The culture gap (2)

Too many people in classical music talk like this.

I’m thinking of Daniel Barenboim, quoted about his latest recording of Beethoven’s symphonies, a project he and his people call “Beethoven for All”:

Many people feel or think, without really knowing, that music is somehow elitist – that it is for people who can afford the money and the time; it’s something that has only to do with leisure. But music is not elitist. On the contrary. Music is not only not elitist, music is universal. Even though all the great composers of the past are European, music doesn’t speak only to Europeans. (I was born in Argentina; if I were limited to “my” music, I could only play tango!) This music, although it was written by Beethoven in Bonn or in Vienna, speaks to people in Ramallah, in Australia, and everywhere else. This is why it is not elitist. Music is for all, for everybody – everybody who opens their mind and heart to it. It needs that curiosity, and it needs attentive listening, but then it’s for all. And if you ask people who do not think of themselves as musically inclined: “Who do you know?” They all say, “Beethoven.” So if we want music for all, then it must be Beethoven.

Barenboim means to be noble here, and all-encompassing, reflecting (among much else) his work with the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, with whom he made these recordings, and which of course is made up of Israeli and Arab musicians, meeting peacefully to play.

But note what he means by “music” — classical music (except for that fleeting mention of tango). The music that’s thought elitist but isn’t, is classical. Likewise the music that’s universal, the music that doesn’t speak only to people from Europe. The people who don’t think they’re “musically inclined” are people who don’t think they know classical music.

It’s as if no other kind of music mattered, or could speak to millions or billions of people, could speak to and for humanity. As if the only people “musically inclined” are those who do know classical music.

This ]is nonsense. And, as I said, too many people in classical music — some of them smart, open-minded, culturally aware — find themselves talking this way. In all innocense, usually. They don’t mean any harm.

But talking this way is dangerous. If, that is, you want a new audience, you want classical music to survive. Because you go out in the world, out among the people we want to be talking to, and you find that they most definitely are musically inclined, only the music they’re inclined to isn’t classical. And that this music speaks to their hearts and their souls. That they talk about it with great intelligence. That it echoes and shapes their lives.

Just look at what Chris Richards, the pop music critic at the Washington Post, wrote about the almost universal appeal of Bruce Springsteen, the one musician who, Richards says, touches nearly everyone in Washington’s political world, the one who crosses party lines, the one no one speaks badly of.

(While others in DC and elsewhere would get annoyed, reading this, because Spirngsteen doesn’t mean a thing to them, and other nonclassical music speaks to them far more.)

Go out in the world and talk the way Barenboim does, and people will think you’re crazy. Or, if somehow they believe what you’re saying, they’ll be intimidated. Since you’re telling them the only music that matters is a kind they don’t listen to. And that if they don’t listen to it, they’re not “musically inclined.”

Such an insult. We have to do better than this. Which is why the first of my four keys to the future is “understand and respect the culture outside classical music.”

(That tango moment, by the way, is pure nonsense. As if Argentina weren’t a thoroughly western culture, with a long history of — just for instance — stellar opera performances.)



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  1. says

    Nonsense, eh? Sorry, who has done more to popularise classical music? Greg Who? Sandow, or Daniel Barenboim? You simply pick a paragraph out of context and use it to pillory someone – by way of trying to divest yourself of the failure of your own career.

  2. Sixtus Beckmesser says

    You’re right; Barenboim’s attitude is completely wrong for today’s society. (I say this as someone who much prefers Beethoven to Springsteen.) Equating _all_ music with European classical music – “all the great composers of the past are European” – is solipsistic in the extreme.

    • says

      Exactly. Our musical preferences are precious, and entirely our own affair. Though of course they’re likely to be shared by many other people. But they don’t have the force of law, and don’t mean that music we don’t favor (or don’t favor as much) isn’t valid.

      Glad to see two Wagner references here. Your name, obviously, but also Neil McGowan’s email address, which begins with “reinertorheit.” Parsifal, though, had a sweeter disposition than he has. And of course you’re more forgiving than your namesake.

  3. MWnyc says

    “It’s as if no other kind of music mattered, or could speak to millions or billions of people, could speak to and for humanity. As if the only people ‘musically inclined’ are those who do know classical music.

    This is nonsense. And, as I said, too many people in classical music — some of them smart, open-minded, culturally aware — find themselves talking this way. In all innocence, usually. They don’t mean any harm.”

    Yes. Well said, Greg.

