Classical Music Could Die With My Generation – We Have to Save It

Fun fact: most of my peers have probably heard of Beethoven and Mozart – just about. Ask them about Bach or Chopin, some will start to look at you strangely. Talk about Brahms or Haydn, and you will certainly get blank looks. I am a sophomore in high school.

My family and I recently went to a performance of Beethoven’s Fifth by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Most people know it for the famous opening four-note motif (“Da-da-da, Daaaah”). My favorite part comes in the fourth movement. The finale finishes resoundingly in C major, an explosion of color contrasting the soft end of the third movement. The cadence from the horns provides a triumphant finish to one of the gems of the 19th century. The night resonated with me particularly – a glimmer of life and light at the end of the pandemic tunnel.

Beethoven’s most famous symphony was a sell-out, but there were a few factors that were alarming. First, I couldn’t ignore the sea of white hair. Along with my sister who is in elementary school, we were by far the youngest people there – even my parents were on the younger side. Next, the experience was frighteningly serious. The atmosphere felt stuffy. During the performance, my sister whispered something to me, breaking the unspoken “concert etiquette”. A handful of dirty looks ensued. My sister left the concert discouraged and deflated.

I appreciate classical music, but the experience of classical concerts is alienating for younger people, including my generation. In an age where the musical experience is about social interaction as much as the music itself, classical music couldn’t be in a worse place – an environment where you are expected to dress formally and barred from coughing, sneezing, or even applauding between movements. These rules work against engaging new audiences and can feel outdated.

I understand classical music strives in the subtleties and cannot be grasped without careful attention. However, in today’s short-attention-span world, most music has become streamlined to hold maximum attention for a brief period of time. All of the songs in my playlists rarely go over four minutes. I can’t deny that Drake is more “exciting” than the twenty-minute-long second movement of Beethoven’s Fifth with its intricate development, complex harmonies, and multiple countermelodies. During performances, this gap becomes more glaringly obvious. While one includes a stuffy atmosphere with strict rules, the other is a dance festival: people reveling in the blaring lights.

Music genres today are being created and left behind in the blink of an eye. Classical music faces huge challenges to compete with for attention. To survive, it must be open to some reinvention. I am no expert. But my criticism and suggestion come from a place of support and love. For me personally, the open-air music festivals, like Ravinia, are an example of a sensible step in the right direction. The atmosphere is inviting, and it shows in the attendance. People my age frequently show up with friends and family. Along with the traditional formal seating, there are picnic lawn areas where kids like my sister are free to move around. Audience members can drink wine, play games, and share laughs while enjoying world-class music.

I don’t want to be part of the generation that killed classical music – or stood idly by as it died from neglect. I don’t want this to end as a history lesson, like when another spoken language disappears forever. This is the music that has stood the test of time. It’s a language that can project a million emotions and thoughts – without uttering a single word.

Most importantly, classical music brings joy. Joy that comes from connection, subtleties, and art.

I couldn’t imagine a world without it.

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3 thoughts on “Classical Music Could Die With My Generation – We Have to Save It”

  1. DEBBIE O’DONNELL

    Thank you so much for the article Winston! So well-written and insightful. Perhaps we
    need more of these types of pieces to start conversations. I can relate as both my daughters grew up learning violin and cello, and one plays piano beautifully. As adults, they fully appreciate listening to classical music and attending an occasional symphony orchestra performance. Perhaps this falls right alongside with bringing the requirements for literature and classics back to college curriculum to recharge our culture and help raise it up to where it once was.

  2. After reading the post, I really feel sorry for your generation. I will give credit to Winston for copping to the biggest problem: a lack of patience and thoughtfulness that previous generations possessed. I am probably around Winston’s parents’ age and grew up surrounded by the arts. I took ballet for 16 years, and my parents regularly took my brother and me to museums, plays, concerts and other performances, including the Goodman Theatre’s children’s program. It’s too bad that doesn’t exist anymore because Winston’s sister sounds as if she could use practice with what theater etiquette entails. My parents taught me very early on that the world doesn’t revolve around me. But based on what Winston writes, he gives little thought to others in attendance. Further, the incredibly ageist comments written by this teenager should have been edited out. What if he had made similar references to the racial or gender makeup of the audience, instead of his perception of the age of the attendees and how stiff they made everything? As a supporter of the arts and someone who was raised from an early age to think critically and learn from my elders, I am so sad that kids today think everything should be dismantled to suit their inability to adhere to anything resembling respect for what came before they were born. Yes, all arts organizations have to find new ways to attract and retain an audience base. But insulting and alienating one group of people for the benefit of another is not the route to take.

  3. First, you should know that I have white hair. I was brought up to think seeing the CSO, Lyric and Ballet were special experiences: dress up and behave. Truth is, I liked it. I still like it, and I love the fact that some young people, often couples, show up in their finest.

    Honestly, when I went to see an early showing of Star Wars at a ist-run theater in 1979, I was annoyed by all the talking in the audience, and a lot of very young kids were there. My companion said, “These are people who have lV on all the time and talk over it.” I thought that was an interesting observation.
    So, can we compare the CSO and Drake? Should the CSO be fun, like a rock concert? I don’t think so, although you may know about the annual New Year’s concerts, started by the Vienna Philharmonic, where it’s mandatory to play the Racozzi march an the audience claps along. I dunno. Maybe each symphony concert should end with an audience­ pleaser, but wouldn’t that kind of defeat the purpose?
    By purpose, I mean the intent of the composer. As you point out, parts of Beethoven’s fifth require or demand a kind of intense attention. Ideally, we sin into the music. It’s not quite the same as swaying and snapping to the beat, though that might be fun sometime. I think the issue is two kinds of immersion.

    Nothing wrong with immersing yourself to the beat of Beethoven, but the real deal is a kind of mental immersion. Sometimes it’s just paying attention out of politeness, but at the best of times t’s being spellbound.

    I can’t say the shushers are spellbound. Ideally, they should be too caught up in it to do the shushing.
    But I guess the shushers are part of the scene.
    Classical music is part of the warp and woof of western culture. No thug should be without it, at least an exposure! Hope we can have ongoing discussions.

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