Tuesday, April 05, 2005


Marginal Revolution brings to our attention this article on Lang Lang, the classical piano phenom from China. Tyler makes the claim that the future of classical music lies there, in China, given their appreciation of it. While I think he isn't totally off the mark, he isn't representing the whole picture.

To be sure, the Chinese have a lock on classical performance. The majority of respected pianists, cellists, violinists, and other musical performers have been from China and Japan, and no one denies that they are incredible in both their talent as well as their devotion to the art. Even in America at children's piano recitals the students who are the most advanced at a young age are almost invariably those with Asian familial backgrounds. I still haven't quite figured out yet why this is, but I believe it has something to do with work ethic, or something like it.

But performance isn't the "future of contemporary classical music composition." In fact, it is quite the opposite; it is classical music performance that flourishes there. Yes, there is much more popular appreciation in China for classical music, but this appreciation leads kids to start playing the classics, the old masters, but not writing their own music.

Historically, America has been the haven for composers. Arnold Schoenberg, perhaps one of the most revolutionary and influential composers of the 20th century, moved to L.A. on account of rising anti-semitism in pre-WWII Germany. Philip Glass, Steve Reich, and Terry Riley, the contemporary faces of minimalist and serialist music, are all Americans. Choral composers like Eric Whitacre flourish here (although he did have to premier his new opera in Berlin to get any sort of response to it), orchestral composers like Samuel Barber are from America, and real post modernists like John Cage call their home the USA.

This isn't to discount the important contemporary music of the many, many other composers who have helped shape modern classical music, but even the next most notable composers aren't from Asia at all. Les Six, including Milhaud and Poulenc, were from France. Benjamin Britten and John Rutter are from England. Those that are from Asia are all from Russia: Stravinsky, Prokofiev, and Penderecki.

Just because music is popular somewhere doesn't necessarily mean that it will garner a large following of new composers in the future. While the Asians are excellent at performing the classics, they haven't yet shown aptitude in composing new music. How many Chinese composers can you name?

As a side note, and trying not to brag, but one of the songs on Lang Lang's program, Lizst's Hungarian Rhapsody, is one that I'm playing this semester.


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