One of the reasons I enjoyed talking with Shannon Chase, founder of the Vox Nova Chamber Chorus, specializing in contemporary music, was a snide little column in these pages (“Classical music: Five centuries on, it appears the genre may be at death’s door,” Jan. 26).

Chase is a living refutation of virtually all the assertions about classical music made in that opinion piece by Mark Vanhoenacker in Slate.

Even the headline is inaccurate. “Classical” music, at least the form enjoyed in the West, is over 1,000 years old. It is not a genre, but a world heritage and it is alive and well, probably for the next 10 centuries, provided our civilization lasts that long.

The author begins by quoting British writer Kingsley Amis, to the effect that new classical music “has about as much chance of public acceptance as pedophilia.” Tell that to Vox Nova audiences, or to any of the myriad small ensembles now devoted to the continuation and expansion of the art.

Contemporary classical music is one of the most vibrant forms today and is aided, not made obsolete, by the Internet.

The rest of the argument quickly boils down to the usual pastiche of statistics and money, as if either one of these were significant. Of course symphony orchestras and opera companies need money, but every single one could be financed for years to come by the price of an aircraft carrier or confiscation of one of the Koch brothers’ private fortunes.


Statistics, about declines in record sales and concert attendance, or aging of the audience, are meaningless. Classical music is an elite art form never intended for the general public and requiring some degree of education to enjoy. Cultured men and women once actually performed it for their own enjoyment. Fancy that!

If I take a somewhat skeptical view of music’s prophets of doom (“Who Killed Classical Music” was published in 1996) it is because I remember when I could spin the dial on my Nash Rambler for hours trying to tune in WQXR, my only source of music beyond the concert hall or a stack of 78s. There are more people listening to classical music today than ever before in history.

The decision of MPBN and other public broadcasting stations to reduce the amount of classical programming was foolish and short-sighted, but it won’t doom Mozart or Beethoven to obscurity.

What is really wrong with the state of the arts is the general dumbing down of our society and the lack of funding for education in the humanities. I saw a half-page real estate ad in the paper proclaiming that one could enjoy a beach in privacy, “without a sole in sight.” I guess that was because it was on a freshwater lake. Can anyone today imagine a controversy such as the one led by E.B. White over the incorrect use of “like” in “Winston tastes good, like a cigarette should?”

Our attention spans need to be measured with an atomic clock.

There can also be too much of a good thing. Classical music, about as well performed as Muzak, is ubiquitous on the Internet, and what is too common becomes devalued.

I blame a leveling tendency, even among musicians who should know better – the sort who state “all musics are created equal” or “if it sounds good, it is good.” There is a hierarchy in music as in everything else, and classical music is at the top of the pyramid. The best music, well performed, can lead to a transcendent experience, equivalent to that felt by religious mystics. I know of no other art, except poetry, capable of that.

If one is genuinely concerned about expanding the audience for classical music, I recommend the refrigerator effect. When I was a boy, my mother and father often gave parties and would stock up the ice-box with such exotic foods as roquefort and caviar. We were told that children wouldn’t like them and that they were for adults only. Guess what got raided the most?

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

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