Often people say that classical music — instrumental music — is abstract, and therefore not easy to understand. Thus, as one commenter said a few days ago, it can’t be compared to baseball and movies, which aren’t abstract, and therefore are things that people can readily understand. To understand classical music, by contrast, takes education. And preparation.
I think that in past generations orchestral music wasn’t considered at all abstract. Certainly in Mozart’s time, people followed it easily, applauding the moment they heard something they liked. There are stories from the early 19th century of audiences — when Beethoven’s symphonies began to be played with anything like regularity — crying out in wonder when they heard passages that amazed them.And, in past generations, top-rank classical artists used to make up stories that they thought the great instrumental works they played would tell. And the audience did, too. For a wonderfully (and famous) example, look at the passage about Beethoven’s Fifth in E.M. Forster’s novel Howard’s End, in which a family goes to hear an orchestra concert, most of them 20 or younger. One of them makes up a fabulous scenario for the Beethoven symphony. Forster doesn’t write as if this was anything unusual. (And also as if the young age of the audience — plus the way they applaud after every movement — weren’t unusual either. He wrote this in 1904.)So in my view the idea that instrumental works are abstract, and thus need training and preparation to understand, isn’t true.
[The commenter talked about Hanslick, the 19th century critic, talking about instrumental works as abstract, but that wouldn’t have been anything like a universal view in his time. I think we need to see his thoughts about that against the background, first, of Brahms vs. Wagner. Hanslick was emphatically on Brahms’s side, and in fact fanned the flames of the conflict, making it maybe greater than it was. Wagner had thrown out the old forms, and Hanslick, defending them, elevated them to lofty heights they may never have occupied before. And the second piece of background here is the ongoing battle, in the 19th century, between classical music — understood as Beethoven, Mozart, Haydn, Mendelssohn, Schumann — versus popular music, understood as opera, especially Rossini. Plus concerts by virtuosi. One way of drawing the distinction was by elevating classical music to a superhuman plane. Hence the talk of abstraction.]
And the belief in this causes problems, I think, by (1) encouraging performances to be abstract, so that people don’t easily grasp them, and (2) encouraging people to believe that classical music is difficult, that they need to learn a lot before they can appreciate. And, most damaging, (3) by encouraging people to feel that they shouldn’t trust their natural reactions to what they hear. Which might well be to make up stories.The classical forms in fact are very simple. Sonata form, which might seem the most difficult (though it can be explained in just a minute or two), is a narrative form, which means that it’s likely to result in pieces which naturally shape themselves into stories.And even its more abstract elements may not be too hard to hear. When I worked with the Pittsburgh Symphony, hosting and helping to program a concert series called Symphony with a Splash, aimed at newcomers to classical music, we did the first movement of Mozart’s Paris Symphony. Mozart wrote a letter to his father about that piece, explaining just what he did to get the audience to applaud (during the music, of course). I told our audience that they were free to applaud anytime they wanted, as soon as they heard something they liked.So they applauded while the piece was going on, and did it often. And the most striking thing was that the applause from one moment to the next changed a lot in its volume and quality. The most vehement applause came at the moment when the recapitulation diverges from the exposition. This was an audience that doesn’t know sonata form. But they could hear that something new was happening. So they understand, on a gut level, one of the supposedly most subtle aspects of sonata form. Which means, I think, that these things are far less abstract and difficult than many of us think.
If I’m right in my historical analysis (in brackets, above), and the idea of classical music as something abstract took hold as something defensive, as a defense for the idea that classical music (or some forms of it) were superior to other kinds of music, then it would make a lot of sense — sad as it is — that these ideas have such currency today. People fall back on them to defend classical music’s unpopularity.
Think of symphonic movie scores. Everyone can follow them, can tell you when the music changes mood, and what the changes are. Why can’t they do the same in Beethoven or Richard Strauss?