Theses on: Whither Youth and ‘Classical Music?’

Tony SigOnce, when I was waiting tables, I ran across a young lady who played an orchestral instrument (I don’t recall which one), and she asked me, exasperated, why it is that, as she put it, ‘young people don’t care about classical music anymore.’ I don’t know that that’s really answerable, but I’m gonna give a few shots at why, and what can be done about it. Specifically I’d like to encourage anyone, young or old, who has no interest in or is intimidated by classical music to venture into the waters and also maybe gently indict friends who aid in classical’s bad press and relative irrelevancy.

Whether or not it’s true, I think many people associate a classical music with upper-class snootiness: tuxedoes, ties, champagne (in champagne glasses), glove tapping, monocle wearing, nonsense. People who like classical, the thought goes, can’t like Bruce Springsteen (I actually don’t much care for the Boss, but it’s a good blue collar example). Worse yet is when classical folk, and I’ve seen this done, get down on popular music as some form of crude, barbarous, primitive, art form. Thus there is a sense of a high price for entry into the classical world. You’ve gotta have lots of money and you need to denigrate the music you actually like.

Speaking from my experience, not having any knowledge other than a few ‘big names’ made me feel overwhelmed. Here’s this mass of music with a tradition that spans centuries, how could I approach that? If someone says that I should check out a rock artist, it’s fairly easy to find them and listen to them. If I really like them, I can get through much of their entire library, usually, without much effort. But have you seen the complete works of Bach? How do you start with that? Or what about all these fancy names for genre? What’s the difference between a fugue and a symphony? And knowing that I’d not be able to ‘get’ a composer, can be a strange and frustrating feeling.

Moreover, I long found the classical music I did hear to be rather boring and unexciting. I’d only hear it in lobbies and elevators.

It was really a combination of two forces that made me start looking to get to know classical more. 1) I felt that I was rather uncultured and wanted to grow more in this regard. So I started looking at art, reading poetry, and listening to music. 2) There were several theologians who commended classical, primarily Bach and Mozart. But whatever reason works for you is fine. I think you really should give it a shot.

In that spirit, here are a few of my recommendations.

  • Realize that you’ll probably never become ‘expert’ in knowing Beethoven the same way you know the entire U2 discography. It’s just harder to do and takes a ton of time.
  • Don’t be afraid to say you don’t like something. Just because someone says something is great, doesn’t mean you’re stupid or a fungus if you don’t. For instance, I’ve never been able to feel anything but contempt for Joseph Hadyn’s music. It sounds like really boring math problems making love. Maybe you don’t like Beethoven’s 9th Symphony. Maybe, like me, you think John Cage is a quack rather than a genius. Whatcha gonna do, pretend to like music you hate?
  • Don’t be afraid to like something. I have all six soundtracks to the Star Wars films as well as that for Braveheart, Lord of the Rings, Shindler’s List, and a few others. I like them, and I listen to them.
  • Find a nerdy friend who does know more classical than you and ask them for recommendations. Not just for pieces and artists, but for recordings. You’ll find that a single piece can sound radically different among recordings due to varying interpretations or sound quality, and not all are created equal. For instance I really like ‘slow’ versions of the Debussy’s Claire de Lune.
  • Realize that if you’re going to experience any music, not least potentially complex and layered pieces, you can’t just throw it on in the background. You’ve gotta sit and just listen to it. Many composers will state a theme or a melody and play off it; turn certain notes minor, make unexpected shifts in emphasis. I sometimes took this to be merely vague repetition, but it’s more than that. It’s a game.
  • Trust and distrust authorities. As I said, don’t be afraid to say you don’t like something. But also realize there are reasons that some consider Bach’s Mass in b minor or Mozart’s unfinished requiem to be great works. You can’t really do the ‘indie’ thing of liking ‘underground’ acts very well if you’re only just starting. Hit the big names first. Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, etc…
  • Find instruments or styles you like. I like pianos, organs and choruses, symphonies, sacred music, and fugues, for instance.
And for you, classical world, and you my classical loving friends.
  • Don’t denigrate popular music or John Williams soundtracks. Not only can you find genuinely creative pop music, but John Williams is the man.
  • Make sure you make your kids take music lessons and music appreciation. If you want them to like it, then make sure they’re exposed to it. Take them to concerts too.
  • Don’t be a judgmental jerk.
  • Consider that maybe much of the abstract, abrasive, narcissistic ‘art for art’s sake’ of ‘modern classical’ is an adventure in ego stroking. If classical isn’t actually connecting with people, then it might not be attentive to the spirit of the people. Music should speak to people.
I leave you with a few of my own recommendations meant to be very much a ‘beginner’s primer.’ It’s not exhaustive and is limited by my own shallow knowledge. See first of all, James’s posts (One and Two) because he covers some ground with Bach, Rachmaninov, and Palestrina.
  • Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in d minor – You’ll recognize the opening organ lick surely, but the whole thing is a masterpiece. As James said, Bach’s fugues are an adventure in the infinite.
  • (Many of these links, btw, are to reliable interpretations by a gentleman who also uses visuals to help you ‘see’ what is going on. I’ve genuinely found his graphics helpful in visualizing pieces. He’s got over a hundred videos and you can trust that they any of them are worth hearing.)
  • Bach’s cello suites are all great, but the first one – in six parts total- is probably his most famous.
  • Eventually look at Bach’s Mass in b minor, his Brandenburg Concerti (sample here), and his fugues. There’s a reason that he’s considered one of the best.
  • Beethoven’s fifth and ninth symphonies and his own “Great Fugue” is shockingly ‘modern’ and very powerful.
  • Claude Debussy’s Clair de Lune and Arabesque #1 are a great place to start.
  • Among the small group sometimes called the ‘Holy Minimalists,’ I find particularly wonderful John Tavener and Arvo Part. For Tavener, see his The Lamb, Song for Athene, God Is With Us, and Funeral Ikos; For Part, Beatitudes, De Profundis, from Missa Syllabica, the Sanctus, and his organ music, like this.
  • For more sacred music, Tchaikovsky’s Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrystostom is an absolute must. It truly proclaims the Gospel.
  • There’s much more to add. For instance Chopin’s nocturnes and preludes, Rachmaninov’s own Divine Liturgy and Vespers, and his Prelude in c sharp minor, and others. But I don’t want to make this too long.
  • Finally, if you’re on the music program Spotify, I’ve got a few classical lists that you can check out. Just search for Tony Hunt.
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13 Comments

