Sports and uplift (more)

A note to people who think I might have written too much here about sports. Once you’ve gotten what I’m trying to say, sportswise, feel free to scroll down to the subhead that shows I’m moving on to classical music. I won’t be offended. 

Thinking some more about about the comments I’ve gotten trashing my idea that sports and classical music could be compared in any useful way. Plus my responses, both in the comments, and in my “Underestimating” post. 

One theme in the comments has been that classical music is about uplift and transcendence, while sports are comparatively trivial, about nothing more than competition and winning. 

One reaction I have — and please forgive me if it seems harsh — is that the people saying that don’t know sports very well. And I was encouraged in this belief by a chart I saw this morning in USA Today, which I read over breakfast in a hotel I stayed in, on a road trip. The chart shows the percentage of people who talked about a given topic during the past week. Sports came last of the four topics named, with just 46%, lower than the weather, movies and TV, and politics. 

And could the percentage be lower among people concerned with the future of classical music?

Whatever. I think anyone who knows sports well would say that matters of ethics, character, uplift, and even transcendence are everywhere in sports. To the people who think it’s all about winning…what makes a team or individual win (but especially a team) is character. Discipline. Work. Cooperation. 

And these things are constantly noted in sports conversation and commentary. Who has these things, who doesn’t A-Rod, the Yankees star, despised because he cares (or anyway used to) more about himself than the team. Everyone in New York falling in love with Eli Manning when the Giants won the superbowl, because we all thought he didn’t have grit enough to be a championship quarterback, and then he showed us he had it. Everyone, just two days ago, loving the Tampa Bay Rays because they came up out of their dugout to cheer Derek Jeter when he got his 3000th hit, even though he’d hit a homerun that tied the score in a game the Rays badly needed to win. 

Or in any tennis tournament, how much tennis fans notice how someone reacts after losing, or for that matter winning, how they talk to the player they just beat or lost to, when they meet right after the match at the net. How much we love it when Sharapova, after losing unexpectedly to a newcomer in the French Open final, was really warm and congratulatory, and then kept that tone in her TV interview afterward. 

Or the non-famous pitcher who lost a perfect game, when the umpire made a transparently bad call. He was out the next day to deliver the lineup card to that same umpire, something the manager usually does, but that the pitcher did on this occasion, just to show he had no  hard feelings. All of baseball, fans included, applauded him as a class act. 

And how much we hated to read this morning about the people deriding the guy who caught Derek Jeter’s homerun, the 3000th hit. The guy gave it back to Jeter, without asking anything in return, when he could have sold the ball for untold sums. And paid off his student loans! A big boo to those who derided him for this. They’re not class acts. 

These things are as important in sports as winning. Maybe more important, in many cases. And they often inspire entire cities. When the Red Sox won the world series, after being down 2-0 to the Yankees in the playoffs. And then winning every other post-season game they played. That uplifted the entire city of Boston. As the whole city was ashamed, when the Patriots turned out to be stealing information from other teams. 

I wouldn’t minimize these things. Every one of them is a life lesson. Very specific. Uplift with content. 

     Whereas in classical music…

Some people have said in comments here that classical music is about uplift, or transcendence. Now, maybe i’m not alone in thinking the tone of these remarks might be just a little sententious. (Sorry again if I’m harsh.)

But suppose the commenters are right. Suppose classical music, these days, is about uplift. Suppose that’s what (as at least one person did say) that this is why orchestras play, and why people go to orchestra concerts. Orchestras play to uplift their audience. The audience comes to be uplifted. 

Supposing that’s true. (And I’ve seen some studies that support the idea.) Then what does that say about classical music as an art form.

Forgive me, please, if what I’m about to say seems (once more) harsh. But if uplift is what people want, expect, and get when they come to a classical concert, then classical music has fallen out of the realm of art. It’s not art anymore. It’s comfort food, operating on more or less the same plane as new age music. 

Because art does — or should do — more than uplift us. It’s also supposed to challenge us, surprise us, shock us, even disgust us. Push our buttons. Take us to places we never dreamed about, and might not like. That’s what art has done in the past. That’s what many of the great masterpieces of music — the ones that now comfort and uplift us — did when they were new. 

If you know in advance what an experience is supposed to be for you, and if the experience then reliably delivers what you expect, that experience might be many things, some of them valuable. But it’s not an experience with art. If art is doing what it should, you never know what you’re going to get. The whole point is to open horizons you never knew you had. Not just to take you to the same place, over and over and over and over. 

Ironically, everyone…this is what the movies do. Yes, many are formulaic, many are dumb, some have not much more going on in their hearts than to make a lot of money. But often we’re completely surprised by a movie, even a big studio production, and taken to some new place. That can happen not just to us as individual viewers, but to a subculture, or to our entire culture. It happened with Brokeback Mountain. It happened in the ’60s with The Graduate, Easy Rider, and Bonnie and Clyde, films which in turn would never have been made if a subculture of artists and intellectuals and just plain curious, artistic people hadn’t been wildly surprised, upended, and transformed by French and Italian art films of the 1950s and ’60s.

Sports also can surprise us, take us places we didn’t expect. 

