On this date in history, January 27th, my favorite composer of all time was born in Salzburg, Austria. If he were alive today, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart would be 258 years old. Mozart, who began playing musical instruments when he was just 6 years old, is said to have composed his first symphony at age 8. From then onward, until his death from a mysterious fever at age 35, the Great One churned out more than 600 musical compositions. By my calculation, that averages out to roughly 22 compositions per year, or 2 per month for each month of his life — prolific composing to say the least.
That said, in addition to recognizing the birthday of Johannes Chrisostomus Wolfgangus Theophilus Mozart (the name on Mozart’s certificate of birth), I think that this is as good of a time as any to mention the firestorm of controversy that has erupted in the blogosphere, in the wake of free-lance writer, Mark Vanhoenacker’s piece in Slate magazine announcing the death of classical music. (Click here to read.) To quote Mr. Vanhoenacker:
“When it comes to classical music and American culture, the fat lady hasn’t just sung. Brunnhilde has packed her bags and moved to Boca Raton.”
While I can say that so far, I have not spotted Brunnhilde on the streets here in Boca Raton, Vahhoenacker does present some interesting data regarding the current state of, and the future of, classical music. For those of you who do not like to click links, one very telling example he cites is that “Symphony Hall”, one of the only two remaining Classical channels offered by Sirius XM radio, has 3500 Facebook likes, while the All-Pearl-Jam channel has 11000. He also points to the fact that in 1937, the average age of Los Angeles orchestra concert attendees was a baby faced, 28. Suffice to say that the average age of today’s concert going audience is significantly older. He goes on to present further evidence of classical music’s death, which I shall not detail here. Simply stated, however, the reasons for classical music’s demise are many and varied, ranging from its becoming lost amid the plethora of popular music available to today’s youth who find it boorish and uninteresting, as well the lack of government funding for the arts in general, and perhaps an all around perception that classical music is the province of the overly educated elite, or formally schooled musicians, and without a degree from Julliard one has little chance of understanding its complicated compositions.
In any case, the reaction to Mr. Vanhoenacker’s piece has been especially heated, with classical music lovers going on the attack. In response to his detractors, Vanhoenacker granted an interview, which was published on New York’s classical station WQXR’s website. (Click here to read.) In this interview, Vanhoenacker defends himself by saying that much of the vitriol sent his way by angered classical music lovers is misdirected, and that he is, in fact, a classical music fan. He goes on to explain that the title of the article “Classical music in America is dead” was composed not by him, but by an editor. So in a sense, Mr. Vanhoenacker seems to be saying that he’s only the messenger, so please don’t shoot.
Personally, I enjoy classical music for the simple reason I can work to it. When I am writing, I can’t work in total silence, but I can’t work to the right-wing talkers that dominate the airwaves either, or to rock, country, R&B, hip-hop, bluegrass, or jazz. I found out years ago that playing classical music when I work improves my focus and helps me to ignore background distractions. And understand that I have little in the way of musical education, so I am far from being an elitist music snob. I simply find the strains of Mozart, Brahms and Haydn uplifting, and when I find myself in need of inspiration I turn to some of the selections I keep on my iPod, or I stream one of the (few) classical radio stations that remain on the air.
In the end, I imagine that Vanhoenacker’s dire predictions shall prove true, as few radio stations, even public radio stations, can afford to play classical. Government support of any substance is unlikely to rescue them from their fate, and their once hardcore benefactors are aging and fading from the scene.
I hope that I am wrong.
Happy Birthday Wolfgang.