Classical Music between Lockdown and the Post-Pandemic Revival
Monday, August 10, 2020

Classical Music between Lockdown and the Post-Pandemic Revival

Alenka Barber-Kersovan and Volker Kirchberg 


When the World Health Organisation declared the Covid-19 outbreak a pandemic in March 2020, most countries implemented a (more or less) strict lockdown. Due to this regulation, the entire musical eco-system came to a sudden stop. All planned events were cancelled: concerts, tours and festivals suspended; rehearsals stopped; music shops closed; music lessons dropped, and recordings sessions postponed. In a situation never experienced before, the most important veins connecting musicians and the public were brutally cut: the entire music supply chain, including institutions, music venues, media, labels, publishers, managements, booking agents, record shops and music instrument makers, were affected and consequences were felt even in rather remote fields such as travel, tourism and gastronomy. 


And yet, even under these extreme conditions, the active involvement in music has not stopped. Rather the opposite was the case: the crisis and the restrictions sparked the imagination in all fields of the musical production, reception and distribution. The forced explosion of creative adjustment to the new situation encompassed an accelerated change of already existing issues, on one hand, and the emergence of new aspects of the musical production, reception and distribution on the other (cf. Barber-Kersovan & Kirchberg 2020). Classical music has seen a range of creative actions, reactions and solutions. Here are a few ephemeral snapshots of the situation during the first days of June 2020, which might be in the meantime a subject of change. 


Withdrawal into the Digital Concert Hall


One of the striking effects of the lockdown on the classic music scene was the speed with which it digitalized its activities. This came as a surprise, because on one hand, digital projects in classical music were by no means new: one should recall the Digital Concert Hall of the Berlin Philharmonic, following the technological enthusiasm of its legendary chief conductor Herbert von Karajan or OperaVision, offering livestreams and recordings of favourite performances of the leading opera houses, information on productions, conductors, singers, institutions etc. in English, French and German. The Ukranian pianist Valentina  Lisitsa made an international carrier with her YouTube channel and there were also several specialised streaming subscription services such as IDAGIO, the Naxos Music Library or the But on the other hand, the classical scene seemed to be rather sceptical about the ‘mediatized’ culture, favouring live performances as ‘the real thing’. With the lockdown however, the situation changed dramatically. Orchestras and opera houses, among them the Metropolitan Opera in New York, which aimed with its live casts ‘Met in the cinema’ already since 2006 at a broad international public, the Bolshoi Theatre, the Opera National des Paris, the Viennese State Opera House and numerous other houses, opened their archives  and started to stream the available recordings free of charge. 


Another way to reach the public were specially curated (short) programs. Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra developed a special online format, consisting of a mixture of chamber concerts being played live in the empty concert hall and archive recordings of its orchestra, whereby each program was set under a certain slogan. The Hamburg Elbphilharmonie streamed under the hashtag #Elphi@home daily short programs with well-known pieces for a broad public, provided numerous offers addressing children of different ages and streamed recordings of top orchestras that played in the location. Also, London Symphony had its ‘digital season’ with full length concerts and different other formats, while the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra kept the public involved by a #RSO@Home quiz competition. 


A welcome possibility to connect with the existing or potential fans were the so-called ‘sofa’, ‘kitchen’ or ‘living room concerts’.  Performing in a semi-public space has a long tradition, starting with the chamber music of the Baroque era. Later there were intimate gatherings in music salons, the semi-private performances of Franz Schubert (Schubertiade) and the ‘Hausmusik’ of the bourgeois class of the 19th centuries, centred around the piano and performed mostly by family members. During the last years, this almost forgotten form of music making has been revived: the violinist Joshua Bell issued already in 2009 an album called At Home with Friends, re-staging musical soirees in his private home in New York. During the lockdown however, this format became applied on a mass basis, whereby the features streamed did not include musical performances only. They made the exercise practices of musicians and dancers public, brought reports, discussions about music, interviews and other related subjects or allowed the fans to participate on their private life. 


