Classical Music Is Being Cancelled
United States: Is classical music a “privilege” for whites and Asians?
TRIBUNE – In decline in the United States, classical music is criticized by many as “too white”, even though it is favoured by young Americans of Asian descent, analyses Paul May, a professor at the Université du Québec à Montréal (Uqam)*.
By PAUL MAY
Le Figaro, 21 June 2020
Classical music today is accused of being unsuited to the growing ethnic diversity of the American population.
Certain phenomena, not very publicized and unspectacular, are nevertheless indicative of profound transformations at work in our societies. This is the case of the decline of classical music in the United States. Confronted for several years with a constant decline in its audience, classical music is now accused of being unsuited to the growing ethnic diversity of the country’s population, to such an extent that its long-term survival is being questioned. Sociologically, the stakes are symbolic: one of the major cultural practices of the country’s elite since its foundation is explicitly called upon to change or disappear.
A study by the National Endowment for the Arts reports that the proportion of adults who attended a classical music concert in the previous year had risen from 13 per cent in 1982 to 8.6 per cent in 2017. Between 1982 and 2002, the share of attendees under 30 dropped from 27% to 9%. This is accompanied by a general decline in the number of amateurs in the population: in 1992, 4.2% of adult Americans reported playing a musical instrument, compared to 2% in 2008. In terms of album sales, although the last two years have seen a slight improvement, they do not mask a sharp decline over the long term. While the country still has some of the world’s most renowned orchestras, such as the Chicago Symphony or the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the question of a decline can hardly be avoided.
There are many reasons for this, according to the specialist press: an economic model based mainly on private funding, a decline in school education, and competition from other forms of music that are more popular with the younger generation.
Classical music is inherently racist
– New Music USA
Faced with this observation, classical music is encouraged to renew itself. However, according to professionals in the sector, one of the major challenges is to change the image of a field perceived as “too white”. According to a report published in 2016 by the League of American Orchestras, blacks represent only 1.8% of orchestra members, and Latin Americans only 2.5%. Moreover, the vast majority of the works performed in the concerts were by composers of European origin, which is considered insufficiently “inclusive” in the United States. For example, the San Francisco Chronicle recently expressed regret that the city’s Symphony Orchestra will present almost exclusively compositions created by white men in the 2017-2018 season.
Too white, too old, the classical music sector is accused of being out of step with the country’s changing demographics. Indeed, projections by the US Census Bureau predict that the share of ethnic minorities in the population will increase to become the majority around the middle of the century, and would already represent 45% of the 18-23 age group. As a result, a number of American newspapers have recently denounced the fact that the classical music scene is considered too ethnically homogenous. The New York Times accuses it of being the “least diverse institution in the country” and of masking “a racist problem”, while the Seattle Magazine proclaims that it is necessary to “attack its whiteness”. The specialized press is not to be outdone: the National Public Radioconstate’s website says that the scene is “extremely white and increasingly marginalized,” echoing New Music USA, which for its part believes that “classical music is inherently racist.
These accusations are based on the following logic: if an institution has too small a proportion of people of non-European descent, it is suspected of masking a discriminatory recruitment process, or even a form of “structural racism”. Recently, this beam of criticism has hit a wide variety of fields, such as cinema (with the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite), ice hockey (#HockeySoWhite), or the Silicon Valley business community (#SiliconValleySoWhite). In the name of economic performance or the principle of non-discrimination, each institution is thus scrutinized and judged on the basis of its degree of openness to “diversity”.
While classical music was banned during the Cultural Revolution, it is estimated today that about 50 million young Chinese are learning the piano.
In the field of classical music, this leads to prioritizing the recruitment of musicians from diverse ethnic backgrounds, modifying the canon of composers deemed essential to include artists of colour, or transforming the current concert format to offer collaborations with singers appreciated by young audiences, as proposed in the League of American Orchestras’ report entitled “How Diversity Can Help Save Classical Music”.
It is to be hoped that this project of ethnic recalibration will succeed in breathing new life into classical music across the Atlantic. Sceptics, however, will prefer to bank on the extraordinary enthusiasm of the younger generation of Asian Americans for this art form. The latter constitute a growing fringe of amateurs and professionals, contradicting the above-mentioned critics who see classical music as an area that is not easily accessible to ethnic minorities. Indeed, the children of immigrants from China, South Korea, Singapore or Taiwan are over-represented in conservatories, and pushed by their parents, who see this apprenticeship as a school of rigour and excellence. It remains to be seen, however, whether their demographic weight in the population will be sufficient to reverse the current declining trend.
In this regard, the situation in the United States contrasts with that of several Asian countries, such as China, for example. While classical music was banned during the Cultural Revolution, it is estimated today that about 50 million young Chinese are learning the piano, inspired by internationally renowned stars such as Li Yundi, Yuja Wang, or Lang Lang. The country is both the leading consumer and the leading manufacturer of pianos, producing 80% of the world’s supply. The average age of concertgoers is considerably younger than in North America, suggesting a more sustainable audience over the long term, both in auditoriums and on the internet. All these factors led Lorin Maazel, former music director of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, to say: “We need defenders of our classical music tradition, if classical music is to survive … it may very well be that the most important defenders are in China”.
Optimists will be pleased to find a music-loving public in Asia, eager to take over a neglected artistic heritage. Pessimists will see it as yet another symptom of a West that has forgotten its roots and is indifferent to the transmission of its own cultural treasures. A silent phenomenon, rarely in the headlines… but no less significant for the evolution of our civilization.
* Paul May is notably the author of a remarkable work, “Philosophies of Multiculturalism” (Presses de Sciences Po, 2016).
Translated by DeepL from https://www.lefigaro.fr/vox/culture/etats-unis-la-musique-classique-est-elle-un-privilege-des-blancs-et-des-asiatiques-20200621?utm_source=premium&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=%5b20200622_NL_MATINALE%5d&een=0f1a36e844c5b583e92182bf15428d7c&seen=6&m_i=Ji6fmw7_vI1HdQcx6BuJw_E2G_p2z13R9HJ80M03qEbkNwv5erctZWqU8CFu4oLEE8z8PDvvLon_I7BTFXr3pWHPHhKZbEWHdW