Why and how important is Classical Music in our modern way of life?

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Why and how important is Classical Music in our modern way of life?

After having listened consistently and extensively music for more than three decades, I had, quite a few times, to defend my devotion and full dedication to classical music against a majority of contemporary people, who lead a very practical way of life. I have to admit that I was often faced with very legitimate questions and arguments, so that I had to wonder...With the years, having the benefit to travel and live to various and different places in the world, I came to the conclusion that, probably, I belong, whether I wanted it or not, to a discriminating group of people, who believe in some high esthetic values, that do not represent anything necessary or abcsolutely useful in our practical race for more success, recognition, promotion, comfortable lifestyle (just name it). Quite a few people argue that this music belongs to the museum and it is useful only for those who have a particular reason to find out how the music was in the past. In some remotest parts of the world, the folks there simply called it "western" music and they dismissed any possible interest for anybody else outside Europe and what it is called "western world". In some other societies, anywhere in the world, they plainly called it "the music" for the "bourgeois" (pas le gentillhome).

Therefore,, considering that all of us in these forums are like-minded people, do we have any argument(s) in defence of this music we love and appreciate? Do we have any particular one regarding the "added value" for the continuation of listening to classical music? Do we have enough reasoning for keeping it in live concerts, paying tax-payers money for maintaining big orchestras, large concert halls, etc? Or spending small or big fortunes in collecting CDs, DVDs, etc.? Or why this music does not belong to the museum, only for the interested people? In addition, how can we defend the role of classical music in building better family ties, stronger and healthier relations with the people we work or live with? Or how influential may be in a declining world full of crises, trouble, confusion, crime, lack of security and so on?

I sincerely hope you find the topic pertinent and you may wish to build an appropriate debate to find out music's "reason d'etre" in our modern lifestyle.

Parla

RE: Why and how important is Classical Music

I can see that this will spark a big debate, Parla!

I'm not sure that militant arguments can be mounted which would defend classical music against people who are determined to find it obscure, or elitist, or irrelevant. I'm certain it does have meaningful value, but if the arguments are couched in terms of ultimate values or a culture war then people usually take up entrenched positions and nobody gets anywhere - the 'them and us' remains. British forumites will know that we've had rather too much 'them and us' in recent Britain...

On a one-to-one basis with other people I'd be for modelling enthusiasm. As George Eliot writes in Middlemarch, 'The best piety is to enjoy - when you can. You are doing the most then to save the earth's character as an agreeable planet ... Enjoyment radiates.' And if people are still hostile after some honest enthusiasm, well, I wouldn't be interested in talking to them about music, or perhaps even really having them as friends/close colleagues!

On a more public basis, when it comes to defending the cost of the arts, the position is that classical music will never be as cost-effective as other forms of 'entertainment'. And I think we have to be cautious about how we talk about its 'value' beyond the monetary. Too many grand claims get made which seem pompous and inflated, and therefore play into the hands of those who cry snobbish elitism at play. The best argument I've come across for the value of the arts is that by the literary critic Harold Bloom, who argues in The Western Canon that reading books won't make us better people (remember, shifting back to music, that Hitler liked Wagner and Bruckner), but that it will give us opportunity to know and 'hear' ourselves better in a way which virtually nothing else in the material world does. That's invigorating and consoling, and, if we choose to act on it positively, humane and civilising.

And as to the international dimension, it's easy too to appear occidental: Westerners (whether middle-class or not) complacently assuming that West-is-best. I'm not sure I've an argument for that, but I'm mindful of how much music has meant to so many people of non- or semi-European cultures. Classical music is popular in Japan. Russians have always been 'musical' (even if in the 19th century there was a tussle about just how 'European' music should be allowed to be... I think the argument eventually went with the Western models), and in the 20th century I suspect music and the arts were a lifeline for Russians in a totalitarian state, the abstractions of sonata form, concertos and symphonies allowing for a fluidity of meaning which seemed to say several things at once, some very private and 'banned' things with that precision which only music allows. Think too of the lifeline provided by the 'Western' model of the symphony orchestra with a predominantly (but not completely: there's a genuine cultural exchange with 'native' music) 'Western' repertoire by El Sistema. The Simon Bolivar (Youth) Orchestra, like so many youth orchestras, I think have a thing or two to tell us about how to take classical music seriously - and why it's important.

