Conventional Wisdom: Classical Music Edition

This afternoon I had the pleasure of hearing our university’s early music group, the Ursa Consort, at a nearby church.  It was an all-Vivaldi program: two arias with excellent student soloists, “Winter” from Four Seasons (with flames and blue smoke coming out of the soloist’s violin), and the Gloria, well-sung and realized.  There was a superb theorbo/Baroque guitar player from Boulder, a faculty member (the one I’m married to) playing harpsichord continuo for the concerto only, and a close faculty friend playing viola throughout.  Everyone else was a student, graduate and undergraduate.  The trumpet parts were nailed by one of our trumpet students, playing on a Baroque trumpet (four-hole system), the oboe soloist similarly nailed her part.  It was a very diverse group, and one of the things that most struck me was that when certain singers retreated to the back of the altar during pieces in which they weren’t involved, they could not help rocking out.  The students in the pew in front of me were likewise rocking out.  Well, of course, you say; Vivaldi rocks.  Yes, he does, but the way everyone was lapping up this performance put me in mind of a recent article I read.

My brother had sent me a link to a recent Notre Dame study reported by WQXR (which I guess is a classical station in NY?) that supposedly “found” that classical music more disliked by young people even than it was before—especially “high status” young people, who apparently associate it with their parents or grandparents.  Or something.  O Tempora, O Mores, yet again.  Pardon while I rend my garments and importune the heavens.  Whose responsibility was it to educate Those Young about classical music and how to correctly answer stupidly worded surveys??

Actually, aside from those studying music, wasn’t it the schools (music in the schools continuing to suffer a focused onslaught, since it’s a frill of no importance and we just can’t afford it but here’s the new sports facility)?  And after them, wasn’t it classical radio?  Offhand, I can’t think of a more spectacular long-term failure than classical radio: “curated” by the usual suspects—squeaky adolescents, wallflowers, and morticians, to my ear—in general, those who take being out of touch to a hitherto unimaginable level.  The classical stations that began in the 1940s and ’50s inherited a body of listeners drawn from the huge immigrant populations, mostly from Europe, and…did nothing with them beyond a safe, limited diet of pop tunes. Same repertoire, over and over, same operas, same Sol Hurok-driven star-worship, same culture-vulturing, same eat-your-broccoli-it’s-good-for-you expectations.  Occasionally there would be patrician music-appreeshing, but it is the rare young person who will suffer condescension for any length of time.  And as the European-born populace waned, conventional wisdom (always conventional; never wisdom) advocated—instead of actual education, programs aimed at exposure and explanation—an even more limited program of pop hits: Mostly Mozart, yet another Beethoven Symphony cycle, Bach’s Brandenburg Concerti, etc. Nothing against those works, of course, but this strategy…of course, it failed.

Then in the 1980s, the (still) conventional wisdom was that classical people were so stuck-up; just loosen up, y’know?  So, announcers were hired who—presumably so as to “relate to the audience” and meet them where they were and so on—trivialized the music they were playing.  “Well, Chopin…I mean, this guy was so romantic he wanted his heart buried in Poland, know what I’m saying?”  (That’s close to a quote of something I heard on a Denver station.)  There was an announcer in Los Angeles (I’ll spare you her name) who sounded like she would have fit perfectly on Fox and Friends—she sounded simultaneously stoned, angry, whiny, entitled, and above all stupid.  And still interest in classical music flags! How could that be?

I may have told this story already: between two and three decades ago, at a national AMS meeting, there was an evening session on teaching about performance practices? Predictably, it soon devolved into please-like-early-music (which is something very different from performance practices), with predictably weak, please-don’t-hate-us suggestions (“tell the students this piece came from the time of Columbus, so then—hopefully—they’ll be curious…”), and I was about to give up hope.  One of my old professors (well, one of my very few Rabbis) got up and said, “No.  Just hit them with this stuff when they’re falling in love with the world, and the music will take care of itself.”

Write this down: high school, college, and graduate students are ripe to fall in love with the world.  The saps of spring are flowing, they’re gradually gaining more and more independence (with all its risks and rewards) from parents and expectations of obedience, and they are ready.  This was today’s lesson.  My university is a regional state university with a very strong School of Music but with plenty of first-generation college students; we’re not an Ivy, and in my building, at least, I don’t see a lot of the Privilege and Entitlement that fusty op-eds love to decry.  What I see is what I saw today: young people who, when you hit them with the goods, belong to Vivaldi (or Monteverdi, or Bach, or Du Fay, or Brahms, or Chopin, or Beethoven etc. forever.  They’ll still enjoy their own music (as we did). But today I heard a high-energy group of young’uns diving in deep, and they work extra jobs and God-knows-what for the privilege to do so, and to earn the profound professional insecurity that will follow.

Standing ovation, you-all.  See you tomorrow morning.

About jonathanbellman

Professor of Music History and Literature and Head of Academic Studies in Music at the University of Northern Colorado. Author, *The _Style Hongrois_ in the Music of Western Europe* (Northeastern University Press, 1993), *A Short Guide to Writing About Music* (2e, Longman, 2008), *Chopin's Polish Ballade: Op. 38 as Narrative of National Martyrdom* (Oxford University Press, 2010), Editor, *The Exotic in Western Music* (Northeastern University Press, 1998), author of bunches of articles and reviews and so on. Likes to play the piano, the mandolin, and even guitar sometimes. A. M. and Jo Winchester Distinguished Scholar at UNC, 2011.
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