Classical Music's Last Hope

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Americans are turning away from classical music. We see evidence of this in declining ticket sales, mounting orchestral bankruptcies, shrinking CD revenues, and a cut- back in radio programming. In an attempt to explain this shift sociologist-turned-composer Paul Breer points to two recent changes in American culture ...... the rise of a new egalitarianism and the erosion of traditional Protestant Ethic values. In this anti-elitist, I-want-it-now environment popular entertainment is increasingly favored over classical music and the other fine arts.

Turning to the music itself, he cites the abandonment of tonal harmony in the early 20th C. as a major cause of classical music's declining popularity. He argues that if classical music has any chance of winning back its audience, it must return to the harmonic idiom used by composers of the past. Given the intractability of today's music establishment, the person most likely to do that is the independent, self-taught amateur, aided by recent advances in computer technology. The book concludes with a call for a renaissance in amateur composing. (from the backcover)


1. Descent into Superficiality
2. The Lost Century
3. The Amateur Composer

Chapter One

In the days that followed I found myself smiling whenever I thought of this young man ..... and how much I had grown to like him in the two brief mornings we had spent together. Perhaps I had been a bit crusty ....... a little too caught up in my own ways ......... a little quick to defend my privacy. Now here was a chance to drop my guard. He would be coming again on Monday. Could I actually be looking forward to it? Such a chameleon. Was old age taking its toll? The truth is that I'll turn 78 soon. Should I tell him? 1875 he said ......... the boy has a sly wit about him.

Monday ....... October 21

Doyle (opening his briefcase): Just before I left last Monday you were about to tell me what you thought was causing the breakdown of the Protestant/Jewish Ethic ..... and the rise of the ....let's see if I can get this right.... the He-don-ic Ethic. I've thought about it often during the week ...... and so far I've drawn a blank. I keep asking myself why we should be turning our backs on the very values that made us such a great nation?

PB: When you look at the shift broadly, you can see the roots of the change in the disillusionment that was widely felt throughout the Western world at the beginning of the 20th century..... especially after the first World War. People began questioning the 19th century belief that progress was inevitable ... that all of history pointed to a future of peace and prosperity. The Depression of the 30's, the second World War, the rise of fascism and communism, nuclear bombs and the Cold War, ....... all have added to that disillusionment. Today we have ethnic cleansing, the rise of fundamentalism, terrorism, global warming ...... and AIDS. Each represents a blow to the naive faith that the world is moving toward a future in which we are all going to be rich, happy, and at peace with each other. We know better now.

Doyle: And because we know better, we're what? ..... less optimistic, less convinced that tomorrow will be better than today?

Chapter Two

PB: (smiling) Not at the moment. If things appear to have been a little slow back then it was probably because individual artists were rarely singled out for acknowledgment. Up to the Renaissance the Church preferred to interpret works of art as gifts of God not man. Certainly from the 14th century on, the record is clear that we have never gone a whole century without public acceptance of a new artistic style. And that's what we have in the case of Arnold Schoenberg and atonal music ........ 100 years and the eggs are still flying. Doesn’t that tell you that something different is happening here?

Marion (brusquely): Like what?

PB: Perhaps it is not simply a matter of needing more time ........ if audiences haven't come around in 100 years, it seems unlikely to me that they're ever going to come around. And they’re not going to come around because they cannot relate to music without a tonal center.

Brian: Hmmm..... not sure what you mean here, Paul. By tonal center you’re referring to .....what..... a central pitch that is repeated over and over? By itself that wouldn't make a piece tonal, would it?. Bartok, among others, wrote pieces that are anchored to a basic pitch .... but they still sound extremely dissonant. If you were a composer, couldn't you insert a hundred G's into a piece without establishing a key?

PB: Yes you could. So let me amend my statement. I'm saying that listeners have not accepted atonal music because they cannot relate to music without a tonal center to which other notes in the scale (for example, fourths and fifths) are related in a systematic, hierarchical fashion ...... as they are in the triadic harmony used by Mozart, Beethoven, and Brahms.

Marion: But, Paul, that kind of harmony is a thing of the past’s been mined to death ......there's nothing left for composers to do.

PB: Except write more pieces.

Marion: But composers need to innovate ........ try something new. Get your head out of the sand for God's sake. Composers can't go on doing the same thing over and over.

PB: Neither of our two greatest composers, Bach and Mozart, was an innovator .......... at least with respect to harmony.

Marion: Wait a minute. Do you really think that today's composers can go back and write works based on the harmony of 100 or 150 years ago? That's absurd.

PB: There are thousands if not millions of original works that can still be written using the tonal system perfected back in the 19th C. And within that system there is plenty of room for a variety of compositional styles.

Marion: But the system you are attached to was part of a Victorian culture that looks foolishly romantic in a century that has known two world wars, depression, fascist and communist dictatorships, ethnic cleansing, nuclear bombs, and now global terrorism. This is a world of Edvard Munch know ......"The Scream," ....... not Gainsborough's "Blue Boy." Shouldn't composers, like all artists, be addressing life in their own time? Shouldn't they be using a kind of harmony that reflects the fear and despair of life in the 21st century?

