Friday, April 26, 2013

How Do People View Classical Music?

One of the oddest problems I have writing this blog is having a sense of how most people view classical music. An important goal of the blog, after all, is to make classical music more accessible. I fondly imagine all sorts of people of all ages but with some curiosity about music coming to this blog and finding out interesting things. But I am hampered somewhat by the fact that I have lived in the world of music for most of my life--perhaps all my life as even before I took up music myself in my mid-teens, I was influenced by my mother who was an old-time fiddler. Music is in my head a lot of the time and even when I am not having productive thoughts about music I often find myself humming some stupid sequence.

So in the interest of better communication with regular folks, who probably don't have music in their head all the time, I'm trying to get a sense of how ordinary people view classical music. This was sparked by a brief conversation I had yesterday with an acquaintance who owns a small taxi company that I use from time to time. He knows that I am a musician who composes music and he asked me, right out of the blue, "what kind of music do you like?" I wasn't sure exactly what he meant so he elaborated by saying, "Chopin, Bach, Beethoven?" So I said sure, I like those guys. What was interesting was that these were the names he came up with. He is not an educated or cultured person in any way. But somehow, these names were the ones that he knew.

I often think that classical music is, apart from a few cognoscenti, almost completely unknown, but that may not be the case. Even after the dominance of popular music for several decades, there is still a kind of widespread residual awareness of the existence of classical music and a few of the big names. For anyone with a bit of curiosity, the Internet makes it easy to learn more. Here is the Wikipedia article on classical music which is surprisingly sensible and informative. I wrote a criticism of a rather silly music blog on Forbes a while back, but they recently published a rather old-fashioned kind of article on classical music, "How to Build a Top-Quality Classical Music Library for $100." They describe classical music as a "still growing, more-important-than-you-think niche in 21st century entertainment." Their list is not what I would have chosen, but it is a pretty good one. I'm a bit surprised they only managed to squeeze Beethoven in at the very end, almost as an afterthought. But generally, I think they have picked stuff that the ordinary listener will enjoy. As they say, the idea is that this list is bait, designed to lure you back for more. Here is a Haydn movement conducted by Thomas Fey, one of the things recommended on their list:

Further on this quest to see how classical music is viewed, we can look at an extremely irreverent take on it by Don't click on that link if you have a tendency to be offended by sophomoric humour. They conclude with the following observation:
Though a few people know who Yo Yo Ma and Pavarotti are, classical music is not popular at all anymore. There are a couple of "crossover" classical artists around such as Sara Brightman and Andrea Bocelli, though I should add that many serious classical musicians want those two people dead.
That sums it up pretty well, don't you think? Just kidding!

I have to confess that I am barely familiar with iTunes--oh, I use the program, but just to play discs I own and my own recordings. I have yet to purchase anything through iTunes. But this huge music retailer apparently makes life difficult for classical music listeners in the way it catalogues things. Here, read this. This is a case in which the differences between classical music and other music, in a world where classical music is a minority taste, make it more difficult to be a classical music listener.

Let me go back for a minute to that comment from Forbes: "[a] still growing, more-important-than-you-think niche in 21st century entertainment." The problem I have with that is that it is hard for me to reconcile what I know of classical music with its apparent role as a mere "entertainment niche". For me the profound role that music played in the 18th and 19th centuries still resonates. Music was the most elevated and profound of all the arts; it expressed the spiritual content of the transcendent Will of Schopenhauer. All that is gone, I suppose, incinerated somehow in Auschwitz-Birkenau. But I still hear that classical music can express the horror and desolation of war (Shostakovich, Symphony No. 7), the deepest of sorrows (Beethoven, Cavatina to String Quartet in B flat, op 130), the sweetest of nostalgic reveries (Fauré, Pavane), the joy of transcendence (Bach, B minor Mass, Dona nobis pacem), sheer physical pleasure (Stravinsky, Rite of Spring) and the utter calm of religious devotion (Josquin des Prez, Masses).

So why is everyone listening to Beyoncé?

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