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Wanderer above the Sea of Fog by Caspar David Friedrich

“I am never merry when I hear sweet music.” —Jessica in The Merchant of Venice, Act V, Scene I

Since the triumph of rock n’ roll in the 1960s, the lover of classical music has increasingly found himself a loner in most social circles, his great passion appreciated by an ever-shrinking number of people. This is true even among the educated class; one erudite and quite brilliant man I know who can converse on a wide breadth of topics confessed to me once that he was unable to talk about music, lacking the grammar with which to do so. As Allan Bloom noted in 1987, “classical music is now a special taste, like Greek language or pre-Columbian archaeology, not a common culture of reciprocal communication and psychological shorthand.”

We who love fine music sometimes find ourselves desperately seeking out soul mates when, say, attending a party or academic conference where there are many new faces. In such situations, however, the aficionado is often disappointed by this most frustrating of exchanges, which is all too common:

Aficionado: “I am a big fan of classical music.”

New acquaintance: “Oh, me too!”

Aficionado: (eagerly, getting his hopes up) “Really?”

New acquaintance: “Yes, it’s so relaxing.”

The aficionado is crestfallen. Such a response is worse than the new acquaintance simply expressing his total ignorance of serious music, for the reply equates the greatest, soul-searing pieces of music with modern muzak, or that dreadful stuff played during Yoga sessions.

“Relaxing?” The classical music lover is tempted ask. “Have you ever soared to the heavens during the final movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony? Have you ever cowered in terror before the dreadful opening march of Mahler’s Sixth? Have you ever wept at the desolation of the finale of Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique symphony? Have you ever begged the Almighty for mercy during the Kyrie of Mozart’s Great Mass? Relaxing? I think not!”

Classical music has become for most just another utilitarian product in our commercial society. Like Viagra, Rogaine, ginseng supplements, or regular visits to the masseuse, it can supposedly improve our lives. A quick search on Amazon for “most relaxing classical music” generates 2,146 results, albums with titles like “Most Relaxing Classical Music in the Universe” and “Most Relaxing Vivaldi Album in the World Ever” (who judges these things?). But classical music is not just for relaxation anymore! It has another useful benefit: It makes you smarter, especially if you are still in utero. According to several “scientific” studies over the last couple of decades, Mozart especially seems to have written with an ear toward improving the brainpower of babes. Thus you can purchase CDs titled “Mozart Makes You Smarter,” “Mozart for Mothers-to-Be,” and an entire series called “The Mozart Effect: Music for Babies.” Frankly, I do not care if listening to Mozart does make me or my kids smarter. It is an added benefit if it does, I suppose, but I listen to music because it is simply beautiful—and I hold, the highest form of beauty—and gives me great pleasure. This is sufficient in itself.

Enjoyment of such beauty in the modern world, however, is often a friendless pursuit. C.S. Lewis once described friendship as the love of two people for common things. “Friendship is born at that moment,” Lewis wrote, “when one person says to another: “What! You too? I thought I was the only one.” Lewis used the visual image of two friends standing shoulder to shoulder, looking at the same beloved object (in contrast to lovers whose object of affection is each other and who thus stand face to face). But today, the classical music lover is looked up largely as an exotic, someone who speaks a foreign tongue, and broaching the subject of good music is more often than not a conversation killer.

Whereas once upon a time the common culture of fine music brought people together, today it tends to separates people in several ways. Technology has been a prime culprit in isolating the music lover. It has made every man his own oracle, who can commune in private with Clio through the use of unobtrusive earbuds, which provide easy access to ever-present music through the mechanisms of the mp3 player and the “cloud.” Lost is the necessity, for the musically-trained, of seeking out companionship to play a duet or trio, and for the untrained to go to the opera house with fellow enthusiasts. Music may indeed be experienced in its full glory in isolation, and I, for one, do not decry its easy access, but something of the communal experience had been lost here. Ubiquitous pleasure has its costs.

