Sunday, November 2, 2014

The new Philistines are just like the old Philistines

I don't agree with all the thoughts expressed in this essay, but it gives a colorful introduction to the music criticism of Robert Schumann that was largely directed against
the banal and empty theatrical and virtuoso-compositions which were then popular. It chafed him no end that so soon after the deaths of Beethoven and Schubert, the public taste had been won by the likes of Rossini.
It is a lamentable fact that a lot of the so-called supporters of classical music actually do more harm than good. Some typical examples are the music educator who relentlessly teaches only the superficial qualities of music with no hints of its depths, the music critic who writes only to flatter his readers and is always in tune with the political correctness of the day, the composer who sticks to gimmicks and tricks, the performer who acts out the theater of the music with hair tossing and distracting clothing but doesn't put across the music very well and, a curious example, the fellow-next-door, regular-bloke type who explains to you that classical music is all stuck up and stuff.

This latter fellow is the topic of this post and we find him lurking in the pages of The Telegraph: Alan Titchmarsh tell us to "Stop being so snobbish about classical music"! The subhead tritely informs us that

While I’ve always preferred the likes of Beethoven and Mozart to more popular forms of music, I believe that music is something to be shared and enjoyed by all

Well sure, Alan, but what's your point? As this is an entirely false opposition, signaled by the "while", I'm sure you are trying to pull the wool over our eyes in some way. He begins:
What is it about classical music that encourages snobbery? In most walks of life such behaviour is frowned upon, and yet, in the world of “serious” music, it is alive and kicking. Since my teenage years, classical music has been my preferred genre. Oh, I bought She Loves You by The Beatles, but it was simply for street cred, though the term itself had yet to be invented.
Nice scare quotes around "serious". How dare a mere musical genre think itself serious? Well into the article we find out that the writer is actually a professional radio host:
for the past two years or so I have presented its Saturday morning show – a mix of exactly the kind of music that I would listen to at that time of day and at that time of the week. It is an eclectic confection, majoring on the giants – Beethoven and Mozart, Wagner and Chopin, Schubert and Handel – but it also has room for Lehar, along with good film scores and light music composers such as Robert Farnon and Eric Coates.
He finally gets to his complaint:
But for some “serious” music lovers the net is cast a little too wide, and the fact that the presenters appear to be real human beings who admit to being au fait with other forms of musical life is just too much to bear. To them the world of classical music is an exclusive one, to be preserved for the enjoyment of the select few who are possessed of a superior intellect.
There are those scare quotes again. It seems that, while he loves music, the lighter forms at least, what he hates is the idea that there are levels of aesthetic quality. The idea that some music is more challenging, more dense and requires more patience and understanding, he just won't accept.
Well, they are entitled to their opinion, but I would rather its appeal was broadened and that the sheer joy that can be derived from music was shared by as wide a range of folk as possible. Alas, musical snobs will all too often confuse accessibility with “dumbing down”. There is, I maintain, a world of difference. It is possible to popularise a subject without losing its integrity; something I have tried to achieve, over many years, in the world of gardening. 
I would like for the whole world to appreciate and experience the sheer joy of Beethoven's late quartets, but I think it is unlikely. Most people are going to prefer Beyoncé and I accept that. But if you want to convince me that Beethoven and Beyoncé are on the same level of aesthetic worth, then I think you will have a tough job doing so.

Alan, it's like beer: there is Schlitz Lite and then there is Belgian Morte Subite. The latter, brewed with "wild" yeasts and at 9% alcohol is going to be just a tad more challenging. There is fizzy Lambrusco and then there is aged Barolo. Don't mix them up!

Also, don't make the entirely different aesthetic mistake of confusing difficulty with quality. There is also extremely complex and dense music that is of little aesthetic worth. But Alan is not likely to fall into that error.

Back to that first quote, the one that trashes Rossini. The truth of the matter is that Beethoven and Schubert both envied Rossini a bit for his effortless command of opera. Despite the fact that Rossini is immediately enjoyable, it is also very good music. So let's end with some. Here is the overture to La gazza ladra:

And just for the record, I'm an elitist, not a snob.


Rickard Dahl said...

Yes, some of our worst enemies in the classical music community are our supporters. People who claim it's all about taste or that no music is objectively (aesthetically) better than others do seem to practice a sort of political correctness now that I think about it (the music critic example you've mentioned). Alan presents the situation dishonestly I think. There is no reason why everyone can't be able to enjoy classical music but most are not ready to go outside their musical comfort zone to face the music (as you roughly pointed out). I think many used to enjoy other types of music before they started to enjoy/discover classical music. I used to listen to hip-hop (of all things) before classical music.

