Why Bother With Classical Music? A Brief Q & A Defense:

Muti and the CSO: from The Chicago Reader (Jan 2013)
Classic music is too old fashioned—it’s all ballroom dancing, white gloves, and cups of tea.  Why should anyone in the 21st century listen to it?

If this were true, movie soundtracks wouldn’t be dominated by symphony orchestras.  Orchestral music is in our blood, and everything from the Jaws theme to the “shower scene” in Psycho reminds us of this.  Moments of great emotion, suspense, romance, anguish, fury, and revelation always reach to the seemingly endless resources of the modern symphony orchestra.  A great instance of this is in the conversation between the alien ships and the scientists in Close Encounters of the Third Kind: they use music to find a common language, with the humans (ironically) using synthesizers while the aliens respond with tubas and other brass.  It’s a thrilling scene and it suggests something mythic about orchestral music and its ability to evoke fantastic worlds both past and present.  When you listen to past masters such as Mozart, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, etc., the emotions are right there—as raw as the day they were written, full of beauty, despair, anger, and pathos.  Like any art, it doesn’t age, and an attentive listener can sit down and become part of the drama. 

Isn’t classical music just for old people, or rich people, or snobs?  Why should I listen to elitist white people’s music?

Music is music—it has no real age or nationality.  Anyone can listen to and enjoy it, and indeed, most classical music was written for the people (even in the 18th century, when music was written for aristocrats, the people who most enjoyed it were the musicians—all of whom were servants!).  Many composers, too, were frightfully poor or of common birth, and made music for everyone to enjoy—especially someone like Mozart, who wasn’t above writing for dance halls and folk operas.  Sadly, the concert audiences grow older and older because young people are bombarded by the new, the cool, and the hip.  Yet classical music can speak to anyone willing to listen, and doesn’t belong to anyone, young or old, rich or poor.  It’s simply there to listen to.

Classical music is boring—the ‘songs’ are too long and there are no words.  It’s like a soundtrack without a movie!

Music is never boring, at least not if your mind/heart is turned on.  Even though many forms such as the symphony, concerto, chamber music, don’t have words, it’s still full of voices and conversations.  Each instrument in the music speaks its own role in the narrative, and anyone who listens carefully can hear melodies, rhythms, and other phases being carried forth, tossed around, and developed in interesting/dramatic ways.  In a way, it is like a soundtrack without a movie—so why not supply your own?  Some works actually do tell specific stories in the music, which is printed in the program of a concert (or widely available on-line).  For example, Tchaikovsky’s famous overture to Romeo and Juliet is a musical collage of Shakespeare’s play: it opens with a slow, solemn theme, which is supposed to evoke Friar Lawrence marrying the couple, until the music grows more and more agitated—and fate takes over.  We get rambunctious fighting music, growing more and more intense, until this is rudely shoved aside by the soaring love theme (which has been much parodied!).  You can follow this easily enough if you listen, though if you prefer not to ‘see’ Romeo and Juliet, insert your own program—you can make whatever ‘movie’ you want.  Indeed, you can forget the program entirely and simply wallow in the wash of notes and emotions. 

I like music with a beat, something you can move to.  Classical music is all about melody and gushy emotions.

Again, not so.  A good deal of classical music is based on dance: whether literal ballet music such as Tchaikovsky or Stravinsky’s ballets, or symphonies, which initially incorporated dance movements into their structure (Mozart had “minuets” as the third movement of many of his symphonies, which were actual dances enlarged for the symphony).  Many composers, such as Dvorak, wove folk dances and rhythms into his music, and it’s virtually impossible not to tap your toes—or literally get up a move to his earthy rhythms (listen to the last movement of his Eighth Symphony for an example).  Many literal dances have made their way into classic music as well, from Dvorak’s Slavonic Dances, to Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsodies or the more abstract dances found in Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances.  Of course, many modern composers such as Bernstein, Copland, and Gerswhin brought in elements of blues, jazz, and swing which will sound very familiar to our ears.  To see what a classical orchestra can really do with a beat, check out Stravinsky’s infamous Rite of Spring, originally a ballet, which has some of the most audacious dance rhythms imaginable.  Though composed in 1913, it prefigures rock and even metal in its primeval violence; Slayer has nothing on it!   

I don’t understand the terms of classical music: symphony, sonata, concerto, tone poem?  How can I appreciate something I don’t understand?

You really don’t need to understand musical form to appreciate music; knowing the technical aspects merely heightens your enjoyment.  After all, many people listen to rock or pop without knowing how the music technically works—they just listen to the song.  The same goes here.  However, knowing that a symphony has 4 movements actually helps you listen to and approach a piece: the first movement is usually the ‘argument,’ which states important themes, sets the mood, and defines the struggle (or lack thereof)  The second movement is usually a slow movement, full of beauty and grace—or melancholy—or despair.  The third movement is usually a scherzo (“joke” in Italian), which displays high spirits, folk rhythms, or virtuosity.  The final movement is often a grand conclusion, sometimes triumphant, sometimes outlining defeat.  What makes a symphony so exciting is how an individual composer approaches this basic 4-act structure in new and unusual ways.  Mozart and Haydn more or less invented the symphony, so you see them experimenting throughout; Mozart’s 38th symphony, for example, only has 3 movements and no scherzo.  Later composers, such as Mahler, can add 5 or 6 movements (2 scherzos, for example), while Sibelius’ 7th symphony is in one movement—split into tiny sections that spill into one another and trace the outline of a traditional symphony.  Again, knowing this just helps you get your bearings and appreciate how they are taking the bare bones of tradition and making it new again. 

