible in the public school system (as teachers and mentors), for if they ignore the larger culture they live in, they risk marginalization. If all a child has access to are Pink, Snoop Dogg or Taylor Swift, then Bach, Brahms and Birtwistle are unlikely in their future.

There is a difference between culture and entertainment. Entertainment is market-driven, its technical resources attuned to the whims of current mass culture. Classical music maintains the cultural legacy of the past along with the often difficult works of the present. It is up to performers and managements to convincingly give these compositions a place in greater society.

Mr. Dreyer’s questioner wasn’t that far off, however. There was a pitcher named Richard Wagner. He never made it to the Yankees.

CLOVIS LARK, Principal Librarian, Utah Symphony Orchestra

Salt Lake City, Nov. 19, 2012



The Writer Responds

Mr. Rudel, your letter humbles me. And I agree with you 100 percent. Yet my “generational error” is understandable: I grew up in a Russian Jewish neighborhood where every kid was a budding Heifetz, Piatigorsky or Rubenstein. That said, I applaud your idea of repackaging classical music in a format recognizable by the target market, and reintroducing it as a passionate experience instead of a forced education. Whether the funding for this project is philanthropic or federal or whatever is irrelevant. The point is that you are optimistic, as I am, about saving classical music in America, and the rock-infected parents must give their children at least a chance to form their own musical taste.

Mr. Langs, as a rock musician and composer, you confess discovering in your late 20s that the New York Philharmonic was as thrilling as The Who or Eric Clapton. Congratulations! It is never too late to cross over (which seems to be the trend in opera lately), and we classical music lovers welcome you aboard. Moreover, your realization that “pop music often doesn’t wear well with the years” is what differentiates it from classical music, which is eternal.

Mr. Wiggins, you regret that you can’t rock and roll at a classical music concert. What on earth does emoting with our bodies and voices have to do with classical music? Would you let out a yell of joy during a Mozart opera, or a moan of despair during “Parsifal”? And who nowadays wears formal wear to symphony concerts or solo recitals?

Moreover, I am mortified that you refer to symphony orchestras as “just ‘cover bands’ playing the same old tunes.” That’s like calling the Mona Lisa merely a grinning dame.

This is Beethoven Awareness Month. Please sit quietly while listening to him.

LES DREYER, New York, Nov. 21, 2012




About the author

Ramon Ricker

One Comment

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  • Here are some of my comments on the original NY Times letter and Bruce Ridge’s response:

    [1] “The Metropolitan Opera introduced live telecasts of its performances nationwide.”
    – Many orchestral musicians are feeling that the success of these telecasts is actually direct competition to precious arts events dollars. In other words, people are choosing to go to the telecasts INSTEAD of attending their local live orchestra concert.

    [2] “New venues are springing up to accommodate the excellent classical ensembles and soloists emerging from music conservatories.”
    – This is usually an attempt to access precious arts council dollars, which are creating more and more hurdles all the time [this is my impression for the Canadian ‘established’ arts scene, at any rate]. In actual fact, orchestras perform very rarely outside of established concert venues, and EXTREMELY rarely if you expect the new venue to be the producer as well.

    [3] “The future of classical music lies with the younger generation, which must be weaned away from the cacophony of rock and the neon glitter of “American Idol”-type TV shows. Instead of dragging children to concerts, where they squirm with boredom, rent some old movies featuring soundtracks of classical music.”
    -Everyone is already inundated with excellent orchestral music via film soundtracks, from an early age (video has been a surrogate babysitter for at least the past 25 years). Whether music education translates from recorded format to the live experience is something that has limited data, so I don’t think we can expect it to be a guarantee (of course, we classical music lovers/industrialists will do it anyways – we are quite fanatical!). Also, the description of rock as “cacophony” is quite ignorant, or at best, betrays the writers generational sense of entitlement and privilege, and an attitude long since replaced with the acknowledgement that rock music was the preeminent musical art form of the 20th century (in that it survived as a dominant cultural and economic force, unlike classical or jazz).
    When I used to tour with my band, I was was shocked that the kids would sit on the dance floor and listen to the new breed of rockers, who tend to be more influenced by Frank Zappa and Phil Glass than Elvis or the Stones. The level of artistic sophistication continues to reach new heights, as is evidenced by the success of experimental rock musicians such as violinist Owen Pallett (who honed his craft creating the string parts for Arcade Fire and who won the first prestigious Polaris prize and who quit the University of Toronto’s Music Faculty – as did Murray Schafer – because it had nothing to offer his vision) or the art punk band Wolf Parade (their song “I’ll Believe in Anything” is as good an example of polyrhythm in rock (the drummer beats in 4, while the tune is in 12/8 – eighth note being the same) and Carter-ial (RIP) metrical modulation (at the end of the song the 12/8 tune is crushed into 4/4; The younger generation of string players coming out of the schools fortunately has none of this chauvinism, and in fact has the most open mind since classical players embraced the first swing/big band phenomenon.

    [4] “Unfortunately, the positive stories do not receive the sensationalistic coverage of the negative stories. And that is, to some degree, a fault of the classical music field itself. Success is not as easy to headline as failure.”
    -This may be true of the elite media, but locally, the media enjoys “feel-good” stories over bad news. Bruce, how many press releases have you sent out as a classical music producer, where you needed that story published in the local newspaper because that was basically your advertisement and you were responsible for the shows finances?

    [5] “The next generation of music lovers will have greater access to music of all types than those who have come before. Mahler is as available to them now through iTunes (and other sources) as Lady Gaga. Great music of all styles does not have to be in competition. The more you love any music, the more open you become to loving all music.”
    – I sincerely appreciate the spirit – if it weren’t for the fact that you are basically an orchestral lobbyist (nothing wrong with that, but amongst ourselves, holy crap, we’ve gotta call a spade a spade!) who is COMPETING for sponsor dollars, for government dollars, for audience dollars and we even compete with ourselves through the audition process. i don’t like it, i truly wish the music industry would incorporate as “cooperative associations” rather than corporations or non-profits, but the reality cannot be ignored however much we may want to. And yes, the AFM does a GREAT job dealing with competition and solidarity within the industry, but let’s not talk politics amongst ourselves – that, honestly, is the biggest reason the classical music industry does not adapt to cultural changes.

    [6] “Orchestras remain strong economic engines for their communities, vital educational organizations for the next generation and monuments to the elevation of the human spirit. Orchestras will remain so if we stop emphasizing the negative litany and reach out in more authentic ways to our audiences, both present and future.”
    Again, this is the party line we use when lobbying. Amongst ourselves, I really wish we could get on with productive dialogue without having to go through this every time. Orchestras cost money. Whether they are worth it, that is the $1,000,000 question. And when I am confronted by a redneck neocon shouting “you orchestras survive on handouts!” I always reply “those handouts are a pittance compared to the billions and billions in corporate welfare dished out to banks or the oil industry.” There is a time and a place. When we can’t discern the appropriate place, Houston, we have a problem.
    Yes, it is good the industry has “studies” which show their is an economic benefit to an orchestra, but one day someone will distort the figures another way, or compare it to mounting a permanent Rolling Stones septuagenarian tribute band at the Lincoln Centre, or…you get my point.

    What I don’t see is any faith in what we really have to offer. No. 1 on that list? The silence in the concert hall before the tuning A sounds. As the Boomers, raised on TV and Rock and Roll, pass their retarded middle age (65 is the new 40?), they will eventually face the issues of mortality and begin to realize their commercial culture does not offer all the answers.

    At that moment they will come.

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