Part I: How I Came to Love Classical Music
Part II: Converting People to Classical Music
There’s that old Charles Rosen line about the death of classical music being its oldest tradition. Well, that’s one tradition I could do without. The perception that it was a dinosaur, whose modern variations are unlistenable, put me off completely. Those of us who grew up without classical music struggle to see any relevance in it. And ‘relevance’ is what matters above all else to my generation.
Contrary to what many seem to expect, Bach and Mozart, say, are not automatically appreciated. To someone unfamiliar with classical music, they sound blandly similar — one’s just a bit more sombre than the other. For me, it took works with a very unique and striking language to persuade me of classical music’s worth. Hence Charles Ives. And Rite of Spring. And Bartok’s String Quartets. Then I could go back and piece things together. I heard Brahms and Tchaikovsky and Dvorak in Ives, so I could then enter that world.
There was really no greater barrier for me than this idea that classical music is dead, and that the future is popular forms (rock, metal etc.). Even when I’d finally gotten into classical music, I was for a long time under the frightening assumption that the best had long past, that I’d come late to the party. Early modernists, though they had a more familiar style, were still a century old.
The canon may be a problem. Note that I say this with great reluctance, given my natural deference to tradition and antiquity. But just because the canon is popular with existing audiences doesn’t mean it will be with newcomers. From my perspective, it was much easy to enjoy the music of Thomas Ades than that of Bach, say. (The one exception, though this may just be me, is Beethoven, who has a certain muscle, whose Seventh Symphony is so dance-like, that his work immediately appeals.)
Thomas Ades’ In Seven Days was the first of his works to grab me. It starts with a clear pulse, has a recognisable chord sequence — it sounds almost pop-like at first. Some critics didn’t like this: ‘Unfortunately, all I heard was one banal idea morphing into the next, vague references to symphonic rock or to movie soundtracks, endless, rippling motion up and down unimaginative scale progressions.’ That last criticism could be made of Beethoven for goodness sake. And is there intrinsically something wrong with ‘vague references to symphonic rock or to movie soundtracks’? I wish classical composers would look at why people like pop more, and use it to inform future works (this is very much distinct from simply borrowing from the language of popular music). It is not that the audience or the ‘consumer’ is always right — most certainly not. But neither is the composer always right (nor the music critic). And sometimes a bit of populism can be a grand thing, as with Aaron Copland. Anyway, here’s Ades’ In Seven Days:
Late 20th century and 21st century music is excellent because it’s largely abandoned total atonality, isn’t embarrassed to be speedy and comprehensible, but is no less adventurous because of it. The era of incomprehensible music seems to be over, the clouds lingering from the Second World War finally giving way to the sun. Quite popular new works like Hans Abrahmsen’s song cycle Let Me Tell You, for example.
Or for something more festive, Anna Clyne’s Masquerade, which opened 2013’s Last Night of the Proms:
Despite my progressive tone, I’m not arguing for classical music to take its sensibilities from the modern world. Concert etiquette, the reverence for silence, is a wonderful thing, and for many of us that meditative intensity is a chief appeal. Nor do I think that performers in jeans and T-shirts or Yuja Wang-esque dresses is going to persuade anyone but the culture writers at the Guardian. My focus is wholly aesthetic, as it should be. What do people in the 21st century like about music, and how can classical music respond to these desires.
And what they do like can in fact be anti-modern. During a pre-concert talk I was at, it was said that younger listeners are particularly attracted to sacred music. I cannot say with any certainty whether this is true for others, but it’s certainly true for me. The beauty, the use of silence, the spiritual versus the material, all feed a desire that is in our society on the brink of starvation. Probably the most popular contemporary composers — as in the ones who are most popular outside the classical music world as well as within — are Arvo Part and, to a lesser extent, John Tavener and Gorecki. Tabula Rasa, Spiegel Im Spiegel, Song for Athene, The Protecting Veil, Symphony of Sorrowful Songs, so on. Sure, John Adams is popular, but his reach is limited. Steve Reich and Philip Glass are the only others, but as someone who went through the typical prog-rock phase of liking minimalism, I can assure you very few make it through all 50 minutes of Music for 18 Musicians, or even the first 10 minutes. But with Arvo Part, you can’t stop. Here’s his 2009 work Adam’s Lament:
If classical music is going to appeal, it needs to find it its place in society, its niche, something contemporary society has abandoned but people still long for. But that niche isn’t complexity, it isn’t challenging the listener per se — it’s beauty. This doesn’t mean ‘easy’ or ‘light’ music. It doesn’t mean ‘pretty’ music, either. The most popular music of the 20th century among the general public (though you can of course dispute me on this) are likely works like Holst’s Planets, Rodrigo’s Guitar Concerto, Copland’s Appalachian Springs, Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. Sure, some of these are perhaps ‘populist’ works — largely tonal, metrically intelligible — but if you want to attract people who live and breath popular music, dodecaphony is not the way to start. (As if hinting something, my spell checker wants to replace ‘dodecaphony’ with ‘cacophony’.)
