In a February blog post on the Met’s reported demographics, Rebecca Wizenried notes that the mean age of Met subscribers is 64.8 (57.7 for single ticket buyers), and furthermore that GM Peter Gelb considers his lowering of these numbers from slightly higher ones a major accomplishment. I cite Wizenried’s post only to establish something that everyone reading this already knows: Whether or not the Met’s audience is representative of classical music audiences (maybe not), and whether or not Gelb’s excitement was warranted (probably not), and whether or not the temperature of cultivated music can be adequately taken by a single metric (certainly not), we can agree that it is thought that the patrons of classical music in the United States are old and getting older. That’s the conventional wisdom. So let me ask you this: Have you ever read a piece of serious writing on the attitudes of the elderly toward classical music?
If, as is often assumed, the over-70 crowd exerts a powerful influence over the institutions that deliver classical music to us, shouldn’t a concerned musicologist work some tightly focused ethnography on them? Let me back up and tell you the anecdote that put me in mind to write this post: My Better Half, having just played a concert for a passel of retirees flown into the Twin Cities Metropolitan Area for some reason, was confronted by an enthusiastic woman whose comparison of popular music to opera (her favorite) was that “opera comes in through your skin; today’s music just comes in through your ears.”
That makes no sense. You don’t need to read Feminine Endings to know that all music is an embodied phenomenon; although musicalized vectors of physical desire are integral to the standard repertoire of European opera, all music also comes in through your ears, and a great deal of popular music also comes in through your musculature, in a manner of speaking, when you dance to it. But none of that really matters: It makes no sense—but it’s an authentic, personal reaction that privileges classical music over vernacular music, and somebody should figure out where it and others like it come from. Nobody would claim that Lobkowitz’s and Lichnowsky’s views on music were irrelevant to the formation of Beethoven’s practices and, by extension, the practices of the age; similarly, getting inside the heads of the people who are widely considered to be keeping classical music afloat today would be a noble task for an enterprising ethnomusicologist to undertake—one that might bear immediately useful fruit.