    And (as I suppose the experience of getting comments on this blog has shown you), it’s very important for us to say out loud – particularly to the readers of ArtsJournal blogs – that the high-profile classical music professionals who talk like this are doing so in all innocence. They really do mean to be welcoming, and they generally hate the idea that the great music of the Western classical tradition is only for rich people and cultural snobs (“toffs”, as the Brits would say). They truly do want everyone to be able to hear and enjoy classical music. (As do we all.)

    But then they say things like “So if we want music for all, then it must be Beethoven.” Ouch.

    I think the reason for this myopia on the part of people like Barenboim (i.e., the high-profile classical music pros who wind up being spokespeople to the general public) is that you can’t achieve Barenboim-level expertise – the expertise that makes the media care about what someone like him has to say in the first place – without having developed a certain amount of tunnel vision in life. Classical music has been such a huge part of these folks’ world, to the exclusion of so much else in life, that they genuinely can’t see why statements like the one you cite would be off-putting.

    • says

      Very well said, Matt. And nice to see you here. People who stand up for classical music, even foolishly, do it out of love. We should respect and honor that, even if some of what they say isn’t helpful.

  4. says

    What Mr. Barenboim should also tell us, while he’s in full oratory mode, is which previous Beethoven performances excluded certain segments of the audience, and which audiences they excluded. Then we will know which performers we must protest and boycott! He might also explain just how his interpretations of Beethoven have resulted in greater appeal and universality (as opposed to say, turning back the clock in Beethoven interpretations to about 1950, which is how I hear them). Only then would Mr. Barenboim be able to justify the grandiose “Beethoven for All” title for his project. And if he can’t explain these things, he should be exposed and ridiculed as a self-important pompous windbag, of the kind classical music needs right now like a hole in the head. Thanks for this excellent speaking truth to nonsense, Greg.

    • says

      Well said, John. And thanks for the endorsement. Very good to turn the spotlight around, and ask him some pointed questions. Among much else, he’s asking us to take his musicmaking on faith, to not ask _how_ he plays Beethoven, and whether he’s actually making the music more accessible.

      I’ve met Barenboim twice, by the way. The first time was when we both we teenagers. Can’t remember how we met, but I was a singer and he was (of course) a pianist. So he accompanied me in a Handel aria. Not exactly an encounter of equals!

      The second time was when he was playing the Beethoven sonata cycle at Carnegie Hall, and I was interviewing him for the Wall Street Journal. I didn’t want any high-flown generalities, so I asked if he’d discuss one of the sonatas with me, talk about how he played it. Through his publicist, he agreed to do that, and asked me to pick any sonata I liked.

      I chose (can’t remember why) the “Spring” sonata. And I loved the discussion we had. One fascinating thing he said: He thinks a fermata over a rest in Beethoven means you choose how long the pause is. Not (as most of us would assume) that it’s longer than the notated value of the rest. You could make it shorter, if you liked.

      We disagreed about one of the movements, which I thought he (on recordings) played too slowly. I’d listened to many other pianists, and said that Schnabel played it faster. His response? That Schnabel chose tempi on his Beethoven sonata recording to hide problems with his piano technique. You could certainly say that sounded arrogant, disdainful, closed-minded.

      But then when I went to one of Barenboim’s Carnegie concerts, I was so impressed with how he carried himself, as he walked on stage. Uninterested in the applause from the audience, completely focused on the music.

      I also remember seeing Artur Rubinstein, probably around the time I first met Barenboim. Rubinstein certainly was aware of the audience, drank it in, in fact, and radiated love for it. Not because he needed its applause, I think, but because he loved the sense of two-way communication when he played. I went to get his autograph backstage (I think I’ve told this story here before), and heard him saying, outraged, to a security guard, “You have to let my friends in!” Meaning people like me, members of his audience.

      Not saying this is better than Barenboim’s approach. Two artists, two approaches, both valid, both to be honored.

    • Ken N says

      No, John. Barenboim is speaking about something he cares for very deeply and to which he has made a great contribution. I can’t get upset that he believes that is the most I important form of music in the world.
      That is his passion.
      Beethoven (except for the quartets) is sort of mid range in the music that gets me excited. I am more excited these days by new music – stuff I have never heard before and which might be wonderful or dreadful – but perhaps that is old age.
      What I want is everybody to become excited about some firm of music. I don’t care much what.

