The classical music industry’s dangerous obsession with its past and why it’s killing classical music

Classical music is dying.

No really, it is. 

The classical music industry has stagnated; 70 years of neglecting the music of the present in favour of championing historical music has left us in a coma, just about breathing through a tube but it’s on life support and sooner or later the plug needs to be pulled.

The latest classical news last week: Missy Mazzoli finishes her tenure as composer-in-residence at Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the culmination concert is billed as Muti Conducts Beethoven 4 & 7. Mazzoli’s piece is the opener to the concert, translation – not the main event.

One of today’s foremost classical composers doesn’t get top billing on a concert because a composer who died 200 years ago will sell more tickets.  Seriously, that is a really messed up situation.

“No one in orchestral admin is deliberately trying to destroy contemporary music” tweet from Jo Johnson, Senior Marketing Manager for London Symphony Orchestra.

Whether or not anyone is deliberately trying is irrelevant, the fact is it is happening. It’s been happening at least since my 32 years on Earth and a lot longer.

Contemporary music gets destroyed every time a contemporary piece gets performed only once in favour of 10 performances by Mozart. 

Contemporary music gets destroyed every time someone decides to record yet another album of Beethoven Piano Concertos instead of Magnus Lindberg.

“Headlining an unknown when you’ve got Yuja playing Tchaik on the same bill isn’t so much idealistic as irresponsible.” Tweet from Richard Bratby, Classical music writer and former concerts manager for CBSO.

Missy Mazzoli should not be an unknown at this point, in fact if she were a pop artist of similar stature she would be already a superstar with sold out stadiums, million pound record deals, played everywhere.

And why is programming today’s music be seen as irresponsible?

Classical Archives list The Greats, the 60 ‘great’ composers. Not one of them was born within the past century. What does this say about classical music? 

Why have no composers in the past century been added to the list of greats? Is it because not enough good music has been written since then? 

Hell no. It’s because not enough of the good music has been performed.

We’ve constructed an industry so obsessed with saturating us with music by the dead that music of the living is seen as a risk.

There are 94 performances of Beethoven’s 5th in the next 12 months (according to Bachtrack.)

Caroline Shaw’s Valencia on the other hand, one of the coolest and most popular contemporary pieces, is being performed twice in the next 12 months (again according to concerts listed on Bachtrack.)

That’s nearly 50 times more performances of a piece written in 1808 than a piece written in 2012!

Bachtrack lists 1547 upcoming performances of Beethoven.

Caroline Shaw has 15 upcoming concerts listed on Bachtrack. That’s over 100 times more performances than one of today’s most brilliant composers. 

Even John Adams, arguably the most well known, popular living composer has only 45 concerts listed, compare that to Mozart’s 748.  Mozart died over 200 years ago and is being performed now 6 times more than the most well known living composer.

Then you have recordings. Unsuk Chin has 14 recordings of her music on PrestoClassical. Tchaikovsky has 6,175 recordings listed. 56 of those recordings were in the past 3 months alone! 

“Audiences are very skittish and can be easily put off by the unfamiliar.” Tweet by Jo Johnson, Senior Marketing Manager for London Symhony Orchestra.

The saying goes ‘People like what they know and and they know what they like”. People are so overwhelming overexposed to music by dead composers so that’s what they like. All contemporary music is unfamiliar and unknown because it’s they’re never exposed to it so they don’t like it. It’s a vicious cycle.

If we can’t get people to be interested in music that is being made now then we have a serious problem. We may as well just stop, call it all historical music and have done with it.

And if it is because all the best music was written over a century ago and nothing good enough’s been written since then some serious thought needs to go into why we’ve been continuing to teach composition for the past century? Why have we been training new brilliant composers? Nothing they ever create will compare, it mostly likely won’t be heard more than once or recorded so why bother?

How long can this continue? One does wonder how classical music can continue as a living genre when the living music is perceived as too risky.

The music we champion is getting older and older, further receding into the past whilst the music being written just keeps fading away, being forgotten because it’s not being kept alive. Ironically we’re keeping the dead alive and we’re killing off the living.

This is where we need to look at pop marketing.

Popular music has a much healthier relationship with its past.

