[Note: This post has been updated (1) as of 6:31 PM Eastern on 28 Oct. See below.]
In an epic 12,000-word piece for The New Republic which is putatively a review of three recent books on classical music and its place in our present culture — Who Needs Classical Music? Cultural Choice and Musical Value, by Julian Johnson (Oxford University Press); Classical Music, Why Bother? Hearing the World of Contemporary Culture Through a Composer's Ears, by Joshua Fineberg (Routledge); and, Why Classical Music Still Matters, by Lawrence Kramer (University of California Press) — musicologist, music historian, and author of the monumentally epic six-volume, The Oxford History of Western Music, Richard Taruskin, after savagely pillorying all three books (some more than others) as well as their authors (some more than others), has the following of his own to say on the subject:
What draws listeners to music — not just to classical music, but to any music — is what cannot be paraphrased: the stuff that sets your voice a-humming, your toes a-tapping, your mind's ear ringing, your ear's mind reeling. And that is not the kind of response anyone's books can instill. It is picked up, like language, from exposure and reproduction, which eventually lead to internalization. Kramer leads prospective listeners astray when he counsels them, in a chapter about performing music, that the "most vital role for performance" in relation to the fixed score "is precisely to suggest verbal and imagistic connections with the world, the very thing that the traditional culture of classical music, in the twentieth century at any rate, tried to get us to regard as forbidden." If the value of music lies in the words and the pictures it prompts, then why not cut out the middle man and go straight for the words and the pictures? Like a good citizen of Chelm, a listener taking Kramer's advice will go to the market for a goose and come home with a bucket of water.
As a team of Texas researchers have recently announced, there are exactly 237 known reasons why people have sex. There are at least as many reasons why they listen to classical music, of which to sit in solemn silence on a dull dark dock is only one. There will always be social reasons as well as purely aesthetic ones, and thank God for that. There will always be people who make money from it — and why not? — as well as those who starve for the love of it. Classical music is not dying; it is changing. [...] Change can be opposed, and it can be slowed down, but it cannot be stopped. All three of our authors seem reluctant to acknowledge this ineluctable fact. But change is not always loss, and realizing this should not threaten but console.
Altered demographics and evolving social attitudes will work their inevitable effects. New or advancing media will continue to transform what they convey. We may not like the changes, any more than speakers of Latin may have liked the transformation of their language into French or Romanian. That, too, must have looked to some like corruption, degeneration, and death. Others learned to reap its rewards. Maybe it takes a historian to realize that mediation, the hydra-headed monster at which the sub-[Theodor]Adornos tilt, has been around as long as music has been, and its function is adaptive — which is to say, destructive and preservative in equal measure. Autonomous art, the recent product of a chance concatenation of circumstances, will last only as long as circumstances permit. But its origin, whatever it was, and its end, whatever it will be, are points on a continuum.
Don't take it from me. There is a great moment in an early episode of The Sopranos, everybody's favorite example right now of popular culture transmuted into art, in which a Hasid, taking a beating from a team of enforcers with Tony Soprano at their head, is putting up unexpected resistance. He reminds his tormentors of Masada, where tough Jews held out against the Romans. "The Romans," he snorts. "Where are they now?" "You're lookin' at 'em, asshole!" says Tony. Do not expect nuance from a mob boss; but if you agree that the line is funny, then you have acknowledged its kernel of truth. Toynbee could not have put it better.
It all sounds perfectly reasonable to us.
Update (6:31 PM Eastern on 28 Oct): For more on this, and some clarification of our position vis-à-vis Taruskin’s essay, see this post.