John

RE: Why and how important is Classical Music in our modern way?

Thank you very much, John, for your valuable and well articulated contribution.

However, your argumentation is closer to the "like-minded" people rather than the "other side". Bear in mind that the "other side" is not black and white "them and us", but it is more complicated. Very often, the "them" can be found among us and the "us" can be inextricably linked with "them". So, we need arguments to answer the practical concerns of those who doubt the relevance of classical music in our modern world with clear-cut views on the "added value" and the other relevant questions.

As for the label of "western" music, the main argument of all those of other than "western countries" is that this music was created by europeans in Europe and, simply, was exported to the world, whenever and wherever the "west" noticed that a country or a region was on the way to development, presenting the classical music as a "proof" (the credentials) of the development, cultural enhancement and the creation of a "westernized" elite there.

Let's see the other inputs where they lead and how they will develop the debate.

Parla

RE: Why and how important is Classical Music in our modern way

As I said before, John, I have very little room to doubt your clear argumentation, which, however, does not answer the crucial question of "the added value" or, in other words the "reason d'etre" of this franchise called "classical music".

To put it more bluntly, the crucial question of the non-believers in this music is: "Can we live without (classical) music"? Their reply is yes, we can, because music is not anything essential in our life, like food, sleep, shelter, money, we cannot support our life without them. If our answer to the above question is No, we cannot, then we have to prove that, for some reason(s) classical music is absolutely necessary for our (and any human's) lives. Otherwise, "they" will always claim that it is another luxury of a certain elite. Unless we find another response which, however, has to "disarm" their question and its connotations.

I hope this might help us to focus our attention on the main problem(s) on this subject.

Parla

RE: Why and how important is Classical Music in our modern way

Fair enough, John. I think between us, as I said from the very start, there is no problem.

If I am allowed, I wish to say something : if you believe that the "best" argument we have is the view expressed by Harold Bloom, then, I'm afraid, there is some problem, because, if, by listening to the (classical) music, we...give the opportunity to know and "hear" ourselves better in a way..., then, what did Hitler find in himself by listening to Wagner, Bruckner (and Beethoven too)? Along with so many others "mischievous" people who happened (or happens) to indulge in (classical) music, but they keep behaving as wrong as it gets or being in the wrong side of History.

Besides, beyond the above observation, I found the argument of Mr. Bloom too intellectual even for people like us. I'm sure we too find more than the fine critic sees in Arts and we need to articulate it. The esthetic and intellectual values do not convince our modern societies' folks, let alone the non "westerners".

Perhaps, in order to realize how alarming is the future of classical music in our modern world here are the following facts: Traditional Orchestras vanish (e.g. Cleveland, Philadelphia), others remain without musical director or others get inferior ones. Concerts become "social events" rather than what they used to be. Soloists become famous instantly, only on the basis of their great technic and dexterity but without the maturity, spirit and, most importantly the authority to perform. Others behave like pop stars, helped by the media and the recording labels (Lang Lang, Dudamel and their likes) and maybe, the worst of all, the enormous intrusion of the "Crossover", started with the infamous "threeTenors" to the most infamous "Pavarotti and friends" (where anything goes by using classical forms, recognised artists and so on). Then, the final blow came with people like Vanessa Mey, Katherine Jenkins, Bond, Sarah Brightman (just name them) where classical music is literally pulverized and trivialised in the name of making this "strange, elitistic" music more "accessible", more popular, even if, at the end, there is nothng left except for some transvestite kind of an anonymous, without any identity and features music. Besides, we have also the human political vanity, where arrogant european leaders and technocrats of the E.U. take just like that the Beethoven's 9th "Ode to Joy" and they name it as the national anthem of a political project (that's what E.U. is for the moment), without realizing  how they "homogenize", in a Procrustean way, arguably the most glorious piece of german music, in order to make it "ours" (I wonder when "the political project" becomes something more "tangible", in how many languagues we have to translate the text or we will find ourselves obliged to sing it in the original german, in order to recognize what, eventually E.U means)! I mentioned all that, because I wish to underline that what is self-evident or sufficient to "us" is very little or nothing "out there".

