“I am never merry when I hear sweet music.” —Jessica in The Merchant of Venice, Act V, Scene I
Since the triumph of rock n’ roll in the 1960s, the lover of classical music has increasingly found himself a loner in most social circles, his great passion appreciated by an ever-shrinking number of people. This is true even among the educated class; one erudite and quite brilliant man I know who can converse on a wide breadth of topics confessed to me once that he was unable to talk about music, lacking the grammar with which to do so. As Allan Bloom noted in 1987, “classical music is now a special taste, like Greek language or pre-Columbian archaeology, not a common culture of reciprocal communication and psychological shorthand.”
We who love fine music sometimes find ourselves desperately seeking out soul mates when, say, attending a party or academic conference where there are many new faces. In such situations, however, the aficionado is often disappointed by this most frustrating of exchanges, which is all too common:
Aficionado: “I am a big fan of classical music.”
New acquaintance: “Oh, me too!”
Aficionado: (eagerly, getting his hopes up) “Really?”
New acquaintance: “Yes, it’s so relaxing.”
The aficionado is crestfallen. Such a response is worse than the new acquaintance simply expressing his total ignorance of serious music, for the reply equates the greatest, soul-searing pieces of music with modern muzak, or that dreadful stuff played during Yoga sessions.
“Relaxing?” The classical music lover is tempted ask. “Have you ever soared to the heavens during the final movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony? Have you ever cowered in terror before the dreadful opening march of Mahler’s Sixth? Have you ever wept at the desolation of the finale of Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique symphony? Have you ever begged the Almighty for mercy during the Kyrie of Mozart’s Great Mass? Relaxing? I think not!”
Classical music has become for most just another utilitarian product in our commercial society. Like Viagra, Rogaine, ginseng supplements, or regular visits to the masseuse, it can supposedly improve our lives. A quick search on Amazon for “most relaxing classical music” generates 2,146 results, albums with titles like “Most Relaxing Classical Music in the Universe” and “Most Relaxing Vivaldi Album in the World Ever” (who judges these things?). But classical music is not just for relaxation anymore! It has another useful benefit: It makes you smarter, especially if you are still in utero. According to several “scientific” studies over the last couple of decades, Mozart especially seems to have written with an ear toward improving the brainpower of babes. Thus you can purchase CDs titled “Mozart Makes You Smarter,” “Mozart for Mothers-to-Be,” and an entire series called “The Mozart Effect: Music for Babies.” Frankly, I do not care if listening to Mozart does make me or my kids smarter. It is an added benefit if it does, I suppose, but I listen to music because it is simply beautiful—and I hold, the highest form of beauty—and gives me great pleasure. This is sufficient in itself.
Enjoyment of such beauty in the modern world, however, is often a friendless pursuit. C.S. Lewis once described friendship as the love of two people for common things. “Friendship is born at that moment,” Lewis wrote, “when one person says to another: “What! You too? I thought I was the only one.” Lewis used the visual image of two friends standing shoulder to shoulder, looking at the same beloved object (in contrast to lovers whose object of affection is each other and who thus stand face to face). But today, the classical music lover is looked up largely as an exotic, someone who speaks a foreign tongue, and broaching the subject of good music is more often than not a conversation killer.
Whereas once upon a time the common culture of fine music brought people together, today it tends to separates people in several ways. Technology has been a prime culprit in isolating the music lover. It has made every man his own oracle, who can commune in private with Clio through the use of unobtrusive earbuds, which provide easy access to ever-present music through the mechanisms of the mp3 player and the “cloud.” Lost is the necessity, for the musically-trained, of seeking out companionship to play a duet or trio, and for the untrained to go to the opera house with fellow enthusiasts. Music may indeed be experienced in its full glory in isolation, and I, for one, do not decry its easy access, but something of the communal experience had been lost here. Ubiquitous pleasure has its costs.
Technology has also created a proliferation of recorded interpretations of nearly every classical work ever penned. In the case of popular works like Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” or Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, listeners can choose from hundreds of possible interpretations. In the age before recorded sound, classical music aficionados might argue about the merits of this or that favorite soloist or conductor, but typically the discussion was about the music itself. The challenge for the musical novice today is that he must be versed in, at a minimum, the most widely esteemed recordings of the standard repertoire in order to participate in any in-depth discussion of music. The aficionado feels even more isolated when he discovers that so very few novices can hold their ground in such a discussion.
Some might say that the lover of Aeschylus’ plays, Dickinson’s poetry, or Faulkner’s novels faces a similar challenge in this iconoclastic age. Though I suppose that connoisseurs of literature may argue about the best translation of a work originally written in another language and dramatists may debate the particular performance of a certain actor in a famous role, such discussions are not elemental to the discussion of the work in question. In the age of recording, classical music appreciation is inextricably tied, for good or ill, to this debate about whose interpretation of a piece is superior.
With the decline of music education in America, many, like my erudite acquaintance mentioned above, lack the ability to speak about serious music in meaningful ways. Of course to speak about music at all is difficult to begin with. “Music begins where the possibilities of language end,” composer Jean Sibelius said. It expresses depths of emotion that transcend mere language. It is the language of the soul, and even the great poets cannot fathom its depths. Compounding the problem is that, despite clumsy attempts to popularize classical music through horrid “crossover” albums and perverse, modernized opera staging, the “general listener” is generally lost today in terms of understanding and appreciating the music he hears, even if he can be goaded into entering the symphony hall or opera house. More than ever before, today there is a desperate need for a master conductor/musicologist who possesses both the professional stature and the innate ability to speak about music in a manner intelligible and enticing to the masses. Leonard Bernstein and his “Young People’s Concerts” have no modern successor, and thus today’s unlettered listeners, no master teacher.
In the end, then, the modern classical music enthusiast resides in a veritable wasteland of musical ignorance. Like the subject of Friedrich’s “Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog,” he is consigned to roam the world, an isolated soul, seeking out those few compatriots with whom he may converse and, indeed, commune.
Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.