On classical music and listening culture

The other day I found myself in the electronics section at Wal-Mart, as we all do from time to time. In the holiday $5 CD bin there was a “classical favourites” disc. The formula for these CDs is familiar even if you’ve never listened to one: shoddy performances by God knows who. Single movements of symphonies, Brandenburg concertos, and pieces by obscure Baroque one-hit wonders. Famous opera arias, little piano pieces that have become cell phone ringtones. If they’re feeling really fancy there might be a complete overture.

These CDs mine the classical repertoire for pieces that are simple and tuneful in construction, or single movements of pieces that are neither simple nor tuneful but whose opening bars are sufficiently famous to hold the listener’s attention for a few minutes. It is impossible to get enough of this kind of material without taking things out of context, so we see extracts and unrepresentative miniatures.

My dad, incidentally a fan of this kind of music, hates most classical music written post-1900 and likes things that are “melodic”, a word he pronounces so that the middle syllable rhymes with “go”. “Melodic” music, pronounced this way, has become for me a catch-all term for the kind of music that appears on these classical favourites collections.

I would like to suggest that there is a “melodic” listener to correspond with “melodic” music. If I may be brazenly offensive: these listeners were raised on the pop music of the later 20th century, and so are very comfortable with verse-chorus structure and find it difficult to conceive of musical form beyond the span of two minutes and forty-two seconds. They are mostly middle-aged and affluent, hungry for the cultural experiences that used to mark a person as aesthetically sophisticated—though they lack the knowledge and confidence in their judgments that such sophistication entails. When about to listen to anything new, they need to be endlessly persuaded that they needn’t be afraid of it.

I would be remiss if I spent too much time whaling on “melodic” listeners, since I have already admitted that it’s a strain that runs in my own family. Though they can be frustrating, they are hardly to blame for their own predicament. I hope to eventually address the ways in which the classical music establishment fails these listeners—who are, if nothing else, eager—but it is necessary first to discuss their misconceptions in a little more detail.

Melody is not as important to classical music as you might think. Of course, it is said that if you take away the surface-level decoration of any symphony you will end up with a four-part chorale—this idea is important to the Schenkerian school that holds sway in present-day music theory. And the appeal of Beethoven’s symphonies, according to Wagner, is that each movement is an extended melody breathless from beginning to end.

But the Schenkerian chorale melodies are not actually audible to the listener—they are helpful theoretical tools for understanding how a piece of music is built, but the interesting parts of a composition are the bits you strip away to arrive at these pure melodies. And although Wagner is right that the human voice is the paradigm of musical expression, Beethoven’s genius, and the project of the symphony orchestra in general, is to take what the human voice can produce and do things with it that one can scarcely imagine singing.

The listener who wishes all classical music were structured more or less like “The Quartermaster Song” will find little solace in mainstream music theory or musical philosophy. Nor will the repertoire be of much use to him, which is why he feels the need to prune it so ruthlessly.

Beethoven’s “Eroica” symphony is surely a great piece of classical music. Yet the opening theme of the first movement is pretty uninspiring and unhummable as a tune. It’s just a major arpeggio, an elemental fact of tonal composition. The second theme, which the textbooks tell us ought to be more lyrical and songlike, is even worse. What these two themes have in common is that they are motivically and contrapuntally versatile—that is, you can do a lot with them, but only over the course of a twenty-minute symphonic movement.

It’s actually quite difficult to write a symphony using well-known tunes, since they are almost exactly the wrong shape for motivic and contrapuntal development. The best you can do in quasi-classical composition is “develop” the themes by setting them in various styles, eventually juxtaposing them in a brassy culmination, as in Frank Ticheli’s band arrangement of “Loch Lomond” (which, strangely, pairs it with “Danny Boy”).

What the “melodic” listeners tend to do when listening to the genuinely major works of the classical repertoire is latch onto the one well-known bit that is hummable and forget about the nine minutes of noodly bits that come after it and are seamlessly connected to it. Self-deception and the desire for prestige, which the middle-aged middle class has in abundance, take care of the rest.

Proper classical music is a long-form art in which sonic objects, arising in many different voices, interact in various complex and dramatic ways in a theatre of sound. Without denying the achievements of the great miniaturists like Grieg, Chopin, Mendelssohn, and Scriabin, I think it’s fair to say that the paradigm of classical music is the long-range forms that we find in the sonata, the symphony, the quartet, and the concerto.

For someone whose only reference points are 20th century pop, Western classical music, and jazz, it it sometimes surprising to learn that this “theatre of sound” aspect of Western classical music makes it almost unique among world musical traditions. The manner of listening appropriate to this kind of music is, therefore, also unique.

The tradition of listening to classical music while sitting in silence in acoustically ideal conditions is somewhat new, and it’s hard to overstate how unusual it is. I have read that a meditative silence is the usual mode of listening to Indian classical music, and I wouldn’t be surprised if there were similarly elevated traditions elsewhere in southern Asia, but the folk music of the world is usually taken the way modern pop music is—as a full-body experience, with dancing and singing, a background element to the simple pleasures of communal life (or the base pleasures of decadent modernity, depending who you ask).

Inattentive listening is a mode very appropriate to pop and folk music, which are generally the unfiltered expressions of a particular culture’s attitudes. But Western classical music is different in that it examines folk and pop traditions in a self-conscious way. It gives us access not just to dance but to the abstract concept of “the dance”. We can say without impugning the value of pop music that classical music is greatly enriched by the listening culture. Without ritual silence, classical concerts are nothing more than antiquarian wig-wearing and we’d be better off without them.

So when we are told that the classical concert experience is too stifling for the modern listener, that we ought to open it up to cell phone addicts and Randy Bachman, I am inclined to raise an eyebrow. The only reason to listen to this music is because it rewards active listening. Those who are uninterested in active listening will find a classical concert to be inferior to a good rock concert, and they’ll be right.

I agree with everyone else in saying that classical concerts are in need of reform, but too many of the suggestions out there are the reforms of people who don’t like classical music, designed to change the concert experience into something other than what it properly is in a transparent attempt to make concerts appeal to people who will never wish to go to them. This is not a good way to protect the future of classical music.

Or, to put it better, this is not a good way to build a classical music whose future is worth protecting.

Photo credit: Angelique1996, CC Attribution-Share Alike 3.0.

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