Is classical music still relevant to a 21st-century audience?
Our conditioned minds have pitted classical against modern, splitting them into two different schools of ideas. ‘Classical’ is all things of the past and therefore ancient and irrelevant. While ‘Modern’ indicates the present and the future and hence, is relevant. But what if the dividing line is not as rigid as our thoughts? What if it’s blurred allowing a free flow of the past into the present and future? Before we delve into this debate, let’s first look at the terms in the context of music.
‘Classical’ in Western music denotes the era spanning from 1750-1820. It was graced by eminent composers such as Beethoven, Bach, Mozart, Haydn and Schubert. While ‘Modern’ era spans from the late 19th to the 20th and 21st centuries. Music, just like literature and other art forms, has evolved through the passage of time giving birth to new concepts, styles and trends. Having a distinctive character of their own, they have continuously been compared, put on scales to weigh their worth.
These pointless arguments raise the question if anything in the world exists in isolation. All things are a continuation of the past, best visualised as a river branching out to form tributaries and distributaries. Art then also borrows from its predecessors in the process of creating something new. In fact, the segmentation of art into different periods happened much later and also for the convenience of theoretical studies. So, if what we listen today is actually an improvised version of the past forms, how can classical music be so out of fashion? When in truth, it is continually adapting itself to fit the fashion.
Instead of hovering over metaphors, let’s look at some tangible examples. Among the inventions of classical music, creating a written form of non-lyrical music, what we know as notation today, was a significant contribution that governs every composition even in 2021. In Bach’s Prelude and Fugue Number 20 in A Minor, he tempered classical style with something new, and the product was the first-ever jazz song. Similarly, the structure of the majority of today’s popular music can be traced back to Schubert’s short verse-chorus that was generally three minutes long. It took him a great deal of time and experimentation to model a form that could be enjoyed by everyone irrespective of their musical knowledge. Mozart came up with beautiful yet straightforward four-chord melodies which in turn inspired the pop and rock genres.
From 21st-century television commercials, to background scores of films and series, classical music pieces featured in all their glory. Titan’s use of Mozart’s symphony number twenty-five is one of the finest examples. Not only that, many pop songs were inspired by classical music. For example, Elvis Presley hit ‘I Can’t Help Falling In Love With You’ was inspired by Martini’s traditional song ‘Plaisir D’Amour’, Bright Eyes’ ‘Road To Joy’ by Beethoven’s Ode To Joy, Queen’s ‘It’s A Hard Life’ by Leoncavallo’s ‘Vesti La Giubba’ and Lady Gaga’s ‘Alejandro’ by Csárdás’ ‘Monti.’ Even the songs that aren’t directly taken from classical pieces have some of its elements hidden within them, which would be revealed once deconstructed.
The hue and cry of classical music being a dying form must be a rumour then. George Trudeau, the director of the Center for the Performing Arts at Penn State, said: “Classical music is alive and well… What has changed is there are more avenues than ever before for classical performance and public education, including public radio, the Internet, and other digital technologies.” In fact, according to the National Endowment for Arts, the total number of adults appearing at classical music performance annually was only down by 2.8 per cent from 1982 to 2012. While, on the other hand, a BBC article stated in 2018 that the classical music genre was the “fastest-growing” with a 6.9% rise in the sale of CDs.
Trudeau, while speaking about the new avenues of classical music, said: “Attending live performances is only a small part of how classical music is experienced today. There are new ways to attend, as well…The New York Metropolitan Opera’s HD broadcasts, reach millions of viewers each season.” This is because the live broadcast is not only cost-effective but allows people to approach classical music much more casually. The streaming platforms have, in a sense, saved pure classical music by democratising it.
As long as music will exist, it will evolve. But the evolved form will always have traces of the by-gone forms. Classical music pure or improvised will always stay relevant as its intertwined with all the other periods in the history of music.