“One of the most unexpected results of my endeavours so far has been the discovery of the fact that people tend to lie when it comes to classical music. They lie a lot. And they don’t expect you to challenge them – nobody usually does. Probably no one ever has. It’s older people who are the liars. It always happens after I explain what I’m writing about. The older person replies – weightily, sniffily, authoritatively – that they have a deep and passionate love and appreciation of classical music. This is put across in a tone so grimly superior that any further delving into the nature of this love and appreciation is expressly forbidden; indeed, you insult them if you dare to attempt to pierce this profound, rapturous sheen with any more of your impertinent vulgarity. But that’s where the fun starts. One must doff one’s metaphorical cap and respectfully reply: ‘What do you like?’
You get a thick wad of stern, disapproving silence, and then a withering: ‘Beethoven’.
Silence. Suitably ‘awed’, you must continue: ‘And what is it that you love about Beethoven so?’
But, shit, you’ve already gone too far. They know sod all about Beethoven. So you try to lighten the mood by talking about what you like and why; and going into detail, to show that you’re not taking the piss or anything. And be humble. While you are saying all this, their solemn, blank expression betrays that they have no idea what you’re talking about and really wish you’d rather shut up. Soon – completely ignoring everything you’ve just said – they close their eyes and rapturously say ‘Beethoven’ again, the same as before. And it’s right there that you suddenly realise, with shock and a little anger, that this older person is just making it up. He doesn’t care about music at all. He’s just saying he likes classical because it’s his generational duty to do so. All he really wants to say is that he despises popular music and all of its cultural trappings and, by association, you with it, actually. And you can suddenly see this, and feel rather foolish and cruel for having squeezed this out of them in this squalid way. You’d be astonished though – really – it happens all the time.
– Seb Hunter, Rock Me Amadeus, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Handel.
It’s not though, is it? Classical, I mean. ‘Classical’, of course, refers to the music of a particular epoch, one that roughly spans from the death of Bach (1750) to the death of Beethoven (1827). Haydn, Mozart, Schubert, et al – that’s classical. Chopin? Romantic mate. That choral from The Omen? Sorry chum – that’s modern. The Four Seasons? As Baroque as you like. The generally preferred nom de plum is ‘Western Art Music’. Anyone, though, who answers “Western Art Music” to the question “what music do you like then?” will immediately sound like a complete and utter twat. Besides which, in today’s internationalist and polyglot musical landscape, ‘Western Art Music’ is a designation that is losing much of its explanatory power. The music may have emerged from (and still be deeply rooted in) the Western liturgical and secular tradition, but it has evolved so far and spread so wide that to label it – protectively, exclusively – ‘Western’ seems short-sighted at best, and xenophobic at worst. So it seems we’re stuck using this nagging misnomer; a name that causes more problems than it solves due to the weighty and cumbersome cultural baggage it carries around with itself like a harassed and over-prepared single parent of quadruplets. New Yorker critic Alex Ross – who has done as much as anybody in trying to bring down the walls separating ‘popular’ and ‘classical’ music – lamented this fact in a recent essay. “I hate “classical music””, he wrote, “not the thing but the name”. Declaring it a “masterpiece of negative publicity, a tour de force of anti-hype”, he goes on to bemoan certain attitudes that have helped resign the music to the relatively parochial cultural backwater where it currently resides. “When people hear “classical,” they think “dead””, he rages. The name, “traps a tenaciously living art in a theme park of the past”, it, “…is described in terms of its distance from the present, its resistance to the mass – what it is not.” It must, in other words, be bought back to life. The debate surrounding this irksome, burdensome label does go right to the heart of the problem, that is to say, right to the root of the pop fan’s fear of all things classical. The average pop fan cowers at the classical edifice, afraid of feeling small and inferior in front of the big names that loom over them like some musical Mt. Rushmore. Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms – these names denote more than just music: they denote History, Tradition, Intellect, Taste, and Civilisation; they carry a weight that most pop fans find unapproachable. Classical music occupies an unfortunate position in our culture; widely misunderstood because of the disfiguring effect of its extra-musical phenomena. In other words, the very phenomena that prevent people from listening to this music – it turns out – are not musical, but attitudinal.