Anyway, let's see if anybody else wishes to contribute to our exchanges so far.

Parla

RE:

Not an easy issue. But I fail to see any basis for the assertion that someone who prefers Brahms to bebop is more ‘discriminating’ than anyone else or has a belief in high aesthetic values not shared by other people. I know that my own predilection for classical music is not generally shared by most of the people I know, but that is purely a matter of my personal taste rather than an indication of my superior aesthetic awareness. And I’m not aware of any argument that warrants saying that classical music is intrinsically any better that any other type – nor can I conceive of such an argument. This is simply elitism.

 

(I admit that I am totally deaf to most rap music – I don’t understand it, I can’t see the point in listening to it, etc. Does that mean that the people who do listen to rap are more discriminating than me? Or that I lack their belief in high aesthetic values?)

 

Which is not say that the idea doesn’t have an intellectual history – as well as Harold Bloom, there was FR Leavis who insisted that great novels are essentially vehicles for moral pedagogy (so Charles Dickens is merely an ‘entertainer’). Or for that matter John Ruskin who said that ‘taste is not only a part and an index of morality — it is the ONLY morality.’ In his book What Good Are the Arts?, John Carey gloriously debunks such arguments, pointing out that this intellectual idea is inseparable from class and snobbery and that the idea of aesthetics itself only emerged in the 18th century when art became less of a common heritage (as it had been say with Shakespeare) and more the exclusive preserve of the wealthy and well educated. Hence Emmanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Judgement, developed by Schopenhauer and Hegel, which saw art as something akin to religion, and only accessible by the refined and sophisticated. But, as Carey points out, the problem with this is that there is absolutely no evidence to support the argument – it’s simply taken as a given and developed accordingly.

 

I accept what you say about cross-over forms and attempts to popularise classical music. I recall a programme recently called (I think) Pop Star to Opera Star, which was so awful it was unwatchable, at least by me. But no doubt millions of other people disagreed with me (after all they commissioned a second series) and enjoyed it – and who should criticise them for doing so? To describe this (and Katherine Jenkins, Vanessa May and the like) as ‘trivialised’ classical music is simply saying that it isn’t to my taste. And – unfortunately - my taste is no more valid than anyone else’s.

RE: Why and how important is Classical Music in our modern way

Very well articulated, Craig. However, allow me the following remarks:

Whether Brahms is better than bebop, in musical terms, is not a matter of taste. There is a definition, History, laws, canons, etc. that govern the music writing, so that a piece of music which respects, follows and develops them can be much better than another one, which simply contains "three notes". (A great late professor of music used to make the difference between pop and classical music, by saying that Pop is a music composed of three notes and listened to by thousands, while Classical is a music composed by thousands of notes listened by three people). Therefore, your "predilection" for classical music is not simply a matter of taste. If you wish, it is a matter of a better taste, and not only.

If you talk to any serious musicians, they will tell you that the first thing they strive for is the Tone, which means the beauty of the tone. They change instruments, they excell their technic, they practice relentlessly to achieve the best possible tone. Then, we have the Harmony, which is the rule of making different notes or chords to sound...beautifully, and so on. Therefore, whether we like it or not, (classical) music is about the beauty of specific sounds (the notes, not just any sound). And these notes have to follow certain rules of how they have to be used (diatonic, chromatic, atonal, serial, etc.). All these are features of an Art of high aesthetic, intellectual and emotional values. In this way, anything that tries to make it "easier", more "accessible", more popular, simply lowers the bar. What's the use for a conductor, orchestra and soloist to practice relentlessly to achieve the best possible sound and play in the most precise way (as very wisely Bernstein has put it, the classical music should be called "precise music", because whatever you hear is written down), the Four Seasons of Vivaldi, when Madame Vanessa Mae presents an entirely pulverized version of the "Summer", making Vivaldi look like the remnants of Rolling Stones in "Sympathy for the Devil"?