Further, during the lockdown a there was a widespread popping up of virtual (symphony) orchestras (the term virtual orchestra refers to different issues of technologies and art forms, but we shall not delve into these in this piece). As with several other issues also this kind of collective music making was not new. The first experiments went back to 2008 as Google and YouTube in collaboration with the London Symphony brought into being the semi-virtual YouTube Symphony Orchestra. Auditions were carried out on YouTube, and workshops and coaching were done also digitally. But this first-ever online collaborative orchestra also met physically, played in 2009 a life concert in the Carnegie Hall and performed in 2011 a spectacular final performance in the Sidney Opera House with a multi-media spectacle celebrating the connection between the classical music and technology. 


Looking back to this digital event, one is tempted to interpret it as prophesying. The first notion applies to the role of the digital culture for classical music, recommending orchestras to broadcast in the future at least some of their concerts online. The second projection concerns the message of a music piece called Eroica, with several reminiscences on Beethoven, composed by the Chinese-American composer Tan Dun especially for this event. His upbeat orchestral music, appealing for global solidarity and celebrating diversity and the connective function of the internet, was watched by more than 22 million people from 200 countries.


What was, in 2009, a costly and daring experiment (the YouTube Symphony Orchestra never became established as a permanent musical body), rarely copied by existing musical bodies, became during the lockdown an integral part of a ‘new musical normal’. Several established orchestras played virtually against the ‘Corona Blues’; new musical bodies were founded, such as the BBC’s Virtual Orchestra inviting anyone who plays an instrument to join in the tuning of the Bizet’s Toreador Song. Similar applied to choirs, moving online after their practice and performance activities were suspended. As with the virtual orchestras, also in the case of the virtual choirs no physical presence of the singers and the conductor is required; they might not even personally know each other. The singers record and upload their videos which are then synchronized into a single performance. The technical quality and the sound of the mobile phone recordings were far from being optimal, but they still conveyed the feeling to sing and play with others in an ensemble.

Solidarity and Self-Empowerment


Going online during the lockdown classical music had more listeners than ever before. According to a representative study by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra 51% of the adults enjoyed listening to orchestral music online: that a remarkable portion of the audience were young listeners, was ascribed to the fact that this group is more open to digital content than the elderly one. Among other functions this survey claims that during the lockdown orchestral music was more than passing the time. 65% of the questioned reported about positive impact on their health and well-being and those working in home offices claimed it improved their productivity and concentration. In addition, a large number of predominantly young people felt also encouraged to start learning a music instrument. 


Considering the high consumption of this musical genre one could assume that it must have played an important role in helping overcome the inconveniences of the lockdown. This positive attitude was due, among others, to the fact that digital forms of musical production and reception were a) free and b) not tied to the rigid rituals of the life performances of this field. Relieved from behaviour expectations, listening constrains and formal dress codes, classical music lost its elitist character and allowed individual approaches to musical consumption. Also, the fact that in their virtual contributions even the stars of this scene presented themselves as “normal people” in their private homes, helped to dismantle the existing barriers and prejudices. 


However, next to individual, music satisfied also several social needs, such as transmitting values and stabilizing social systems. Thus, as for instance in the case of the balcony concerts, the direct contacts between the individuals might have been inhibited, but they did not prevent the feeling of belonging to a certain community. On the contrary: the joint music making, which transformed whole towns into huge concert halls, was a call for solidarity as well as a means of self-empowerment. This role played also some classical projects: Bamberg Symphoniker posted A Social Symphony, in the video From Us, For You the Rotterdam Philharmonisch Orkest appealed with the slogan ‘Stronger Together’ for a joined action to fight the crisis, and the Tonhalle Düsseldorf posted a project called Being together alone sounds nicer, in which some 250 singers and musicians took part.


The same messages were conveyed also in the signature tunes of the lockdown. The most prominent among them (at least in Germany) was Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony with its Ode to Joy which was played live or in virtual ensembles by professionals and amateurs alike and made - given the circumstances described - a worthy homage to the celebrations of the Beethoven Year 2020. In Italy, a big hit was the choir Va pensiero from the opera Nabucco by Giuseppe Verdi, which might not have been intended by the composer as a political statement but served in the history several times as a strong expression of patriotic feelings. How popular these tunes were show the following figures: until the 5th of June 2020 2,845,685 listeners tuned into the virtual version of Beethoven’s Symphony Nr. 9 as played by the members of the Rotterdams Philharmonisch Orkest, and the clip Va pensiero by Coro virtuale had up till then 3,787,260 listeners.