  1. Thanks for these thoughts, Tony. For whatever reasons (good music education classes in public schools among them, I think), I’ve been attracted to classical music since I was very young, and while I enjoyed a few popular songs and artists in my youth and young adulthood (Simon & Garfunkel, Blood Sweat & Tears), that scene has largely passed me by. As I wrote when I shared your post on my Facebook wall, to me, U2 is the spy plane in which Francis Gary Powers was shot down over Russia! But you’re on target when you name some of the “sins” of the classical music world. It’s interesting to observe that, while audiences at orchestra concerts are largely older, the musicians on the stage have a significantly lower median age.

    If you haven’t discovered Angela Hewitt’s piano recordings of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier (two sets of preludes and fugues in every major and minor key–96 “songs” [to use iTunes parlance[ in all), I think they are soul-stirringly incredible.

    Reply

    1. In a college music appreciation class, my teacher was herself a Wagnerian soprano. She sang for us once and utterly filled the room with sound. I almost appreciated Wagner for a second!

      Thanks, though, for the recommendations +Martins. I love me some Bach so I’ll be sure to check them out.

      If I might be so bold, on the ‘pop’ front I’d recommend Sufjan Stevens. He’s a bit out there sometimes, but his Seven Swans album is replete with biblical interpretation. Especially his Abraham, The Transfiguration, To Be Alone With You, and the title track.

      Reply

  2. I am a rabbi with a particular fondness for Baroque Italian Church music. You can’t go wrong with the “i” guys. Monteverdi, Gabrielli, Corelli and even the later Vivaldi. Their treatment of the psalm texts are maginicent – not to overlook the Magnificat’s. Theologically I go with the music up until the Glory be to the Father. Aesthetically I’m there the whole way. There was one Jewish composer of Baroque music that we know of. Salomone Rossi who began at the court of the Duke of Mantua and then went on to work in Venice. His work for the synagogue is also masterful though a bit mpore restrained than his contemporaries. You can get some great examples of his work on you tube. Clergy should not be afraid of these classical pieces – in their harmonic complexities they intimate our shared longing for the peace that transcends all understanding.

    Reply

    1. I can honestly say that this is the first time a rabbi has commented on a blog post of mine. Greetings. As it turns out, Baroque is a period with which I am not at all well acquainted, so these recommendations are heartily and thankfully received. Peace.

      Reply

  3. I grew up in a household where classical music was taken for granted, and so have my children. Results are mixed: my eldest (an excellent singer) is strongly connected to music which, if not classical per se, has lots of classical roots. My daughter has to rebel against any parental taste, at least while we are around.

    One thing I have noticed is that classical writing has pretty much reconquered movie soundtrack writing, to the point where the Baltimore classical station (WBJC) regularly drops soundtracks into the mix without apology. I think this is a positive development because it helps get past the near suicidal modernist phase in which new classical works were actively hostile to normal listening.

    Reply

    1. I totally agree on the soundtrack thing. The question from me was always, “So music to drama on stage, namely opera, is ‘good’ classical; but music to drama on film is beneath the art?” I call bullcrap!

      Reply

    2. I totally agree about suicidal modernism. There definitely should be some music around that’s too weird for Mom, but music should be able to express or challenge the aspirations of mankind, not be an echo chamber for an ever-narrowing circle of iconoclastic snobs.

      Reply

  4. BTW in the “pieces to listen to” department, I would suggest Vaughan Williams’s Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis, which is simply the most beautiful thing ever written for string orchestra.

    Reply

    1. “really boring math problems making love” — perhaps the most important phrase you’ve written to date

      Reply

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