Bye, Bye Beethoven, Bach & Brahms
Jude Wanniski
August 22, 2001


Memo To: George Jellinek, WQXR
From: Jude Wanniski
Re: The End of Classical Music

What a nice piece about you in the September Opera News by Brian Kellow in his “On the Beat” column. I keep trying to tell folks about what a wonderful fellow you are, what a national treasure, and I can’t seem to connect. Like, who wants to hear about an 81-year-old man who has had a Thursday night radio show on WQXR for the last 32 years dedicated to the operatic voice, “The Vocal Scene”? I get such enormous pleasure out of the several hundred tapes I have of your shows, listening to them at least five hours a week in my car and on Thursday night, it is scary to think that it will have to end someday and nobody will care but a bunch of us old geezers, if we are still around. It is so sad to see the classics giving way every month and year to the quick-and-easy rap and hip-hop and heavy metal that the kids want to hear. Here is how Kellow opened his tribute to you, for example:

IT’S HARDLY NEWS that in today’s marketing-driven world, nobody cares whether you buy a movie ticket or turn on the television or radio unless you’re under twenty five. Around the U.S., classical radio stations have been falling by the wayside year after year, and many that have survived have drastically altered their programming. So it’s good news that WQXR, New York City’s venerable classical-music station, is still going strong. Recently, WQXR did an overhaul on its website. Now its listeners have enhanced access to popular music features such as the Met broadcasts and The Vocal Scene, hosted by GEORGE JELLINEK, who by now has become something of an institution. Thousands of music-lovers have grown up on his commentaries, always delivered in his refined, Hungarian-accented tones.

And the conclusion of your profile:

How does he feel about the changes in classical radio over the years? “WQXR is a commercial station and never pretended to be anything else. We live on revenues,” he says. Nonetheless, the sweeping changes in the cultural climate sadden him. “I consider it part of a national dumbing down. The Vocal Scene at one point had seventy-five outlets in the U.S., plus Canada. We’re down to about twenty-five. The new national trend in classical-radio broadcasting is really deadly. A kind of pseudo-classical station. They play Ravel’s Bolero, a movement of a Tchaikovsky symphony and several overtures, plus the Three Tenors, and they think they’re a classical music station.

It really is heart-rending, George, for me to recall the years I was growing up in New York City, with classical music on several stations, WQXR always out front, but with WNYC and WNCN offering serious competition. WNCN is now a rock station and WNYC offers only a few hours a day of classical. Even WQXR has dumbed down, to the point where I am going to scream if I hear “Night on Bald Mountain” or “The Dance of the Hours” again in the morning hours. Just because surveys show the music pieces from Disney’s Fantasia to be the most popular is hardly justification for them being played again and again and again. If, as you say, the station is driven by revenues, perhaps that is justification enough, but I do wish The New York Times company, which owns the station, would take more interest in the cultural tradition, even if it means subsidies for it. I’m appalled week after week when I look at the skimpy classical listings in the Sunday arts section to find they do not even mention The Vocal Scene.

Then again, George, my hope is that this is just a passing phase in the history of civilization, and that Beethoven, Bach, Brahms and the Mozarts and Verdis and Puccinis are not in decline to a vanishing point. It may just be the economy, which pushes all activities toward fast food, fast movies, fast travel and more work than people should have to do to maintain reasonable living standards. Classical music in general and grand opera in particular requires patience, time and attention, and if the madding crowd doesn’t “get it” the first time they hear Cecilia Bartoli singing Rossini’s Cenerentola or the First Symphony of Shostakovich, well to hell with it. I’m afraid the Zeitgeist has to change, to allow for the attentiveness required to develop musical taste. I seem to think they are still finding time in Japan for the classics, and in selected European capitals. But here at home, George, at the top of the world, it seems to be bye-bye Beethoven.