3/3/08

Wherein the Problem with Classical Music Is Revealed!

This is not new. It is, in fact, about four years old. And it has been ridiculed on the internets before. However, it is far, far too good to pass up.

CLASSICAL MUSIC'S TEN DIRTIEST SECRETS

I have excerpted the end of the article. You can read the whole thing here. Overall, I am not totally unsympathetic. However…

I propose a radical new idea: Tell the truth!

Ah, truth. Objectivity. The polar opposite of opinion. That sounds great; tell me the truth!

Stop insisting that the classics consist of an unbroken chain of perfect masterpieces of equal worth, and let people compare, judge, and even (gasp!) dislike some of them.

No one is insisting that, at least not around here. However, more egregious is your parenthetical (gasp!). Did you learn that in writing school?

After all, huge crowds go to the movies every week and nine times out of ten hate what they see.

You’ve clearly never been to the Yahoo! Movies user review page!

But they still go back, time after time. This must be, at least in part, because they feel comfortable about that fact that they are free to like or dislike the film, as they chose.

It must?

The lesson here is clear: the exercise of choice enhances, rather than diminishes, the general attraction of the medium.

It is? Well, what’s the problem with classical music?

The problem with classical music is that people too often feel that it’s a “take it or leave it” proposition. So they leave it, and who can blame them?

I…what happened to the truth? That thing you were writing about?

As a public service, therefore, I propose to close this editorial by revealing ten of classical music’s dirtiest secrets, the kind of facts that you’ll find critics and writers vigorously denying in program note booklets, articles, and reviews.

Golly gee, thanks!

But admit it folks, deep down we all know the truth, don’t we?

Um, maybe? Is the objective knowable? Is truth different than opinion? I assert that it is. Truth is different than opinion.

Judge for yourself:

Thanks! I think I will.

1. Mozart really does all sound the same.

Opinion. To boot, a really stupid opinion. In fact, a retarded, ill-informed opinion. How many Mozart pieces have you ever heard?

2. Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge is just plain ugly.

Opinion. I love that piece, which is also an opinion. But I can distinguish the difference, see?

3. Wagner’s operas are much better with cuts.

Opinion. You hate Wagner, or something. The effect of the three-hour waiting-for-one-chord deal is diminished when you shorten the opera.

4. No one cares about the first three movements of Berlioz’ Symphonie fantastique.

I…you…did you ever study music? Opinion, attached to broad generalization with no research.

5. Schoenberg’s music never sounds more attractive, no matter how many times you listen to it.

Opinion! Now I’m getting mad. I love Schoenberg. So…I’m an idiot? How about: you’re an idiot.

6. Schumann’s orchestration definitely needs improvement.

Opinion, but bandied about enough. A popular thing to say, however, not fact. Probably the best of the ten, if still unnecessary.

7. Bruckner couldn’t write a symphonic allegro to save his life.

A) Opinion. B) Who listens to Bruckner? (I kid, I kid.)

8. Liszt is trash.

Opinion. And really, really poorly worded, if concise. Pithy, even. I know plenty of scholars who disagree. Not to mention music lovers! You know, music lovers?

9. The so-called “happy” ending of Shostakovich’s Fifth is perfectly sincere.

Opinion? I have no fucking idea what this means.

10. It’s a good thing that “only” about 200 Bach cantatas survive.

Opinion. If anything is agreed upon, is that Bach was awesome.

What happened to truth? Oh, truth = opinion. Great. Nice job, professional critic. That sucked.

18 comments:

Empiricus said...

Let the free market decide! Good idea Hurwitz.

AnthonyS said...

Re: Schumann's orchestration-- there's a great passage in Schoenberg's "Style and Idea" where he talks about the Schumann / orchestration charge. He basically writes that someone said it and it gets thrown around, passed down, and people say it who can't point to one damn moment where the orchestration is "bad". Such is the musical world sometimes.

Murderface said...

I think he's saying that music performances should cost no more than movies. And should be performed as often as movies are shown. Then we wouldn't feel like we have to like what we see just because we paid so much to see it! Problem solved, music demystified.

Based on this, we can safely say that the author doesn't know any more about the economics of musical performance than he does about music in general.

Sator Arepo said...

The thrust of the article is ok. His weird "truths" are, sort of, what he was saying should be opinions? Or something.