Technology has also created a proliferation of recorded interpretations of nearly every classical work ever penned. In the case of popular works like Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” or Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, listeners can choose from hundreds of possible interpretations. In the age before recorded sound, classical music aficionados might argue about the merits of this or that favorite soloist or conductor, but typically the discussion was about the music itself. The challenge for the musical novice today is that he must be versed in, at a minimum, the most widely esteemed recordings of the standard repertoire in order to participate in any in-depth discussion of music. The aficionado feels even more isolated when he discovers that so very few novices can hold their ground in such a discussion.

Some might say that the lover of Aeschylus’ plays, Dickinson’s poetry, or Faulkner’s novels faces a similar challenge in this iconoclastic age. Though I suppose that connoisseurs of literature may argue about the best translation of a work originally written in another language and dramatists may debate the particular performance of a certain actor in a famous role, such discussions are not elemental to the discussion of the work in question. In the age of recording, classical music appreciation is inextricably tied, for good or ill, to this debate about whose interpretation of a piece is superior.

With the decline of music education in America, many, like my erudite acquaintance mentioned above, lack the ability to speak about serious music in meaningful ways. Of course to speak about music at all is difficult to begin with. “Music begins where the possibilities of language end,” composer Jean Sibelius said. It expresses depths of emotion that transcend mere language. It is the language of the soul, and even the great poets cannot fathom its depths. Compounding the problem is that, despite clumsy attempts to popularize classical music through horrid “crossover” albums and perverse, modernized opera staging, the “general listener” is generally lost today in terms of understanding and appreciating the music he hears, even if he can be goaded into entering the symphony hall or opera house. More than ever before, today there is a desperate need for a master conductor/musicologist who possesses both the professional stature and the innate ability to speak about music in a manner intelligible and enticing to the masses. Leonard Bernstein and his “Young People’s Concerts” have no modern successor, and thus today’s unlettered listeners, no master teacher.

In the end, then, the modern classical music enthusiast resides in a veritable wasteland of musical ignorance. Like the subject of Friedrich’s “Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog,” he is consigned to roam the world, an isolated soul, seeking out those few compatriots with whom he may converse and, indeed, commune.

Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore

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17 replies to this post
  1. It’s funny that I read this as I was listening to classical music with my ear buds on, the wife says I play it too loud. I tell her it makes my soul soar!

  2. I am a home schooling mother of 3 and every year we attend 3-4 concerts at Cincinatti Music Hall for the CSO’s Young People’s Concert’s. All is not lost, have hope! The hall is filled with public school students, there are pre-concert study guides, instruction from the conductors, and often interactive lessons. I am thrilled to be sharing real music with my kids!

  3. I am drawn to classical music, however I have a difficult time diving in due to a lack of knowledge. Any book or media recommendations for a beginner.

    P.S. I know just listening and enjoying is where to start, but I would like to learn more.

    • A wonderful, crystal-clear, music appreciation text is Joseph Kerman’s Listen. It comes with CDs. The Enjoyment of Music is another classic music appreciation text. That too comes with CDs. I have taught from both of these gems.

  4. East of Vienna the spirit of Mozart and co. is still alive. When you land at London or Paris or Berlin airport and you got a taxi asking to drive you to a given concert hall, first the driver will check in the navigator where it is. If you get a taxi in Vienna or Prague or Moscow or Novosibirsk, not only the driver know where to go, but he also know what they play now, who plays and what they will play all the season and will not stop to talk about it.

  5. Do not disdain those who may use classical pieces for relaxation. Yes, music exists as a varied, soul-felt expression in all the forms. But if the unknowledgeable ones are at least attempting to invest in classical music to cope with stress, they may be malleable to other musical discoveries. Albeit, I am critical of the hyperbole that a recording has the “worlds most relaxing classical music.” Each one must make their own play list for their purpose. Classical music can be utilitarian and there is no shame in that. The medical field is finally learning what I know, that using classical pieces (individual preferences) can lower blood pressures, reduce analgesics, and provide cognitive stimulation.However, if music’s place in society is vague aesthetics it becomes the first item on the financial chopping block (and you have sentenced thousands of music therapists to the unemployment line). Music is unfathomable as is humanity’s creativity and it has many purposes and futures. Recommend Oliver Sachs, Musicophilia.

