Last month it was reported that the 161-year-old Royal Melbourne Philharmonic (RMP) choir and orchestra has lost its annual grant from the Melbourne City Council and may also lose State Government support for its tenancy of centrally-located rehearsal space.
Predictably, this news has been received with dismay by the local classical music community in that city. But it reflects a policy trend apparent across the western world.
The so-called “heritage” performing arts – organisations such as symphony orchestras and opera companies based in old, substantially European, repertoire – can no longer rely on a presumption of government support. But while public largesse is certainly harder to find, it seems money per se is not the problem. Rather, it is the declining ability of those organisations to make a convincing case for funding.
Two recently published sets of statistics suggest some reasons why.
One, by Ricky O’Bannon at the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, analysed data from 21 major American orchestras.
O'Bannon found, among other things, that:
- 9.5% of all pieces performed were written since the year 2000.
- The average date of composition of a piece performed during the year is 1886.
- Female composers account for only 1.8% of the works performed.
Another was the result of private research undertaken by the American composer Suby Raman and published on his blog as 10 Graphs To Explain The Metropolitan Opera. It showed, among other things, that:
- The median year of composition of an opera performance at the Met is around 1870.
- The percentage of works staged by American composers over the past hundred years falls into the bounds of a “rounding error” (i.e. it is very small!)
- There have been no operas performed at the Met that were composed by a woman since 1903.
I suspect such awkward facts come as no great surprise to most of us who work in classical music. The fact that they are indeed very awkward may help to explain, however, why there was also a rush by news outlets last week to run with the story — dubious at best – that perhaps Bach’s second wife, Anna Magdelena, composed some of his most beloved music (in particular, the Cello Suites).
There is a challenge here for the classical musical community, and it is a serious one. But let us frame the challenge properly. As Alex Ross wrote in response to the Bach thesis, in The New Yorker:
A classical-music world dominated by the past will, inevitably, be one dominated by men. Instead of trying to invent a female Bach in prior centuries, let’s seek her in the present.
Does that also mean we should let go of support for performances of this music of the past? It might seem so when the RMP apparently lost its funding because it had been held against a test of innovation and relevance and found wanting.
Instead, according to Music Director Andrew Wailes, the City of Melbourne “are focused on avant-garde, trendy and experimental artistic expressions”.
But this was a test the RMP was always bound to fail. After all, the RMP is perhaps best known for, among other things, having mounted the longest run of annual performances of Handel’s oratorio Messiah anywhere in the world.
Standards such as “innovation” reinforce, however, an assumption that organisations like RMP are inherently conservative.
When community singing is on the decline, and “classical” music can no longer claim a position of cultural supremacy, I am not so sure that’s true any more.
Furthermore, an art work does not necessarily need to be new to be able to mount a case for innovation (in the sense of playing against the grain of mainstream culture). Composer Julian Johnson has argued that classical music actually asks us to listen to music in fundamentally different ways than most of the sounds that daily surround us.
Maybe organisations such as the RMP could also realign their communities of mutual self-interest towards organisations like the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) and indeed UNESCO that are currently better articulating the case for preserving our intangible cultural heritage.
This would be not just about better preserving corners of cultural self-interest, though one could be forgiven for thinking as much at times. It matters because a culture that loses a sense of its links to the past risks sliding into a kind of postmodern dystopia where what remains is just an endless flow of the present.
This was the condition German philosopher Theodor Adorno once decried as the “spectre of man [sic] without memory”, without the ability to recall or dream that things could be other than they currently are.
David Armitage and Jo Guldi recently argued in their essay Bonfire of the humanities for the online journal AEON that:
the humanities departments of our universities should be the place to go for a long look in the rear-view mirror.
Well, yes! But also I suggest that we could properly add to their list our galleries, museums, and – yes – the performing arts. We don’t decry public funding of galleries and museums when they concentrate on exhibiting historic objects – why, then, the different standard when organisations such as the RMP do essentially the same?
This is not to suggest we give a “get out of jail free” card for such organisations when it comes to competitive funding grants – of course they still need to demonstrate how and why they connect with the broader community, and thus justify their claim on public funds.
I do think, however, it is impoverished thinking to imply, as a matter of course, that performances of historic repertoire cannot also be “relevant” or “innovative”.
To be sure, the past, as English novelist LP Hartley famously wrote, is “a foreign country” and we really should not be surprised to find that they do indeed “do things differently there”.
But Australia forecloses on engaging openly with the past as unwisely as it shuts its doors to engaging openly with foreign countries.