      When I am working or doing something that requires concentration I will usually listen to jazz or bluegrass. Does that make it less important than Bach? Not for me.

  5. says

    Very often, musicians have tried to use music which often reflects political innuendos, sociological finger pointing, etc. Music is universal, okay, which means nothing in itself. How we present the music to people without barriers, without labeling the style nor the country of origin, is what has and will always reach the hearts and souls. Words often dilute the language of musical sound, unless it is only talk about the music at hand. By doing what Greg suggests, respecting the culture outside music (not just classical), creates an invisible bond between the performer and the listener. That is what makes music universal. These days, there is so much ideological chatter in all facets of our lives, but it is in actions and integrity which brings forth the essence of music, visually and personally. It is hoped for that Beethoven’s music and traditional classics will stand the test of time. Surprisingly, I hear more ‘classical’ music sprout up in places I haven’t heard in the past. That’s a good thing. Airports, restaurants, doctor offices, etc.

  6. says

    Not able to edit the previous post, I add that a great wealth of music has indeed been composed to reflect the times, the political scene, the social scene; these works had a specific purpose in their time, and the music, thereafter, speaks for itself as a monument and testament of that moment. It should be that which respects the cultures, past and present, and keeps the music alive in performance into the future. How we program the various array of styles is a challenge and integral part of the presentation, and that is what is extremely important in our times. As there is less music in education, (not everywhere, mind you), we have to educate with subtlety, with music, to keep music as a much needed spiritual force for humanity to embrace and be part of their lives with no barriers.

  7. Eric Benjamin says

    [Note from Greg: Eric emailed to say that he wrote this as a response to Neil McGowan.]

    Barenboim is a populariser of classical music? He preaches to the converted, maybe. And he is not “pilloried” but he is criticized and I’m sure he can stand it.

    You utterly miss the point and the rest of your (clueless) comment is a “trollish” personal attack on Mr. Sandow. Shame on you!

  8. Dymitry Wos says

    Other music styles attract new listeners in spite of having many listeners who not only insist that their music is the best, but also display much more hostility towards outsiders than I have ever seen from classical listeners. Classical music does not attract many because it is unproductive and getting by purely on the strength of its past output, not because its participants are expressing global concepts poorly.

    While one does not have to be a classical music specialist to be musically inclined, the most strongly musically inclined would be likely to take an interest in it eventually, as there is nothing else with the same level of complexity and order.

  9. Phillip says

    I take your point re Barenboim’s use of the term “music,” but this kind of omission certainly cuts both ways, so perhaps it’s a kind of defensiveness on the part of classical musicians. When I travel across the country, so often I find in newspapers and their websites a heading called “Music” which contains articles about concerts and listings of upcoming ones…are any of them classical? No. Classical music is ghettoized under something called “Arts” or god forbid, “culture.” So this narrow definition of “music” goes in many directions.

    • says

      Philip, i’ve seen this done in a much more direct way, with music content coming under two headings, “Music” and “Classical.” But the reason for this is to give classical music special attention. I’m thinking, for instance, of the British papers I read when I’m in the UK. They divide their reviews in the way I’m talking about. If they simply had one category, “Music,” and ran reviews in proportion to the percentage of their readers who pay attention to each kind of music, there would hardly be any classical reviews at all. So by giving classical music its own heading, they run more classical reviews than they otherwise would.

      I haven’t seen the papers you’re talking about. In the regional paper that serves my little town, the only concerts reviewed are classical, and all of them are described as superb and transcendent. But in the papers you see, the “Music” heading surely includes hiphop, all kinds of world musics, the vast variety of dance music genres, country music, Latin music, and quite a bit else. So the definition of music you see there is very wide. Excluding one kind of music, classical, only narrows the definition by a tiny amount. Unless, of course, you think classical music is so vastly important that its omission actually makes the definition of music impoverished.

      The irony, of course, or rather the double irony, is that (1) these papers put classical music under special headings because it’s thought to deserve special prestige and attention, and (2) the classical music world has long demanded this kind of special treatment, so it’s only getting what it asked for.

      • Ken Nielsen says

        Interesting comment about reviews, Greg. So many critics behave like boosters for the industry and never say ” I did not enjoy that”. Quite unlike book reviewers.

        • says

          Very true, Ken. And so mainstream readers don’t believe what these critics say. They’re painting a picture that’s not like real life. Movie reviewers, book reviewers, pop music reviewers — they say what they like and what they don’t like, and often say it strongly.