Under slogans such as ‘Keep on Playing’ and ‘A Hope for the Future’ several virtual music events were dedicated explicitly to the medical personnel, that was ‘fighting the virus’ on the ‘frontline’. Some classical stars, among them LangLang also participated in the virtual benefit concert One World – Together at Home, organised by Lada Gaga, the organisation Global Citizen and the World Health Organisation in order to collect money for the research of the new virus. 


The Economic Impact


Though the social engagement of the musicians involved should not be questioned, the speed with which the otherwise rather immobile classical scene adjusted to the new conditions, had another side of the coin. This was the disastrous economic impact of the lockdown on musicians and musical institutions. With concerts and performances cancelled, the houses had no income for weeks, but still had to bear the fixed costs to run the locations, so that even some flagships of the classical music got into trouble. The Opera House in Zürich declared an ‘art break’ and put its ensemble on short time work. The Metropolitan Opera stopped paying salaries to their personnel at the end of April 2020 but kept paying their social security and instrument insurance. The New York Philharmonic ended the season prematurely and lowered the salaries on 75% of the minimum wages, considering also the possibilities of unpaid leave or even dismissal of the musicians. In order to lower the horrendous deficits, the institutions appealed to the public to abstain from the refunding of the already bought tickets and donate the sum to the institution. 


Even worse off were tens of thousands of freelance musicians. In Germany, with 13,000 Euro average yearly income even before the Corona crisis, their financial condition was precarious, positioning them hardly over the poverty line: similar applied to self-employed music teachers. After even this modest basis of existence radically broke off, some of them were not able to make ends meet any more. Under these circumstances the rapid switch to the digital platforms was also an act of self-promotion in a desperate attempt to retain visibility and stay in business. 


Going Back On-Stage


After the lockdown has been loosened, at least for some time, the unforeseen problems of the performance practice under the new conditions became obvious. Keeping social distancing at 1.5 or even 2m apart and the choir singer (if singing is allowed at all) on an even greater distance, playing opera became almost impossible. There is not enough room in the orchestra pit, the acting of the singers presupposes intimate contacts, ballet sets are based to a high extend on physical interactions, and due to the notion that the virus could spread also via aerosols, choir parts became unfeasible.


Symphonic music has similar problems. This applies especially to programs with big casts, which however represent most of the standard repertoire, focusing on the late classic and romantic composers. As in the case of singing there are some assumptions that bras and wind instruments might contribute to the spread of the virus and must be located far away from the public as well as from other players. As a detailed analysis of a practical example shows, a 2,600-seat hall could under the current rules of social distancing host only some 500 listeners. Hence according to these calculations a socially-distanced symphony hall cannot be considered as a desirable solution, neither from the musical nor from the organisational and financial point of view.  


Since the prevalent pre-epidemic status quo could not be restored immediately after the lockdown was lifted, there were several different strategies applied how to cope with the situation. Some institutions such the Salzburg Festival, celebrating its centenary this year, did not call off its activities, but provided a thinned-out program. The 2020 Wagner Festival in Bayreuth on the other hand, was cancelled, with far reaching consequences for the programming of the 2021 and 2022 season. For the Concert for Europe on the 1st of May 2020 with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra the live streamed pieces were rearranged according to the distance regulation and presented without an audience. Musikverein in Vienna opened in the beginning of June with a chamber program in front of a small audience. There were also some experiments with classical drive-in concerts, and the musicians from the professional Stuttgart orchestras played intimate 1 : 1 Concerts, for one single listener at a time. 


Towards an Unknown ‘New Musical Reality’


The long-term consequences of the imposed measures on the broader field of classical music can be only speculated upon, because the lockdown induced radical disturbances on all levels of the musical production, distribution and consumption. The changing modalities concerned discourses on the role of the music/culture in the society, organisational and economic issues, the impact of the pandemic on programs and repertoires, the possible re-configuration of the balance between the live musical events and their digital simulations as well as utopian ideas about the future of this musical field at large. Based on the analysis of the freely available documents (articles, blogs, videos) from the current point of view especially the following issues seem to be of high importance: 


  • Most (professional) institutions and organisations make strong efforts to restore the situation as it was before the pandemic. Though in some (European) countries such as Germany culture has been acknowledged as a ‘system relevant activity’ eligible for subsidies, it is unlikely that the classical scene could ever return to ‘business as usual’. Its market was oversaturated even before the crisis and the promised financial help will be limited. This would probably lead to a substantial restructuring of the musical life, with the priority given to well established institutions, serving as political or cultural identity markers (Vienna Philharmonics; Hamburg State Opera), attracting visitors, fostering music tourism and contributing to the urban economy. Self-employed musicians, freelance ensembles, smaller institutions and boutique festivals, however, might not get the same kind of support. As a consequence, the musical offer would be reduced to the traditional repertoire suitable for mass consumption, the diversity of cultural expressions diminished and the promotion of young talent inhibited, which would have a negative effect on the creative output as well as on the economic value of classical music.

