Wednesday, December 19, 2012


This guest post is an essay by my husband, Marc Villéger on Michael Morreale's CBC Music post entitled "Lang Lang on why the world still needs classical music"

“Why the world STILL needs classical music?”

Under this simple question, and in view of the resounding silence that greeted the news of Galina Vishnevskaya’s passing in most Anglophone Canadian media, an entire conception of “classical music” is at stake.

Let me first answer the obvious quickly: if under classical music one understands the supremely refined expression of the human soul through an ever evolving, complex language which evolution witnessed the rise of the occidental civilization, then, only when humans disappear will the need of it vanish. Just as for any art form, anywhere. So the answer is yes, of course, just as we need air in our lungs, next?

However, this question cannot be taken out of its context that is, the cheesy interview of a superstar, on a network that, not unlike the protagonists, has proven privileging form over substance. In fact “classical music” these days is unduly stretched between two seemingly mutually exclusive definitions by the servants of officialdom: an expansive one and a fossilized one, the later enabling the former through a supposed legitimate need for democratization. 

Indeed, what is it these days that classical music should become such a wide umbrella to accommodate everything and anything remotely connected, such as lush violins scoring, or vague symphonic paraphrasing? You’d never hear Schnittke’s Requiem claiming to be Rock & Roll because it incorporates an electric guitar in its orchestration! But infuse any pleasing melodic line in the middle of some Hollywood flick and legions will gleefully rush into labeling it “classical”, giving the tune an aura of respectability.

Yet suggesting the broadcast of Shostakovich or Britten, a 50 year old art music to a wide audience as an illustration of the importance and the relevance of Vishnevskaya’s life in our post World War 2 culture is suddenly met with veiled accusations of elitism, the usual sin, star system enforcers accuse the cognoscenti of, in order to mask their own self serving cliquey behavior.     

Is this a coincidence, that the over-engaging host’s program is introduced as … Canada's classical companion that shares beautiful music and engaging stories that inspire, inform and uplift. It takes listeners into the heart of the classical music repertoire”?

Beautiful, heart of the classical repertoire are sweet euphemisms for the virtual obfuscation of the post 1950 repertoire, only to be replaced by a crossover between New Age greenery and ad hoc social engineering, surfing on the social media superficiality, untouchable ideological icons. “Easy listening” curiously rules in our complex world, a difficult and unpredictable world, which was anticipated by many second half of 20th century classical composers, who often paid a personal price for speaking the truth.

Enabling the “Big Easy”, is the fossilization of the genre (nothing posterior to 1950, the big Bs etc…) encouraged by media and presenters, frightened to lose their grey hair public and eager to attract young blood, often stereotyped as indiscriminate. Fossilization went hand in hand with the “ghettoization” of classical music, which is the fragmentation of its performing delivery along period lines, Baroque, Classical, Romantic, and Modern eras. This way, any hint of evolution is forever lost to audiences as if the medium had already died, back then, as if “Rite of Spring” or Rachmaninov’s piano concerti sounded its obituary.

Meanwhile, in a seemingly paradoxical twist, but in fact, a supremely pedantic move destined to show the masses that they are the arbiter of musical taste, the musicological and broadcasting elite has been praising unreservedly the fringe of experimental avant-garde music of the past 50 years, designated as THE sole exponent of contemporary classical music.  As if our demagogues needed an exception to confirm their rule, as if they needed to chose musical creation’s most intellectualist attempts to uproot any chance by a large audience to connect with today’s classical music while forging an artificial respect not dissimilar to that of speaking Latin during Mass among the non enlightened plebe.

But even this dismemberment is not enough or is it that the strategy is finally bearing fruits, boring even its staunchest supporters? Not satisfied with eliminating among others, Schnittke (whose symphonies have reflected on the history of western classical music), Dutilleux, Gubaidulina, Ligeti, Vasks, Silvestrov, the sensitive Nicolas Bacri or Bruno Mantovani, whose orchestral magic is worthy of a 21st century Ravel, it is now time to purge the classical moribund. So instead of focusing on meaning and relevance, and feature this banished repertoire played by specially perceptive artists, interpreters –not necessarily the superstars-, the business and its cheerleaders clung to their old turf. While the clique figured that branding anything commercially successful “classical” should resuscitate the patient in one hand, on the other, they also brought “critical” questions to the forefront in a bid to analyze the illness they inoculated him with. Hence all these made up controversies about the attire of musicians, of the public, the need for wide screens, the clapping or not issue. Anything but fundamentals! Reality is the enemy.

