Written in answer to a question from Robert Holmén on Quora. It seemed to me worth spending a little time on.
I don’t know what you are basing your question on – I’m not sure that the data actually bear out your premise, though it certainly isn’t easy to find clear information about listening figures.
Clearly, sales of recorded music have dwindled massively, but at the same time, audience numbers who stream classical music have increased enormously. Not only that, but classical music is more widely available that at any time in history.
I don’t think that that audience numbers for symphony concerts and opera performances show consistent decline. Certainly at some concerts you will struggle to get a seat – think of the LSO and Rattle currently, or the LA Phil and Dudamel. In the UK, there are many fantastic groups performing consistently to strong audiences – regional orchestras like the Halle and the Liverpool Phil as well as companies like Opera North.
As I said, it isn’t easy to get your hands on hard data but my instinct is certainly that classical music is doing fine.
A lot will depend on what you define as ‘classical’. It is a problematic term once you start trying to gather data because it has no clear definition as a genre.
My feeling – and this is something I’ve written about before – is that we are actually living through an enormously fertile period in music. Although I take Robert Holmén’s point in a previous answer that ‘the atonalists and serialists and “experimental” composers destroyed the audience’s appetite to try new music’ I think the reality is considerably more nuanced.
This is not the place to go down into the rabbit warren of 20th century music – though it is honestly a thrilling and fascinating warren in which to spend some time – but it led us to a point at which musical language is ripe with possibility. Yes, we lack a consistent grammar such as existed in the Classical period proper (Mozart, Haydn, and their bewigged chums) but there is such variety and excitement in music written today.
To be able to have Birtwistle, Knussen, Turnage, Lindberg, Ruders, Ades, and so many others all writing music of great craft and imagination is like living through any of the golden ages of music. Musical language is so versatile that it can take the architectural gigantism of Birtwistle alongside the sparkling, detailed brilliance of Knussen without missing a step. At no point in musical history has there been such wealth of expression being created in front of us.
So, I think the answer to the question is that classical music is in no sense dying. It is possible that some data show audiences are decreasing, or that they are ageing, or that they are more grumpy, or that they prefer to have their eggs sunny side up. I’m not at all sure that there are any conclusive data that show there is a lower quality of music being written, or that there is no appetite for new music, or that there is no passion amongst kids for music.
For my money, classical music is not just alive and well, it is thriving. Don’t believe everything you read in the media.