Reviewing a particularly well-performed children’s concert like that of the USM Youth Ensembles a little while ago puts a reviewer on the horns of a dilemma.

On the one hand, the musicians deserve praise for the hard work, talent and musical sensitivity that has produced such excellent results.

On the other hand, he or she would be remiss to encourage any of them to pursue a professional career in classical music, which is almost inevitably doomed to failure and disappointment, no matter what one’s level of ability.

I am not talking about the kid with the guitar who wants to become Eric Clapton or the National Enquirer-style idiocy of “American Idol,” but about musicians who would like to play in an orchestra or chamber music ensemble, or even to become a soloist or touring virtuoso.

The opportunities are, to be polite, severely limited in the United States, and are becoming more so all the time. This is not true in Europe, where the arts are well subsidized and classical (including contemporary) music is taught in all grades.

The supernova star system that produced Van Cliburn has imploded with the decline of the recording business, and booking agents are promoting their talent in every possible nook and cranny. Symphony orchestras are closing their doors, and even a genius will probably be forced to earn a living by teaching.

The irony of the situation is that today’s music students, because of improvements in teaching methods, perform at a higher level than ever before in history. Liszt, Paderewski and Paganini probably wouldn’t make it to the finals of any major competition, at least from the standpoint of technique.

But even the winners of such competitions are no longer guaranteed a stellar career.

This is often the case with a particular skill set — horsemanship, for example, which reached its apogee in Italy just before the cavalry rode off to oblivion.

Composers are no better off than instrumentalists. I have often pointed out that anyone could become immortal for less than the cost of a Buick by commissioning a significant work from a well-known composer. (Most composers I know would love to make that much money.)

H.L. Mencken described the situation: “A man labors and fumes for a whole year to write a symphony in G minor. He puts enormous diligence into it, and much talent, and maybe no little downright genius. It draws his blood and wrings his soul. He dies in it that he may live again.

“Nevertheless, its final value, in the open market of the world, is a great deal less than that of a fur overcoat, or a handful of authentic hair from the whiskers of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.”

I don’t worry too much about discouraging aspiring musicians, because any of them with the drive and talent to succeed, by any means possible, will not be dissuaded by anyone, least of all a music critic.

As for the others, music, like poetry, may be our evolutionary goal. It is certainly necessary to anyone who aspires to the good life and an essential part of education. It is not necessarily an all-consuming career, in which the necessity for constant practice may overwhelm everything else. There was a reason that Frederic the Great’s father had him beaten for playing too well. (The same story is told of Alexander the Great.)

In fact, music may be more of a joy to the non-professional. Schopenhauer asked why it is that we denigrate as amateurs those who do something for love, while praising others who do it for money. I once asked a noted pianist how he summoned the requisite feeling for a work he had played countless times.

“Fake it,” he said.

In the last analysis, does anyone want to be in the shoes of, say, Rachmaninoff, when, after he had played some of his works at a soiree, heard Tolstoy ask: “But what good is it?”

Rachmaninoff’s answer is not recorded, but he could have responded: “None whatsoever, just like a newborn baby.”


Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal. He can be reached at:

[email protected]


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