Classical music triumph

This is the flip side, more or less, to my last post, about how safe it is for an authoritarian government like China’s to encourage classical music. The repertoire from the past — all those great masterpieces — seems very safe today. There’s not much in it that could challenge anything the Chinese government wants its people to believe. And classical music has worldwide prestige, so China seems greatly cultured by encouraging it.

But today there’s a stunning piece in the New York Times, by their classical music reporter, Dan Wakin, that shows how exactly these traits of classical music can have the opposite effect. Dan writes about classical music in Palestine, about what he calls “a rising tide of interest in Western classical music” among young Palestinians.

And why is this happening? Well, for a start, it’s an escape from the ugly realities of Palestinian life. Which dovetails precisely with something I’ve noticed many times in my own far more peaceful (what an understatement!) country. People often say they like classical music because it’s calm, or because it provides a refuge from the jangles of contemporary life. To me, that sounds very much like escapism, or nostalgia, and — if this is really what classical music means in our culture — calls into question classical music’s standing as serious art. Art ought to do far more than comfort people.

But in Palestine, who could blame anyone for needing an escape? By spending your time playing the flute, as one teenager described in Dan’s piece does, you’re affirming your humanity. You don’t turn your back on the harsh realities of your life. The flute player Dan writes about said, as Dan writes, “that she felt ‘in prison’ because of travel restrictions. ‘Every time we look at this wall, we feel suffocated,’ she added.” But she makes space for something else.

And she and others can do this precisely because classical music doesn’t have any embattled content. Because it stands apart from everyday life, you make a large statement, as a Palestinian, by spending time with it. You’re saying that you’re more than the horrors you’re part of. And so are your people. You’re saying that you stand for something higher and better, something that could eventually be a larger part of your life.

Which then ties into the worldwide prestige of classical music. As a Palestinian, playing Bach and Mozart, you’ve tied into something more or less universally viewed as lofty, high-minded, ethical, inspiring. And other people in the world can see you doing that. No surprise, then (quoting Dan again), that

many Palestinians see the study of Western classical music — part of a

broader cultural revival in the West Bank — as a source of hope, a way

to connect to the outer world from a hemmed-in and controlled

existence, particularly at a time when hope for a Palestinian state

seems ever more distant.

Classical music thus takes on a political meaning, precisely — what a paradox — because otherwise it wouldn’t have any. You rise above any stereotypes others might have of you (or at least in principle you could) , and take your place in a worldwide enterprise in which those stereotypes no longer make any sense.

That’s the idealistic view, of course. As Dan makes clear, some Palestinians think that playing classical music means selling out to Israel. And there are other cultural problems, too. One music school was set on fire by Palestinians who disapproved of it. Nor does Israel, on the whole, support classical music in Palestine, or even know about it. “We cannot perceive them as people who have their own cultural lives,” an Israeli music critic says. (Daniel Barenboim, with his work to bring young Israelis and Palestinians together through music, is of course an exception.)

But the paradox is clear. Classical music develops an overt political meaning in Palestine precisely because it doesn’t have one elsewhere. Or, to go a little deeper, its implicit political meaning elsewhere in the world, which is quite conservative, in Palestine starts to seem radical, because Palestinians have been excluded from the cultural life, conservative as it might be, that classical music represents.

(On musical life in China, see a comment posted to my previous post, about someone’s experience playing metal in China. The government watched every concert, censored every lyric.)

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  1. says

    There’s a lot that I disagree with here and in your last post, but let me start with this. What’s your support for the following statement? “Art ought to do far more than comfort people.” (especially given that we’re obviously talking about a pretty sophisticated and layered kind of comfort – I hope you don’t mean that learning/performing classical music is akin to drinking cocoa by a fire.)

    I think it’s bizarre and backwards to suggest that this kind of intimate connection to musical beauty only acquires useful social value when it provides hope in the midst of oppression. I know we’ve disagreed on this before, but I’m honestly curious about how you’ve come to decide that artistic worth is chiefly defined by how an artwork confronts society. Isn’t “affirming humanity” a pretty useful thing in any context?

    Again, your comments are very helpful.

