Ed Driscoll

When The Middlebrow Overculture Goes Under

Two new articles explore the death of middlebrow culture in America. First up, Mark Steyn reviews Wilfrid Sheed’s The House That George Built, which Steyn describes as “A music book that’s not muzak”:

“You can’t receive all your inspiration from listening to old records,” writes Wilfrid Sheed. “It’s like receiving your fresh air in cans.”

I know what he means. Today, in 2007, we understand that It Had To Be You and The Way You Look Tonight and My Funny Valentine are great songs. They’ve been declared to be so, over and over. But I wonder if we’d have figured it out at the time. If you happened to be in a dance pavilion in 1924 foxtrotting with your baby and the band played It Had To Be You and you’d never heard it before, would it have sounded any better than the other hits of the day? Better than There’s Yes! Yes! In Your Eyes or Oh Gee, Oh Gosh, Oh Golly, I’m in Love or Say it With a Ukulele, which was a pretty cool instrument eight decades back.

Speaking of 1924, when Puccini died that year, I don’t suppose opera buffs around the world declared: “Okay, that’s it. Game over.” It’s not always immediately clear that an art form has crossed a line, from something living and breathing to “fresh air in cans” — a beautifully climate-controlled mausoleum. As terrific as it is to have the canon of the “Golden Age,” it’s not the same as having it happening right now, all around you, in unlimited supply. It’s 1937, and you go to see some rinky-dink musical comedy called Babes in Arms and it’s some stupid plot you can’t even remember 10 minutes after the show, but every 10 minutes somebody sings My Funny Valentine, or Where or When, or The Lady is a Tramp, or I Wish I Were in Love Again, and they’re all new: nobody’s ever sung them before.

Flashforward to the present, as Terry Teachout explores the difficult job that Alan Gilbert, the next music director of the New York Philharmonic has in store, as symphony audiences become grayer and grayer:

Even if he proves to be a conductor comparable in quality to Bernstein, there is no possibility whatsoever that he will become as famous as Bernstein.

Why is this so? Because our predominantly popular culture has withdrawn its attention from classical music. The means by which a classical musician could once become famous thus no longer exist. Major labels no longer record this music except sporadically, just as the national media no longer cover it with any frequency.

* * *

If we want to see a revival of the middlebrow culture of the pre-Vietnam era, in which most middle-class Americans who were not immersed in the fine arts were nonetheless aware and respectful of them and frequently made an effort to engage with them through the mass media, then high-culture artists will have to learn how to use today