Finally now, after this musical journey, we can better appreciate the insidious modulation introduced by the word “still” in the formulation of the question. “Why the world still needs classical music?” asks the journalist. “Still” suggests not the air we breathe, the Art that feeds and reflects the human soul…  No! “Still” frames the question in an unambiguous way: do we still require Art or do we simply accept its entertaining caricature that makes the mob happier, the radio soprano smoother and the superstar richer? The art of substitution! The question reveals in fact a disguised ultimatum: accept our definition of “classical music”, this dismantled, chopped off remnant of western civilization in its new easy uniform or face relegation to the fringe, behind a renewed wall of radio silence, and stage oblivion.

Although, our opinion appears to be sought, they look forward to a plebiscite in favor of their crime.

So does the world still need classical music?
My answer is no.

Dr. Marc Villéger

Illustration: Portrait of Alfred Schnittke, by Marc Villéger (1999)

P.S. June 04, 2013: French composer Henri Dutilleux passed away on Wednesday May 22, 2013. CBC Radio 2 Katherine Duncan quickly put out a blog post on May 23, linking to the New York Times obituary and some YouTube interview involving New York Philharmonic's music director Alan Gilbert.
Yet according to CBC broadcast logs, almost two weeks after the news, neither her program "In Tune" nor the two main classical programs "Tempo" and "In Concert" could manage to find the time to play ANY piece by Dutilleux on the Radio 2 waves! Nothing, despite even having DG release a premiere recording of Dutilleux's 2003 "Correspondances" featuring a Canadian Soprano, Barbara Hannigan.


  1. As an aside since our vehement plea for Vishnevskaya and for Schnittke's music, her homage in CBC In Tune was front and center this week and CBC Music offered a post with Schnittke's "Stille Nacht"...

    Funny too was how the Joyce Hatto hoax resurfaced thanks to a novel by an American author. That hoax was an egg on the critics' face back then and even now, she gets more air time on CBC through the legitimate recordings her husband plundered than let's say, a real recording pianist living in Vancouver...

  2. A stimulating discussion from the CBC Music blog...

    on Mar 29, 2013 "Did you hear what Tom Allen said Mar 28th about the distance between the listener and expert is greater than ever today."Of course it is, since most of the post 1950 world repertoire is evacuated from concert hall orchestral series and radio broadcasting alike... and who's to blame for this? By shunting this repertoire, and at the same time promoting selected composers mainly for national pride, music directors and broadcasting gatekeepers are helping no one. They managed in fact to make their Canadian champions look like aliens whose music comes out of the blue without any references. It has its advantages (one can praise without risking to be refuted...). However, instead of helping their compatriots' music to be appreciated by the public for what it really is, these arbiters are surprised (and almost offended) that the new music does not move many listeners despite being introduced in glorious terms. That's what you get when you use public broadcasting as a social engineering tool and when classical music is turned into a circus business, between "friends" only. I developed this here.
    M. Villeger

    Derek Lindner at 1:48 AM
    M Villeger, I enjoyed some parts of your linked response on the Happy Valley Blog.There are other paragraphs which I didn't agree with at all. You put a great deal of time and skill in writing it, I sure had to look up a shift load of words though.I was bought up on and still enjoy pickled herring, snails and smoked eel. The CBC fed me that for three decades. For 29 years the show 2 New Hours played the post 1950s European music you mention.With the advent of the new Radio2 in September 2008 the CBC adopted the more varied format they have today.It is a fact that more people today are hearing more of the music they want to hear on the CBC . Are we to prescribe cod liver oil to them because it is good for them even if we to us it is a tasty seafood treat. It is my goal to find modern listenable music written today that appeals to the taste buds of the CBC's listenership.@lindnerior

  3. Continuation...

    at 7:45 AM real conversation
    at 8:08 AM
    Well written article Svetlana and like derek my agreements are many , i do however think the article falls victim to the same vices it accuses others of . strictly speaking from my viewpoint the article is condescending to me and those like me , arrogant and a demagogue is a demagogue left or right the need for more exposure to contemporary music is but when art is about nothing more than itself it leaves all those who will never have the chance to accumulate such knowledge behind caring less and less until someone genuinely wants to communicate with them at whatever level