    But, first, I don’t believe I’ve ever said — and certainly have never thought — that artistic worth is chiefly defined by any one characteristic, confronting society included. My point is rather that art has many functions — not in some theory I’m putting forward, but in actual practice, as shown by arts history — confronting and teaching society being one of them. An art form that seems to emphasize the safe, never threatening, never adventurous functions it has — which I think is indisputably true of classical music, as it’s practice

    d in the classical music mainstream — seems incomplete to me. Not because it should be getting in society’s face at every possible moment, but because it almost never does that, under any circumstances.

    Nor did I ever say that classical music has a useful social function only when it offers hope in the midst of oppression. You talk about nuanced and layered forms of comfort. But you’re not reading me with very much nuance or layering! I said that it was fascinating to see the lack of specific content give classical music a powerful role in Palestine. That’s one situation out of many that classical music is in. I hardly said that this is the only situation in which classical music can have a useful social function.

    And as for “affirming humanity,” what does that phrase actually mean? All of us who talk about art — me included — throw phrases and buzzwords around as if we actually knew what they meant. I’m more than happy to delve into my own subtexts to try to define what some of my own favorite bromides actually mean. For instance, when I talk about art confronting society, I mean (among many other things) the expression art gives to insurgent social groups. For the best possible current example of that, I’d recommend Mark Harris’s book Pictures at a Revolution, which shows in wonderful detail how new forms of filmmaking arose in the 1960s, first in France, and then in the US, to give expression to new ways of thinking and feeling (the explicit subject of many of Godard’s films of the period), and new ways of living. Everyone knows, more or less, what those new ways were; they’re covered, loosely speaking, by the words “the Sixties.” Mark Harris shows, again in lavish detail, exactly how that transferred itself into film.

    He also — and this is important — shows (though he doesn’t make a point of this; I’m appropriating him for my purposes; sorry, Mark) — how empty, or at least how simplistic, a phrase like “affirming humanity” can be. Before films like The Graduate and Bonnie and Clyde brought a new culture to Hollywood, films like The Sound of Music were the film industry’s standard, and could easily be said to affirm humanity. When The Sound of Music made people cry, didn’t these people feel that their humanity was being affirmed?

    But the new generation, who found more affirmation in a completely different style of film, more or less gagged at movies like the Sound of Music. So one person’s affirmation may be someone else’s empty, shallow, lying bathos.

    When I say that Bruce Springsteen (sorry to be his fanboy again) affirms my humanity, I’m talking about songs like I Wanna Marry You (from The River). There Springsteen paints what sounds to me like a truthful picture of unspoken longings — longings, in fact, to do good, among the kind of working class people he grew up with. In a very different song, Reno, from Devils & Dust, by depicting in such unsparing, first-person detail a session with a prostitute (not his own, of course), Springsteen affirms humanity by showing what an encounter like that is missing. (The prostitute tells her customer that she’s going to be “the best you ever had.” The customer, who’s the first-person narrator in the song, ends by saying, “She wasn’t the best I ever had/not even close,” and Springsteen’s voice tells you the loss and tragedy of a life so lacking in love and intimacy.

    I think these readings of these songs are real, and affect more people than me. They’re not some analytical theory. People who’ve heard these songs actually do feel that their humanity has been affirmed.

    So now let’s turn to classical music. Michael, would you care to demonstrate that some specific classical performance affirms humanity in specific, tangible ways — and that this affirmation is actually felt, in exactly those specific and tangible ways, by some large number of people involved both as performers and listeners?

    I ask this because it seems to me that phrases like this are routinely thrown around as descriptions of what happens in classical music, without many people actually specifying what kind of reality the phrase actually describes.

    Case in point — a friend of mine, who works at a foundation devoted to funding the arts. He got tired of hearing that the arts provide a “transformative” experience, and required his staff to state exactly what arts experiences — real experiences they’d actually had in their lives — were in fact transformative. That is, genuinely transformed them into something they hadn’t been before. Nobody, my friend says, was able to come up with even one. So my friend banned the use of the word.

    Let’s give the words we use to praise classical music some specific content. And let’s also prove that this content is actually contained in the experience — that we’re not just theorizing, but actually discussing some affirmation (if, for instance, that’s what we’re looking for) that in fact occurs when classical music is being performed.

