There is such a finality to death. Even for those who believe in something else beyond, or some restoration in a wondrous future, we know that there are endings to things even if those endings are transformations of a sort, and this knowledge makes us feel a certain way. There are a slew of fantastic words for these otherwise ineffable feelings. My favorite is hiraeth, a word from the Welsh language that translates roughly as a nostalgia for something glorious that once was and is unlikely to ever be again. A lot of Welsh music and literature deal with the ethos of hiraeth. So, too, can one find it in the Japanese concept of mono no aware (物の哀れ), or “the pathos of things”, a feeling of melancholy toward the transience of what we see around us. As I write this, autumn approaches, and summer is coming to an end, and the sight of the ripened apples in my mother’s orchard, beautiful as it is, evokes the sadness in knowing that the trees will be empty soon, and the orchard will be covered in frost and snow, and all that beauty will have fled from the world.
It seems to many that we are coming to a point where we are are reevaluating ourselves and what it is we do as classical musicians and enjoyers of classical music. There is a hiraeth or mono-no-aware that many are feeling—or even just an anticipation that we will soon feel it or even ought to feel it—as we consider whether or not classical music has run its course. Is it truly moribund? Is it going to die? Cornish, a language closely-related to Welsh, has the equivalent word hireth, without the A. Cornish is already a revived language, and highly endangered. When will the Cornish word hireth be uttered for the last time? When will the last classical sonata be performed and listened to? When will the orchard be bare and covered in snow?
I digress. The simple answer is, no, classical music is not “dying” in the same sense as the harvested crops and endangered languages running out of speakers. It is inconceivable that any of us reading this in my lifetime will know a world without classical music. Even without native, first-language speakers, the Cornish language was revived in modern times, and new speakers are emerging again. The same could be said for a lot of classical music where not only do we have a repertory of timeless music literature, but more things are discovered and revived every day.
Let us explore what it might mean for a body of music to be dead. If it is comparable to a dead language, then I suppose it could mean that no one living listens to it or performs it outside of dedicated scholars or particular, vestigial circumstances. This is certainly true for languages like Latin or Old Church Slavonic which, while considered dead languages, are still technically “spoken”, so to speak. People who study Classics learn to read and write Latin, linguists discuss it and have even discovered how to pronounce it “correctly” as it was once spoken, and it is a liturgical language used still for (mostly Roman Catholic) church music. The Eastern Orthodox Church likewise uses Old Church Slavonic as a liturgical language. What makes them dead is that they are no longer spoken by a linguistic community as a form of communication. Those who understand, read, speak, and sing in these languages are studying them or using them for a specific function of recitation or a vehicle for artistic expression. Even inside the Vatican, you would be hard-pressed to order your coffee in Latin. It is not the language of a people anymore, and other languages have replaced it.
In that sense, it might be fair to say that there are things about classical music that are dead or dying. Classical music is no longer the popular music of any people—but it once was! Classical music, like Latin, has vestigial functions: a bride’s procession, a church service, a parade march, an object of scholarship, something to experience as an exhibition at a museum of sorts (i.e., concert halls). We teach classical music to students the same way we might instruct them in Latin: a worthy exercise to broaden knowledge and make people more cultured, but we do not necessarily expect them to bop to Bach at their school dances or sing their favorite arias at karaoke, much like we do not expect them to gossip in Latin.
However, if classical music can be extended further than its stereotypes, it is just as easy to say that it has simply evolved. This is what linguists say about Latin: it never died, it just became Italian and French and Spanish and Romanian and other “daughter languages” spoken today! Old Church Slavonic became Bulgarian. Anglo-Saxon eventually turned into the English we speak today. When you consider that musicologists count composers like John Zorn and Terry Riley and Laurie Anderson among the “classical” tradition, you can argue that the popular music of today is just a descendant of the classical music of earlier centuries. Lots of things have happened since then to influence it in different directions, but it is part of a tradition: “daughter music”, I suppose.
If this seems like a glib response, then we can indulge the meaning of the question. What is being asked is probably whether an interest in orchestral and vocal music of the past is waning. That is a very complex issue, indeed. It seems that film scoring and musicals are still thriving, and those genres are more clearly descendants of the classical operatic tradition in terms of the medium itself. I believe there are still fans of the classical repertory as well. If interest in learning an orchestral instrument and playing the classical oeuvre is waning, it is more from a lack of exposure and education and accessibility than changing tastes. The world under the pandemic significantly affected the desire for live performances. Even movie theaters have closed down over this issue, but I doubt anyone would argue that film is a dying art. It is, however, changing with the times.
I believe classical music can also face these challenges, though it is difficult to imagine how it might go. What is important right now is music education and accessibility. No one can imagine Latin truly dying. It will always be there for students, enthusiasts, scholars, and occasionally as a fixture of popular media where it is used to evoke the hiraeth of something long past. Classical music will always have a similar place, but I would say it is not even that close to dead or dying. I, personally, do not feel much hiraeth about classical music, but only the opportunities for engaging with it. What has weakened these past couple of decades is our access to learn and perform and listen to classical music.
As long as we continue to offer music education and venues for performance and enjoyment, I suspect that classical music will remain for quite a long time yet. Classical music still has its place, and “classical” music in the broad, musicological sense of its continuation into the present day can still be heard everywhere, from film scores and musicals and video game soundtracks to even the popular music that is enjoyed today. Whenever I walk into a classroom of non-musicians and show them my cello, it is not boredom or disinterest they express, but rather disappointment that they, for whatever reason, were denied the opportunity to be the one with the cello in that room. It is up to us musicians, composers, listeners, producers, and other representatives of our artistic tradition to keep it going. And that does not have to mean playing the same list of master works over and over again. This tradition has been going on since the Middle Ages, at least.
All art is a cultural process. That means that it needs people to engage with it, and, so long as there are, it is never truly dead, just as a language is never truly dead so long as it is still all around us. Classical music is here to stay just like Latin so long as, ceteris paribus, we keep engaging with it!