    • Perhaps Mr. Klugewicz is not showing disdain for those who use classical music for relaxation as much as he is trying to illustrate that there are those who only associate classical music with relaxation and nothing more? If relaxation is the first or only thing that comes to a person’s mind when thinking of classical music, doesn’t that suggest a certain lack of understanding of the breadth and depth of such music? While relaxation is certainly a valid response to some music, so is contemplation, exultation, stimulation, etc. It would be a little disturbing if someone was able to relax while listening to Mars, the bringer of War. 😉

      • Furthermore, there are those who need to hear that which is tumultuous–that is their therapeutic benefit. Once a hospice patient could not settle no matter what music we tried–before music was quite effective for that person. But finally we pulled out Mahler (due to terminal restlessness) and it worked. They needed to work through the stress before they could rest. That person died very peacefully.

    • I cannot speak for the author, but I understood his meaning to be something along the lines of the idea that the purpose of classical music is not to relax people, indeed, it is not to cause emotions of any sort. The purpose of music, and therefore classical music, is to be beautiful, and to show the listeners beauty, and give them something greater than themselves. So using it only for relaxation is a perversion of its purpose, and extraordinarily reductionist. That is not to say that classical music cannot relax people, ever, or that’s it’s not useful for music therapy, but rather that the relaxation is a side effect, not the purpose.

  6. Despite my father’s best efforts (he is not only a classical music lover, but also plays the piano), I remain a) tone deaf, b) sing so poorly that my wife asks that I not even sing in Church so as not to inflict pain on my fellow men and c) enjoy glam rock.

    In short, I am hopelessly lost…

  7. I am, unfortunately, all too guilty of using classical music as a “relaxer.” However, I am still awed by the power and majesty of the classics. It truly is art in its most pure form. Mozart’s Great Mass Kyrie is haunting but beautiful: I imagine a Mary-esque figure defending a weeping soul before her Son, with the decision still up in the air at the end…

  8. Well said. Some years back, the church we attended hosted a Bible study on the Psalms. It seemed a good opportunity to broaden the study a bit by introducing the study leader (and associate pastor) to Bernstein’s glorious “Chichester Psalms”. I loaned him a recording that was directed by Bernstein and encouraged him to give it a listen. A week or two later I asked what he thought about the music. He was very enthusiastic. “I loved it! It was sooo…relaxing.” Relaxing? The Chichester Psalms relaxing!? I didn’t give up, but It is not overstating it to say that for the moment I was, indeed, crestfallen.

  9. In response to request for recommendations on learning about classical music: Aside from an excellent music history/appreciation class taken as an undergraduate, I was largely an autodidact. I simply listened to the local classical radio station, purchased CDs of pieces I heard and liked, and read the essays in the enclosed CD booklets, which were typically authored by musicologists. I also picked up a few books here and there about composers I liked. Today, with Wikipedia, online musical samples, and the ready availability of cheap downloads, the beginning classical music enthusiast has more avenues of exploration open to him.

    Here are good books for the beginner: Stanley Sadie’s “Music Guide” (anything written by Sadie is excellent); “A History of Western Music,” by J. Peter Burkholder, Donald J. Grout, and Claude V. Palisca;Ted Libbey’s “NPR Guide to Building a Classical Music Collection”; Harold C. Schonberg’s “Lives of the Great Composers”; anything by H.C. Robbins Landon, including his several books on Mozart and his books on Haydn, Vivaldi, and Beethoven.

    I envy the joy of discovery that you will experience in the coming years!

  10. I love Classics, and others too.. But I love classics more..
    I’m actually 16 and searching for some friends who actually love classics too.
    In my school, i have no one who shares the same interest wif me, even at my tuition centre.
    So, some time i do feel isolated.
    I seldom talk and I don’t know what topic i can have with my friends..

    =[

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