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Classical 101

Classical Music Isn't Dead ... But What Would It Look Like If It Were?

We all love those great operatic death scenes, don't we? The ones where the bereft tenor plunges a knife into his heart (or the tenor's bass-baritone rival plunges a dagger into the tenor's back), wails a protracted aria that only someone with the aerobic efficiency of a Mount Everest climber could pull off and promptly drops dead. If two decades' worth of chatter in the press and, more recently, in cyberspace is any indication, classical music is enjoying the longest death scene in the history of, well, classical music. But also judging from the press on this subject, the reports of classical music's death have been, in the words of Mark Twain, greatly exaggerated. Perhaps the most recent contribution to the necrology (or anti-necrology, however you prefer to view it), a story published just last Saturday by the Atlantic reports that video game music seems to be attracting youths to classical music. So classical music not only isn't dead, but can't die as long as there are future generations to keep it, at the very least, mewling and puking in long-term care.  So for a generation we've misprognosticated the death of this art form, which leaves me wondering, If classical music were someday to go the way of all flesh, what would its demise actually look like? Before we pass through that looking glass, let's first take a look at what classical music in all its abundant life looks - or looked - like. For this purpose I call upon the 1947 film Carnegie Hall.You might or might not have seen this film, but I'm guessing you might not have. I'll be charitable: it's not the best film the world has ever seen.  The plot is weaker than a damsel in distress: Nora, an Irish immigrant, falls in love with music while working as a cleaning lady at Carnegie Hall. Forced to raise her son alone, she insists her son receive the musical education she never had, the centerpiece of which consists of concerts at Carnegie Hall. Nora even moves the small family into the apartments above the hall. Even as Nora works her way up form cleaning lady to Carnegie Hall manager, her son grows into an accomplished classical musician. But, alas, the siren song of that generation's popular music - jazz - proves irresistible to the son. The chasm between classical music and popular music becomes It was a vehicle to crowd as many performances of great - and I mean great - classical musicians into two hours as the producers could. Remember, 1947 happened before Elvis Presley became Elvis Presley and long, long before The Beatles rendered teenage girls senseless on the Ed Sullivan Show. In other words, when Carnegie Hall  was made, there were no rock stars; instead, there were classical music stars, and the litany of classical music stars that graces the titles of Carnegie Hall reads like a Who's Who of the Golden Age of classical music: Walter Damrosch, Lili Pons, Gregor Piatigorsky, Risë Stevens, Artur Rubinstein, Ezio Pinza, Leopold Stokowski and Jascha Heifetz.