The classical music aura

Shortly I’ll resume my posts about culture (aka how classical music hasn’t kept up with the rest of it). And I’ll respond to some of the comments. 

But here’s something that struck me on Friday, when I was making my last post, about the composition/conversation contest hosted online by Southwestern University. (If you follow the link, scroll down to find out what the contest is, and how it works.) If you read the post, you’ll remember that I got excited about a video of a Hermann Prey performance, in which the spirited and sensitive baritone — a fixture of my younger years in classical music — sings Schumann’s song “Waldesgespräch.” 

He’s about as artistic (by which I mean responsive to the musical, poetic, dramatic, and pictorial truth of the song) as anyone could be, but he’s also natural, direct, personal, unfussy.


 Or, to speak in what might seem like a paradox, not artistic, because he doesn’t come off entirely like an artist. He seems just as much like a regular German guy. You can see him at a football game, or drinking beer with the guys. (A favorite occupation of his, in fact.)

I love this. And I think it’s something classical music needs. Something it used to have, but which these days is harder to find. These days, so many classical music performances have a classical music aura, an implicit subtext — underlying, suffusing, permeating everything else that’s going on — that says “this is classical music.” With overtones of: “This is special. This is artistic. This is refined.”

I found the Prey performance on an engaging YouTube page created for the composition context, in which people submit music that has an air of conversation. The Schumann song qualifies, because in it you hear the voices of more than one character (and Prey renders them all — especially the scary voice of the lorelei —  with precision, and a kind of hair-raising but very simple delight). 

On this page is also a poised, and very deft, performance of a familiar duet from Bach’s “Wachet auf” cantata, one of those love duets between God and the soul that Bach could write with such   complex simplicity. The YouTube page doesn’t clearly say who’s involved (just as the Prey page doesn’t say who the pianist is), but I think it’s a performance led by Ton Koopman, which certainly guarantees very high quality.

But the singing and the playing, pert as they are, also have that classical music aura — 


the extra layer of artiness, the self-consciousness of doing art, the sense that (to jump into a pop culture metaphor) not only are you a doctor, but you also play one on TV. I’ll quickly say that this is very mild, that if Fischer-Dieskau or Richard Goode were involved it would be much stronger, that the performances is still in many ways relaxed, and that I can still find it delightful, even while I wish it were simpler and more direct. 

Compare it with the Prey performance, and see what I mean:

Bach — fine, deft performance, with a classical music aura

Prey — powerful, searing, savvy performance, with no air of classical music at all

And then, if you’d like a classical performance that’s entirely authentic (except for the language it’s sung in), but is about as far from classical music as we can get, watch Gino Bechi’s huge (and vocally awe-inspiring) romp (in Italian) through the Toreador Song from Carmen, from a 1950 Italian movie. You can put this next to an Elvis video, and Bechi makes the earth move just about as much.


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  1. says

    This making classical music different from other music is prevalent in the U.K. and I will give two examples.

    When a well-known English ‘complexity’ composer was interviewed on a television programme about classical music, he said “if you are not interested in complexity, then why should I be interested in you?”. He said it in an unpleasant, accusatory way, making it quite clear that he had no time for people who didn’t think like he did.

    At a meeting of the U.K. electroacoustic music association I asked question and one of the prominent members replied by wagging his finger at me (as if I were five and he were my father), mentioned some obscure work he had produced, and said “listen to that work then you will know!”

    I am a professional musician who has studied all this music and I still get treated like an uneducated outsider. I dread how other people must feel who do not have my knowledge and confidence.

    Both these examples, and there are many more, suggest to me that most British composers want to be elitist, they want classical music for the esoterics only. A great pity as most performing classical musicians I know, don’t.

  2. Tommy Pearson says

    Ian, seriously? You honestly think that Mark Anthony Turnage, Judith Weir, Julian Anderson, George Benjamin, Nitin Sawhney, John Woolrich, Simon Holt, Steve Martland, Tom Ades, Philip Cashian, Luke Bedford, Colin Matthews, Tansy Davies, Anna Meredith, Emily Hall, Richard Rodney Bennett, Michael Nyman, John Harle, Judith Bingham (those are just off the top of my head) “want classical music for the esoterics only”?

