Classical Music on
Latin American Radio

There is perhaps no universally accepted definition for the term Classical Music. Still, it would be fair to say that there is a set of musical works and composers which would be immediately identified and recognized as being Classical Music. Key examples are the names of J.S. Bach, Ludwig van Beethoven, Johannes Brahms, W.A. Mozart, Peter Tchaikowsky and Richard Wagner. It is more difficult to demarcate the point at which the classical era ended (if at all) and the modern era began.

The attraction of classical music for fans is without doubt the music itself, with all its beauty and power. However, it was also important that there exists a body of historical knowledge and lore about the music, the composers and the musicians. This gives the genre a snobbish appeal, as some people would assert that it is impossible to fully appreciate the music without being aware of the circumstances.

Most of us learn about classical music either through family records or listening to radio. According to the Los Medios y Mercados de Latinoamérica 1997 study, 9.4% of Latin Americans between the ages of 12-64 listen to classical music on radio regularly. In the Table below, we show the breakdown by various geodemographic groups.

Table 1. % Persons 12-64 Regularly Listening to Classical Music

Geodemographic Group % Regularly Listen to Classical Music
Persons 12-17 7.9%
Persons 18-34 10.8%
Persons 35-49 9.0%
Persons 50-64 8.0%
Males 12-64 9.5%
Females 12-64 9.3%
Argentina 13.6%
Brazil 6.3%
Chile 16.2%
Colombia 8.1%
Mexico 8.6%
Puerto Rico 10.3%
Venezuela 5.3%
Professionals/Managers 11.3%
Education less than 6 years 5.2%
Education 6 to 12 years 9.6%
Education 12+ years 13.3%
Socioeconomic Level A 13.0%
Socioeconomic Level B 11.3%
Socioeconomic Level C 9.7%
Socioeconomic Level D 7.2%

                    (source: Los Medios y Mercados de Latinoamérica 1997)

Looking at the table, it is clear that the preference for classical music is higher among the better educated, more affluent segment of society. It is also higher in the two more Europeanized countries: Argentina and Chile, which is not surprising given the mostly eurocentric nature of classical music.

How does one decide on what to broadcast on a classical music radio station? It is not easy to ascertain the popularity of an individual musical opus that is broadcast on a classical music radio, since radio ratings are provided for the station as a whole. However, one can often use the feedback provided by concert performances. For example, a typical symphonic orchestral concert may be programmed with an overture (e.g. Beethoven's Egmont Overture), a concerto (e.g. a Mozart piano concerto) and a symphony (e.g. Beethoven's Sixth Symphony). When innovative or unusual pieces are inserted (e.g. Alban Berg's Lulu Suite), the box-office receipts are often observed to suffer. This has the effect of inducing general managers (being rational business people) to schedule more conservatively for what are deemed to be the people's choices.

In this context, we may well ask which Latin American composers fit into the existing popular canon. The most famous piece of Latin American music that appears to be solidly included in the popular canon is the Bachianas Brasileiras nº 5, written by the Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos (see Museu Villa-Lobos). This opus was written for a soprano voice and eight cellos, and is a unique synthesis of Bach and Brazilian folkloric music. Recordings have been made by international stars such as Victoria de Los Angeles, Kiri Te Kanawa, Kathleen Battle, Barbara Hendricks, Eva Marton, Arleen Auger, Galina Vischnevskaya and Jill Gomez, among others.

Although we have asserted that there is a commonly accepted list of classical works, this is not immutable. Critical opinions and appreciation can change over time, as some composers may ascend by being championed fervently by supporters (e.g. Gustav Mahler by Leonard Bernstein) even as others fade into obscurity.  So there is a precedent for promoting the other works of Villa-Lobos as well as other Latin American composers.

(posted by Roland Soong 7/28/98)

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