Editorial: Classical Music’s Ten Dirtiest Secrets

Classical Music’s Ten Dirtiest Secrets

Considering how culturally valuable and self-evidently important classical music is supposed to be, its proponents are a surprisingly defensive group. At performing arts organizations, press departments fret that the slightest negative comment about an artist might attract public notice. What little marketing that takes place with respect to recordings always assumes that the latest issue is necessarily “the best,” or at all events of earth-shattering importance. Classical music, we are assured, is really “good for us” intellectually, spiritually, and even physically, the aural equivalent of cod liver oil.

This knee-jerk habit of affecting a “beauty pageant smile” at all costs even affects criticism. Sure, we don’t always like the performance or recording in question, but that’s only because the music is so incredibly great that either (a) it’s almost impossible to play perfectly, or (b) the performer in question has no business even attempting it. And then there are those many occasions where we try to make the best possible case for music which is—to put it delicately—of less then first rank and therefore unknown for very good reason.

So I’ve been thinking: What on earth are we all afraid of? That the public may decide that Vivaldi really did write the same concerto 600 times? And what if they do? After all, so few people listen to classical music regularly that the cultural spin doctors are obviously doing a terrible job in making a case for the cause. No one believes the “it’s all marvelous” line anyway, particularly when what matters is not how good the stuff is in some objective or absolute sense, but whether the consumer likes it enough to want to pay to listen to it.

Indeed, it may very well be that if the industry encouraged listeners to exercise their right of choice, rather than inviting them to become true believers and worship at the holy shrine, they might in fact do just that and thus listen more frequently and with greater enthusiasm. This, it seems to me, would be healthy thing, because it should be obvious by now that beating people over the heard with the cultural significance and sublime wonderfulness of it all isn’t working, nor is the related “guilt trip” approach that seeks support for the performing arts by shaming people into spending money on them.

I propose a radical new idea: Tell the truth! Stop insisting that the classics consist of an unbroken chain of perfect masterpieces of equal worth, and let people compare, judge, and even (gasp!) dislike some of them. After all, huge crowds go to the movies every week and nine times out of ten hate what they see. But they still go back, time after time. This must be, at least in part, because they feel comfortable about that fact that they are free to like or dislike the film, as they chose. The lesson here is clear: the exercise of choice enhances, rather than diminishes, the general attraction of the medium.

The problem with classical music is that people too often feel that it’s a “take it or leave it” proposition. So they leave it, and who can blame them? As a public service, therefore, I propose to close this editorial by revealing ten of classical music’s dirtiest secrets, the kind of facts that you’ll find critics and writers vigorously denying in program note booklets, articles, and reviews. But admit it folks, deep down we all know the truth, don’t we? Judge for yourself:

  1. Mozart really does all sound the same.
  2. Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge is just plain ugly.
  3. Wagner’s operas are much better with cuts.
  4. No one cares about the first three movements of Berlioz’ Symphonie fantastique.
  5. Schoenberg’s music never sounds more attractive, no matter how many times you listen to it.
  6. Schumann’s orchestration definitely needs improvement.
  7. Bruckner couldn’t write a symphonic allegro to save his life.
  8. Liszt is trash.
  9. The so-called “happy” ending of Shostakovich’s Fifth is perfectly sincere.
  10. It’s a good thing that “only” about 200 Bach cantatas survive.

David Hurwitz