    “Most composers”? Come off it.

    OK, if you will go to a geeks association meeting you’re going to get the patronizing finger-wagging.

    But to paint a picture of composers in the way you have done in your last paragraph misrepresents the huge number of fine composers (some listed above) who compose music for everyone, and indeed spend a lot of their time working with schools and deprived areas to bring contemporary music to a wider audience.

  3. says

    There’s definitely a stuffiness to the performance of the Bach piece that isn’t quite there in Prey’s performance. It’s hard for me to imagine the people in the former video as being regular people that I could relate to on any level other than both liking Bach. If we had a conversation, it would probably go something like:

    “Hi, so uhhh, how ’bout that Bach?”

    “Ah, yes, Bach’s so pleasant.”

    “… yeah.”

    It occurs to me that this “aura” is exactly what drives the older, more reliable audience to classical music. When you mention wanting to simplify anything classical to a rabid fan you’re likely to get a response that shows how they think you’re saying you want to dumb down the genre. That’s a particularly large hurdle to overcome.

  4. Karla Fisk says

    Sad to say that I agree completely, Greg and Ian. I’m a former professional classical musician who has performed music from all periods, esp. 20th c. & contemporary classic music. I love live music, but I’ve reached the point where I’m rarely willing to put up with the exquisitely torturous self-consciousness that seems to go along with almost all classical performances.

    It’s a huge impediment to the performer communicating with the audience, which is the whole point. (I thought, anyway.) They seem to be saying “We’re classical musicians! And you’re not.”

    Off-putting, to say the least.

    And I’m part of that audience that I imagine that classical producers count on. If I’m not willing to put up with it, who will?

  5. says

    Wait, really? An older, German man in a green sport coat singing Romantic lieder with piano accompaniment in a candle-lit chamber has “no air of classical music at all?” What about the music he’s singing?

    I think this highlights an important fallacy: grouping Schumann and Bizet (or any two composers from vastly different contexts/time periods) together as “classical music” is an equivocation. The fact that they’re performed in different contexts stems from the nature of the music, not from programming decisions. Not to mention that the Bechi performance is in no way “authentic”– it’s a movie adaptation of an opera made when the genre was still lionized by the film industry because they knew it would be profitable…

  6. says

    Regarding Tommy Pearson’s comments, the musical language of most of the composers he mentions does not come over that well to most audiences, irrespective of their intentions. You only need to attend a recital and notice the audience’s reaction when the obligatory contemporary work is played. My wife’s nephew is in an up and coming indie/post punk rock band; they are not trained musicians and in their teens yet they play to quite large enthusiastic audiences. Yet most classical composers cannot get anywhere near this, despite their training and expertise. How come a punk band or techno DJ play to thousands, yet classical music has to be subsidised up to the hilt?

    My view is that whatever U.K. classical composers may say, their actions mean that their music is esoteric – and actions speak louder than words. Doing the odd workshop in a deprived area is politically motivated, not audience building. Why can’t classical composers write melodies like rock musicians do? If melodic music speaks directly to the audience, why do classical composers avoid attractive melodies? Novelists write in a standard language, they don’t concoct a language which we have to learn before we can read their texts (and I know there is the very rare exception). Too much contemporary music may sound like music, but it doesn’t feel like music.

    Recently I have been listening to 20th century Catalan music, beautiful melodic music; I also heard a work in a recital by a living Hungarian composer I had not heard of, again beautiful melodic writing. None of this music is known in the U.K. because there is an esoteric hegemony, if it’s melodic, it’s not serious seems to be the mantra. And no amount of inner city workshops, or classical works involving professional orchestras and school children is going to change this.

    Classical music in the U.K. is unpopular and comes over as esoteric. If U.K. composers want this to change they need to change their approach, because their current approach is definitely not working. Good intentions are not enough. It is not meant to be provocative when I say that the U.K. has some of the best classical musicians in the world. Yet their desire to reach out is being hindered by the U.K. composers’ refusal to write music that means something to most of their audience.

