Dead Composers, Living Audiences: The Situation of Classical Music in the Twenty-First Century

by Gerald L. Phillips


In this well-written work, the author argues that the present situation regarding the music of the classical tradition is fundamentally untenable. While change is, of course, inevitable, the author posits that teachers of the classical music tradition, nonetheless, have a moral responsibility to do as much as possible to advocate and work toward goals that will hasten and most positively influence the direction of change. The author believes that the present relationship between the music of the Western classical tradition and the culture of the present is an unhealthy one. The music of dead composers comprises the overwhelming preponderance of music heard today, especially in the larger venues such as symphony halls and opera houses. Specifically, the author argues that we must promote and provide for (at least) an equal place in our teaching, recordings, and performances for the music of composers who are living at the time we undertake these activities. He further advocates that this is not simply a matter of currency, it is a matter of cultural vibrancy—even survival—and it is an ethical and aesthetic concern toward which we must direct our most serious attention and effort.

As both a singer and a teacher, the author delivers a resounding perspective in this book. He also brings the important insights of others from other fields such as literature, philosophy, and theater. The author’s discussions revolve around the situation of classical music, a situation that in many ways exemplifies the gradual transformation of the rationalization of the world, into the radical commodification of the world. This outcome will be shown to be intimately linked to ethical and aesthetic issues, which will be developed by means of an extended consideration of the conflict between the rational and the a-rational as it plays itself out in contrasts between music, art, and literature, and science and philosophy.

The book delves into the problem of teaching music, particularly the problems commonly dealt with in the teaching studio. Teachers of the Western music tradition have developed tried and true techniques for dealing with these problems as they occur in teaching, generally by helping students toward an understanding of historical, musical, technical and stylistic problems, among a host of others. These “common” problems of teaching are, however, symptomatic of very deep, complicated, and endemic philosophical issues that have, so far, been insufficiently discussed in a form that might be useful to teachers, performers, and lovers of the music of the Western classical music tradition. The most unique contribution of these discussions is the investigation into what is not discussed to any depth in pedagogy books––what lies behind or beneath these commonly experienced problems.

This is a critical book for collections in music.


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