WASHINGTON, April 16, 2014 — Last November, London’s The Daily Telegraph ran a slight piece about the efforts of a McDonald’s restaurant in Australia to deter rowdy teenagers from gathering there to party late at night.
This McDonald’s is using a novel strategy to disperse the unruly crowd: They are playing classical music, especially opera, over their loud speakers, and they are playing it loudly. And it’s working; fewer kids are gathering there to whoop it up late at night (one has to wonder where in the world their parents are).
These presumably middle class, educated children of privilege can’t take opera. So they’re off, perhaps to harass another, more inviting establishment that stays open late — and without the soprano expiring for half an hour.
They can work computers, Facebook and Twitter to perfection; they are well-equipped to vote as they are told, but they can’t name the three branches of the American government, or which nations fought in World War II, or in the case of those Australian teens, perhaps, the names of the six states and one territory that compose that down under nation.
In the 1950s, Raleigh, N.C., which counted about 50,000 inhabitants, had only three or four radio stations. Among the programs dedicated to big-band, country and jazz, every station featured programs of classical music, mostly in prime evening slots. Every Saturday afternoon during the Fall through the Spring, WPTF Radio, the largest and most powerful station in central North Carolina, broadcast the Metropolitan Opera. The general manager observed that not only did many listeners in the area enjoy opera, but it was also part of the radio station’s “public service” to the community.
Sunday afternoons when we got home from church, we would tune in to WPTF, then affiliated with NBC, for music dedicated to the legacy of the famous orchestral conductor, Arturo Toscanini. We spent many Sundays listening to Maestro Toscanini conducting works by Brahms or Tchaikowsky or Beethoven. My mother reminded me that during the war, broadcast concerts with Toscanini seemed to unite the nation. We didn’t personally know our fellow citizens in Mississippi or Wyoming, but we did know they were listening to the same music, from the same Western cultural heritage, that we were.
It wasn’t just radio; Raleigh’s two television stations, as well as stations in Durham and Greensboro, programmed concerts by ensembles like the New York Philharmonic; NBC showcased studio operas, often on Sunday afternoons. Variety programs, including the popular “Ed Sullivan Show,” featured such stars of opera as Joan Sutherland and Birgit Nilsson. Don’t forget the long-running “Voice of Firestone” and “The Bell Telephone Hour” programs, both in prime time. This was for our parents, and for many of us, truly “popular music,” accessible to and for everyone.
In the sixth grade we had music appreciation time. Our English teacher reminded us all that not only was such music entertaining and uplifting, but it was part of our heritage. My mother could hum the “Anvil Chorus” from Verdi’s Il Trovatore and the “Soldiers’ Chorus” from Gounod’s Faust — indeed, most of our parents (or grandparents) could probably do something similar.
Everyone who watched cartoons remembers the classical “bonbons” that accompanied the antics of Woody Woodpecker, or Bugs Bunny in Wagnerian drag. Remember, “Kill de wabbit! Kill de wabbit” to the tune of the Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries”? Anyone who grew up in the 1950s associates Rossini’s overture to William Tell with “The Lone Ranger.” The Huntley and Brinkley Report, a news program and once the most profitable program on television, closed to the music of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony (conducted by Toscanini, of course), and William Buckley’s talk show closed to the music of Bach.
Maybe most of us preferred something lighter those days, but at the very least, we knew what was good, and what was good for us. Music created by the great masters was a genuine part of our culture, held in high regard, and believed to be essential, even if in small doses, to the formation of an educated and successful man or woman. It connected us to a creative past, a tradition that helped form and shape us, and gave character to our civilization.
Perhaps it was the 1960s when all that began to change. Maybe the decisions of the record company moguls following the assassination of President Kennedy, the ’60s student riots, and the pessimism engendered by the Vietnam War reflected an end to the optimism and certainties of the 1950s. Or perhaps it was simply crass commercialism that took advantage of the times and the triumph of groups like the Beatles and The Rolling Stones who seemed to symbolize the despair and the anarchic and revolutionary fervor of the age.
In any case, by the late 1970s and 1980s, classical music had been largely exiled from the public square, sent off to a “niche,” to be enjoyed by a reduced minority — which was never the intent of the composers who created those works of music in the first place. Whereas “Beethoven” meant something significant to our parents, now for many, if not most, teens and “twenty-somethings,” it’s the name of a couple of movies about a St. Bernard.
Some cable television networks like A&E, Bravo and Ovation initially picked up the torch when the major networks scrapped their classical programming. They began by heralding that they would carry opera and concerts, but a simple scan of their programming these days reveals that they, too, have junked their classier programs. Most of them now specialize in competing with CBS, ABC, NBC, and Fox, with inane “reality” programs. Now we have “The Desperate Housewives of Wherever,” or maybe, “Big Brother’s Orgy House.” And we call this “kulchur.”
Even PBS, which prided itself in recent years — perhaps too much and too proudly — on being the benchmark for high-class programming, now delves more frequently into mindless entertainment and political correctness. “Live from the Met” and “Great Performances” still show up in the PBS “niche,” but deeply embedded between other offerings which would have made our grandparents blush.
While “Live from the Met” may have a loyal following, maybe two or three percent of the population these days, popular tastes now incline to more glitzy (and brainless) performers: Lady Gaga, Miley Cyrus, Justin Bieber. In 1940, when Lily Pons sang “La Marseillaise” impromptu during an opera broadcast from the stage of the Metropolitan Opera after the fall of France, an estimated 40 to 50 million listeners tuned in to hear her. The emotion was palpable.
Today, classical music itself has become rarified and cut off from the general public, increasingly identified with snootiness and “high brow” tastes. That was not always the case. A few decades back, Wagnerian super-star Birgit Nilsson was welcomed by thousands of fans at the Vienna airport. In 1903, tens of thousands of regular folks turned out for the massive funeral of Italian composer Giuseppe Verdi. Verdi and his operas were considered a national treasure by all Italians, even by those who weren’t fond of opera.
Not only have attitudes towards classical music changed; so has the nature of modern compositions. The classics appealed both to the mind and the heart, a balance of intellect and emotion. Composition these days is academic and elitist, the preserve of university music departments. It is composed by intellectuals for intellectuals.
Melody, harmony, and tone itself came under attack in the 20th century, as structure became less important than theory in composition. The new music seems intended to divide the trained and the untrained, unlike the earlier masters who united the crowds and the elite in common appreciation. As one well-dressed concert-goer observed recently when a new musical composition was performed locally, “I didn’t hear anything but violins screeching!”
It is no exaggeration to see the precipitous decline in musical culture and taste as one more symptom of the decline of our culture. To paraphrase T. S. Eliot, we destroy the monuments and achievements of our historic culture so that the barbarian caravans of the future can park in the ruins.
Not all youth have gone over the cliff like the Gadarene swine; indeed, there are superb and talented young artists and musicians today, as there have always been. The problem is that the standards of our society’s cultural milieu are increasingly dictated by boobs and idiots who follow along the latest pronouncement of our neo-Marxist managerial elites. The results are disastrous, and not just for that Australian McDonald’s.Click here for reuse options!
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