I’m going to begin by quoting from Jared Diamond’s new book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. Before I do, I want to reassure you about my use of the word “collapse.” This is not going to be one of those death-of-classical-music lamentations, a woe-betide-us, the-end-is-nigh, the-sky-is falling-this-year-too kind of affair. I am going to strike a pretty optimistic note today. I tend to usually, because it’s simply more fun to be an optimist than a pessimist. Optimists are never pleasantly surprised, they say. Well, pessimists are never pleasant. In any case, while I do think that the future of classical music, so called, is, if not exactly bright, then something other than bleak, I do admit that the possibility of failure, of an eventual and complete end to everything we hold dear, is perfectly real. And, as Diamond’s book suggests, in reference to societies and civilizations that have bit the dust of history, we will fail, in essence, if we choose to fail, if we want to fail. There are literally hundreds of passages in this book that have an eerie relevance to the situation in which we find ourselves. For example: “It is painfully difficult to decide whether to abandon some of one’s core values when they seem to be becoming incompatible with survival. At what point do we as individuals prefer to die than to compromise and live?”
Diamond gives the example of the Norse settlers who died out on the shores of Greenland. They refused to adapt to the way of living of the Inuit people, who had figured out the only way to survive in the Greenland climate. “In trying to carry on as Christian farmers, the Greenland Norse in effect were deciding that they were prepared to die as Christian farmers rather than live as Inuit.” He goes on: “Perhaps a crux of success or failure as a society is to know which core values to hold on to, and which ones to discard and replace with new values, when times change.” Among the most damaging of those values, Diamond finds, are religious ones, such as those espoused by the Norse in Greenland, which prevented them from adapting to their new climate. And there are secular equivalents of religious values, quasi-religious notions that we cling to even after the conditions that created them no longer exist. These are values dictated by “wooden-headedness, persistence in error, mental standstill or stagnation,” to quote from another book on a similar subject, Barbara Tuchman’s The March of Folly. These self-destructively high-minded values are often rooted in a deep fear of what the world might be like without the accustomed way of doing things — a fear of losing one’s identity. It can also come from pure, simple, close-minded pride, from a contempt for the unfamiliar and the other and the unknown.
Now, who chooses to fail, who wants to fail? No one consciously does, I suppose, but there is an attitude which amounts to the same thing, and it can be detected in some corners of the classical world. It’s the attitude of, well, things seem to be going down hill, so the best thing to do is to hold on to one’s dignity. Kind of like Mr. and Mrs. Astor on the Titanic, or Victor Garber in that movie, holding his head high as the water laps about his feet, his chest, his chin. After all, there can be a kind of excitement, even a strange elation, in bearing witness to the demise of an art, in being the last man standing. I detect an eagerness to see the end, an appetite for destruction, to take a phrase from Axl Rose. But the music refuses to die according to the schedules that doomsayers have devised for it. And, in any case, the death of a great institution or of a genre or of a style is not the same thing as the death of an art. It can feel like death, but it is only change and evolution. The Titanic was one ship that sank: human transportation went on. Consider another apocalyptic metaphor, the extinction of the dinosaurs. The death of one set of species was not the end of life on earth. It cleared room for a new host of species. When the age of the dinosaurs came to an end, the age of the mammals began.
Perhaps I don’t need to spell out for you where exactly this metaphor might be heading, and why I feel rather more comfortable using it in front of a gathering of chamber musicians, instead of, say, a gathering of symphony orchestra musicians or administrators. But I’ll go ahead and spell it out anyway. All the major symphony orchestras in America could collapse tomorrow, and life would go on, musical life would go on. The symphony orchestra in its modern form has existed for about a century and a half. We had hundreds of years of musical history before that, an endless catalogue of masterpieces and legendary musicians. We functioned without the orchestra then, and we’d be able to function without it in the future. I’m not in any way wishing for the collapse of the orchestra. I’d be deeply disheartened by such a turn of events. It might mean among other things that I’d be out of a job, as would many music critics around the country. But I’d be very interested to see what happened next. The point is, I wish that for every story in the media about troubled orchestras there was a matching story about a new composer-led ensemble, a new chamber series, a new program of professional musicians working in schools, and so on. There are more professional musicians than ever before. More people are going to live concerts of classical music than ever before. There are far more composers writing music —ten, maybe twenty times as many as a hundred years ago. But musical life lacks a center. It exists off the radar screen of the major media. It’s actually kind of exciting when you think about it. If I were in the business of marketing classical music to younger audiences, I’d make a virtue of this. Classical music is the new underground.