The first attitude you are likely to encounter on your journey into the world of composers and compositions is the one essayed above – those who know nothing about classical music but (assuming the rarefied air surrounding it automatically imbibes them with a cultural superiority which they would otherwise be lacking) claim that they do. This is a broad church – encompassing those who think it is their “generational duty” to say so, as well as those aspirational social climbers of the lower middle-classes who so often form the backbone of British situation comedy. Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant captured this beautifully in a scene from The Office Christmas special. Brent, on an excruciating blind date, is asked about the fact that on his dating agency form he said he liked classical music:
WOMAN: Who do you like?
DAVID BRENT: All the big ones: all the big names.
WOMAN: I love Grieg.
DAVID BRENT: Oh, he’s good aint he, yeah. Not as good as Beethoven though – I think he’s generally considered to be the best: Beethoven.
WOMAN: Which Beethoven do you like?
DAVID BRENT: All of them, all his main hits, yeah, yeah, yeah…Totally deaf, aint he? And all the…I’m a, I’m a musician myself, and all those stuff he came up with, I don’t think he could’ve done better if he could’ve heard what he was playing, in my opinion.
The main problem with this bunch lies not with them in particular (people who harbour such attitudes are idiots, which is why we laugh at them) but in the fact that any declaration of the kind that lately you’ve been partaking in a little Debussy will often be received in the self same light. People are so used to the idea that others use classical music to advertise a certain status, that they automatically assume you are doing the same. My partner told me recently that she was listening to Gorecki’s sublime Symphony No.3 (‘Symphony of Sorrowful Songs’) on her lunch break and had to endure comment after comment of “ooh, look at you, listening to classical music eh?” You can’t actually enjoy this music, is the implication, you can’t actually be moved by it, oh no, you’re just trying to show off how refined and intellectual and superior you are to everybody.
Next to these, and related to them, are what I would call the ‘lite’ listeners. These people usually do know a few pieces: they listen to the occasional bit of Classic FM; they have a few ‘best of’ c.ds of the usual suspects; they buy ‘cross-over’ acts by the likes of Katherine Jenkins and the interminable Ill Divo; they read The Daily Mail (probably). Collectively, these people form what my friends and I like to term the “I like classical – it’s relaxing” brigade. They form their taste around classical music’s ‘big hits’, and have the unfortunate habit of choosing the only the prettiest ‘nuggets’ from the repertoire. Theirs is the world of Beethoven’s ‘Moonlight’ sonata (but only the first movement thanks), of Mozart’s Piano concerto No.21 (the 2nd movement please), of Bach’s Air on a G String (not the whole suite obviously). While I hold no grudge against those who seek out this lighter, more popular side of the spectrum, I can’t help feeling those who see the literature only in terms of its ability to sooth are doing it a grave disservice by refusing to engage, acknowledge, or validate the wider spectrum of music that makes classical the highly rewarding art form it is. Alex Ross has met this type of listener too, and sees how they, well, don’t really get it: “I don’t identify with the listener who responds to the “Eroica” by saying, “Ah, civilisation.” That wasn’t what Beethoven wanted: his intention was to shake the European mind. I don’t listen to music to be civilised; sometimes I listen precisely to escape the ordered world.” Or as (the wonderfully named) Fred Plotkin observes: “It is highly unfortunate that classical music station owners in many major American cities claim that their audiences only want classical “lite”, those little snatches of Baroque music or single movements from a sonata or symphony. The real reason is that by playing shorter pieces of music, more advertising can be inserted in each hour.” While there certainly is much that is relaxing (and even civilised) in the classical cannon, marketing the music for its supposed soporific values while consuming it in a ‘choice cuts’ fashion doesn’t even begin to tell the bigger story, and hems this vast, glorious and unwieldy musical continuum into a narrow, and therefore self-defeating, demographic corner (The Rite of Spring – relaxing? Gruppen – Total chill-out?). Universal Music, advertising their latest crossover title (a c.d of Gregorian chant imaginatively titled Chant), embody this spirit to an absurd degree. “Go back”, the voiceover lugubriously intones while monks in long, white robes drift serenely across the television screen, “to a time of peace.” Excuse me? The Medieval era? A time of peace? I must be reading the wrong history books.