While classical music — according to some of its strongest supporters! — takes us nowhere new. Uplift, uplift, uplift. The same, expected thing, over and over. Not a bad thing, not a weak thing, but not (in my view, anyway) an artistic thing. 

What a sad fall for a great art form. We can do better. And we will, once classical music is reborn. 

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on RedditEmail this to someone


  1. says

    Firstly, the term ‘classical’ to relate to music from the 9th century to the present is an unfair term. To be classic, the word in music refers mostly to European musical style from 1750-1825. It is far too broad a word to encompass many styles and hence, is stereotyped among many groups of people throughout the world. I remarked yesterday that the top pop songs sound basically the same today as they did one, two three years ago. Remember when the styles shifted in the 1950s, the 1960s, 1970s 1980s? The changing styles have slowed increasingly as the decades marched on. As a ‘classical’ artist, I have always enjoyed performing the ‘classics’ but in witnessing the arts in education and the age groups of audiences, in my duty and responsibility to be an entertainer–after all, it is entertainment–choosing repertoire to offer orchestras has become a positive challenge, therefore, seeking out compositions which relate to audiences in our time. There is a shift, in what I am seeing among composers who send their scores to me almost weekly now, in writing music which is a return to the melodicism of ‘classical’ and ‘Romantic’ times. Composers we would have never expected to write for the concert hall, are doing so. In September, I will perform a new piano concerto by the legendary pop singer/songwriter, Neil Sedaka. Some may ask, ”wait a minute, can you repeat that, please’? Yes, Neil Sedaka. He was a pupil of Adele Marcus at Juilliard before he started to make a pop name for himself, with a golden voice and chart topping hits. He has returned to his ‘classical’ roots, but offers a unique concerto which reflects his love for New York, ‘Manhattan Intermezzo’. It is a pastiche of the many diverse ethnic groups, the dances, the songfulness, soulfulness and energy. Hmm, didn’t Gershwin do this with his ‘Rhapsody in Blue’? The two works are similar in that they are ‘rhapsodic’–pieces of various material sewn together into one musical fabric.

    I would like to see more ‘pop’ composers do this, and bring new works to the concert hall to add to the ever growing repertoire. This is, perhaps, why there were ‘Experiments in Modern Music’ during the 1920s to early 1930s with popular composers, like Gershwin, Zez Confrey, Dana Suesse and others, to usher in a new generation of music for the concert hall.

  2. Joan Sutherland says

    I agree with you. Music all about “uplift” sounds as confining as a bra. And as boring. No one would have published or tolerated Beethoven’s work. Shostakovitch wouldn’t have been censored by the Russian government for his musical ideas. Anything which is True touches us because it reaches the part of us which requires Truth as fuel to live fully. To insist on feeling “uplifted” at a concert rather than say, surprised, grounded, sexy, exhausted, thoughtful, sorrowful, or even angry, is the same as asking a psychoanalyst or therapist to avoid saying anything that isn’t uplifting during a session.

  3. Fred Lomenzo says

    I would like to make a short comment in reference to Mr.Biegels offering. It is a fact of life for any composer of serious music, no matter what level of competance or talent they may possess of ever having their music performed or even seriously considered. To read about pop singers having that opportunity points to the state of serious music and the reality of being involved in its creation.

  4. Robert Berger says

    Sports are a zero-sum thing. There are clear cut winners and losers. But when the audience at a concert hears a thrilling performance of a symphony by Beethoven or Mahler,to name only two great composers,

    every one wins,and no one loses.

    The musicians and the audience feel wonderful, and up there in heaven, the composer is smiling ! What’s not to like ?

  5. Bill Brice says

    I dunno, Robert. Quite a lot of the music I love most is anything but “happy music”. How about the Mahler 9th, just for one example?

    We don’t demand that movies, or drama, or novels, or poems make us “happy” — at least not in the sense of cheerful and ebullient. I loved the movie “Precious”, for example, but that’s about as far as I could imagine from a Feel Good experience.

    Sure, lots of fine art is divertissment. But not all.

  6. a curious reader says

    Robert, true, but: If the level of artistry doesnt communicate and the entire group is not engaged (audience and orchestra) then there will be a clear cut “winner” and “looser” (imo), because the experience that COULD have been, wasnt. That leaves a pretty bad taste in my mouth.

  7. ken nielsen says

    How about we drop “uplifting” and use “joy”? Over the past few days I have been to concerts of the string quartet section of the Melbourne International Chamber Music Competition. Young ensembles playing a mix of standard classical repertoire and lesser known contemporary stuff.

    I left the hall last night feeling I was walking several feet above the ground.

    It was one of those “wow” experiences.

    I return to Sydney and start listening to some Modern Jazz Quartet recordings. Allowing for the fact that one experience was”live” and the other a recording made quite a few years ago, both filled me with joy. Both made me feel glad to be alive and glad to have had the experience.

    Now, in the coming week I will go to a symphony concert. I am pretty sure I won’t walk out filled with joy. It will be good, I will be glad I went but the experience will not match either of those I have had over the past few days.

    Why not?

    And now I’ll put on a CD of bluegrass, more joy.