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In defence of lost chords: Classical music’s struggle for relevance and survival

September 2020, no. 424

In defence of lost chords: Classical music’s struggle for relevance and survival

September 2020, no. 424

It is now taken for granted that nothing which concerns art can be taken for granted any more: neither art itself, nor art in its relationship to the whole, nor even the right of art to exist.

Theodor Adorno, Aesthetic Theory


Those of us who work in classical music will be familiar with the accusation that our chosen art form lacks contemporary social relevance. It is one with a long pedigree. ‘Sonata, what do you want of me?’ asked an exasperated Fontenelle in 1751, according to Rousseau. But you will find no widespread or heightened disdain for worldly affairs among classical musicians on the whole. Rather, any apparent reticence they may have describing how their art connects with the world at large stems from the fact that it is notoriously difficult to do. As the well-known quip goes, ‘Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.’ This is not a love that dare not speak its name so much as one that struggles to be put into words at all.

When the music stops, however, finding the right words becomes urgent. Our concert halls and theatres were some of the first public spaces to be closed when Covid-19 reached Australia, and they are likely to be some of the last to reopen. Many of the musicians who work in these spaces also found themselves ineligible for government financial assistance schemes like JobKeeper. Those fortunate enough to hold salaried positions in state-funded ensembles and venues must now watch nervously from the sidelines as their employers’ operational deficits grow. The $250 million arts rescue package that the Morrison government announced in June, small by comparison with those enacted elsewhere, is also still many months away from coming into effect. The cumulative effect may not prove terminal, but it seems increasingly clear that the performing culture we abandoned in March is not one to which we will easily, if ever, return.

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Comments (3)

  • In the United States we find ourselves with music education budgets being cut regularly and an emphasis on the STEM curriculum (science, technology, engineering, math). Efforts to add arts (STEAM) have not made much progress. We are "educating" a generation whose only goal is to learn "useful" skills and get a decent job. Arts and humanities are too often considered frivolous.
    Posted by Al MacDonald, Denver
    13 September 2020
  • In Australia, the perception that classical music is the music of privilege has a genuine basis in the cost borne by parents for either private music lessons or private school fees. Instrumental music is the gateway for lifelong engagement with music as participants and audience members. The fact that it hardly features in the state school system, that there is nothing like the government support provided to sport for kids, and that there is so little public pride in the achievements of our musical heroes leaves us behind quite a few other developed countries, including both the UK and USA.
    Posted by David Malone
    01 September 2020
  • Excellent article. Congratulations and thank you.
    Posted by Johannes Fritzsch
    01 September 2020

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