Why is society so coy about criticizing classical music?

I recorded a VoiceBox episode on Friday on the subject of “terrible songs” in collaboration with Jim Nayder, the host of NPR Chicago’s Annoying Music Show, and Brian Rosen, a Bay Area-based composer and arts blogger.

The task was to dissect well-known vocal music aberrations (we covered everything from The Shaggs’ “My Pal Foot Foot” to Rebecca Black’s “Friday”) according to what we called “the elements of badness.” These elements are the various qualities that many sub-par vocal compositions possess in common such as crumby or smug lyrics, monotonous/grating melody, poor intonation and overuse of Auto-Tune.

One thing that came up in discussion is how coy our society generally is about voicing a negative opinion about classical music. Few people have qualms about skewering a bad pop song. But beyond narrow-focused musicologists steeped in the world of academic journals and conferences, faulting a Mozart aria or Schubert lied is “just not done.” And relatively few people besides the handful of professional critics that are still plying their trade today come flat out against contemporary works.

Performances/interpretations of classical music works are fairer game for derision — Florence Foster Jenkins makes an appearance on our VoiceBox program, naturally. But in general, the criticism is not serious. And while classical music critics might fault a singer for not performing an aria or art song as well as they might, it’s rare to come across a review which completely destroys a vocal performance.

Classical music is more of a niche genre than pop music, of course, so there are fewer “worst of” lists anyway and fewer people sharing widely-disseminated opinions about classical pieces. This explains in part why there is so little discussion along these lines.

I think what it boils down to, though, is that society at large is scared to judge classical music. It’s still so very entrenched in the establishment and regarded as “high brow.” Perhaps people think that to deride classical music is to highlight one’s own poor taste. Ultimately, it’s easier somehow to make fun of something truly alien to many western sensibilities, like Chinese opera or Mongolian throat singing for instance, than to condemn a piece of occidental art music.

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  1. says

    Wouldn’t you think that it’s because it’s much more difficult in classical music – yesterday’s and today’s – to define the “elements of badness” than it is in pop music? Me, I can’t deal with Hindemith. I find his music unbearable annoying, utterly useless. To me, it’s just bad music. But I couldn’t tell you why. So I’m stuck with having to respect the opinion of those who think it’s wonderful music.

    This said, I think people do recognize – and aren’t afraid of saying so – the works by Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Chopin, Liszt, etc., that are weaker than the acknowledged masterpieces, just as they can admit that all the Beatles songs don’t attain the same level of greatness.

    And I should add that in classical music, it is mostly the acknowledged masterworks that are performed. It was obvious in the 1820s that Beethoven’s music was greater than Cherubini’s, and it’s still obvious to us now, and that’s the reason why Cherubini’s music, apart from a very few chosen works, isn’t performed anymore. When you do program works by “lesser” composers, all critics can write about is how these works should not be performed because they are “bad”, i.e., not “as great” as the great masterpieces. But this would be another subject of conversation…

  2. gary hickling says

    There are plenty of critical comments about recordings of classical music in magazines such as Fanfare and in the UK: BBC Music and Grammaphone. These critics are very educated about classical music and whether the performance or the composition, speak their minds.

  3. Josh says

    Perhaps it is because classical music tends to appeal to a much broader range of emotions, sensibilities and thought than does (most) pop music. Most people like Beethoven or Mozart. Why? Their music goes though many more changes than does pretty much any pop song; they last considerably longer, and most importantly, the more you know about a classical piece, the more one tends to like it – or at least finds it much more interesting! Most people who know Bartok or Hindemith may not find the music “pleasing” and easy to listen to, but are drawn by the complexities and workmanship, history and complex emotion that such a piece engenders. Is there bad classical (and I use the word very broadly!) music? Sure, But it may take a generation or two to understand the genius behind it. Pop music overwhelmingly is conceived and written to be judged and consumed today in its own time by a relatively non-academic audience.

  4. says

    In terms of contemporary classical music, it is such a perilous venture to begin with, that harshly criticizing it is like stealing candy from children. The critics don’t bother. And the styles are so diverse that there is no recognized criteria for what is bad.

    I watched Rebecca Black’s video and didn’t find anything much worse than most pop songs. I remember, for example, the early days of Madonna when she couldn’t carry a tune in bucket. I even liked elements of Black’s video exactly because it had a slightly amateur quality that made it seem more authentic than the slick commercialese of what I often see.

    From a journalistic perspective, the piling on effect is what is most interesting about the Rebecca Black phenomenon. The publicity caused her video to become the most watched video on Youtube in 2011. Badness might have more dimensions than we realize.

  5. says

    Like a lot of modern music Hindemith’s has suffered from weak or indifferent perfomances recorded badly, but with notable exceptions. Nonetheless he is an uneven composer deserving of critical assessment. I could list many pieces that I find absolulety engaging, and just as many that are a bore. As for Beethoven there is crap that should be called out as crap — and way too much worship for the overall health of the classical music industry, if it can be called that. Simply put, Beethoven is hogging too much “real estate” for all the fabulous music that has been composed in the last century, not to mention the last decade, that deserves to be heard. As for Messiaen’s Turangalila, it inspires quite a lot of passion pro and con, but I must point out that Gustavo Dudamel opened last season with FOUR subscription concerts of the work, some sold out, all of which had audiences screaming with joy — including me at all four.

