Who Killed Classical Music?

Maestros, Managers, and Corporate Politics
Norman Lebrecht
Birch Lane Press ($24.95)

by Richard Kostelanetz

Scarcely dead, Norman Lebrecht is a prolific British writer who is a "music columnist" for the London Daily Telegraph, which isn't the London Times, and the author of a desultory Companion to Twentieth-Century Music (1993), among other earlier books. His real subject, or at least the inspiration of his best writing, is not classical music per se but the music business. In this respect, his latest book, Who Killed Classical Music?(1997) resembles his earlier The Maestro Myth (1991) in epitomizing his talents. Since this new volume is, in my opinion, the strongest book about the business of classical music since Virgil Thomson's The State of Music (1938), I wish its American publisher had more experience at music books.

Lebrecht's assumption, which I take to be true, is that no one really understands classical music unless he or she knows what happens between the performer on one hand and the listener on the other. And so he reveals what music managers do, how certain maestros exploit institutional power, what happens to record companies that are swallowed by conglomerates, how sheet-music publishers have power, and what motivates the promotions of record companies. In printing stories that have long been only heard, often filling them out, Lebrecht names names and traces connections. For instance, his story of the decline of Columbia Records after the Sony takeover is classic business journalism.

Because he respects the validity of his approach, Lebrecht does major research. Many earlier writers lamented that Arthur Judson had a stranglehold over American classical performance between 1920 and 1960 roughly, functioning as both the manager of the New York Philharmonic and the proprietor of a major performers' agency, Columbia Artists Management Inc. (In other words, he was selling his own clients to an organization he ran.) However, no one has written the Arthur Judson story so completely, down to its denouement. Margaret Truman's 1948 complaint to her agent (who said tell your daddy) set in motion the legislative machinery that resulted in anti-trust laws.

The biggest villain in this history is not Judson or Walter Legge, a British record company chief who also owned an orchestra, but Herbert von Karajan, who controlled publicly funded performing organizations in Europe (e.g, the Vienna Philharmonic, the Berlin Philharmonic, the Salzberg Festival, etc.), running up expenses with eleemosynary indulgence. Once he possessed orchestras he could have them produce discs, taking the vulture's share of royalties for himself and rerecording favorite pieces for every new technology until he died (digital LPs, CD, videotape, laserdisc). In addition to making it difficult for other conductors to record with his orchestras, von Karajan also drove up the prices that he would be paid and thus other conductors wanted.

The reason for the impending death of classical music is that the superstars, by monopolizing public attention and then available funds for performance and record-company contracts, have shut out successors, creating a culture in which a few succeed while everyone else declines. "There would be no more Kathleen Ferriers, Joan Sutherlands or Jacqueline de Pres, because their nursery playground had been sold to developers and turned into a parking lot." You'll never listen to a von Karajan record again without hearing the sound of money clinking in the background.

Lebrecht's cultural anxiety is justified—obviously true—but he doesn't see far enough to know that similar misfortunes are happening in the other arts: certainly in book publishing, probably in modern dance, perhaps in painting and sculpture. He writes, "Success, in music as in business, is a matter of timing, of being the right person in the right place at the right time. More cruelly than commerce, though, classical music only ever gives you one shot." This one-shot principle accounts for why too much publishing promotion, say, and thus book reviewing concentrates upon people who had once written a single great book—who had once been Big—to the detriment of new discoveries. My neighbors in Manhattan's SoHo tell me that no artist ever becomes Big unless his or her initial exhibition happens in one of only a few prominent galleries. In the opening-shot world, too much cultural presence depends upon the efficacy of one's first fire.

My own opinion is that the elevation of a few, at the expense of many, is the inevitable result of optimal merchandizing at a time of fewer prominent production outfits, most of them controlled by companies that do other things, at a time when more money can be made from good-selling culture, coupled with the lack of support for smaller alternatives by both the sophisticated public and those high-minded agencies purportedly representing the public. In this last respect, the death of culture is caused as much by the default of many as the machinations of a few.

In the course of pursuing his themes, Lebrecht sheds plenty of original light on the careers of such classical superstars as Luciano Pavarotti, Isaac Stern, and Leonard Bernstein; the record producers Walter Legge and Goddard Lieberson; the seduction of cigarette companies as benefactors; the generous support of European governments (only after 1960); the concert agency developed by a sports promoter, etc. This is the sort of book to which I expect to return, if only for Lebrecht's new information and unique insights. (I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge the book reminds me of my own The End of Intelligent Writing (1974), which is likewise exposed middlemen's machinations to document a cultural closing down that, decades later, is continuing. Alas, my book does not appear in Lebrecht's otherwise useful bibliography.)

One business truth demonstrated here is that record companies often lose money on the stars they think essential. "When the accountants came to look at dollars and common sense, they found that the only individual [Leonard] Bernstein discs to make money were his Christmas specials," Lebrecht writes. "Tchaikovsky war-horses and sentimental lollipops. Given the same promotion, these records could have been made at a tenth of the cost with a hick conductor and Pomeranian orchestra and sold in equal numbers." The classical discs that really made money were the surprising best-sellers, such as, for recent examples, "Chant" by humble monks and Gorecki's "Third Symphony," both of which were produced cheaply.

In his provocative conclusion, Lebrecht compares classical music to the business of sport, which likewise once depended mostly upon patronage by the wealthy but has since become more commercial. Just as record companies desperately need once-prominent stars, so do baseball-basketball teams, even if salaries paid these stars undermine not only current financial health but the prospects of a team. Like all good business journalists Lebrecht writes less about success than failure that is caused not by innocent idealism but cynical miscalculations. Anyone who thinks himself or herself sophisticated about classical music will learn something significant from this richly detailed book; I certainly did.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2001 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2001