Liszt is trash. You may not like it, but that doesn't mean it's "Trash".

Boo.

More soon!

Emperor Zeppo said...

Okay, but let's face it, opinion is height of musical thought. Theorists and musicologists have fought hard so that no one view of a work or a composer shall hold favorable status to any other. The only distinction are the credentials of who said it.

Schenker says all good music is iii-ii-I, Fuck Yeah. Hurwitz says Grosse Fuge is ugly. BOO!

Some other Schenkerisms:
"It is impossible to apply poetic feet to music."
"Without a goal, there can be no content."

Oh yeah? Prove it.

All of this is opinion. It's just because Hurwitz is hating that you come back with this sarcastic reproach. If it were "Schubert songs are amongst the greatest examples of vocal lyricism," no one objects (and if they do, they get the same "that's just your opinion" comeback).

If I surmise Hurwitz's basic premise, I agree that classical music does have an enormous stick up its ass. Have you ever listened to classical music radio? There is no filter on this shit. Every Michael Haydn pile of crap passes mustard while monotone drones bow at the alter of the demagogued composers of the past. I take Hurwitz's point to be that classical music didn't die with Brahms and the few names after him (like Schoenberg) that live on, aren't neccesarily good because of that fact.

Clearly, this is hack journalism at best, and Hurwitz biggest crime is his style of proclamation without support. He's a big floppy donkey dick, what can I say. But please, let's bring back the place for opinion.

Whatever. I do what I want.

Aaron said...

"If I surmise Hurwitz's basic premise, I agree that classical music does have an enormous stick up its ass. Have you ever listened to classical music radio? There is no filter on this shit."

There's a distinction between classical music and "classical music radio." Classical music has no more of a stick up its ass than jazz or punk rock. "Classical music radio" is, like Garrison Keillor or a Volvo dealership, primarily intended to appeal to upscale yuppies and old people. They play what those people want to hear - typically, nothing written much after 1900, and usually stuff that's "soothing" or "calming" to help the yuppies and old people relax. Don't confuse that approach to classical music with the thing itself.

"Every Michael Haydn pile of crap passes mustard while monotone drones bow at the alter of the demagogued composers of the past."

It's "passes muster," not "passes mustard," which sounds like some kind of horrible digestive problem about which I'd prefer to know as little as possible. And it's "altar," not "alter." I'm not sure what "demagogued composers of the past" means, exactly (and it's "demogogued") - are the composers being harangued about their politics? My opinion is, again, that classical music radio hosts play to their audience, who like to hear pretty music they associate with high-class entertainment. This is maybe unfortunate, but it's hardly the fault of the composers, who are after all largely dead.

"I take Hurwitz's point to be that classical music didn't die with Brahms and the few names after him (like Schoenberg) that live on, aren't neccesarily good because of that fact."

Lots (more than a few; Schoenberg probably isn't in the top 20 Most Famous Post-Brahms Composers) of good, famous guys lived and composed after Brahms; if that's Hurwitz's point, it's poorly taken. It's indisputably true that the simple fact of being a composer doesn't warrant that what you compose is any good, but there's plenty of good music out there.

Hurwitz runs into trouble when he presents his (poorly-supported)opinions as "facts" that reveal "the truth" about classical music. In fact, it's probably the poor support he gives for his opinions that leave such a bitter aftertaste. You can make an actual fact-based argument supporting what is finally merely an opinion; it may not be conclusive, but it's more convincing than simply asserting something as inane as "Mozart really does all sound the same." I can say something like "We should raise taxes to fund universal health care and provide better educations for children in areas with endemic poverty" and I can support that opinion with facts: "We pay for the consequences of poor preventive health care and education for poor kids with higher emergency room expenses, higher crime rates, a greater incidence of drug use, and generally lower productivity among working-age people. Furthermore, businesses - particularly the small businesses that employ most Americans - are handicapped in the global marketplace by having to pay for health care costs that competitors in other nations don't have to pay." You may not be convinced by those fact-based arguments, but they're there. You can't make a similar case for "Schoenberg's music never sounds more attractive, no matter how many times you listen to it."