    Svetlana Ponomareva
    at 10:09 AM
    Dear Derek and Tony, thank you for engaging into a debate, something CBC producers are shying from. The arrogant are gatekeepers who decide what and who you should be exposed to, not the artists who reach for higher goals.Tell me when was the last time you heard a Schnittke symphony programmed on CBC Radio 2, at the VSO, CPO, ESO, TSO or at the MSO in the past 20 years? Classical music can be nationalistic but the evolution of its language also goes beyond borders, just as in science: Marie Curie’s radioactivity discoveries were not Polish or French. How could an entire country cultural institutions bypass the immensely popular, most important symphonist of our recent past and pretend offering a balanced image of art music? They simply can’t without seriously undermining their “world class” status.Beyond natural inclination and taste, your calling “cod liver oil” music you are not familiar with is no different than the way Mahler’s music was treated in the early XXth century. Cue in today’s Mahler festivals…Regarding audience numbers of CBC Radio 2, may I refer you to this 2011 Colin Eatock blog…Finally, nothing prevents the CBC to offer Radio 4, 5, 6… It isn’t a question of money but a question of content. Playing streams of CDs is no broadcasting, just as a series of words do not necessarily make a novel. No one claims Radio 3 is elitist by only playing a certain kind of music. Yet, when Radio 2 does, it becomes a crime against the people… Let’s not underestimate how the cruel lack of imagination displayed by those who occupy the airwaves is also a factor contributing to the fossilization of the classical genre. And no “Wolfie” and other banalities will replace Robert Harris gentle hand guiding for instance.A public broadcaster has an obligation to educate and reflect the talents of our country while offering a perspective on the world. With the exception of SATO, classical music on CBC Radio 2 is a navel gazing failure in that regard.

  4. Here is the link to this discussion:

  5. onlytony
    at 11:37 AM
    so much of our arguments depend on our point of view . i for instance am deeply touched as well as marvelously entertained by contemporary minimal music where derek is not . derek on the otherhand expresses a sympathy for the brook piece that leaves me too far behind .svetlana seems to believe that as devoted listeners of music we should come up to the composers level of understanding ,perhaps not as colleagues but as human beings . but there is plenty of evidence in the repertoire that composers have no sympathy for our situation which in turn produces an alienation . svetlana maybe correct of historical exampels as mahler but there are many more examples where the coming together doesn t produce a similar fruition for music to move beyond a nationalistic or even a temporal limitation we need composers who are able to move beyond those confines . how does one disregard those borders and at the same time be able to disregard human limitations such as mine and yet speak to me directly .

    Svetlana Ponomareva
    at 1:11 PM
    As I wrote, beyond natural inclination and personal taste, indeed different people will be touched by different music. However in order to "risk" being touched, one needs exposure to the diversity of creation in art music and on that point alone, the public broadcaster fails. No one starts from scratch, thus, beyond personal tastes, in order to appreciate the significance of today's composers, we cannot, whatever the motive, ignore 50 years of cultural output.
    Notwithstanding the format in which classical music is delivered on Radio 2...

  6. Derek Lindner on Mar 31, 2013
    I liked Marc's M. Currie analogy and I would crave a radio4 of post 1950s classical music.I can tell you that the Schnittke piano concerto played by Marc Andre Hamelin was a concert on Demand in 2010. It was also played twice on the Signal, I captured it on cassette. Jason Scott (Spark 147) would be proud of me as I scrambled to download the last 10 years of 2 New Hour playlogs before they evaporated.The Schnittke Piano concerto was played the most, three times in 1998 in addition to the Piano Quintet, A Paganini and the first Concerto Grosso. In 2000 they played the Cello Sonata and Mozart a la Haydn, the following year the Concerto for Mixed Chorus and the Quintet again.In 2004 Two New Hours played the Faust Cantata-Seid Nuchtern und Wachet twice, the first time it was the North American premiere.I like Alfie's music and try to search out as much of it as possible. Does that mean that I am unfamiliar with his work. Yes, if you say so.I do believe what Tempo's producers have said in the past, that they receive an incredible amount of fan mail in support of the new format. In regards to what you said about a public broadcaster, do you mean classical talent and perspective of the world's classical music.We had exclusively classical music for, it must have been 50 years. Now the wide variety of other genres' talents are supported, giving a different perspective of Canada to the world.

    Svetlana Ponomareva
    at 11:18 AM
    Derek, I appreciate your ability to spot the needle in the proverbial haystack! So, very impressively, in the last 15 years, Schnittke’s music (no symphonies) was played barely a dozen times! In 1998, I do recall a program with guest Laurel Fay that indeed played his music: the most played composer in Europe had just died! The 1985 Faust Cantata took 19 years to be broadcast as a “North American premiere” and that was during the old Radio 2… May I add for completeness that back in 2007, during daytime, “Little Piano Pieces” from Svetlana’s first Schnittke CD were played once on “Here is to You”! Indeed, culture was served! EOM. M.V.