The next obstacle you might have to face is an even more dispiriting one. This concerns those who do know their classical; in fact, they know their classical inside and out and would rather you didn’t, thank you very much. This is, after all, what allows them to cultivate fictive notions of cultural superiority in the first place: it is precisely because classical music is a niche market that it has the room to think itself ‘above’ the mainstream. ‘Specialist’ commodities are consumed in large part because their consumers believe they really are special, and that the very act of consumption makes, by extension, them special. Cultural isolationism merely allows them to maintain that illusion. Ross reserves most of his ire for this latter bunch: “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,” he charges. These, “discerning souls…believe that the music should be marketed as a luxury good, one that supplants an inferior popular product. They say, in effect, “The music you love is trash. Listen instead to our great, arty music.” They gesture toward the heavens, but they speak the language of high-end real estate.” The reason many people fail to engage with classical music is, he concludes, “because they have forgotten to define the music as something worth loving.” There is that, but it’s also perfectly apparent that despite the proclamations to the contrary that regularly issue forth from the classical world, many among them probably quite like the fact that ‘their’ music eludes mass-popularity.
I only recognise the type because they exist in the popular music fandom as well. In fact, I probably used to be one: bemoaning the fact that none of my friends ‘got’ Trout Mask Replica, all the while feeling smugly superior about this fact, little realising that it was only because they didn’t like it that I could be so smug in the first place. If everybody did dig Beefheart all of a sudden, I would have had to find some other, more esoteric work to alienate them all with. Fortunately, I’m over all that, and long past the place where I believed having the ability to appreciate difficult art made me better, somehow, than those that couldn’t or wouldn’t. Concert halls, orchestras, players and conductors may therefore talk about “reaching out” and being “inclusive”, but many in their audience would probably be horrified if everybody suddenly dropped their Pop Idol and began turning up en masse at concert halls and wandering into specialist classical music shops.
Anyone who has tentatively ventured into one of these latter places will have experienced this mind-set first-hand. You wander in full of hope, thinking, “I’m gonna buy some classical for a change. I don’t know what I’m doing, but I’m sure the man behind the counter will help me find something I like”. As soon as you’re inside though, you quickly realise your mistake. Upon entering the man behind the counter glares at you as if to say, “do you realise where you are? Have you wandered in here by mistake? Would you like me to show you the way out?” You find yourself gazing around at the dizzying sight of tons of strange names and unfamiliar terms, the man’s gaze burning into the back of your neck the whole time. You try to remember the name of something you like, but can’t think. You feel hopelessly out of your depth. You leave empty handed.
Seb Hunter – from whose wonderful account of his attempts to penetrate the cloistered world of classical music I quoted from at the top of the page – is acutely aware of this problem from the outset of his journey:
When I was growing up, classical music was the ultimate aspirational art form: you had to try and raise your game in the presence of it. Classical was, we were solemnly told, the absolute pinnacle of human expression: no explanation necessary – just trust us on this one. I want to know if it’s worth all the effort. Because effort does seem to be a big part of this; they’ve made getting into classical music difficult on purpose; they’ve made it look the most boring thing in the whole world so that we never come sniffing. They want to keep us out. Well, I’m sorry, I want to come in. I love music, see. And I’ve reached a stage in my life where it’s time to try and love classical music too, even if it doesn’t particularly want to love me back.
If anything attests to the power of the invisible barriers keeping potential converts at bay, it’s the preponderance of such ‘how-to’ manuals promising to rid the music of its impenetrable aura of mystique. You’ll notice a distinct lack of such books dealing with pop music. Pop and classical are simply two musical languages among many, but the reason people don’t have to be taught how to listen to popular music is because they are steeped in it from an early age, whereas their exposure to the language of classical comes to them mediated largely via t.v, film, and advertising, if at all. The language of pop is second nature to most people; they don’t have to think about it at all because it is their accepted idiom. Consequently the seldom heard language of classical comes across as ‘foreign’ – difficult and strange, and impeccably associated with a set of received notions regarding its relevance (or relative lack thereof) born from the distorting lens of mass-media representation.