    To anticipate one possible answer — I’ve seen studies showing that people who regularly hear classical music feel inspired and spiritually uplifted. But that inspiration seems to occur in a very general way — classical music as a whole does this. What inspiration specific pieces might give — and how the inspiration in La Traviata might be different from the inspiration in Beethoven’s Ninth or the Shostakovich 13th Symphony, or Afternoon of a Faun or the Stravinsky Octet or the Barber of Seville or the Berio Sequenzas — is something that doesn’t seem to be much discussed.

  2. says

    By the way, Greg, having just delivered a couple of negative comments, I want to affirm that I think there’s a lot that’s good about the way you challenge conventional thinking. It’s not my point to say that there’s nothing wrong with the current classical music culture; reading this blog has really helped me to think more critically about “the way things are.” I think my biggest problem with this post is how quickly you take this story about escape from oppression and attach the very loaded term “escapism” to the experience of those who love Western classical music.

    By the way, you write a lot about how much you enjoy escaping to the country. Do you think of that as “escapism?” Does the artistry inherent in nature lack something because it doesn’t overtly challenge? And, just to clarify, I’m not denying that artworks can do much more than just provide escape and an opportunity to delight in beauty – even without being layered with overt social commentary, artworks can give us insight into emotion, relationships, etc. And, yes, they can challenge us to think about external issues too? I just don’t see the latter as essential to the artistic experience.

    Thanks, Michael. I feel the same way about your comments. I’d love to meet you in person some time, and talk about all of this over a beer or three.

    Escaping to the country. Interesting that you’d use the word escape. I don’t feel that I escape there. I love being there, but I’m not sure what I’m escaping. Nature isn’t peaceful, and the feeling of peace we sometimes get, when we watch a sunset, listen to birds or crickets, or sit by a running stream, may be real, but also has not much to do with what’s going on with the birds or crickets.

    Take birds. They live perilous lives. I’ve read of someone who carefully observed a few generations of bird families near her home, and saw birds freeze to death, fly away and never return (leaving babies uncared for), neglect their babies. I had baby pigeons one summer on my terrace in New York, two broods of them, and the second brood was eaten, probably (or so the Audubon Society told me) by a crow. All I found were splashes of blood.

    At this time of year, we see many small young rabbits around our house. I’m strongly aware that most of them won’t live through the spring. One night, turning into my driveway very late, I surprised an owl in the act of eating one of these babies.

    Nor can I even sit outside in the twilight at this time of year, especially if it’s rained a lot, because the mosquitoes are just about unbearable.

    Late at night, I sometimes hear coyotes howling. (Yes, coyotes in NY state, just 50 miles from the city.) They howl because they’ve just brought down a deer. Not peaceful at all, No escape. It’s spooky, and any path to affirmation this might bring has to lead through an intial feeling that’s quite unsettled. Just how close do these coyotes come? I saw one cross a road once, and I wouldn’t assume, with coyotes around, that cats and small dogs have nothing to fear.

    I’ve seen a hawk dive at a squirrel (the squirrel escaped), and the number of animals run over by cars is just astonishing, day in and day out. Turtles cross the roads completely oblivious to traffic. One I saw a snapping turtle stride out into heavy traffic on the Palisades Parkway! I’d assume it died within 30 seconds of the time I spotted it.

    I’ve blogged here about how much I loved seeing hedgehogs in England. We had, one summer, three babies we’d see every night. But when a fox came around at night, we worried for them. And all three babies got sick and would have died, if we hadn’t found them gasping helplessly in the grass one morning, and taken them to a vet. (If you see a hedgehog during the day, it’s almost certainly sick.)

    My love of nature and the country includes everything I’ve just talked about, which is never far from my mind. Nature, as the phrase goes, is red in tooth and claw. How can I go to the country to escape, when I’m always aware of that?

