Terry Teachout's essay in the April 2005 Commentary magazine (which unfortunately is no longer online) [is] entitled "Singing the Classical-Music Blues," an article-length review of Joseph Horowitz's book Classical Music in America: A History of Its Rise and Fall....but Teachout quotes Horowitz's view that classical music in America failed because Americans, unlike Europeans, "worshipped musical masterpieces and deified their exponents" and because American musical culture was "less about music composed by Americans than about American concerts of music composed by Europeans" -- that is, it was "culture of performance." Because it was a culture of performance, by the time we began to produce our own distinctive classical music, the culture was already locked up. Orchestras were playing the same European masterpieces. It was hard to persuade them to feature American music.
I suspect this is at most a half-answer. You'd have to include some other important factors: twentieth-century composers who so completely intellectualized their music that audiences rebelled; the dominance of popular culture; the general trend in art away from a belief in greatness; the financial strains of supporting musical institutions....
Allan Kozinn argues in this past Sunday's New York Times that, contrary to conventional wisdom and the opinions of some serious people -- and me, classical music is not dying. The article is called "Check the Numbers: Rumors of Classical Music's Demise Are Dead Wrong."
It's not dead. But the best composers of classical music are dead. I used to attend lots of concerts, living in New Jersey, in close proximity to New York. We heard the best musicians in the world. But every once in a while, these same musicians would perform work by modern composers. I can only guess that they went to Juilliard with these composers, or had borrowed money from them. There was absolutely no esthetic reason for these compositions to be given air time. Nine out of ten--no make that 99 out of 100--were earscreechingly awful. If the program notes revealed that these works were to be performed after the intermission, most of the audience had departed before the concert resumed.
Seriously, I suppose these musicians are trying conscientiously to introduce modern works to a wider audience in the hope that we will learn to appreciate them. But I don't attend concerts to be administered acoustic cod-liver-oil. It may be good for me but I don't want it.
We once attended a concert supposedly dedicated to the works of Henry Purcell. We braved a blizzard to attend, only to find out that the concert contained a spoonful of Purcell and a large dose of Wuorinen. Wuorinen himself presided, and a drier, more didactic and more pompous bore I have never seen. As went the man, so went the work.
At the interval, there was a mass exodus. Those in wheelchairs were running over their more ambulant fellows in an effort to get to the front door first.
Since then, I have never knowingly attended a concert featuring the works of living composers. It works for me.