The unfamiliar is scary. It’s true, but pop/rock music embraces this whereas classical music just reacts against it.

People are skittish when it comes to anything new. No-one likes change, not in music, not in life. 

Pop music celebrates the new. There is new music coming out all the time and it gets played so much. All the new music coming out is unfamiliar but it gets played all the time, people get used to it and then suddenly we have a huge number of new hit songs. Some classics for the ages, some eventually fade for all but the hardcore fans.

Just look at Uptown Funk. A brand new unfamiliar song then suddenly it was played everywhere, radio stations, playlists, shops, clubs then everyone new it and it was top of the charts. Now it’s a classic 21st century song.

The pop/rock music industry constantly turns the terrifying risk into popular art. 

Pop and rock music also constantly add to their canons of greatness. You can seen the line of amazing female singers from The Supremes, Aretha Franklin, Stevie Nicks, Madonna, Celine Dion, Mariah Carey, Beyonce, Adele. In 30 years time people will be just as likely to remember Amy Winehouse as they do Diana Ross.

And in rock you have The Rolling Stones, ELO, Queen, Bon Jovi, Oasis, Foo Fighters, Coldplay, Muse, Kings of Leon. 

The music of the past is still played. It’s become comfort food, nice to have something warm and familiar to fall back on sometimes.

The classical music industry spends its life on the edge of the swimming pool of contemporary music, dipping its toes in every now and again then squealing and running back to the comfort of the past. 

But we can’t stop listening to Beethoven!

The next argument for playing new music is that we can’t stop listening to Beethoven or Mozart or any of these dead composers.

I will bet anything that no-one has ever said that about ABBA, Queen or Aretha Franklin and no one ever will. 

They’ve survived the enormous popularity of Whitney Houston, Oasis, Beyonce, Coldplay and the hundreds of other platinum selling artists that have succeeded them. No matter how many albums these more recent acts have sold. There have been so many famous, popular, amazing singers since Aretha Franklin but people still continue to listen to Aretha, as well as enjoying all the more recent artists.

No one will ever stop listening to Beethoven or Brahms. They’re still fantastic composers. We’ll just listen to them as well as Thomas Ades and Anna Meredith.

Luckly we have even more resources at our disposal. We have the 8th wonder of the world that is the internet. Youtube, Spotify, iTunes, embedding, streaming and more mean it is easier to access music and listen to it, engage in new ways before spending money and time on concerts.

Today’s generation of teenagers and 20 somethings are all computer fluent. Embracing these technologies and resourcess is going to be a key way of engaging the current generation of young musicians, composers and listeners. They are who will keep classical music alive.

Can you imagine what would happen if people performed Anna Thorvalsdottir as much as Beethoven?

The fact is this is not a quick fix. An entire lifetime of marginalising living music in favour of dead composers it’s not going to change overnight. 

The only way out of this is through. The only way to make people comfortable with new music is to perform it regularly, record it a lot and play it on the radio regularly with the same obsession that we currently programme dead music.

What if music by the dead composers is like the one good cover version every band has in their repertoire? Mixed in with the band’s new and original music. The cover’s not why you bought the ticket to the gig but a delightful surprise when they play it, fun to hear, sing along and enjoy as well as their new stuff.

We just have to dive in to the pool, instead of dipping our toes in we need to dive headfirst. The water may be initially a bit cold but oh so lovely when we get acclimatised to it. 

There is amazing music being composed all the time, amazing music written for the past 70 years. Let’s start celebrating it before it is too late.

Elizabeth de Brito

Producer, The Daffodil Perspective. 1st ever gender balanced classical radio show.


The Daffodil Perspective at the moment usually plays 3 contemporary composers on each show. That’s 3/12 composers.

From now on there will be 4 contemporary composers on each show. 2 male and 2 female to maintain gender parity. A third of composers will be living and as close as possible to 1/3 airtime as well.

Why not more? The show is actually of historical interest as it champions female composers, all of whom have been marginalised for centuries. The aim of the show is to rewrite classical music history. If gender parity already existed with composers like Louise Farrenc and Emilie Mayer just as well known and performed as Tchaikovsky or Mendelssohn then I’d be playing a lot more contemporary music.


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