You Call That Music?
A piece from the 1970’s followed by a Bach chorale in church this morning got me to thinking about “classical” music. I’m not talking about actual classical music, composed between 1750ish to 1810ish. I’m talking about what Joe Normal probably thinks of as classical music. That is, stuff you hear in church, at the symphony, or at the opera.
I’ve been thinking about how inaccessible modern classical music is. Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot of modern classical music that I love. It’s just that unless you’ve grown up on it and trained your ear to hear what’s good about it, a lot of the time it’s just so much noise. The problem is that it’s virtually impossible to tell the good noise from the bad unless you know what you’re listening for. On top of that, there’s a lot of jokers out there who think they can write good classical music who frankly can’t.
What I can’t figure out is how we got to this point. Classical music written from around 1600 or so up to the early 20th century was the popular music of the time. Bach was well known all throughout Germany. Mozart was a child star that could have put Macauley Culkin to shame. Thousands lined the streets of Vienna for Beethoven’s funeral. Puccini was as close to a rock star as late 19th century Italy could have. And hundreds protested Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring when it was first performed.
So what the heck happened?
I suppose it could be that the music has simply gotten too complex. There a very few people who can sit through a contemporary classical performance without being completely turned off. Even someone with a fair amount of training like myself has to concentrate extremely hard to appreciate contemporary music. And part of me doubts that music you have to concentrate on is really worth listening to.
But another part of me laments the loss of the fabulously intricate music that requires massive amounts of skill to compose. Obviously I love rock music, and I appreciate the art form very much. But let’s face it: it’s pretty straightforward musically. What happened to the multitudes being able to enjoy the intricacies of a Bach cantata, or be transported by a Beethoven symphony, or cry at a Puccini opera?
It’s probably the fault of the composers themselves. There’s something of an attitude that if you can’t get it, you’re just dumb. To my mind a perfect example is Michael Nyman. His soundtrack for the movie The Piano was fabulously popular. It was just as difficult in many ways as his other works, but infinitely more accessible. Does that mean he wrote more music like that? No, he continued with his esoteric, avant-garde music. Another good example is the novel Amsterdam by Ian McEwan, which shows how a supposedly great composer can become so fundamentally self-centered that he loses touch with reality.
I guess all I can do is keep listening to the great works and hope that others will hear it too and try to find out more. There’s got to be a way to satisfy both the artists and the people.