An analogy here can be drawn with the state of modern poetry. Poetry, like classical music, requires its own special kind of concentration. Unfortunately this concentration is the kind of determined effort that we simply aren’t very good at anymore. Quite obviously, the less effort we put into familiarising ourselves with an artistic language, the more difficult it is for us to understand; the less exposure we have to an unfamiliar tongue, the more foreign it sounds. During the 20th Century both poetry and classical music saw the hegemonic hold they had on their respective idioms, along with their most cherished notions of cultural superiority, seriously challenged by the rise of mass-literacy, the electrification of sound, and the new popular art forms like jazz and the cinema. Modernism arose, in part, as a reaction to this, but only succeeded in severing the popular audience for contemporary poetry and classical music almost completely: Elliot’s Wasteland and Schoenberg’s Five Pieces for Orchestra being as much to do with a deliberate excluding of the masses as with any high-minded desire to ‘make it new’ or any ‘crisis of tonality’. Neither art form fully recovered, and today both are prisoners of their reputation: languishing in near invisibility at the margins of the wider culture. Both are still vibrant, living art forms, though neither has mass-appeal outside of their ‘dead’ past; some are even surprised that there is still such a thing as contemporary poetry or music being created. Both are seen as archaic, difficult, ‘posh’, pompous, and – fatally – boring.
All of which is a crying shame. I am often confronted with people telling me, with a defensive pride, that they “don’t know anything about poetry”. When I point out to them that we’ve come way past modernist obscurantism, and that there is much contemporary poetry they would not only instantly understand, but also find beautiful, thought-provoking, and life-affirming, they are genuinely surprised. Similarly, the sights and sounds of the classical world are not nearly so alien as most people imagine. One of the early joys of listening to classical is this very realisation: the ‘oh, I know this!’ effect. After all, there isn’t one single area of classical music that hasn’t been raked over for use and abuse by advertisers and filmmakers eager to manipulate our moods and expectations. Consequently, we have all heard the music of the Medieval, Renaissance, Baroque, Classical, Romantic, and even Modern periods, whether we realise it or not. We just don’t know it, is all. We don’t know it because we’ve only ever heard them: we’ve never really listened them. And as every talented, thoughtful listener knows – there’s a big difference between mere hearing and proper listening.
Proper listening is not a passive experience: it requires active engagement and concentration. Though there is more music being played, recorded, and heard now than at any time in human history, people are – paradoxically – listening less and less. We are swamped in sound: steeped in music. It’s all around us nearly every second of the day, sound-tracking every aspect of our existence, and yet, with our busy lifestyles, we are more often than not doing something else – like driving or doing housework or sending email – while this music is on. Music is therefore relegated to the background of our day to day existence; leaving it to merge into the cacophonous symphony that is contemporary life; one consumer “lifestyle” choice among many (I drive this car, wear this watch, listen to this kind of music). Consequently, sustained, concentrated listening, especially in the kind of time-spans required to get anything out of classical music at all, is becoming rarer and rarer. The music fan who sets about listening to a piece of music as you would read a book, or watch a film (i.e. by devoting your entire attention to the music and to the music alone) is a rare beast indeed. So while it must be a continual source of irritation to ‘true’ classical lovers that many of the most cherished pieces in the cannon have become inextricably associated in the popular imagination with adverts for chocolate and scenes from Hollywood blockbusters, such exposure is better than none. It can provide a first step and way in for the nervous and uninitiated. As Stephen Fry put it:
It used to be said the sign of an intellectual was someone who could hear the William Tell Overture and not think of the [Lone Ranger]. Well, personally, I don’t mind people linking it. To me it just says classical music is getting out there, people are hearing it, whereas, were you to get all precious about it, then many of them wouldn’t be hearing it. And how is that better? Exactly. These days you might say the same about the Hamlet cigar ad. Some people only know Bach’s Orchestral Suite No.3 because of the Hamlet ad. But is that a bad thing? If the alternative – and it almost certainly would be the alternative – is that they don’t know the Orchestral Suite No.3 at all, then give me the former, any day.