However, the subject of this topic is whether this music we love, appreciate and cherish (as like-minded people) has any future in a world, which becomes very practical, easy, convenient, and lowers the bar in any extraordinary skills, individuality, craftsmanship and wisdom, so that we will end up only to obvious responses and natural reactions. If we believe this music is worthy, we have to be ready to defend it, before we find out that, sometime in the future, it will end up in a sort of i-pod (or in a hard disc) or, even worse, in a kind of an obscure museum. If we rely on the self-evident or the "power of music" as enough elements for the continuation of classical music, we may find it sometime, somewhere in the..."music of the night".

Parla

RE: Why and how important is Classical Music in our modern way

Actually Parla and Tagalie, you're saying the same thing.  You may disagree on genres, but the premise behind both your arguments is that intelligence, complexity, subtlety, ambiguity - difficult to create - in music makes it "good", or "better" than music which doesn't possess those qualities.  But is that true?

Take a child's stick man drawing and a Rembrandt portrait - is one better than the other?  The instinct is to say of course it is; Rembrandt is subtle, says something about its subject, looks like its subject - but if those aren't your priorities, if you're another kid say, you won't think he's better.  OK, take it one stage further: you need a heart op - do you want a heart surgeon or a plumber doing it?  Heart surgeon, of course, unless survival isn't your priority in which case you might prefer the plumber - he'll certainly be cheaper.

But suicide by plumber is pretty rare.  Survival tends to be the bottom line; its what we're hard-wired for.  And for that reason, consciously or subconsciously, we admire those qualities which are good survival traits: intelligence, subtlety, cunning (read ambiguity).  Which is why those qualities in art, literature or music have been admired for so long; not as an arbitrary canon, but because they correspond to what we know we need to get by in the day-to-day world.

Whether you believe they're to be found in various musical genres is irrelevant; they're certainly to be found in great classical music.  What's gone wrong is that somehow classical music is seen as something snobbish and exclusive (I don't use the term elitist - elistist is good, used correctly) and so has started to be dismissed by people who might not enjoy it but would certainly respect it without the smoke screen.  The answer to Parla's original question is that classical music reflects something absolutely basic to the way we function in the world.  Maybe it's not the only music to do so - that's a whole different debate - but that's why it's not part of a museum/archive culture.  No, hang on, what am I saying?  I run an archive!

carlboardman

 

RE: Classical Music in our modern way of life

I listen to CM because I like it and often love it. The question, unfortunately, sounds like a high school question, so I will not answer it.

RE: Why and how important is Classical Music

Carl, I wasn’t arguing that complex or skilled is necessarily better. My point was that those features are by no means exclusive to classical music. As for what’s ‘better’, I agree with your analogy of Rembrandt and the stick man. Depends on who you are, what you’re looking for, your own taste and mood and circumstances. Not to mention your personal history and reference points. 

I was disagreeing with Parla over three things, (1) that taste is objective, (2) that classical music is somehow ‘better’ than other forms, (3) that you can broad-brush any category of music.

As for this thread in general, my take would be that those who think classical music is irrelevant hold that opinion because they don’t know any. A media industry only interested in advertising sales and therefore audience acceptance is not going to risk its lifeblood by trying to guide that audience. It’s more interested in following it. People tend to gravitate towards what is easily digestible, and that’s what they’re given. If they were exposed to more classical music, it would be a different story. Today, that exposure comes generally in the form of film and TV background or theme music. Which is how those with no interest in classical music unexpectedly find themselves liking the andante to k467 or Also Sprach (god knows what they make of the rest of it after the opening peroration) or Barber’s Adagio.