Also, the reason hardly anybody gets upset when someone presents a positive opinion about a composer or a work is that there aren't many people invested in disliking a composer or a work. On the other hand, there are lots of people who really like, say, the Grosse Fuge, and when a reviewer says something like "Beethoven's Grosse Fuge is just plain ugly" it comes across as an attack on the taste and judgment of the person who likes that piece - "Ha! You like music that sucks!" A smart reviewer might want to make an effort not to antagonize his expected readership like that.

Emperor Zeppo said...

Okay, you caught my lack of an editoral filter with "mustard" and "alter" -- BUT, it is dem-A-gogued. I can spell somethings.

Sorry that my defense of the musical rant offended. I'm not necessarily defending Hurwitz, who is, as you say, attacking based on tastes and antagonizing other's opinions. [Plus I'm not sure I agree with any of his assertions.]

However, I disagree with your distinction between "classical music radio" and classical music. I'm sure that your marginalizing of the tastes of its audience is fine when it suits your point, but (I believe) that these are the people that Hurwitz is speaking too. Those same "upscale yuppies and old people" who listen to CM radio are the same ones who attend every symphony concert and fork over large checks so that the musical arts don't die in every community. I seriously doubt that Hurwitz's intended readers were sanctimonious academics who are already very capable of making their own informed opinions about the sameness of Mozart's music.

I do not defend his statements, but more so that they can and should be said -- true or not. I would have prefered less inflamed rhetoric, but hyperbole is often an effective tool of argument.

These are indeed not "facts" (not that I think Hurwitz would really argue that they are -- I think the term "tongue-in-cheek" may apply here), but I think they do go a fundamental problem surrounding classical music as it clings to a niche spot in our culture. The average person with some affinity to classical music doesn't always know that you don't have to love Mozart to love classical music.

And lastly, yes I can support a statement like, "Schoenberg's music never sounds more attractive, no matter how many times you listen to it." I have a hundred essays from college music students all stating in one way or another that basic opinion. But given that, it's still an opinion.

Sator Arepo said...

If Hurwitz' article was tongue-in-cheek I totally missed it. It comes across like he's asserting truths that we all know but keep secret because they're unpopular.

Good points, both of y'all. However, my main contention is that, exactly, he presents his bizarre opinions as "truth". Universal truths, kept secret from the uninitiated. Liszt sucks! is a strange thing to say.

Good stuff y'all.

Emperor Zeppo said...

I totally understand that perspective and I still unabashedly enjoy your skewering of his rather silly treatise. I guess I should have clarified up front that I can't imagine anyone seriously saying these things without being facetious. If he wasn't, then Hurwitz is little more than the musical equivalent of the village idiot.

I guess I was reminded of the satires of Peter Schickele's and Anna Russell and her absurdist lectures on classical music and opera.

Also, I've often observed that people who seriously state things like "Liszt sucks!" haven't really heard very much music of that composer, or they listen with a prejudiced ear, predisposed not to like something. I feel I've been guilty of this a number of times, presuming the opera's of Handel would be old and boring when they are quite beautiful, and dismissing composers like John Cage based on few works before understanding the totality of his music and its purpose.

Whatever. I do what I want.

Aaron said...

"However, I disagree with your distinction between "classical music radio" and classical music. I'm sure that your marginalizing of the tastes of its audience is fine when it suits your point, but (I believe) that these are the people that Hurwitz is speaking too. Those same "upscale yuppies and old people" who listen to CM radio are the same ones who attend every symphony concert and fork over large checks so that the musical arts don't die in every community. I seriously doubt that Hurwitz's intended readers were sanctimonious academics who are already very capable of making their own informed opinions about the sameness of Mozart's music."

First, I don't intend to marginalize the tastes of upscale yuppies and old people. I am, myself, an upscale yuppie. The fact remains that "classical music radio" plays a very narrow spectrum of Western art music, because that's what their listeners want to hear. And that's totally fine and cool with me. Diff'rent strokes, baby. If they want to listen to Mozart horn concertos all day long, more power to 'em, I say. I have my own idiosyncratic musical and artistic tastes that most people probably find silly or dumb; I don't expect other people to dig on Roy Liechtenstein and Katrina and the Waves any more than I expect "classical music radio" to play some really wild Stockhausen stuff during the afternoon drive-time block. Just because their tastes aren't mine (although I like a lot of that stuff, too) doesn't make the stuff they like bad or worthless or ugly.