PB: Then why is all popular music today tonal? If tonality is relevant only to life in the 19th century .....or the 18th or the 17th century, why is it currently employed in every musical genre you can think of ....... except contemporary classical?

Chapter Three

Howard: Forgive me, but I sense a contradiction here, Paul. If your new amateurs, armed with their digital audio workstations, are successful in promoting their tonal works via the internet, won't this help push the concert hall further into the background ..... at real cost to the cause of classical music in general? Won't more and more listeners turn to their CD players and radios to get the tonal music you say they are starving for ..... and avoid the concert hall in even greater numbers? You talk a lot about doing an end run around the music establishment, but I’m wondering if this is more like a head-on collision.

PB: (nodding): I do speak of an end run around the music establishment .... but I see that end run as temporary. In the long run I expect the amateurs ... writing tonal music ..... to force the establishment into recognizing that atonality is a dead-end street. The very popularity of music written by amateurs is likely to open the eyes of conductors, concert managers and critics to the fact that if the educated public hasn't accepted the new harmony after more than 100 years of exposure, there has to be something wrong with atonality itself. With the advantage of hindsight, members of the establishment can then start to view the whole atonal movement as a wrong turn in the road ...... as a noble but ill-thought-out response to the excesses of Romanticism. Once they adopt that point of view, they can begin to encourage a return to functional tonality as the harmonic base for new compositions. As more and more professional composers adopt tonality as their platform, audiences will begin returning to the concert hall ..... which, despite the convenience of CD's, radios, and Ipods, will remain the best venue for hearing music without distraction. And in this changed environment classical music lovers will once again have a chance to get excited about new pieces by their favorite living composers.

Howard: So you’re saying that the music establishment will survive this onslaught of the amateurs ..... but only after it has been forced to give up its commitment to atonality.

PB: Yes. That is the power that amateur composing brings to the table. Because they speak directly to the classical music listener, the amateurs can persuade the establishment to reconsider its position by writing quality works that are embraced by the same public that has turned its back on atonal works for a hundred years running. Given a chance, listeners will vote with their feet..... and the establishment will be forced to notice. Right now there are too few amateurs to make a difference. But that could change in a hurry.

"I think your book is an outstanding text. I have been reading many texts about the decline of classical music, starting with the now famous book of Henry Pleasants (issued in 1953-1954), and including texts by Joseph Horowitz, Norman Lebrecht, Blair Tindall (the young woman), and Richard Taruskin, to mention the few. I think your book is the best, because it is the most honest, the most courageous, and written by a musically creative man. It covers the widest range of social themes, and it is written with lucidity. The third chapter of the book is truly, vividly inspiring."

Zecharia Plavin, Ph.D., Israeli lecturer, pianist.

The following review was written by Kirkus Reviews. I'm including it here because it is typical of the views endorsed by today's music establishment. In what you can read below the reviewer refers to my appeal for a return to tonal harmony as a "lone, cranky voice." Such a return, he argues, would limit composers to writing "dainty minuets, waltzes and grand marches." Ours is a pop culture, he reminds us, which means that today's composers should embrace what is here and now rather than looking to the past. He ends by suggesting that if Bach and Mozart were alive today they would most likely be writing punk rock and hip hop.

Kirkus Reviews:
An immodest proposal that follows glib observations about society’s declining social, intellectual and musical standards with an impassioned, if rather late-to-the-table, prescriptive starring digital home-studio technology. In his third book, composer/author/philosopher Breer (The Spontaneous Self, 1989, etc.) posits that atonal music by Stockhausen, Crumb, Górecki and other 20th-century modernists is killing public interest in and appreciation of “classical music” — his catchall term for tonal works from the 18th through late-19th century — with its emphasis on theory and process rather than traditional melody and harmony.

Breer eschews straight prose for the classical Platonic dialogue form —presented here in three movements, like a symphony in which he condemns dissonance and aleatory in “serious” music and ultimately consigns most modern works to the dustbin. In the hands of Diderot (Rameau’s Nephew, circa 1770) or certain critical works by Wilde the dialogue is an excellent way to stimulate and simulate discussion. Breer’s cagily elitist, paternalistic platitudes, however, too often become a fugue for his lone, cranky voice.

What Breer doesn’t seem to realize is that home-studio computer equipment, with banks of his beloved high-end orchestral samples, has been available for over a decade, and is increasingly in use now due to the ubiquity of affordable hardware and intuitive software. Today the untold thousands of amateur composers programming, mixing and self-releasing their music, tonal or not, likely never will be interested in composing dainty minuets or grand marches. It’s a pop world, and they, like Mozart and Bach did in their time, embrace it. But for Breer punk never happened and apparently neither should have hip-hop, the British Invasion, Gershwin and so on back to that mad, bad and dissonance-obsessed 16th-century Italian master madrigalist Gesualdo.

An earnest paean to the good old (tonal) days. Kirkus Reviews
Classical Music's Last Hope - Back Cover
Publisher: Xlibris
Date of Publication: 2008
Length: 152 pages

$21.45 paperback
$29.95 hardcover
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