  6. Michael Scott MacClelland says

    Chloe, I think you make too many assumptions in driving this piece, as you or I might on a slow news day. In my career as a classical music journalist/critic/program-annotator/lecturer, I think context is as important–maybe more important–than other facets of the craft, when it comes to most readers. And I think many–perhaps most–music journalists fail their readers largely for want of sufficient context. That is, for making too many assumptions about what their readers know or, hopefully, want to know. On the basis of the responses already published here, a severe gap stands between your assertions and those well-intentioned responders who disdain Hindemith (what’s up with that?) or major works by Messiaen. There comes a point where arguing someone’s taste is a waste of time, especially when there’s so much ignorance out there in need of attention and remediation. Cheers.

    • says

      It’s true that arguing taste is usually a waste of time. Perhaps it’s the ability to argue taste with informed, articulate, and entertaining intelligence that shapes truly great criticism. In that sense, I would agree with Chloe. Some of the best criticism is negative, but still fair, informed, insightful, and well-spoken. The arts need that kind of energy. I find that we artists are getting away with way too much, so journalists need to be able hold up their end of the deal – which really takes some skill.

  7. Lisa Petrie says

    Perhaps you’ve touched on the whole problem of relevance that classical music suffers today. Fewer people feel qualified to enter the dialog about the music because there is an intellectual barrier – people assume they don’t know what they’re talking about, and thus they are not as engaged. This passive consumption is one of the reasons it’s less interesting to the masses.

  8. says

    To me, it is quite the opposite. Popular music is not criticized at all, it is lauded for its “artistic” content by writers like Sascha Frere-Jones, no matter how hard the writer has to stretch reason to find anyl; while classical music is constantly scrutinized.

  9. says

    Many historic composers also wrote bad music. You just don’t hear it anymore except in complete works collections. Why aren’t Rutini, Galuppi or Albrechtsberger on the hit parade? The same reason so many contemporary composers won’t stand the test of time — they’re forgotten, they didn’t get the hype, even though they may have produced great stuff.

    Contemporary music hasn’t had the benefit of history to weed out the bad stuff, so we hear good and bad music — at least once if a composer is lucky. What early 21st century composers will listeners have on their MP3 (equivalent) player 100 years from now? Probably Adams, maybe Lindberg, maybe Higdon? Give it a little time and the great stuff will rise to top.

  10. says

    To say that fewer people criticize Classical music is much too broad a statement to support.
    First of all, producing music was an extremely tedious activity until the late 20th century, with the advent of the computer. It involved years of study, lots of manual labor to write and lots of manpower to perform. Today, one can produce music without even having studied music. One of the main products of the ease of production has been an overwhelming amount of bad stuff, prime for criticism. When the production required more struggle, the end results were generally more refined.
    Second, within that much more limited production, the Classical music that has survived has already been filtered of much of the bad stuff. Revivals of unknown Baroque composers have rarely uncovered masterworks, and Beethoven’s Wellington’s Victory is acknowledged as justifiably little-performed.
    Third, pop music today is written for the market, whereas much Classical music was not meant for general public consumption. Just because someone doesn’t like a piece of Classical music doesn’t mean that it is a bad piece – it was perhaps never meant to please, but to serve another purpose or to create another response. Try that with a pop piece today and you’ll never get any radio play!
    Also, the performers of Classical music today are following on sometimes centuries of tradition and learning. Since music through the early 20th century was always performed live (before recordings) and therefore very dependent on the good practices of the performer, the “quality” of the piece is tightly tied to the quality of the performers and their ability to carry a piece, to search for its value and to present it well. Today, the performances of works are recorded. While there is great learning and evolution through the recording process, the recording itself is an unchanging experience, played over and over, never changing, never evolving. The criticisms of that kind of listening experience will obviously be more subject to criticism than will an experience that is ever-changing and evolving, adapting itself to conditions and listeners in real-time.

    In my experience, when works are presented in the right conditions, in the right context, and the audience is encouraged to listen with an eye to their visceral reactions, getting listeners to criticize a work of Classical music is not difficult. Check out ClassicalSmackdown.com to see praise and criticism of the music of the acknowledged masters Debussy and Prokofiev.

  11. says

    Well, you first, Chloe, since you’re making this claim – why don’t you name a few pieces you think need to be put in their place, then tell us why?

  12. says

    I’ve sung some Galuppi and it was quite good; on a program with Pergolesi and Vivaldi, it held its own easily.

    It’s difficult to establish criteria for badness in classical music because “badness” is too often defined as “something I don’t like.” I’m not a big Rossini fan; I would say too much of his music sounds like variants on a tiny number of stylistic quirks to be interesting to me – and then I roll on the floor laughing at “Le Comte Ory,” and loving every minute, or I listen to “William Tell,” which is a marvelously original and brilliant opera.

    I also know people who write off Mozart as “deeddly music,” as in “deedly deedly deedly.” They don’t get Mozart, obviously. That doesn’t make his music bad.