Still, such exposure is not without its problems. We all too readily stop listening when we think we know something already. It can also be quite difficult to get past the kinds of thoughts and images that involuntary enter the mind as you listen to a particularly famous passage. Who now, for instance, can hear the opening bars to Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra without seeing earthrises, monoliths and men in monkey costumes? The first couple of times I tried Bach all I could see were ladies and gents dressed up in period attire, dancing at some banquet, as if I was watching some BBC costume drama. It took a good while before I could bypass these received images and create my own mental and emotional connections to the music: that happened when I was attentively listening to the astonishing harpsichord cadenza during the first movement of the 5th Brandenburg Concerto (“oh my God,” I thought, “that’s like techno!”). Afterwards it felt as though I had turned a key in my mind; one that had unlocked the secret of Bach in particular, and Baroque music more generally. The rest was plain-sailing. Now my mornings rarely go by without The Goldberg Variations, or Well Tempered Clavier.
All of which is to say that the pop fan who wishes to rid himself of the fear of classical must do two things. Firstly learn how to apply concentration, that is, they must learn to sustain avid attention over long periods at a time. This can be quite difficult at first – a mind used to taking in musical information in the kind of short, repetitive bursts that generally make up the language of popular music will tend to wander when asked to take in the slowly unwinding, through-line language of a classical symphony. This isn’t anything to worry about as it gets easier. You’re not doing anything wrong – it just takes practise. Secondly, and far more importantly, you must find a way of forming a relationship with the music. What I mean by that is you have to reach a point where classical music no longer seems to “belong” to other people, but to you. That will only happen when some of the music gets through to you: entering the mind and piercing the flesh, becoming part of your thoughts, inseparable from your memories, as much a part of your mental life as your friends and lovers. I am lucky enough in my life to have met a handful of influential friends who have helped spur my interest in culture into new, undreamed of areas. One of them, a self taught pianist, introduced me a few years ago to Beethoven’s late piano sonatas. This is music I knew nothing about, but instantly understood. I knew Beethoven straddled the classical and romantic eras but to me parts of this music sounded almost modern. They struck me as the sound of a composer straining against the limitations of his idiom, and reminded me – however tenuous you consider this connection – of late period Hendrix at his most free-flowing and exploratory. But it was more than just the music. My friend expressed similar reservations to those outlined above, to the point where he was even reluctant to admit of his love of Beethoven for fear of being taken as a David Brent. What he and I had to do, he said, was “wrestle this music from those bastards hands”. His encouragement was the first pin-prick in the bubble of my own personal fear of classical, and he said something to me that I’ll never forget: “Beethoven wrote this music for you and me.”
The afore mentioned Alex Ross admits later in his same essay that he is “a thirty-six-year old white American male who first started listening to popular music at the age of twenty,” and how alongside his primary love of classical this, “seems strange; perhaps “freakish” is not too strong a word.” He writes of how his tastes remained firmly in the classical camp until he began to cross swords with fellow students and that only then, he admits, “did my musical fortress crumble.” The punk rockers who followed his classical show on the college radio station played the kind of eviscerating sounds that bare an uncanny resemblance to the more esoteric end of 20th Century avant-garde composition. He, “crept from underground rock to alternative rock to the full-out commercial kind…I abandoned the notion of classical superiority, which led to a crisis of faith: if the music wasn’t great and serious and high and mighty, what was it?” Ross has said elsewhere that he wrote his recent bestseller The Rest is Noise: Listening to the 20th Century with an eye towards anyone who might wish to make the opposite journey from rock to classical, and funnily enough my own tastes have followed almost exactly the reverse trajectory to his. The first piece of classical music that meant anything to me was The Rite of Spring. I thought this was the most thrilling, balls-to-the-wall, rock ‘n’ roll riot I’d ever heard (still do, actually). I have also, over the decade or so I’ve spent as a serious listener picked up several records by some of the more outré sounding composers of the 20th Century – Ives, Stockhausen, Varese. I also managed to find work by the American minimalists Riley, Reich, and Glass. These were all records I had invested in because I had read of their influence on various art-rockers (Frank Zappa, The Velvet Underground, Pere Ubu, Brian Eno, David Bowie, Krautrock and Post-Punk). After my Beethoven breakthrough I began to explore other piano music by Debussy and Satie, but I was only making small steps, and still confined 99% of listening to my beloved rock, pop and jazz. At the beginning of the year all that changed, and for the past six months or so I’ve listened to an almost exclusive diet of classical music. At the moment this shows no sign of stopping.