I firmly believe that relegation of any form of art to a backwater where it can be given the convenient tag of ‘elitist’ and ignored, is first of all a cop out by our media and politicians, and secondly badly underestimates the capacity of many people to learn if they’re given a chance. Giving people a chance to rediscover that rewards can come from effort, that what you get out can be proportional to what you put in, is a lesson inherent in listening to classical music but clearly applicable to life too.

Having said all that, there’s plenty of non-classical I prefer to classical when mood and circumstances dictate, and in no way do I consider it inferior. At a party, give me the Temptations over Bruckner every time.

RE: Why and how important is Classical Music in our modern way

Wow! That's going somewhere.

Goodear, it's very convenient to label something, in order to evade it. You could easily ignore the topic, but you prefer to "label" it and, then, give an empty input. Intriguing.

Carl, I think you tried to answer the original question in a very fair way. However, you don't specify what is this "absolutely basic" that is "reflected to the way we function in the world". However, we are somewhere. As for the Rembrandt thing : it's not a matter of our priorities to categorise him in Art. Rembrandt is a milestone in the Art of Painting and that's it. Of course, it is our prerogative, as the living subjects, to decide whether we like his art or not and, accordingly, to send him to the museum or even to the oblivion, but...he will always be great. If the great painting is a matter of taste or popularity, I am a great one (I draw certain things from time to time that people around me find them very...appealing. Am I great painter? To them, maybe, but, then, so what? To me, I know I don't deserve even to mention it).

As for Tagalie, first of all, if you see the future, the role and importance of this music that lies in the film industry, TV background and theme music (why not elevator or super market music), then, we have a very first legitimate answer to the original question. So, we may live without it or (even worse) we can use it at will, wherever and whenever we like (concert halls are included?).

Concerning your three points of disagreement with me, please kindly note:

 a) The taste is definitely subjective, but we don't define a form of Art or Science as "great" on the basis of what we like or not. There are definitions, rules and laws that govern our life in order to understand each other and properly coexist. Therefore, there is a pursue for progress, development and excellence, in every field of our life (including the Arts) and we are judged and take our share upon our results. So, it's not a matter of my taste to call Einstein a great scientist or Rembrandt a great painter and Beethoven accordingly. That's why there are Universities, where we study what is the object of our interest, Schools, Conservatories, etc., so that we may learn how we get to know, appreciate and master our Art. Greatness is not and cannot be a matter of popularity. Appealingness is.

b) Therefore, classical is not "somehow" better than other forms of music. It's simply what music is all about, at least in the western world. Probably, because this "language" (of speaking with notes) that was created and developed in all these centuries in Europe, proved to be the more meaningful almost everywhere, where development managed to be established. That's why it has been and is being used in any different form of music. However, only classical is the "precise" one (as Bernstein insisted to call it), since every note we hear is written there in the score. In any other form, there is a basic theme and, then, the performers, accordingly can perform it, as it suits them. That's why you can never hear the same exact performance of "Yesterday" by any singer, who takes the liberty to do practically anything he or she wants during the performance, but, very rarely (unless he or she is a great musician) can repeat it. The same applies to jazz, though great as it is on its own merits. In jazz, there is a theme (normally quite easy and catchy) and, then, incredible improvisations (not variations) of great artistry, which, however, are not written down. That's why each performance is a "gem"; because it cannot be repeated, unless the musician is a...Bach or Liszt, so that he can remember what exactly he played, so that he can write it down for the posterity...

c) Therefore, after all the above, there is no need to "broad-brush away" any category of music at the detriment of any other. We simply have to know where each one of them stands based on their features, purpose and role.

However, what matters, at least to some of us who still have some passion for this form of music, is whether this music can survive beyond the film, TV background, etc. Fortunately, in some remote irrelevant places the media (and not only) take the risk to "guide" the people about what the words... mean.

Parla

 

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