Excerpted from Listen to This, “Chapter 1: Crossing the Border from Classical to Pop” by Alex Ross. Published in October 2010 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Copyright © 2010 by Alex Ross. All rights reserved.” No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
I hate classical music: not the thing but the name. It traps a tenaciously living art in a theme park of the past. It cancels out the possibility that music in the spirit of Beethoven could still be created today. It banishes into limbo the work of thousands of active composers who have to explain to otherwise well-informed people what it is they do for a living. The phrase is a masterpiece of negative publicity, a tour de force of anti-hype. I wish there were another name. I envy jazz people who speak simply of the music. Some jazz aficionados also call their art America’s classical music, and I propose a trade: they can have classical, I’ll take the music.
For at least a century, the music has been captive to a cult of mediocre elitism that tries to manufacture self-esteem by clutching at empty formulas of intellectual superiority. Consider other names in circulation: art music, serious music, great music, good music. Yes, the music can be great and serious, but greatness and seriousness are not its defining characteristics. It can also be stupid, vulgar, and insane. Composers are artists, not etiquette columnists; they have the right to express any emotion, any state of mind. They have been betrayed by well-meaning acolytes who believe that the music should be marketed as a luxury good, one that replaces an inferior popular product. These guardians say, in effect, “The music you love is trash. Listen instead to our great, arty music.” They are making little headway with the unconverted because they have forgotten to define the music as something worth loving. Music is too personal a medium to support an absolute hierarchy of values. The best music is the music that persuades us that there is no other music in the world.
When people hear classical, they think dead. The music is described in terms of its distance from the present, its difference from the mass. No wonder that stories of its imminent demise are commonplace. Newspapers recite a familiar litany of problems: record companies are curtailing their classical divisions; orchestras are facing deficits; the music is barely taught in public schools, almost invisible in the media, ignored or mocked by Hollywood. Yet the same story was told forty, sixty, eighty years ago. Stereo Review wrote in 1969, “Fewer classical records are being sold because people are dying… Today’s dying classical market is what it is because fifteen years ago no one attempted to instill a love for classical music in the then impressionable children who have today become the market.” The conductor Alfred Wallenstein wrote in 1950, “The economic crisis confronting the American symphony orchestra is becoming increasingly acute.” The German critic Hans Heinz Stuckenschmidt wrote in 1926, “Concerts are poorly attended and budget deficits grow from year to year.” Laments over the decline or death of the art appear as far back as the fourteenth century, when the sensuous melodies of Ars Nova were thought to signal the end of civilization. The pianist Charles Rosen has sagely observed, “The death of classical music is perhaps its oldest continuing tradition.”
The American classical audience is assumed to be a moribund crowd of the old, the white, the rich, and the bored. Statistics provided by the National Endowment for the Arts suggest that the situation is not quite so dire. Yes, the audience is older than that for any other art the median age is forty-nine but it is not the wealthiest. Musicals, plays, ballet, and museums all get larger slices of the $50, 000-or-more income pie (as does the ESPN channel, for that matter). The parterre section at the Metropolitan Opera plays host to CEOs and socialites, but the less expensive parts of the house as of this writing, most seats in the Family Circle go for twenty-five dollars are well populated by schoolteachers, proofreaders, students, retirees, and others with no entry in the Social Register. If you want to see an in-your-face, Swiss-bank-account display of wealth, go look at the millionaires sitting in the skyboxes at a Billy Joel show, if security lets you. As for the graying of the audience, there is no denying the general trend, although with any luck it may begin to level off. Paradoxically, even as the audience ages, the performers keep getting younger. The musicians of the Berlin Philharmonic are, on average, a generation younger than the Rolling Stones.
The music is always dying, ever-ending. It is like an ageless diva on a nonstop farewell tour, coming around for one absolutely final appearance. It is hard to name because it never really existed to begin with not in the sense that it stemmed from a single time or place. It has no genealogy, no ethnicity: leading composers of today hail from China, Estonia, Argentina,
Queens. The music is simply whatever composers create a long string of written-down works to which various performing traditions have become attached. It encompasses the high, the low, empire, underground, dance, prayer, silence, noise. Composers are genius parasites; they feed voraciously on the song matter of their time in order to engender something new. They have gone through a rough stretch in the past hundred years, facing external obstacles (Hitler and Stalin were amateur music critics) as well as problems of their own invention (Why doesn’t anyone like our beautiful twelve-tone music?). But they may be on the verge of an improbable renaissance, and the music may take a form that no one today would recognize.
