Some would say that music is a reflection of the past. While this may be true, music must be more than that, or become irrelevant in spite of scholars insisting that certain music is great and worth hearing. Indeed, if any music were only a reflection of the past, it would be astounding that it lasts at all. Surely an art that can only look back is destined to die away as people search in vain for relevancy in the artistic works left to them by others.
Though times have changed over the century, the essence of the human spirit has not. Hundreds of years ago, people fell in love, felt anger, fear, anguish, and a whole gamut of emotion and still do all of this today. Those composers still considered great today, centuries after they wrote their music, are so regarded exactly because they found a way to express that timeless human emotional experience. This is why their music can still connect with people. It is not because of all the ways in which classical music is different from contemporary music, for those differences more than endear tend to challenge contemporary concert goers. It because of the ways in which it, like the human spirit, remains the same.
Those who argue that classical music must be preserved exactly as it was when it was first composed and performed can easily become so caught up in authenticity that they overlook the havoc such an approach, when applied whole heartedly, can have on classical music audiences now and in the future. The fact is, we can neither perform, enjoy or hear music exactly as it was enjoyed and heard hundreds of years ago. Why? Because although the human spirit has not changed, the cultural norms and expectations have. People don’t bring the same perspectives on daily living, the same life experiences to the concert hall they once did.
Up until the time in which Beethoven lived, the general population did not attend what we now call classical music concerts at all. This music was composed for and performed exclusively for the aristocrats of the day, and they were highly educated people who had the intellectual flexibility to enjoy great works of philosophers, poets, scientists, theologians, visual artists and musicians. To those who would make exact replicas of these performances, I would say that the audiences you are courting have vastly different interests and pursuits filling their day. When people go to a concert today, it is more often than not after a day of business or labor, not of a day in the life of an aristocrat living in a palace free to pursue the arts whenever it suited them. To expect people to bring that kind of dedication and focus to a concert is not realistic. While some who have made a study of music, or are themselves amateur musicians may approach a concert as the aristocrats did, there aren’t enough of these to fill concert halls. To insist that modern concerts simply reproduce the concert experiences of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries exceeds the reasonable goals of music appreciation, and misses the point of why the works of the European masters can still be regarded as masterpieces in the first place. Great art breaks through the barriers of time, and reveals new delights to succeeding generations. It does not demand that time stand still, nor does it get trapped in its own context. It only requires familiarity with the genre.
When classical music fails to attract an audience it is is precisely because those presenting have insisted on imposing undistorted the values of by-gone eras onto people who have no connection to those eras or values except that they would enjoy the music with the mind and ears of a 21st century person, which is all you can reasonably ask. If it is great music, it will speak to contemporary audiences on their terms. If the best we can offer is a museum of music history masquerading as a modern concert, then we must expect to loose all but scholars and devoted music lovers who still remember grandparents who loved this music and so brought it to their ears as a child and caused it to linger even until now. If you look at audiences, all too often that’s pretty much all that is left. People have been taught that they must accept classical music as irrelevant to their lives and love it at the same time. This reasoning simply doesn’t make sense.
By the way, It is also a mistake to idealize the original performances to greatly. Composers tolerated a great deal of difficulty in assembling an orchestra that could competently play their music. Beethoven is famous for writing bass parts that players of his day insisted were impossible. I can’t imagine the results were always worth reproducing in today’s performances.