Saturday, November 15, 2014
Why Classical Music Is Unpopular
This week, a colleague of mine summarized the work a portion of Joseph Pieper’s work “Leisure: The Basis of Culture” with the words “for the ancients…true and pure leisure is attained the moment we no longer have to work to conform our mind to truth, our will to goodness, and our emotions to beauty.” The implication in this statement is that our minds, wills, and emotions are not always naturally inclined toward the Transcendentals. In the place of truth, goodness, and beauty we gravitate toward lesser things. These lesser things may participate to some degree in truth, goodness, and beauty, but not in their fullness. What is it that that causes us to accept that which is less than ideal and substitute it with something less?
Perhaps one reason for this is that we often choose the simple over the more complex. This is not to say that simplicity is not sometimes to be preferred. Indeed, I have found it to be so. A Robert Frost poem and one by T.S. Eliot each have their place and I love both. And while my goal is not to demean Frost, he is, objectively speaking, much easier to understand on first blush than Eliot is. T.S, Eliot requires you to read, reread, and read again in order to even begin broaching the depth of his thoughts. The complexity of Ash Wednesday dwarfs that of the Road Not Taken. As such, it requires time, effort, and thought to appreciate its subtleties. My argument is that we are often not willing to give these and that that is particularly true in the realm of music.
Flipping through my radio stations is sometimes an exercise in futility. Rhyming phrases devoid of meaning, strong sexual overtones, or thoughtless drivel are common. These are then set to oft repeated chord structures, boring instrumentation, and melodies which lack creativity. Before I go further, allow me to say that this is not intended as a blanket condemnation of modern music. I’m more than happy to listen to Bastille’s Pompeii, I own Celine Dion’s greatest hits CD, and I’ve been known to say or sing “Turn Down for What” when I am excited about something. Musically and lyrically, however, these songs pale in comparison to what we broadly call “Classical” music. Yet, love for classical music appears from all my experience to be at an all time low. Why? As hinted at above, learning to love classical music requires time, effort, and thought. It is rarely easy listening. But I would argue that acquiring the musical knowledge necessary to enjoying this music and immersion in it will, in time, produce a deep love for its beauty which you will not always have to strive for; it will become natural.
Structure is important to classical music. And it isn’t as simple as “Verse-Chorus-Verse-Chorus-Bridge-Key Change-Final Chorus” There are Rondos, Sonata Form, A-B Form, Theme and Variation and several other prominent forms which classical music takes. Understanding which you are listening to can help you organize in your mind what you are hearing. If you are listening to choral music, recognizing the process of text painting will enlighten your understanding. This does require study of historical musical trends and of basic music fundamentals, but again, appreciating the beauty present in this music takes time and effort. For instance, in Beethoven’s Mass in C in the Credo, three E-flat chords, each dotted-half notes, precede the line “Deum de Deo, Lumen de Lumine” that is “God of God, Light of Light”. The phrase is one which helps explain the Divinity of Christ. It is thus a reference to the truth that while God is one, he is also more than one, that is, he is Three Persons. Three chords, each three beats, one note in each measure, perfectly conveys the idea, through the music, that God is Three and yet One. Further, the fact that Beethoven used E-Flat is significant. For Beethoven it is the key of royalty. The Eroica symphony, dedicated to Napolean, was written in E-Flat. The Emperor Piano Concerto is written in E-Flat. This seemingly innocuous transition between phrases in the Creed is teeming with symbolism. It is a musical painting of the text. But gleaning this means years of study. In addition to learning various structures and text painting, one should also study the differences between homophonic and polyphonic music, the nationalism of Romantic music, and so many other aspects.
The likelihood of this though is small. For many, the work required to appreciate the beauty is overwhelming and admittedly, it doesn’t happen overnight. But if you have enough patience to immerse yourself in it, and can take the time to learn even some of the background and fundamentals that make up classical music, your appreciation for its depth, quality, and complexity will soar. My oldest son, whose musical tastes are generally not my own (and that’s alright) has, through repeated exposure, come to love the musical/pop opera Les Miserables. This music is not classical, but it is decidedly more complex and intricate than most of what he listens to. I have been listening to Puccini’s La Boheme of late and was listening to it in the car earlier this week with both boys. They’ve heard the section we were listening to before and I could tell, looking in the rear view mirror, that they didn’t mind what they were hearing. Their first choice? I highly doubt it. But one they are beginning to appreciate and even like? Yes. As they get older, I’ll explain to them the details that make these works great. I don’t think full comprehension of their beauty is possible until then. And, until as a culture, we make the commitment to love that which is beautiful and complex, classical music will continue to wane in popularity. But if the effort and study is made, over time beauty will be preferred and listening to and appreciating classical music will truly be an act of leisure.