It’s hard to say what bought about this change. I turned thirty last year, but I don’t think that’s it: this happened organically, it wasn’t a conscious decision. Three things certainly helped: I found a series of excellent boxed sets of classical music in Oxfam, and rather than have them just sit on the shelf like that guy’s set of leather bound Shakespeare in Abigail’s Party (“of course, not something that you can actually read”), I promised myself I would actually give them a proper listen; I left my job, which has given me the time to listen at length to hundreds of pieces of music; and Ross’ book came out, which has not only introduced me to a wide range of 20th Century sound, but has opened my ears to classical music more generally by sheer dint of its unbridled enthusiasm for sound. After losing myself in the sounds of Schoenberg, Messaien, Penderecki, Arvo Part, and the composers of the fin-de-siècle like Debussy, Ravel, and Strauss, I began coming up the rear, so to speak, by exploring Medieval chant, Hildegard von Bingen, and later Renaissance choral music like Thomas Tallis. I fell in love with Baroque music a couple of months ago. I guess I must be familiar with around 200 or so pieces, and on good terms with a hundred or so of those.
All in all, it has been like discovering music all over again. A whole new sound world has opened up to me, and I’ve had my mind blown and my senses thrilled over and over and over again. I’m discovering composers all the time, falling in love with new pieces almost daily, and consistently discovering fresh things in the pieces I like already. I have had all the prejudices I once held about this music knocked out of me one by one: music I’d once thought would hold no more than archaic, historical interest (such as Bach) has turned out to be amongst the most emotionally effecting; areas of the repertoire I once thought would hold no interest (such as English composition) has been amongst the most consistently surprising. My latest revelation has been Elgar – after Britten and Vaughan Williams, I thought I’d find Elgar boring or stuffy. After all, he is held up to be the epitome of buttoned-up, emotionally crippled Edwardian chapdom. Then I heard the Cello Concerto and almost wept. Elgar, in other words, is like Boris Johnson: you know you shouldn’t like something so right-wing, but you just do. I realise that despite all this I am just a beginner, and that there are huge gaps in my knowledge. Indeed, at the moment the classical and romantic eras elude me somewhat – I only know and like a handful of pieces, and I’ve yet to get my head around what they’re truly about in musical terms. I also realise that – as I’ve yet to attended a live performance of classical music – I’ve only experienced half the story. One of the hardest ideas to get your head around as a beginner is that of performance practise. For not only do you have to familiarise yourself with composers and their compositions (the titles of which, confusingly, are often written in strange code – for example: Adagio ma non tanto from Concerto No.6 in B flat major, BVW 1051), you also have to acquaint yourself with all those conductors, orchestra’s and solo performers who have left us almost a century’s worth of great recordings with which to compare and contrast the surprisingly intricate and subtle differences in recording and interpretation. This really is a world of virtuosos and geniuses. It’s a lot to take in. Ignorance notwithstanding, there is one thing which attests to my ultimate triumph – I’ve completely lost the fear. By now I know enough about classical music to know that I know nothing, but whereas the sheer wealth of classical music out there used to seem like an impenetrable barrier (where do I begin?), it now seem thrilling beyond belief. There’s a lifetime’s listening in this stuff, and you’ll only ever scrape the surface. It is something to contemplate what is essentially a vast 1000 year old musical continuum, and understand, as a listener, your small but essential part in it. Forget the snobs and bullshitters – this music belongs to everybody. It’s there if you want it.