Thomas Hampson
Classical:NEXT Keynote Address | May 14, 2014

Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. It is a great pleasure to see you all here at this Classical: NEXT conference. Welcome to Vienna, the adopted birthplace of every Classical Musician.

You have invited me to offer a “key-note,” and as you settle into your four-day sequestering, contemplating questions of a classical nature and the anticipating of what the “NEXT” could look like: I sincerely hope that the note struck is in a recognizable key.

If you don’t get that pun, I hope you are not in fundraising.
In many ways, simply focusing on the reason for this community meeting writes its own notes, and that will be the key to your contemplations and interchanges.

After all, we’re all passionate about something: music, and in this case music which we have mislabeled as “classical.” And we are all in various stages and capacities prepared to contemplate a…“next.”

I remember the first color television. The moon landing. The fax machine and birth of the digital revolution. The day that “podcast” became a new word in the English dictionary. And I reveled, considering myself a “modern artist of a new world,” when the very convenient miracle of the Internet website would eventually free me from press kits–which, as many of us remember, were physically sent, at significant cost, and to myriad presenters, opera houses, and other stations of employment…and now would be possible with just the click of a download button.

However, although I was ready for the NEXT thing, most of the presenters or opera houses had no Internet connection.

So fast forward, and here I stand before you tonight, still deeply passionate about the values inherent in something we call “classical” music–and having experienced, a couple times, that something called NEXT–still addicted to the rush of new perspectives and innovations in our musical world which will also become, inevitably, through time, as unbelievable or even laughable as our recent past.

A startling statistic to come out of recent studies of the effectiveness of MOOCs (massive open online courses), is that, in the monitoring of attention spans, it would seem that if you haven’t made your point in the first four minutes, no one will be listening after 12.

So, please give me your undivided attention for the next…4 minutes…3 times…

Not surprising, I would like to speak to you about:

1. the phrase “Classical Music” 2. the notion of “NEXT,” and

3. how a fundamental understanding of those two very different conversations empower us to address the real problem, which is “US”.


I remember a scene from a couple of years ago, when I was playing in a Pro-Am golf tournament, for which I was to sing a small evening concert of “popular classics” seasoned with something called “crossover,” and hopefully landing some “happy show tunes”.

(That shows you.. I will do anything to play golf.)

My wife was sitting next to a very successful businessman whom I had been playing with, who knew something of the multimedia world, but not much of me.
He asked her “What does your husband do,” and my wife said “He’s a musician.” The man said “Ah cool, what does he play?,” and she said “He doesn’t, he sings.” So, he says “Where, with what band?,” and she says – not without some pride – “Oh no, he’s a world famous opera singer singing with the San Francisco Opera.” After a significant pause, readjustment of his glasses, perhaps to hide a faint cynical grin, he turns and says to my wife, “Ah, those are the musicians that don’t make very much money”…

Seriously though,… I am sure many of you in this room have had similar experiences.
I don’t know about you, but sometimes, as a classical musician, labeled an “ambassador for the Arts,” I feel like Sisyphus (yes, that’s his real name), the mythological character that is doomed to push that very very very very large and heavy rock–metaphorically speaking this evening. classical music—up the very very…long… UN-ending Hill…of …reality.


Why has the idea of classical music become such a compromised connotation? What went wrong, that music, of any genre or style, could be somehow collectively lumped into a misappropriated metaphor for an event that is assumed by many to be irrelevant?

Well, clearly we need to start with some sort of definition of what “classical music” is.

No less than the legendary Leonard Bernstein tackled this problem over 40 years ago, for a bunch of randomly interested schoolkids – my colleagues of the time – in that immensely popular series, “Young People’s Concerts”.

Lenny, as he preferred to be called, was equally frustrated with the idea of a “classical music.” Being a composer, he said, “It seems to me that the phrase ‘exact music’ would be more to the point”–however clumsy it may be to use.

His biggest concern however, was that we not use adjectives like “serious” or “good” music, thereby insulting other kinds of music. The worst offender of course being the idea of “high- brow” and “low-brow” music. Or even “E” music and “U” music. And that, of course, brings us to probably the most regular accusation leveled towards “Classical Music,” and that is one of “Elitism”.

Let’s look at that for a minute:

The label “classical music” that we use today should be thought of as a distinctive set or “class” of musics over many hundreds of years, as opposed to either the style of music from the late 18th century or the notion of “classics,” such as Homer or Herodotus. The phrase was probably coined by some well-meaning persons who wished to compare the idea of the value of permanence with the monumental symphonic achievements of Beethoven.

Now I would be hard pressed to argue against that but that is not our “key” tonight.

Our search for clarity brings us to three very important aspects that this body of music, encompassing many centuries of “Beethoven moments,” have in common:

1. The creation of “classical music” is as Lenny admonished, “exact” by definition, in its specific use of its own musical devices, The music created, is in and of itself its own “musical idea” and therefore a language.

It is “art music” – which in this case should be understood as structure, and therefore the effort to achieve the understanding of a specific context of the human experience.

The word “ART” acts like a verb, according to Richard Wagner who said (and I paraphrase) that “ART” becomes the active “transcender” of style or epoch.

2. “Classical music” is essentially shaped by very different functions and expectations than popular music, in that the plurality of our society and it’s market place is not, nor should it be, it’s raison d’être.

That classical music relates to the immediacy of everyday life, but not immediately, and creates for our contemplation a significantly longer historical perspective about life. That, of course, lives at odds with the dominant values of popular culture.

3. “Classical music” is always created from a specific desire to say something equally specific about human life, it’s ultimate purpose being the suspension of life’s successive moments for the reflection of a greater present.

In fact, the canon of music we now call “classical” was born of the unstoppable realization of the individual at the tumultuous close of the 18th century that catapulted us into a new world of “The Modern Man” in the 19th century. We understand this revolution as “Romanticism”.

It was this new-found fervor of individual freedom of thought, and the search for values and meanings of life, independent of the fundamentalism of religious and political paradigms of the time, that brought music into the households of a new phenomenon called the “middle” class.

It was the democratic right “bursting through doors” as Whitman said, to express and choose your own path to enlightenment that gave us what has become the world of “classical music” today.

If this were not true how could we have become such experts of music that for so long was held hostage? Because we are now individuals with our cultural freedoms; we study and perform regularly that which only existed behind the doors of those very possessive and elitist societies.

All these perspectives of what classical music is are true.

The principle difference to the ever-mutating and relative world–and certainly sporadically entertaining world of popular culture–is the right that classical music demands for any self in its search for meaning.

As Julian Johnson offers us in his brilliant book Who Needs Classical Music: “

So you have to ask: should not those forces in society that constrain, or even by their default misguided political policy, prohibit the opportunity of its members to search out, either individually or collectively, the possibility of their greater human potential, be held accountable for ELITISM?

Music banned from the classrooms indeed! What’s NEXT, book-burning?

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In song, you have one of the most amazing diaries of any generation’s culture at a given time.

Thomas Hampson