There's also no reason why you can't enjoy both lighter and more complex music and still recognize varying levels of aesthetic quality. I think composers are better at appreciating and understanding aesthetic qualities of works by other composers and seeing strengths which other composers present better. Both Beethoven and Schubert appreciated Rossini's strengths in opera as you pointed out. Maybe it's envy but it's also about giving credit where credit is due. I for instance understand that most video game music isn't as aesthetically great in size and form (it tends to be shorter and use less instruments) but recognize, appreciate and possibly envy the ability to adjust to certain video game environments and events and further story telling and add to the overall art. A great example is the soundtrack to Demon's Souls as it has great pieces that suit the environments and general mood of the game very well. It also fits for Halloween, which is why I made a playlist with some of the more Halloweenish pieces:

Bryan Townsend said...

That's a nice, spooky piece!! Thanks, Rickard. Sounds a bit like Bach with maybe a touch of Liszt?

Anonymous said...

I agree with Bryan and Rickard.

But there's one tiny thing I find annoying Why is it that on public radio in the US (where I live), the hosts of classical music programs have to have that annnoying Anglo-American accent of Yanks who spend a summmer in London and never recover from it? PLus, they feel the need to speak as though they're reading an obituary or they are doctors telling you that you have only one week left to live. Just lighten up, folks! Speak in your normal voice.

Anonymous said...

Speaking of terminal disease.. it's mort subite, not morte subite

Bryan Townsend said...

I haven't actually listened to any radio for, oh, twenty years at least. But I did spend a summer in New York many years ago and spent a lot of time listening to a classical music station that played a lot of Haydn. The announcers cultivated a kind of hushed, reverential voice that I think of as "FM radio voice". Didn't notice any pseudo-Brit accent, so maybe that is a recent development.

It has been way too long since I have had a bottle of Mort Subite, obviously!

Anonymous said...

Perhaps a glass of Mort Subite while listening to Morton Subotnick?

Bryan Townsend said...

Morton "Silver Apples of the Moon" Subotnick? I don't think I ever got through all that! But the Mort Subite would definitely help. Why does electronic music always sound like the soundtrack of a really bad 1960s science fiction film?

Brendan Macie said...

I knew something was awry or afoul or askew when I got to "so-called supporters." Perhaps I am a nitwit for even suggesting, but I would think that if you wanted more acceptance and popularity by the general public for a music that they perceive to be snobby or elitist, then perhaps not looking down on them would be a good step. Because basically all I got out of this article was "Normal people aren't intelligent enough to like classical music, the obvious highest order of all music. I accept that they like dumb music, but that's their fault for not being smart. And any attempt to help them listen is dumbing down and if we do that the terrorists win!" I think it's that classical music has this really exclusive vibe. If you don't know all of it, you don't know any of it.

My own knowledge of classical music is indeed quite limited, but I can tell you with utmost certainty that if you played "Eine Kleine Nacktmusik," everyone in the room would know it. Now why doesn't the classical community own this? I'm not afraid to call it among my favorite pieces. The people of the classical community would probably disown me for appreciating merely the "Free Bird" of Mozart's work. But that's the problem. They call you out for not knowing enough, but they never use it as an opportunity to say, "You know, if you liked that, maybe you should check out his Violin Concerto XYZ..." I think the tolerance of a different audience is very much an important part of keeping the music alive.

I'm certain there's people who want to dig deeper, but are just too turned off by the audience. This is actually my case. As much as I want to listen to more of it, I can't ever seem to get passed people like you who believe that I'm unsophisticated for liking Tom Petty. Classical does need to change its image. Perhaps it won't exactly be as "classy" as you think it should be, but its influence on every other kind of music could be made more apparent. There are plenty of people I'm sure who'd never realize they liked it! People like you are exactly why classical merely plays to its own musicians.

Bryan Townsend said...

I think if you read that again, you would notice that the "so-called supporters" of classical music includes those very snobbish people that turn you off. They turn me off too. The kind of approach you mention in your second paragraph is mostly my approach. I don't know if it is the audiences that turn people off, but the point I was trying to make is that it is often the supporters of classical music that are a turnoff.

Personally, I am not put off by music that might be difficult or unfamiliar. I am more put off by music that is trite, cliched and snarling at me!

I knew something was awry in this comment when I got to the phrase "People like you are exactly why classical merely plays to its own musicians." Brendan, there are no (other) people like me!