    Footnote to the above. I was in Walla Walla this week, working with the Walla Walla Symphony. While I was there, somebody’s dog got badly sick, and the fear was that it had been bitten by a rattlesnake. Which then led to discussions of exactly when and where rattlesnakes in that area are likely to appear. Someone told me about hiking in the mountains, doubling back over his trail, seeing his footprints — and also seeing other prints that showed him he’d been stalked by a mountain lion (which will definitely attack people). A lovely place to live, Walla Walla, but no escape.

  3. says

    Here’s a quote from the Wakin article:

    Friends at first made fun of her flute playing, saying music was not a serious endeavor. Some teachers supported her. “But the most important thing was the feeling the music gives me,” she said. “You feel as if you are flying.”

    For me, that (however feebly expressed) is the most important part of the artistic/aesthetic experience, and it’s an experience that I suspect is shared by students from China, Venezuela, etc who have chosen to invest enormous amounts of disciplined, sacrificial time with music of the Western classical tradition – to explore that “feeling of flying.” It’s not the only thing we get from music, not by a long shot, but I tire of the notion that thinking about music this way “calls into question classical music’s standing as serious art.”

    Whether or not other kinds of music provide an equally compelling experience is a separate (though important) question, and you’re right to challenge the classical music world on its tendency towards elitist dismissal of pop/rock/etc.

    [By the way, I have no idea what spam-based entity resubmitted part of my second comment as a new comment. Hopefully you can delete that.]

    Deleted. Very weird.

    Michael, I can see I’ve really gotten you going. Can you pinpoint exactly why? Apparently you’re upset because I question whether classical music functions in all respects (and in our present culture, an important caveat) like serious art.

    But could we explore that a little more deeply? I’d like to ask you if you honestly think you’ve given me — or yourself! — any reason to believe that classical music functions like serious art. You’ve said that it affirms humanity, but you haven’t said how. And, as I said in reply to another of your comments, people will say that, in complete honesty, about the movie version of The Sound of Music.

    Now you say that classical music can make you feel as if you’re flying. So can riding a roller coaster. And if you indignantly say that the two experiences can hardly be compared, I’d agree, but you haven’t even begun to define the difference. My students, if I may challenge you this way, do better when they say that classical music makes them feel that they’re part of something bigger than themselves. Combine that with a feeling of flying, and maybe we begin to get somewhere.

    And of course other kinds of music make people feel that they were flying. But so what? This reminds me of the prevailing philosophy of music in Baroque-era France — that music was an entertainment, more or less comparable to fireworks, but certainly no more profound. (See James Johnson’s book Listening in Paris.) In the Wakin quote, if someone says classical music makes her feel like she’s flying, that’s a fine testimony to a personal experience, but as a philosophy of music it hardly says anything. Read some of the more eloquent composers, about the meaning of music in general and their music in particular — Wagner, Berlioz, Debussy, Ives, Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Boulez, Schumann. Or for that matter Bob Dylan, in his memoir Chronicles. Is this the kind of thing they talked about? Physical exhilaration? Is this why Wagner wrote Tristan and the Ring?

    Not that I’m telling you anything you don’t know. I’m only hammering this point at you to encourage you to go where Berlioz and Debussy and Ives went, and not be satisfied with very low-level praise of the artistic power and meaning of music. There are pages in the Ring that are wonderfully exhilarating (Siegfried’s Forging Song, the Rhine Journey, the Ride of the Valkyries, the end of the first act of Walkure, the end of the Immolation Scene, even the descent into Nibelheim in Rheingold, horrible as that is in many ways. The bird’s song in Siegfried. The Call to the Vassals in Gotterdammerung. The Ring would be less enjoyable without this exhilaration, and maybe even less profound, because it would include less of life. But surely its profundity, in the last analysis, comes from something else. Or a large collection of something elses. Otherwise, what would be the difference between it and L’elisir d’amore?

    At least, Michael, go as deep as E.M. Forster goes, in his famous set piece about Beethoven’s Fifth, and the goblins. I’ve scanned it — it’s on my website, at

    Forgive me for hitting so hard at this, and at you. What concerns me, ultimately, is what a terrible job we in classical music have done in defining and explaining the value of our art. We take much of that value for granted, and maybe as a result, our descriptions of it are truly weak. We have to do better, not least because we need to make our case in a public arena, full of people who’ll see through simplistic affirmation, and ask for something real.

