Music

Does Classical Music Matter?

by Edward Reichel

Why listen to classical music? After all, it’s just by a bunch of dead white Europeans. It’s old and out of date – not unlike that stack of moldy LPs and decrepit turntable you find stashed away in grandma’s attic. The music has no relevance to today’s world.

Or does it?

With Congress thinking about eliminating funding and doing away with the National Endowment for the Arts, PBS and NPR, this is a good time to take a long hard look at classical music and try to put it in some sort of perspective and see if music written in the 18th or 19th centuries has any relevance to our century. Can long deceased composers still speak to our generation? The answer may surprise a lot of people.

Contrary to what many believe, classical music is part and parcel of popular culture. Generations of kids grow up watching cartoons that use classical music. You might not know the pieces by name or who wrote them, but you’ve heard Gioachino Rossini’s “William Tell” Overture or Camille Saint-Saëns’ “Danse macabre” countless times. Not necessarily in the opera house or concert hall, but certainly through the antics of animated animals on Saturday morning cartoons on TV. The trumpet fanfares and energetic rhythms in Rossini’s overture have always been the obvious choice to accompany chases and highlight moments of high adventure. And the spookiness of Saint-Saëns’ piece, which sounds a bit campy to our ears, has been used many times to great effect in comic-sinister scenes. As a matter of fact, cartoons have been the perfect vehicle for popularizing classical music, ever since Walt Disney’s phenomenal and ground breaking 1940 animated film “Fantasia,” which brilliantly visualizes a number of excerpts from well known pieces, from J.S. Bach’s haunting Toccata and Fugue in D minor to Igor Stravinsky’s bold “The Rite of Spring.”

And for decades Madison Avenue has found classical music useful in selling products on television. Everything from automobiles to beer, cleansers and beef have been hawked to background music by George Gershwin, Richard Wagner, Giacomo Puccini, Aaron Copland and dozens of other composers both famous and obscure.

But perhaps classical music’s most significant popular application has been in film. It would be impossible to list all the movies whose soundtracks include selections by composers from past centuries – works that cover the gamut of situations and emotions. How music affects film is immense, so much so, in fact, that there are a couple of festivals that focus on the impact of music on films. There is even one in our backyard, the Park City Film Music Festival.

Anyone who saw this year’s big Oscar winner, “The King’s Speech,” knows the power music can exert in a film. Two of the film’s biggest moments use music by Ludwig van Beethoven. The slow movement from his Symphony No. 7, with its steady and monotone rhythm, underscores George VI’s anxiety at speaking in public because of his speech impediment. And the gorgeous slow movement from Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5, the so-called “Emperor” Concerto, is a wonderful musical depiction of the king’s triumph over his handicap.

But probably the most memorable use of classical music in film is in Stanley Kubrick’s compelling “2001: A Space Odyssey,” from 1968, which uses the spectacular opening section of Richard Strauss’ grandiose “Thus Spake Zarathustra” at one of the most crucial points in the story: the moment primitive man discovers the use of tools.

Not too bad for a whole slew of dead Europeans. Purists might be shocked, but pop culture is an unbeatable way to bring classical music out into the mainstream. Walt Disney got it when he said, “This…is going to open this kind of music to a lot of people like myself who’ve walked out on this kind of stuff.” He was talking about “Fantasia,” but the quote is universal.

No one can really argue that classical music isn’t relevant in a popular context. It’s only when you remove it from those parameters and bring it into the concert hall that you seemingly need to justify its very existence. You would think that something that has permeated our lives the way classical music has wouldn’t have to defend itself. But that’s exactly the case. The problem partly lies in the fact that classical music has the stigma of being considered “elitist” and “high brow” and that it’s only directed towards the few and not towards the masses. But there is absolutely no truth in that. “While it is true that much of this music was originally for the elite classes, the same is true for many art forms: ballet, painting, theater, etc. But like those forms that have continued through the ages, classical music seems to speak beyond class, beyond race and to some extent even beyond education,” says Robert Baldwin, music director of the Salt Lake Symphony and interim director of the University of Utah’s school of music.

That’s how Gustavo Dudamel, the 30-year-old Venezuelan-born music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, feels. He once said classical music doesn’t discriminate. It’s a simple statement that holds big meaning. Composer Miguel Chuaqui, who teaches at the U., agrees with Dudamel. “Anyone with any historical perspective can attest to classical music’s reaching across the boundaries of place, time, and, yes, socio-economic background. When you hear children from the shantytowns in Caracas playing classical repertory with passion and understanding, you realize that the transformative power of this music has nothing to do with its ‘elitist’ origins or with who listens to it. It’s great music.”

