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Rebooting classical music

Rebooting classical music

You probably missed it, but Western Civilisation came to an abrupt end last week. Its end was not due to instability in the worldwide financial market, the wanton destruction of archeologically important antiquities in Palmyra, or even the migrant crisis unfolding across Europe. No, this was a whimper, not a bang: a small-scale marker, indicating the end of the West’s ability to be a cultural force.

What happened was this. I heard someone receive a phone call, and their ringtone was the most famous five bars and eight notes in classical musical history – the short-long-short-long ‘duh-dur-dur-durrr’ opening of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. This in itself might be a little crass, but it actually makes a really ringtone, and didn’t presage the end of Western Civilisation. It’s what I heard after that, spoken by one well-dressed individual to another, which made me realise just how far we have fallen:

“Who uses the Judge Judy theme as a ringtone?”

The other shook his head, not at the idea that one of the most instantly identifiable motifs in all of western music was completely missed by his colleague, more to express incredulity that someone would like the Judge Judy theme so much, they’d put it on their phone.

These were not kids playing dumb, they looked like middle-management types chewing through ‘their lunch’ not ‘the restraints’, and he sounded entirely genuine in his incredulity. There was no understanding that this eight note ‘riff’ was, in fact, one part of one of the cornerstones of classical music. I started thinking of Arthur Dent desperately singing those first five bars to the Vogon guard before being thrown into deep space in The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy. It didn’t have an effect then, it didn’t have one now. Beethoven is just a writer of theme tunes and ringtones.

If you look deeper into the Classical abyss, nothing stares back at you. The majority of Classical music sales are compilations of ‘Classical Chill-Out’ or ‘Mellow Classical Moods’ often played by the likes of André Rieu, Il Divo, or Katherine Jenkins, with five-minute snippets of well-known orchestral music knitted together into one. If you read the ‘blurb’ surrounding such compilations, the composer, conductor, and orchestra are rarely mentioned, just the ‘talent’; the violinist, pianist, or singer. And it’s almost always a violinist, pianist, or singer.

In part, the problem is one of education, or lack of it. A generation ago, school children in the UK and the US used to receive music lessons. While some of those lessons were grudgingly received, they were still lessons… and they rubbed off. While not every school student wound up listening to Brahms on a regular basis, they did at least learn some appreciation of music beyond that in the charts. Music education is now optional in middle, junior high, and high school in the US, although in the UK, the Protect Music Education campaign has managed to successfully preserve music education in schools. However, even this hides a darker tale: UK school funding cuts have reduced the number of children learning an instrument.

Without a basic music education, listener musical attention spans shrink, and that applies to all kinds of music. This is one change we’ve seen hit the audio world hard. It’s a relatively well-known ‘trick’ in audio demonstration circles that if you want to clear a demonstration room, nothing works as fast as ‘difficult’ music. In the past, that meant playing Boulez, Ligeti, or Messiaen, but today that applies to almost any piece of classical music. Even those audiophile staples, such as Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances or Un Bal from Berloz’ Symphony Fantastique, are not popular with much of today’s audio show public, who will leave a room at the first sound of a string section. And yet, classical music played right can be captivating: I’ve seen a room fill with listeners at the sound of a virtuoso violinist playing Paganini.


But why should someone listen to classical music, anyway? In fairness, there is a snobbery surrounding classical music to say that the compositions of a series of Dead White European Males somehow ‘good for you’: the findings of experiments to play Mozart to improve cognitive function have been largely debunked (exposure to musical stimuli is shown to improve cognitive function, but we don’t discriminate… that stimuli could be Mozart, or Metallica). But snobbery aside, listening to classical music often helps enhance your appreciation of the music you like, and can open up appreciation of styles of music you don’t currently like. An appreciation of Bach, for example, comes with an appreciation and understanding of counterpoint, which leads to greater understanding of not just the Beatles and the Beach Boys, but progressive rock, metal, R&B, and especially the inner game of jazz guitar.

Without such an overview, it’s possible to get ‘stuck’ on the music of your youth and struggle to move past the emotional context of that time in your life. There is a tendency to think that there was a magical time in the past when music was sublime (which, surprisingly, occurred somewhere between your eleventh and your twenty-eighth birthday), and the music before that time was ‘leading up to its pinnacle’ and has been ‘on a downturn’ ever since. Discovering that what came before was every bit as passionately created and appreciated is part of the way out of being stuck in time musically.

So, why mention this now? There are three reasons, one entirely personal. In the UK, we’re coming to the end of the annual BBC Proms season (which runs from mid July to mid September), which almost proves me wrong. However, the panning shots round the audience in most of these events show a preponderance of white hair and blue rinses, suggesting the classical audience is not getting any younger. However, the eight-week season of summer concerts are always oversubscribed, and cover the full spectrum of orchestral music from Seth MacFarlane singing the works of Frank Sinatra, to Mark-Anthony Turnage’s structurally-dense On Opened Ground. Every year, this gives the perfect opportunity to capitalise on interest in classical music, and many countries have similar festivals. Second, it’s the start of the academic year, and that makes it the perfect time to encourage children to start learning instruments, and helping them discover there are more instruments worth learning than just the guitar. And on a personal note, one of my ‘gateways’ to classical music – Gilbert & Sullivan’s Pirates of Penzance, with the LSO and the D’Oyly Carte recorded in the late 1950s by Decca – has just been issued for the first time on CD.

There’s no easy solution to the lack of interest in classical music among listeners in general. There is no ‘take two Mozarts and call me in the morning’ prescription to help (although listening to the Carlos Kleiber/Vienna Philharmonic version of the full unplugged version of the Judge Judy theme might be a start), and you can’t force feed people classical music to kick-start their interest – although it works for some six year olds, it certainly doesn’t work on 36 year olds. It needs to be a grass roots thing, involving everyone from audiophiles to music teachers to music lovers in general. And if you have a good system and little or no interest in classical music, it’s a perfect time to learn, especially as great music on CD is available at almost giveaway prices. I’d say start with Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, Bach’s Brandenberg Concertos, Mozart’s Piano Concertos 20 and 21 and maybe Schubert’s ‘Death and the Maiden’ String Quartet.

Horror stories of Grammy-winning classical albums with a few thousand sales abound. It’s time to put a stop to that! Let’s put away the snobbery and the inverted snobbery, and start enjoying hundreds of years of good music.


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