  4. Zecharia Plavin says

    Dear Mr. Sandow,

    I think Mr. Wakin’s article is heartbreaking, because it really shows the meaning of classical concert music, and also because it shows modest – and true – heroism of pure artistic souls. Music indeed is a harbinger of freedom, of human dignity. The conservative pirouettes of Baroque era are still perceived as utterings of free and dignified human being by all who still are literate in this cultural language. Listen what that flutist girl says. So are sounds of the best music of other composers. Music is full of meaning, from the joyful fragrance of a spring morning, to the anguished love song, and to the defiant hero’s struggle (and so forth…), and only indifferent people, perhaps saturated with lust for immediate gratification, or those who have lost cultural literacy, do not feel it acutely.

    I am afraid, in view of the following ( that the loud-mouthed accentuation of Palestinian classical-music activity might attract additional unhealthy interest of punishing forces. The Palestinian musicians (as much as we, Israeli musicians) would gladly have richer embrace of the liberal music-doers world-wide, for the sake of music and for the sake of human’s dignified life. This embrace would involve attention to compositions created by Palestinian and Israeli musicians (Mr. Barenboim is mainly preoccupied with performing of world chefs-d’oeu•vre and tends to overlook the humanistic support that a dignified performance of Israeli and Palestinian works would give to the peace-loving people here around).

  5. says

    HI Greg,

    This is such a complex issue. Current events have always been a key influence on classical music, and yet ironically, one of the first things questioned by the event makers themselves.

    I agree with those above that the sentiment expressed far surpasses any political undertones the music may contain.

    Bravo for handling such a weighted subject!


  6. says

    Hi Greg,

    I only just noticed these responses – I hadn’t checked back for several days. Actually, I was cued to come check back again by your Twittering about the coyotes – I wondered if my “escape to nature” thing had triggered something! I’m still gonna guess that the quiet, calm, and beauty are big attractions for your visits to the country, but maybe I’m wrong. Do you sleep outside with the coyotes or do you depend on walls to protect you?

    I also think there’s a good analogy in how people can find a visit to symphony mostly calming and relaxing, even if the music is full of violent tensions. One of my favorite BSO programs from last year included Beethoven 7 and The Rite of Spring. My experience there might be something like your visit to the country. I’m not really putting myself face-to-face with a pagan sacrifice (how many pagan sacrifices involve a stage full of conservatory-trained musicians in concert dress?) or whatever primitive dance instincts Beethoven is tapping into, but there’s something enriching and pleasurable about being confronted with them, while also keeping a certain distance from them. (That’s not an attempt to define the entire listening experience – just to compare it with your comments about the country. There are many differences as well.)

    Anyway, thanks as always for being so generous with your feedback; not sure when I’ll be able to get back to all this. Let me begin by saying that I agree with you about the emptiness of much classical music talk. I sat through several speeches that preceded the awarding of the Van Cliburn medals last night, and they all rattled on endlessly about the oh-so-serious importance of “classical music,” with very clarity about what they meant. Drove me crazy.

    For the record, the phrase “affirming humanity” is yours, from the post above where you wrote: “By spending your time playing the flute, as one teenager described in Dan’s piece does, you’re affirming your humanity.” I don’t think it’s a bad little phrase, though. An important aspect of listening to or performing music is tapping into a shared culture of ideas about how to put sounds together, about what’s beautiful, and about what’s worth our time; that’s true of all music, not just classical, of course (and of cooking, sports, etc.). In this case, you’re writing about a Palestinian girl who finds that connection in Western classical music, but I think “affirming humanity” is a useful shorthand for what’s she’s getting out of her experience.

    But yeah, I think we need those beers to get this all sorted out! (I’ll admit that many of your questions are not easily answered. Generally speaking, I think there’s a tendency (perhaps academy-driven) to overstate the importance of the arts; I think we can learn a lot from them, but I don’t think they solve (or even elucidate) as many problems as artists like to assume, which may be one reason I’m less bothered by art which does little more than stimulate a sort of Kantian “free play of the imagination.”)