Classical music certainly is music for the ages. “(It) has been relevant beyond its time and place,” Chauqui says, while Baldwin sees it as providing “a link to the past.” And composer Morris Rosenzweig, director of Canyonlands New Music ensemble at the U., puts it in a larger perspective: “Classical music is relevant because it generally represents the best music produced by a large and diverse civilization and because it is quickly and easily adaptable to the global community.” And he makes another valid point: “We rarely question why we should read great authors or look at great paintings; why should we question the importance of great music? It remains relevant because the best works produced in this genre transcend the time and place they come from.” And Melia Tourangeau, president and CEO of the Utah Symphony|Utah Opera, couldn’t agree more. “Classical music represents our heritage as a society – and the various voices in classical music represent a snapshot of what was happening in that time period in history.”

Having the chance to be exposed to music at an early age is also vitally important. There is nothing elitist in educating our children in the arts, along with academic subjects. Having a community in which people have grown up to appreciate the arts would eliminate the need for a debate regarding whether or not classical music is relevant today. In fact, doing away with arts education would only reinforce the notion of elitism. That’s what musician Matt Dixon believes. “As a former teacher in the public schools, I can tell you that this will result in a system where only the wealthy have the opportunity to learn about the arts. The public needs to make a decision as to whether they would like to live in a modern society where culture is valued, or rather, to live a life of mere subsistence, where the soul is forgotten.”

But if the proposed cutbacks in funding for the NEA and for PBS and NPR, now before Congress, were to go into effect, then the whole debate over relevance and elitism would be moot. Dismantling these organizations, which is the ultimate goal of these budget reductions, would have dire consequences to an extent that would be unfathomable – it would erode away the very foundation on which classical music, and the arts in general, stands and from which it could never recover. What will remain will be art for the few – for the elite. Only those who can afford it will be able to enjoy it, as Dixon points out. This is short-sighted and narrow-minded thinking. Supporting the arts financially is vital and goes hand in hand with the creative process. And it stretches back centuries. Without the old patronage system, most great works of art would probably never have been produced.

But when all is said and done, classical music has always been and will always be relevant. Despite what some may say, classical music appeals to the masses, not just to the few. Most of the great works that have been written were aimed towards everyone. It was only when we started trying to intellectualize it and attempted to give a reason for its existence that classical music’s worth as a source of entertainment for all was put into question. People who try to put this lofty spin on classical music forget – paraphrasing the slogan from the radio program “Composer’s Datebook” – that all music was once popular. Many works from previous centuries received their first performances in informal settings. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, who also played the violin and viola in addition to the piano, frequently played his newly written string quartets in his home with some friends. It was common in the 19th century to hold recitals in private residences, and Ludwig van Beethoven’s glorious “Eroica” Symphony “was premiered in a Viennese living room,” Rosenzweig notes.

In truth, classical music has never been anything but relevant through the ages, because it “expresses, reflects and affects our society,” according to composer Phillip Bimstein. Further, it enables us “to connect with people from throughout humanity with deeper understanding,” as Utah Opera artistic director Christopher McBeth believes.

Something that is so powerful and touches us so profoundly can never be irrelevant. It’s part of us whether or not we realize it. “Classical music feeds the soul,” says Tourangeau. That’s nourishment everyone needs and it makes classical music relevant across social, economic and political boundaries ensuring it will endure even into the next century.

Categories: Music

4 replies »

  1. To neglect classical music is in a way to neglect our heritage. All music we have today evolved not only from classical music but our musical origins are actually traced back to Gregorian Chant. When I listen to music created hundreds or over a thousand years ago it strikes a deep chord within myself. All music, in its own time, was popular music. What we define as classical music is the music that has survived the ultimate judge of art: time. I think we should consider that of all the music being made today only a very minute of it will be know in 200 years. The same was true hundreds of years ago so any music that has survived must have some real merit.

  2. Really great article. I particularly love Morris Rosenzweig’s comment: “We rarely question why we should read great authors or look at great paintings; why should we question the importance of great music?”

    • I actually thought the same thing when I first read this article, but then I saw when Reichel mentioned that tagline he said he was paraphrasing. Probably to make his point.

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