The critic Greg Sandow has written that the classical community needs to speak more from the heart about what the music means. H e admits that it’s easier to analyze his ardor than to express it. The music does not lend itself to the same kind of generational identification as, say, Sgt. Pepper. There may be kids out there who lost their virginity during Brahms’s D-Minor Piano Concerto, but they don’t want to tell the story and you don’t want to hear it. The music attracts the reticent fraction of the population. It is an art of grand gestures and vast dimensions that plays to mobs of the quiet and the shy.
I am a white American male who listened to nothing but classical music until the age of twenty. In retrospect, this seems bizarre; perhaps freakish is not too strong a word. Yet it felt natural at the time. I feel as though I grew up not during the seventies and eighties but during the thirties and forties, the decades of my parents’ youth. Neither my mother nor my father had musical training—both worked as research mineralogists—but they were devoted concertgoers and record collectors. They came of age in the great American middlebrow era, when the music had a rather different place in the culture than it does today. In those years, in what now seems like a dream world, millions listened as Toscanini conducted the N BC Symphony on national radio. Walter Damrosch explained the classics to schoolchildren, singing ditties to help them remember the themes. (My mother remembers one of them: This is / The sym-pho-nee / That Schubert wrote but never / Fi-nished . . .) NBC would broadcast Ohio State vs. Indiana one afternoon, a recital by Lotte Lehmann the next. In my house, it was the Boston Symphony followed by the Washington Redskins. I was unaware of a yawning gap between the two.
Early on, I delved into my parents’ record collection, which was well stocked with artifacts of the golden age: Serge Koussevitzky’s Sibelius, Charles Munch’s Berlioz, the Thibaud-Casals-Cortot trio, the Budapest Quartet. The look and feel of the records were inseparable from the sound they made. There was Otto Klemperer’s Zeppelin-like, slow-motion account of the St. Matthew Passion, with nightmare-spawning art by the Master of Delft. Toscanini’s fierce renditions of Beethoven and Brahms were decorated with Robert Hupka’s snapshots of the Maestro in motion, his face registering every emotion between ecstasy and disgust. Mozart’s Divertimento in E-flat featured the famous portrait in which the composer looks down in sorrow, like a general surveying a hopeless battle. While listening, I read along in the liner notes, which were generally written in the over-the-top everyman-orator style that the media favored in the mid-twentieth century. Tchaikovsky, for example, was said to exhibit melancholy, sometimes progressing to abysmal depths. None of this made sense at the time; I had no acquaintance with melancholy, let alone abysmal depths. What mattered was the exaggerated swoop of the thought, which matched my response to the music.
The first work that I loved to the point of distraction was Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony. At a garage sale my mother found a disc of Leonard Bernstein conducting the New York Philharmonic one of a series of Music-Appreciation Records put out by the Book-of-the-Month Club. A companion record provided Bernstein’s analysis of the symphony, a road map to its
forty-five-minute sprawl. I now had names for the shapes that I perceived. (The conductor’s Joy of Music and Infinite Variety of Music remain the best introductory books of their kind.) Bernstein drew attention to something that happens about ten seconds in: the fanfarelike main theme, in the key of E-flat, is waylaid by the note C-sharp. “There has been a stab of intrusive otherness,” Bernstein said, cryptically but seductively, in his nicotine baritone. Over and over, I listened to this note of otherness. I bought a score and deciphered the notation. I learned some time-beating gestures from Max Rudolf’s conducting manual. I held my family hostage in the living room as I led the record player in a searing performance of the Eroica.
Did Lenny get a little carried away when he called that soft C-sharp in the cellos a shock, a wrench, a stab? If you were to play the Eroica for a fourteen-year-old hip-hop scholar versed in Eminem and 50 Cent, he might find it shockingly boring at best. No one is slicing up his wife or getting shot nine times. But your young gangsta friend will eventually have to admit that those artists are relatively shocking relative to the social norms of their day. Although the Eroica ceased to be controversial in the these-crazy-kids-today sense around 1830, within the classical frame it has continued to deliver its surprises right on cue. Seven bars of E-flat major, then the C-sharp that hovers for a moment before disappearing: it is like a speaker stepping up to a microphone, launching into the first words of a solemn oration, and then faltering, as if he had just remembered something from childhood or seen a sinister face in the crowd.