So much classical music seems to be based on literature or art; what if I don’t know the stories?  Or care about them? 

It’s true that composers were often inspired by the literature of the past—and their present (now our past).  So you’ll find Richard Strauss writing about Don Juan and Don Quixote; Beethoven writes about Corolianus and Egmont; Mendelssohn writes about A Midsummer Night’s Dream, etc.  However, as I said above, music is music: you can’t be forced to hear what you don’t want to hear (or don’t know about).  The music tells its own story, and while it can be useful and intriguing to follow a composer’s story, it’s not necessary for sheer musical enjoyment.  For example, Richard Strauss (who loved composing program music) wrote a hilariously eccentric symphony called Sinfonia Domestica, which was about his life at home: the arguments he got in with his wife, his crying baby, paying his bills, etc.  It’s impossible to follow all of this and probably not all that useful in the end.  What’s fun is simply to be carried away by the musical ‘story’ which always transcends its material.  When Rachmaninov wrote his famous piece The Isle of the Dead based on Bocklin’s painting, he admitted that it was just a starting point; in fact, he had only seen a black and white reproduction.  Upon seeing the actual painting (in color), he said, “had I seen this, I probably wouldn’t have written the work!” 

There’s too damn much music—several centuries’ worth!  Where do I start?  With one composer?  One period?  One kind of work?

Here’s the beauty part: there’s no right way (or wrong way) to start.  You just dive in.  Perhaps it’s best to start with a few tried-and-true masterpieces in different styles and periods, and then pursue more of the style/period/composer that most interests you.  The more you listen to, the more you’ll like and understand, and the more you’ll be inspired to discover.  But go slowly and give each piece time to make an impression.  At first, listen while doing something else, and gradually, try to listen to the music all on its own.  Try to imagine what the music is trying to narrate and make you see/experience/feel.  Below are 5 provocative, easy pieces to leap into that make an immediate impression (all for full orchestra):

Schubert, Symphony No.8 “Unfinished”: never completed, this symphony breaks off after two movements, the introduction and the slow movement.  He sketched the other two but abandoned them, possibly because he was ill, or ran out of time with other commissions.  Yet what we have is strangely complete and deeply tragic in nature.  The entire piece sounds fragile and haunted, with quiet melodies suddenly exploding with hidden force.  Look for the tender ‘waltz’ theme in the first movement, and the hymn-like theme of the second movement which is repeatedly swept aside by sudden violence. 

Berlioz, Symphonie Fantastique: the big “program” symphony, this is in 5 movements and barely follows the classical scheme at all.  Basically, it tells the story of an artist who takes an opium overdose and dreams of his beloved, chasing her through various scenes—a ballroom, the countryside—until he finds himself led to the chopping block by witches who celebrate a grand satantic mass, where the beloved—gasp!—officiates at the orgy.  The theme of the beloved, which is developed like a leading theme in a film score, changes character throughout, finally becoming almost demonic at the end.  It’s a wicked piece, as eccentric as the man himself, and does not sound like it was composed 200 years ago!

Dvorak, Symphony No.7: a fiery, nationalist masterwork, it is a bizarre synthesis of Beethoven and Czech folksong.  The piece opens with a brooding theme for cellos, before exploding in the full orchestra; clearly a great stuggle is taking place.  Yet the struggle subsides for several romantic interludes, specifically in the heartbreaking slow movement, where one melody trips over the heels of another.  The highlight is the manic folkdance scherzo, which almost spins out of control.  The finale reasserts the tragic struggle, though this is finally overcome in a desperate battle: is it one in the mind or on the battlefield?  Dvorak left us no clues, so the ball’s in your court...

Stravinsky, The Rite of Spring: his famous ballet of 1913 which set all of Paris—and eventually Europe—ablaze.  The ballet departs from the airiness of Swan Lake and takes as its theme a fantastic pagan ritual where Russian peasants (from ancient times) usher in the spring.  The rites cumulate with the sacrifice of a young virgin.  It’s wild, primordial, yet eerily beautiful music that has inspired almost everything that’s been written since, especially much film music.  Listen to it as much first—then seek out a video recording of the ballet, or even the famous sequence with dinosaurs from Fantasia (which, incidentally, Stravinsky hated).

Vaughan-Williams, Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis.  Written for string orchestra with a solo string quartet, this gorgeous, otherworldly piece seems to makes time stop altogether.  Using a theme from the Elizabethan composer Thomas Tallis, the work sounds at once ancient and modern, full of deep-yearning yet spiritual calm.  It represents the essence of Vaughan-Williams’ style and is unlike anything composed before or since—though many have tried to copy it.  


  1. Great post! I totally agree with you on soundtracks. Some of the best ones out there are based on classical music style. *aside* I love Vaughan-Williams. 'Sea songs', a big thumbs up!

  2. Thanks for your response (and for reading in general)! I'm pretty big on soundtracks as well, and there's a post above on soundtracks by the great composers, including VW (I also have a post about Vaughan-Williams' symphonies somewhere). While the tone/theme of each film suggests its own music, there's something primal that we respond to in the range of instruments in a symphony orchestra, and nothing can convey fear, love, consolation, imagination, or the unknown more concisely. Too bad so few great composers lived into the age of film...though many of their stage works/music show how talented they would be at writing soundtracks!


Post a Comment