  • The long-term development in the field of classical music depends very much on the state of the pandemic. If the plague cannot be stopped and an appropriate vaccine is not found soon, the basic modes of operation will fundamentally change. Arguing from the point of view of the current situation one could expect that the performance structure would concentrate on small formats (living room concerts, salons, soirees) for a limited audience and that the duration of the presentations would be made shorter in order to avoid an outbreak. The pieces performed would encompass original chamber music or well-known compositions arranged according to the available cast and the daily rules of physical distancing. Since these formats do not pay off financially, the ticket prices would explode and the participation on a concert or an opera performance would become again a privilege of the ‘happy (i.e. solvent) few’. But even if the health problems are solved in the foreseeable future, due to the complex structure of big institutions, long term planning and programming the effects of the pandemic will be felt in 2021 and far beyond.

  • If we also take into consideration the traveling situation, it can be expected that the costly and unsustainable long-distance tours will be suspended. That would mean that the musical bodies would satisfy predominantly the needs of the local public and – as already seen in some cases even before the epidemic – will be supported by local sponsors and authorities. Also, professional local and national musicians will remain on their ‘home turf’ instead of flying all over the world. In relation to this, the amateur music making which flourished during the pandemic might play a more important role than in the past. 
  • These restrictions are counterbalanced with the digital offer though the current technical possibilities, especially with regards to collective music making, although they still leave some issues open. Despite of these disadvantages for the musicians the internet provides a suitable means of promotion and distribution and it allows at the same time the public a direct access to their music, although the audio quality leaves many questions unanswered. The luxury of the lockdown, as one was able to hear and watch the highlights of the Western classical music performed by the best orchestras and opera houses around the world for free, however, was already mostly suspended in the favour of a chargeable offer. Also, the growing number of providers point to the fact that classical streaming is getting increasingly commercialized and high-quality professional productions or videos-on-demand are mostly available on a subscription basis only. Hence one can expect that the accelerated digitalisation of the classical music will continue and will re-configure the balance between the live music events and their digital simulations.  
  • The unforeseen ‘free time’ released by the lockdown did not only raise some fundamental questions about work, health, economic and lifestyle, but also prompted some significant shifts in the re-evaluation of different musical fields. It boosted an overwhelming demand for music education, which resulted in a vast amount of new digital learning resources and educational formats, ranging from pre-school music making to masterclasses with celebrities of the classical scene. This trend was accompanied by an increasing sale of music instruments. Further, more attention was given to issues such as wellbeing and music therapy, which were not new topics, but situated rather at the margins of the musical practice before.
  • The same applies to the growing interest in projects with social groups such as older adults, patients or citizens with disabilities, which also belonged to the rather neglected areas of musical life. Similar tendencies were notified in the sudden outburst of Corona-related music research, promising to give insight into the musical reception under the COVID-19 conditions or to gain reference points how to deal with the negative impacts of physical distancing: Some of these projects were carried out in collaboration with health institutions. Also, previously rather unpopular topics such as (choral) singing or amateur music making, as known from the balcony concerts, became a subject of exploration. In order to coordinate activities in this field also some new research networks were put up, among them , which concentrates predominantly on (praxis-oriented) empirical research in psychology of music and music therapy. 


The effects of the lockdown on music production and music consumption are dramatic. Some subfields of classical music might adjust to the new digital ‘normal’, e.g. small chamber music ensembles or soloists. However, the interactions among orchestras and audiences, choirs and consumers, soloists and listeners are a pivotal part of the experience of life music; only thinly replaceable by digital means. And, as Barber-Kersovan and Kirchberg (2020) mention, can we overcome the barriers of the “free” market system that we all, as musicians and listeners live in, so that the variety of music can survive the unavoidable economic hardship of the coming years?