  10. says

    Greg, do you know the marvellous writing of Australian composer Andrew Ford? Going to weigh in here with a long-ish quote from his book “In defence of classical music” because I feel he puts it better than I ever could! Music really isn’t so easily defined as ‘universal’.

    “I do not believe that music is an international language… If music were genuinely international, it would be possible for people in Nagasaki, Nairobi and Noosa equally to appreciate a raga from northern India, mouth music from the Outer Hebrides and Brahms’s German Requiem, the singing of Kiri te Kanawa and Tom Waits would both be immediately understood in Sarawak; the intricacies of Chinese opera would be readily comprehended by all sensitive Belgians. I suppose there must be Belgians passionate about Chinese opera, but my hunch is that there are not many of them. And among the citizens of Antwerp and Ghent who do stay at home of an evening with their DVDs of The Peony Pavilion, there can surely be very few who catch the musical nuances in the same way that an audience in Shaanxi would catch them.”

    Horses for courses?

    • says

      Thanks for this, Sally. Good to see you here! I’ve heard of Andrew Ford, and possibly have a book he’s written. But, if I do have it, I’m chagrined to say I haven’t read it.

      I love what you quoted. So true! Of course, western classical music and pop by now have established a kind of international hegemony. Which of course reflects the hegemony of western culture in general. But then western culture is constantly being influenced by cultures from other places. And western pop is hardly one thing — can’t call it uniform, by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, western pop is so much not a universal language that people can place themselves, socially, by the music they listen to. The music helps show them which subculture they belong to.

      One lesson I had in how music is not a universal language: I was in Tunisia a few years ago, where I heard some striking concerts of Tunisian music played by young Tunisians. Fascinating, how the former (autocratic) Tunisian government encouraged study of both western classical music and Tunisian music. The young musicians played Tunisian music wonderfully, or so it seemed to me. Tunisian music experts agreed.

      At one performance, I heard something that seemed unusual. Seemed like the scale used in one piece included a prominent major third, which kept being emphasized melodically. I commented on that to a Tunisian musicologist, who looked at me with the kind of expression you might use when a child who s should have known better asks a silly question. Those weren’t major thirds, he explained, very patiently. They were microtonal intervals. At some point I looked at a book on Tunisian music, and realized I’d understood very little about the pitch relationships in the music I’d been hearing. I’d eventually realized that it was organized rhythmically into spans of a hundred beats or more. That fact about it slowly made its way into my western-oriented brain. But the fact that the various scales used in various pieces were made up of microtonal pitches not in the western lexicon — that had escaped me. I got my music notation software to play some of the scales to me, with the microtonal inflections in place, and my ears were dazzled. But I hadn’t been able to hear that previously.

      Music is not a universal language!

  11. richard says

    I’m glad to read this. I remember arguing with you about non-western music when you had recently attended a conference attended by non-western musicians. Western pop music is not helping traditional survive. When electric guitars are picked up by non-western musicians, it is almost impossible to play muwsic using the traditional scales/tuning systems. Yes, music is not a universal, it is a multitude of languages.

    • Ries Niemi says

      Traditional music is always in transition- there was no one point in history that everything “traditonal” was indeed static- but in terms of north african scales, an interesting development are the new (Free!) ableton Sufi Plug-ins from DJ Rupture-
      software synthesizers with quartertone tuning.

      This kind of stuff is happening more and more.

      Me, I am not Argentine, but I go there a lot, and “my” Argentine music includes a whole lot more than traditional tango- Buenos Aires is a hotbed of all kinds of pretty adventurous, sophisticated musics, drawing on classical, jazz, tango, cumbia, andean folk, electronic, punk, rock, and more.

      But my guess is Barenboim doesnt listen to much of it.

  12. richard says

    Of course traditional music is not static, what I was trying to point out was that the “medium is the message”. One can’t play the same thing on a western guitar as on an al’oud. In Bali, Kecak was really created by a westerner (Spies)and taken up by the Balinese, and has become quite popular. On the other hand, I’ve heard Anklung gamelans play western tunes, which always seems trite to me. I liked some UK Bhangra when it was rawer more “punjabi” and not overly produced (stinks of the studio) and relied more on electro-acoustic instruments and percussion rather than synths and drum machines. Music that is played in real time (ie live).

    • says

      Cute, Catherine! Thanks for sharing. Amazing, the many things people all over are doing to change classical music. Probably the most important classical music development of our time.