    I’m looking forward to those beers! And we’re not far from each other. I’ll even be going through Boston next week (I expect), on my way to a consulting job on the Cape. So beers are possible, sometime.

    You’ve certainly got me thinking about the country, and what it means to me. I can’t blame you for thinking I escape there, because I’ve tweeted and blogged about how much I love it. I remember one tweet about nothing in view but hills and woods (or something like that).

    And I do find the country profoundly relaxing, much of the time. But, as I look into myself (and I’ve never made these distinctions before), I find I don’t romanticize it, and above all, I don’t bask in it, the way a critic I know once wrote that he “basked” in a performance of Le nozze di Figaro.

    I think I could say that the country stimulates me, makes me feel more in touch with myself, by way of being more in touch with nature. But I’m constantly reminded of how nature is real, and has its own ways, regardless of how I think about it. Lately I’ve been terribly conscious of animals and birds fleeing when I approach, especially in my car. Groundhogs rushing for cover, rabbits hopping for their lives. The poor rabbits — they don’t really grasp what’s happening. I drive up my driveway, and a rabbit is nearby. The rabbit wants to run away, but first will dash right in front of the car, then turn around in a panic and hop away, then hop back toward the car. I end up slowing down or even stopping, waiting till the rabbit figures out which way to go.

    Birds, meanwhile, are flying away in a panic. i see this every time I drive towards my house or away from it (in the daytime, anyway). And the redwinged blackbirds are a special case. I hear them constantly, whenever I walk or drive or bike past anywhere wet, where they’ve made their nests. They’ll scold me with angry little cheeps, threatening me, warning me of trouble if I come any closer. I hear this every day in late spring.

    So I can’t think I’m “one with nature,” to use a clichéd phrase. I might delude myself in that direction, but the birds and animals show me what a delusion it is. They don’t think they’re one with me, and I’m sure they’d much rather I weren’t around. I feed the birds, but that doesn’t mean they stay around to thank me when I walk past the feeders. They fly away in a panic.

    Which reminds me — or birds remind me — of one nature-worshipping cliché that I really dislike. It’s the old expression “free as a bird.” Because birds aren’t free at all. We might think they are, because they can fly and we can’t, but actually they’re all trapped by the behavior of their species. Very few birds soar. Robins, for instance, will fly up to the tree branches where their nests are, and fly down again, but mostly they spend their time hopping around on the ground, looking for worms (or whatever else they eat). The great old disco sound, “Fly, Robin, Fly” couldn’t be more wrong: “Fly, robin, fly/Right up to the sky.” They don’t do that.

    Nuthatches spend much of their time walking downward on tree trunks, never up. Most of the birds that soar (maybe all of them; I’m no expert) are raptors, hawks and falcons, but they’re hardly doing it for pleasure. They’re hunting. So another song that romanticizes birds is “Oklahoma,” with the hawks making lazy circles in the sky. They might look lazy to us, but they’re hard at work, scanning the ground, looking for prey. (And if they get too close to any brave small birds, the brave small birds will mob them, and drive them away.)

    I never stop thinking of these things, when I’m engaged in the country. I find it even more relaxing to understand a little of what’s really going on. And by a vicus of recirculation, coming back to art — I like art that’s aware of the darkness, aware that triumph is a momentary state, to be succeeded, more than likely, by loss. This isn’t pessimism. To me, it’s a profoundly accepting philosophy (which you’ll find, among other places, in the I Ching).

    Which would mean that Rite of Spring ought to be disturbing, when we hear it. Which would also mean we shouldn’t hear it too often, because neither the musicians playing it nor the listeners will be disturbed, if the piece gets too familiar.

  7. says

    I can speak only for myself. But part of brand loyalty is because of the plethora of apps that exist on the iPhone. I have invested alot of money in apps that I bought for the iPhone. Why would I go to the Andriod or Palm where I would have to re-invest in the same or similar software.Don’t be mistaken. This is an important part of brand loyalty. I think that Blackberry has a major issue with lack of apps. First, since there is little investment (buy-in) by the users of Storm and Storm 2, it is easy to migrate to another platform.Second, by having a lack of apps or crappy ones, this also pushes customers to other platforms.I can’t wait for iPhone 4.0!!