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Music in the Late Twentieth Century


CHAPTER 10 Millennium's End
Richard Taruskin

That, at any rate, is one possible future that may be projected at the dawn of the third millennium on the basis of trends observable at present. Whether it is a probable future (let alone “the” future) will depend on as yet unforeseeable factors and variables of a kind that always conspires to make monkeys out of “futurologists.” As always, among the most potent and volatile factors will be patterns of patronage. So let us end this chapter, and this book, with one last look at how that factor—of all factors the one most susceptible to “external” stimuli (demographic, sociopolitical, economic)—has been functioning.

Ever since the watershed of the sixties, predictions of the imminent demise of “classical music” have been rife. Its audience, undermined by the decline in public music education and decimated by defections to pop, was assumed to be aging, indeed dying off. Whether as a symptom of this process or as one of its causes, media coverage for classical music steadily and drastically diminished over the 1970s and 1980s (coinciding with the rise in “serious” pop coverage), as did the number of radio stations that purveyed it.

In the 1970s, classical music accounted for 20 percent of record sales in Japan, its most avid market, 10 percent in Western Europe, and 5 percent in North America. As the medium of commercial recording switched in the mid-1980s from LP to CD, and the American market share for classical record sales stabilized at approximately 3 percent (about the same as jazz, increasingly regarded and described as “America's classical music”), its status was relegated to that of a “niche product,” serving a tiny, closed-off clientele whose needs could be met with reissues rather than costly new recordings of the standard repertoire. Major symphony orchestras, especially in the United States, found themselves without recording contracts, with serious consequences for the incomes of their personnel. Major labels began concentrating on “crossover” projects, in which the most popular classical performers collaborated with artists from other walks of musical life in an effort to achieve sales that might transcend the limits of the classical “niche.” The huge fees such artists commanded virtually squeezed others out of the recording budget altogether. Classical music seemed destined to become the culture industry's “basket case.”

The implications for composers seemed particularly grave, since this period of attrition had no effect on the numbers trained within the protected walls of the academy, which as always offered temporary insulation from the vagaries of the market. The result was a vast overpopulation of composers, whose numbers swelled even as their outlets contracted. Their activity, as already implied above, came ironically to resemble the sort of self-publication and self-promotion that was known in the declining Soviet Union (where it was a response to political rather than economic pressure) as samizdat. Their work met no measurable consumer demand and found little source of subsidy. Its main purpose became the securing of academic employment and promotion—another sort of niche—that enabled its creators to train the next generation of socially unsupported and unwanted composers, and so on in possibly meaningless perpetuity.

In the late 1980s and 1990s, however, that pattern began unexpectedly to change, permitting the emergence of a composing elite—tiny, perhaps, but larger than ever before—whose work was suddenly in demand, sought out by traditional performance organizations for performance at major venues, and who could in some cases live off their commissions and performance royalties without seeking academic employment. New York's Metropolitan Opera, for example, which had not presented a premiere since the 1960s, commissioned four operas during the this period, of which three achieved production: The Ghosts of Versailles (1987; produced 1991), an opera by John Corigliano based on La mère coupable (“The guilty mother”), the one remaining member of Beaumarchais's Figaro trilogy that had not already been turned into an operatic classic by Mozart (The Marriage of Figaro) or Rossini (The Barber of Seville); The Voyage (first performed on Columbus Day, 1992) by Philip Glass, commemorating the 500th anniversary of Columbus's arrival in the New World; and The Great Gatsby (first performed on New Year's Day, 2000) by John Harbison, based on the novel of the same name by F. Scott Fitzgerald.

The Harbison work had been jointly commissioned by the Met and the Chicago Lyric Opera; this ensured that it would have a life beyond its premiere production (and also allowed the composer the chance to revise the opera on the basis of its reception, as was traditional in opera's heyday, but discouraged in the later twentieth century both by economic conditions and by the ideology of modernism). The Met and the Chicago Lyric also issued a tandem commission to William Bolcom for an opera based on Arthur Miller's play A View from the Bridge, premiered in Chicago in 1999 and significantly revised for its New York performances in 2001.

Paying the Piper, Calling the Tune

fig. 10-9 Scene from act I of Philip Glass's opera The Voyage.

Nor were these houses alone: the San Francisco opera commissioned several works in the 1990s, including A Streetcar Named Desire, after Tennessee Williams's play, by André Previn (b. 1929), and Dead Man Walking by Jake Heggie (b. 1961), based on a memoir of death row prisoners by Sister Helen Prejean that had already been turned into a major Hollywood movie. Just how “bankable” a commodity the Met thought new opera now might be is indicated by the generous terms of the commissions—especially the one to Glass, who received $325,000. (Expenditures on the production approached $2 million.)

In part this seeming rebirth was a result of the changes wrought by “postmodernism” in the relative prestige of composing styles. Harbison had been trained as a serialist, and of course Glass was one of the founders, in the 1960s, of “hard-core” minimalism. Both had abandoned their earlier avant-garde positions and were now meeting in the vast moderate middle ground labeled “neoromanticism.” And yet there had always been relatively “accessible” composers available for commissioning, including some specialists in vocal or theatrical genres like Ned Rorem or Hugo Weisgall (1912–97), who had gone untapped by the major houses all during the 1970s and 1980s. It seemed that the new interest in opera had to do with new sources of money to support it. It was tied, that is, to the interests of new patrons.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 10 Millennium's End." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 17 Jun. 2019. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-010017.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 10 Millennium's End. In Oxford University Press, Music in the Late Twentieth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 17 Jun. 2019, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-010017.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 10 Millennium's End." In Music in the Late Twentieth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 17 Jun. 2019, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-010017.xml