  7. Tommy Pearson says

    Ian, you quite clearly don’t go to any of the concerts I go to – eg the LSO, CBSO, Philharmonia, LPO, London Sinfonietta, Britten Sinfonia, Ensemble Modern, Aurora Orchestra, BBC Philharmonic, BBC Symphony Orchestra, BBC Singers amongst them, all of whom play contemporary music to enthusiastic audiences (it’s true that stuck-in-the-mud traditionalists often don’t like listening to contemporary music – indeed, go out of their way to not like it and make sure we know it! – especially when it’s included in more traditional programmes, but so what? I don’t enjoy Mozart that much.)

    The picture you paint of audiences simply doesn’t relate to any of the experiences I have had. OK, so some pieces haven’t been successful and that’s fine – not every piece written in the 18th century was a masterpiece either – but to suggest that composers should write tunes like rock musicians is irrelevant and rather silly. You are also suggesting that composers only write music that will mean something to the audience. Forgive me, but that’s why we have X Factor. Give people what they want all of the time and you alienate those of us who like to be challenged, engaged and often intellectually invigorated.

    And you can’t have it both ways: don’t criticize composers for not engaging with young audiences and then, when they do, say they’re only doing it because they are ‘politically motivated.’

    May I gently suggest you actually go to some contemporary music performances and report back? I think you’ll find an enthusiastic, varied bunch of people enjoying the music – and really listening too, without all the usual coughing and chatting that accompanies many traditional concerts these days.

  8. says

    “You are also suggesting that composers only write music that will mean something to the audience.”

    That is exactly what I am suggesting Tommy. If composers only write for themselves it is self-indulgent, if they only think of the audience it is patronising; it must be a meeting with the audience halfway. Rock musicians do this – think of the greatest rock songs, they are melodic. And in my experience the rock audience is every bit as intelligent and educated as the classical music audience. It seems that the exceptionally talented living composers have moved into rock and film music.

    However you have not mentioned Tavener’s Protecting Veil, Gorecki’s 3rd Symphony, Part’s Spiegel im Spiegel or Oldfield’s Music of the Spheres; these are melodic works that are very successful with audiences and this is one direction where artistic integrity, conviction, melodic writing, a high standard of composition and popularity go together. This is not the only approach to connecting with a wide audience but it is one that works. The most popular music is melodic, rhythmic and/or beat orientated. This is true of Ibiza ambient, techno, rock music, folk song, Chopin and Bach. These elements are so basic in music that is popular, that I think it is inborn in the human mind, in exactly the same way as we need grammar to understand language.

    Why go against something that is so basic to us?

    When I write my thoughts on classical music I may give the impression that I am only interested in feelings and emotional responses. I am not; because of my mathematical brain I find systems, patterns and ciphers easy, but for me if they are used in music they must be entirely subservient to the human and musical elements of a musical composition. The stanchions and foundations support a beautiful cathedral, they are not the reason it exists. The same with series, algorithms, philosophical discussions; these help the composer and should not, I believe, be used to justify the music.

    Classical music is no longer the lingua franca, rock music is and this is because classical composers are not writing music that is relevant to most people. Personally I don’t understand it, wouldn’t a classical composer like to have the same income as a rock composer, instead of relying on tiny subsidies from the Arts Council?

  9. JRinDC says

    Could some of you, or Greg perhaps, elaborate on this “classical music aura” or stuffiness. I perform a lot of Bach, so what I’d like to hear discussed is not some sense of, oh that’s stuffy, but what should the performers have done differently. In a way you are comparing apples and oranges — the Bach is meant to be performed in a church, which by its nature is going to have a somewhat more formal air. The Schumann on the other hand is essentially a folk song, or cabaret, if you will. He could be singing in your living room, or a piano bar, while people enjoy a glass of cabernet. How do you do that with Bach?

    Well, the only thing I can think of, and I am serious in asking for suggestions, is that the singers in the Bach are using scores (and holding them stiffly at that).

    When I see a performer like Rufus Muller sing Bach or Handel (or lieder), on the other hand, it’s always from memory, still and straight, like Prey, and the communication of the text is superb. You can’t help but be drawn in.

    So, where are we? So far, given the sylistic differences between the pieces, and the place of performance, the only lesson I’m really taking away from this is “memorize your music and maybe people will find it more engaging.”

    That’s something, but what else have you got? Tell us performers how to do it better.