Hurwitz makes his appeal to people outside that group (people inside that group presumably already know the dirty little secrets he's about to let the rest of us in on). Whether or not he intends to be read by "sanctimonious academics" (I may be many things, but I am no academic), he's trying - in a badly-conceived way, in my opinion - to expand the appeal of classical music beyond the blue-haired wine-and-cheese crowd.

"I do not defend his statements, but more so that they can and should be said -- true or not. I would have prefered less inflamed rhetoric, but hyperbole is often an effective tool of argument."

Well, he's free to say what he likes. I don't think anyone's advocating putting his head on a pike because - to judge by this piece, at least - he's kind of a jerk. I disagree with you about hyperbole; I think it's usually an ineffective way to make a point that could be made more convincingly without resort to it. A matter of taste, maybe, but I see lots of arguments as a lawyer that are undercut by the extreme terms used to make them.

"These are indeed not "facts" (not that I think Hurwitz would really argue that they are -- I think the term "tongue-in-cheek" may apply here), but I think they do go a fundamental problem surrounding classical music as it clings to a niche spot in our culture. The average person with some affinity to classical music doesn't always know that you don't have to love Mozart to love classical music."

I agree (except for the "tongue in cheek" part), and I agree with what I take his aim to be here. I disagree with his tone and his prejudices, which I think blunt a point he could have made better if he'd tried a little harder.

Sator Arepo said...

Again, his intent seems good. Classical music programming, radio, criticism, and culture all have some bad things about them. (One of the reasons we hate the outright hatred of anything modernist, and try to champion modernism whenever possible, Quantz notwithstanding.)

That's fine. I'm just here to point out that his writing in this case is...poorly chosen. If at all. Hey, I don't get paid to make fun of critics on the internet for nothing!

Oh, wait, I don't get paid at all.

Empiricus said...

RE: 5. Schoenberg’s music never sounds more attractive, no matter how many times you listen to it.

An odd thing struck me the twelfth or so time I read this post. It may be a little ambiguous, but I think Hurwitz meant something to this affect: no matter how many times "I" listen to Schoenberg, it doesn't sound more attractive to "him."

RE: 6. Schumann’s orchestration definitely needs improvement.

Same logic applies. He's talking about Clara Schumann, not Robert.

These may be those elusive truths we've been after here, folks.

Emperor Zeppo said...

On a bit of an aside from this conversation, Hurwitz's article touches on a pet peev of mine with regard to discussing classical music. Why should describing music as "ugly" be an insult?

I am reminded of David Lang's interesting take on Pierrot Lunaire in Ann McCutchan's book The Muse That Sings:

"If you listen to all the revolutionary pieces written at the same time as Pierrot
Lunaire—Rite of Spring, for example—they are easy to listen to, now. But Pierrot Lunaire is still hideous. And that is a talent—I mean, how did Schoenberg do that? We’re never going to get used to that. It’s always going to be creepy. …A hundred years from now, Pierrot Lunaire is going to give people pretty much the same experience that the original audience had."

Lang gives credit to Schoenberg for his ability to create something that affects us. "Ugly" and "creepy" are just other ways to describe the affects of music and not judgements of their quality or likability.

Clearly this isn't an applicable comment to this crowd, but a change I'd like to see in the greater discourse where music is concerned.

AnthonyS said...

@ EmpZep: that's a great line of Lang's. I would give a seven-bobbie to anyone who could find a review of a concert giving a piece props for being ugly.

Sator Arepo said...

WTF is a "seven-bobbie"?

AnthonyS said...

A "seven-bobbie" is an imaginary sum of money that I think could have existed in some fantastic realization of British history.

Doesn't it sound like a sum of money in Leeds in 1858?

"My grandmum would always give me a seven-bobbie for the trouble, and a lad could have a knocker day with that, I don't mind saying."

Inventing Dickensian words and phrases is fun! (Oh, a gerund!)

Anonymous said...

I can't believe I wasted 45 seconds on this article. Left this kind of "critical thinking" back in Junior High. Please. . .

Oh, and after 40 years in classical music as pianist, conductor and musicologist, I think I've heard enough music to form an opinion as valid as anyone else's. Liszt is the most over-valued composer of all time. Yes, some fine works in their too, scattered among the drivel. But, really...

SadEnding said...

Overall, an offering worthy of a Junior High School student. Only not as interesting or creative. Dull. . .really.