Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Top Ten Myths About Classical Music

1. Classical music is just for stuffy, rich people.

It certainly has that reputation in some circles. I think that the ultimate source of this is found in music history. For a long time the main supporters and consumers of classical music were the church and the aristocracy. This started to break down with the French Revolution when they guillotined the nobles and burned the harpsichords. All through the 19th century it was the middle class that supported and consumed classical music. Nowadays the rich and powerful tend to look to major pop stars for their amusement. If President Obama is having a party, he calls up Beyoncé and Jay-Z, not Yo-Yo Ma.

2. Classical music is complicated and hard to understand.

There is certainly a grain of truth in this. In fact, the avant-garde throughout the 20th century went out of their way to create particularly difficult music. But it would be more accurate to say that some genres of classical music, such as much avant-garde music and serialism in particular, are very complex and difficult to appreciate. Going by the numbers, it is probably safe to say that 90% of classical music is charming and easy to listen to. Here is a good example: a Concerto for Two Violins by Vivaldi:

3. Classical music was all written by old white guys in wigs.

I'm stealing this from a Frank Zappa quote. He said something like all the good music was already written by white guys in wigs. He may or may not have been being ironic--with Frank it is sometimes hard to tell. There was certainly a lot of great music written during the 18th century by, yes, white guys in wigs. Here's one:

But there are a whole lot of composers who don't fit that description. The great medieval woman composer Hildegard von Bingen, for example. Here she is receiving divine inspiration:

And here is some of her music:

At the other end of classical music history is the young American composer Nico Muhly:

No wigs there. Here is a brief excerpt from his piece Gait, performed at the Proms in 2012:

4. You need to know a lot about music to understand classical music.

Again, there is a little grain of truth here. If you are going to be a classical musician you certainly need to know lots of stuff, but not to be a listener. The great majority of classical music was written to be enjoyed by ordinary people. What stands in the way of its appreciation these days is that we live in this peculiar musical environment where wherever we go we hear bad pop music blasted out at us from speakers. This tends to give us a strange baseline. When we hear some actual classical music it sounds "funny" or "boring" in comparison to what we are used to. So we think that we need to know lots of theory or something. Not true. You just need to give it a chance. Just listen to a few pieces and you will get used to it. Don't you think that pretty well everyone is going to be captivated and transported by something like this, the Moonlight Sonata of Beethoven?

5. "Chamber music is just soooo boring!"

This is an actual quote. I was walking through the plaza a few days before the local chamber music festival was about to being and overheard this. Someone was trying to talk their friend into attending a concert and this was the response. It is probably often said of classical music in general. But the image of staid old guys in tails playing a string quartet probably does evoke the idea of "boring music" in the minds of lots of people. Mind you, they have probably never heard the Kronos Quartet play Jimi Hendrix:

Or the Emerson Quartet play Shostakovich:

I rest my case!

6. In order for classical music to appeal to young people it needs to be more accessible.

This is really a bizarre myth! But it is one that is parroted over and over again in classical music circles. Some orchestras, like the Toronto Symphony, opt for a "casual" setting. Others offer free pizza and beer. This seems pretty accessible to me. Not to mention that virtually every piece of classical music is available for free on YouTube. Here is an excellent performance of all the Brandenburg concertos by Bach:

Or perhaps they mean "intellectually" or "aesthetically" accessible. There might be more to that. The juggernaut of pop music has run roughshod over the music world, wiping out everything that isn't pop. Classical music coverage has almost disappeared from the mass media. So most people are unfamiliar with classical music. But if they want to become familiar it is pretty easy. Most places have concert series and the Internet has just about everything you want to know. You can even find scores for a lot of music on the Internet here.

7. Classical music lost its moral authority after the Second World War and its popularity with the Nazis.

This is another bizarre myth, but one that is often heard in cultural circles. Alex Ross of The New Yorker seems fond of it. One odd fact that seems to support the idea is the association of classical music with villains in popular culture. One striking example is Hannibal Lector's love of the Goldberg Variations in Silence of the Lambs:

Or the use of the music of Beethoven in Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange:

Why this urge to transgress by putting together sublime examples of classical music--the more sublime the better--with the most vicious acts of violence? Well, it is very transgressive and attention-getting and the sad truth is that many 'progressive' artists for the last hundred years have been doing little more than look for every possible occasion to crap on the best cultural traditions. Who better than Beethoven and Bach!

I also think I answered Alex Ross' argument in this post.

8. Classical musicians are all repressed and hung up and don't know how to groove with the beat.

If by this you mean "disciplined and organized and taking a subtle approach to rhythm and phrasing" then yes! Heh. This kind of critique usually comes from the jazz musicians who tend to resent classical musicians for being "legit", meaning slightly better paid than they are. Now, sure, some classical musicians might seem a tad neurotic, mostly oboists and violinists, but no-one could ever call brass players, especially trumpet players, repressed. There's that old joke, what do trumpet players use for birth control? Their personalities! Here are some classical musicians "grooving with the beat" in Eight Lines by Steve Reich:

9. Classical music is all about getting dressed up--it's just way too formal!

There is a tradition of formal dress for formal concerts. This is one that became standardized during the 19th century and still continues in more traditional contexts. The Vienna Philharmonic perform in white tie and tails:

A conductor friend of mine swears that white tie and tails is actually a lot more comfortable than it looks. But these days you are likely to see classical musicians dressed a lot less formally. Here is John Williams playing the Concierto de Aranjuez at the BBC Proms. As you can see, everyone is in summer garb. John Williams himself hasn't worn anything but a turtleneck to perform in for decades.

10. Classical concerts are awkward and uncomfortable because we never know when to clap!

Heh. There is that famous quartet by Haydn where he does everything he can to trick the audience into clapping early. There are, if I recall correctly, something like four false endings! But it is all in good fun:

Someone must have tipped them off, because nobody clapped too soon! Look, in the 18th and into the 19th century, audiences clapped whenever they wanted. If they really liked an aria at the opera, they clapped until the singer repeated it. As the 19th century wore on, the tradition of keeping very quiet in concerts grew more established. It's a simple idea: be quiet so we can all hear the music really clearly. The trouble is that classical music often comes in movements and it is considered best to wait until the last movement is over. But that means you have to keep track of the movements. Not a problem if there are only three or four, but what if there are seven movements? Well, it is pretty easy, really. It is the job of the performers to signal us when they are really done. I once saw a classical guitarist play a recital in a big hall. He had this little quirk of sort of throwing up his right hand at the end of every movement. The audience took this as a signal to clap--and why wouldn't they? So, just watch the players. If they stay motionless and focussed at the end of a movement, then don't clap. If they all throw up their bows and leap to their feet, then clap your heart out!


Rickard Dahl said...

Speaking of number one, Horowitz at the White House:

Shame such things don't seem to happen anymore.

Bryan Townsend said...

I remember seeing a wonderful broadcast of a concert by Andres Segovia in the White House.