Friday, 30 April 2021

What is the use of the symphony orchestra?

 The tendency of many orchestras in the Western world to try to make themselves ‘useful’ to society, to become instruments of social change, results from the decreasing status of classical music as a whole, and especially one of its most expensive mediums: the symphony orchestra.

Justification of the costs has now to be found in some form of utility that lies outside music because music as such becomes much too difficult to see as something socially relevant. In a time when the notion of culture, and of psychological and spiritual subjects, is eroding, only the material and the financial aspects of life remain visible, and social injustices because they are understandeable by most people, including the culturally-challenged, on the most basic level.

So, in an attempt to survive in an increasing hostile environment, where classical music is seen by large groups as 'white suprematist', 'elitist', 'inaccessible', 'outdated', 'irrelevant to the modern world', a number of people at symphony orchestras think it necessary to turn away from the idea that classical music is a common good in itself and accessible to anyone, and to prostitute the medium. It is like an upperclass woman whose husband has left her and emptied the mutual bank account, and who desperately tries-out selling herself for survival.

But the idea that a symphony orchestra is not, or less, relevant to society if it is not directly connected to the needs of social change, is entirely wrong. Classical music is not an utility instrument, it is an art form which has no other ‘use‘ than being itself. In a world where so much is measured for its utility, it is the arts who offer an island where the value of a psychological and spiritual experience can be found in itself, as itself, and not in relation to some ulterior motive. Classical music addresses itself to the inner experience of man, and not to the outer world with its worldy concerns and needs. It is the opposite nature of classical music to the nature of the world that this unique art form finds its value and relevance, to compensate for the materialist, commercial, trivial and utility-saturated world of modernity, a world which tends to leave people nihilistic, depressed, exhausted and meaningless.


  1. It is strange to assert that "culture" and "psychological and spiritual subjects" are somehow distinct from racism, misogyny and the like. I would have thought that there is nothing more psychological or cultural than racism. It's also strange to assert that music has ever been or could ever be separate from politics and material culture.

    1. That is the misunderstanding within the world view of a materialistic and instrumental modernity, it has become fashionable to 'explain' classical music politically, socially, economically, as if it is merely a product of these forces. It is like claiming that a flower, or a tree, is nothing in itself but can only be explained by the soil. The confusion of entities, of art forms, of contexts, of levels of meaning, is a logical result from materialist relativism which is at the heart of the modern world, and which is entirely selfdestructive. The fact that classical music exists, does not diminish the fact that racism exists and should be battled. But music is, in itself, not related to social injustice, as it is impossible to explain a Haydn symphony to the injustices of the feudal system of which Haydn's boss was a member.

    2. Two things with respect to "It is like claiming that a flower, or a tree, is nothing in itself but can only be explained by the soil."

      1) You can't establish that Ethan ever actually said that because he never has, whether here or elsewhere and thanks to Norman Lebrecht mentioning him I've been reading Ethan's blog for years
      2) To take the "seed" of the analogy and consider it, the argument regarding the "flower", It is more probable that people concerned about the material and social prerequisites for symphonic repertory are arguing that:

      a) if there was no "soil" or "water" or "nutrients" in the "soil there would be no "flower" and that
      b) music history and historiography has tended to fixate on the flowers rather than on the soil, water and nutrients that allowed the flowers to grow. You can examine plenty of flowers pressed in a book without understanding the biology and geology and meteorology involved in a flower's growth.