You can engage new listeners with more challenging music, but it probably has to be packaged in something digestible. Gerald Barry’s spectacularly funny opera version of Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest is a good place to start:
A difficulty, though, is actually getting someone to sit down and listen to an entire work. Even a 10 minute work seems too long for many. Short of buying a concert ticket for them and transporting them there, I’m not sure how to counter this. (Even then, a friend has memorably conveyed to me his incredulity that I enjoy sitting down for a couple hours in motionless silence just listening to music. People act like like it’s some solemn pilgrimage that requires inhuman levels of discipline and self restraint.)
Admittedly, I do suffer from this kind of agitation myself in other regards. I struggle with cinemas, unable to simply sit back and enjoy a film, always instead wanting to look things up, check my phone. I watch television often as background entertainment, something I have on while I read the news or cook or do mundane tasks. I almost never sit down and just watch a TV show. I can’t say I read books without distraction, either.
For some reason it’s different with music. I don’t exactly know why — I wish I did. I imagine it’s that I have an vague idea about what I’m listening to: I can understand the syntax if not the exact words; I can hear the architecture of the music, its basic structure; I can hear intervals vertically and horizontally; I can identify themes, motifs, fragments. When I first listened to classical music I heard notes — pretty notes, radiant notes, jarring notes, so on — but they seemed to come and go like stones dragged in and out by the waves. And so it all just washed over me.
My saving grace was some basic music education I’d had, which helped me to understand the music though with no small effort on my part. I knew my scales and modes, could read music in a basic sense, knew my supertonic from my subdominant and all that, but couldn’t compose a listenable piece of music, nor sight read, nor perform at all well, and only just scraped my theory exams. I realise nowadays this might be considered a bit more than amateur — few amateur musicians (non-classical) seem even to know what the harmonic minor scale is — but it was enough. I don’t think it is too much for children to learn these basic things in school, as opposed to the awful music lessons I had in which, if it was a particularly productive lesson, we would spend an hour trying to play the melody of My Heart Will Go On on the keyboard (not from a score of course).
Another problem is fandom. Is there really such a thing as a classical music ‘fan’, despite the title of this post? You can be a fan of One Direction or an Arsenal fan. But there isn’t the same kind of tribalism in classical music. Fans of popular music acts hold them up as idols, are obsessed with their personalities and their image. They want to know everything about their idol’s biography. They enjoy the celebrity. But they don’t really want to know about the music. They don’t make aesthetic judgements, they don’t judge a new song by its artistic worth (nor would they be able to).
Classical music ‘fans’ invariably know more about a composer’s works than a composer’s biography. The work exists beyond the composer, too, and can be judged as a separate object, one that is interpreted by its performers (quite often to the irritation of its author, it must be said). This distinction between classical music composers and performers — as opposed to the hermaphroditic composer-performer setup in popular music — is surprisingly unclear to most young people.
Moreover, we all in popular culture are impatient listeners, people who hear foreign sounds and when we don’t like it we put it down to taste, and when we hear sections with no clear pulse and no repetitive loudness we feel totally lost. It’s difficult to instil the idea in people, and this was true for me, that just because you don’t at first like these new sounds, doesn’t mean you can’t learn to like them. The idea of a kind of musical literacy is derided as irrelevant, even snobbish. There’s that famous drawing (on the right) from a punk magazine informing you of all the musical language you need to know to form a band. Okay, it’s half-joking, but nonetheless accurate. The entirety of punk can be reduced to three chords; the entirety of pop to four. The music theory of popular music is so impoverished in comparison to classical music, and the huge gap in between can be pretty forbidding.
There’s also a gap between generations. It is disconcerting when you go to classical concerts and see how old the audience often is, whereas rock concerts tend to be very multi-generational. Pop culture is the culture that everyone in every social class passes on to their children. No one seems to have the confidence to stand up for classical music and to say that it is sheer abuse to rob so many of great music because of the culture they’re born into.
And yet opportunities are much greater now than ever. As someone under 25, I can get the most expensive tickets in the Barbican, say, for £5 usually. There are plenty of other similar deals. As a student, I get concessions of at least 50% in most venues. At other venues you can get ‘secret seats’ quite cheaply (£20 to see the ENO, for example). There’s no dress code, and etiquette is very simple. There’s really no barrier, and a hell of a lot of incentives. Rock concerts, sports matches — they’re the ones that are prohibitively expensive. There really is a lot of effort to make it easier for poorer people, or for struggling students like my humble self, to access live classical music. And on top of all that, there’s YouTube and Spotify and Apple Music. But so few want to listen.
I’m not sure what I’m suggesting should be done — but hopefully these ramblings are useful to someone nonetheless, limited and biographical as they are. Let’s end with John Dowland’s Flow My Tears for no particular reason other than it’s a fantastic song that everyone should love: