Crossing the Border from Classical to Pop

I hate “classical music”: not the thing but the name. It traps a tenaciously living art in a theme park of the past. It cancels out the possibility that music in the spirit of Beethoven could still be created today. It banishes into limbo the work of thousands of active composers who have to explain to otherwise well-informed people what it is they do for a living. The phrase is a masterpiece of negative publicity, a tour de force of anti-hype. I wish there were another name. I envy jazz people who speak simply of “the music.” Some jazz aficionados also call their art “America’s classical music,” and I propose a trade: they can have “classical,” I’ll take “the music.”

For at least a century, the music has been captive to a cult of mediocre elitism that tries to manufacture self-esteem by clutching at empty formulas of intellectual superiority. Consider other names in circulation: “art” music, “serious” music, “great” music, “good” music. Yes, the music can be great and serious, but greatness and seriousness are not its defining characteristics. It can also be stupid, vulgar, and insane. Composers are artists, not etiquette columnists; they have the right to express any emotion, any state of mind. They have been betrayed by well-meaning acolytes who believe that the music should be marketed as a luxury good, one that replaces an inferior popular product. These guardians say, in effect, “The music you love is trash. Listen instead to our great, arty music.” They are making little headway with the unconverted because they have forgotten to defi ne the music as something worth loving. Music is too personal a medium to support an absolute hierarchy of values. The best music is the music that persuades us that there is no other music in the world.

When people hear “classical,” they think “dead.” The music is described in terms of its distance from the present, its difference from the mass. No wonder that stories of its imminent demise are commonplace. Newspapers recite a familiar litany of problems: record companies are curtailing their classical divisions; orchestras are facing deficits; the music is barely taught in public schools, almost invisible in the media, ignored or mocked by Hollywood. Yet the same story was told forty, sixty, eighty years ago. Stereo Review wrote in 1969, “Fewer classical records are being sold because people are dying … Today’s dying classical market is what it is because fifteen years ago no one attempted to instill a love for classical music in the then impressionable children who have today become the market.” The conductor Alfred Wallenstein wrote in 1950, “The economic crisis confronting the American symphony orchestra is becoming increasingly acute.” The German critic Hans Heinz Stuckenschmidt wrote in 1926, “Concerts are poorly attended and budget defi cits grow from year to year.” Laments over the decline or death of the art appear as far back as the fourteenth century, when the sensuous melodies of Ars Nova were thought to signal the end of civilization. The pianist Charles Rosen has sagely observed, “The death of classical music is perhaps its oldest continuing tradition.”

The American classical audience is assumed to be a moribund crowd of the old, the white, the rich, and the bored. Statistics provided by the National Endowment for the Arts suggest that the situation is not quite so dire. Yes, the audience is older than that for any other art—the median age is forty-nine—but it is not the wealthiest. Musicals, plays, ballet, and museums all get larger slices of the $50, 000-or-more income pie (as does the ESPN channel, for that matter). The parterre section at the Metropolitan Opera plays host to CEOs and socialites, but the less expensive parts of the house—as of this writing, most seats in the Family Circle go for twenty-five dollars—are well populated by schoolteachers, proofreaders, students, retirees, and others with no entry in the Social Register. If you want to see an in-your-face, Swiss-bank-account display of wealth, go look at the millionaires sitting in the skyboxes at a Billy Joel show, if security lets you. As for the graying of the audience, there is no denying the general trend, although with any luck it may begin to level off. Paradoxically, even as the audience ages, the performers keep getting younger. The musicians of the Berlin Philharmonic are, on average, a generation younger than the Rolling Stones.

The music is always dying, ever-ending. It is like an ageless diva on a nonstop farewell tour, coming around for one absolutely fi nal appearance. It is hard to name because it never really existed to begin with—not in the sense that it stemmed from a single time or place. It has no genealogy, no ethnicity: leading composers of today hail from China, Estonia, Argentina, Queens. The music is simply whatever composers create—a long string of written-down works to which various performing traditions have become attached. It encompasses the high, the low, empire, underground, dance, prayer, silence, noise. Composers are genius parasites; they feed voraciously on the song matter of their time in order to engender something new. They have gone through a rough stretch in the past hundred years, facing external obstacles (Hitler and Stalin were amateur music critics) as well as problems of their own invention (“Why doesn’t anyone like our beautiful twelve-tone music?”). But they may be on the verge of an improbable renaissance, and the music may take a form that no one today would recognize.

The critic Greg Sandow has written that the classical community needs to speak more from the heart about what the music means. He admits that it’s easier to analyze his ardor than to express it. The music does not lend itself to the same kind of generational identifi cation as, say, Sgt. Pepper. There may be kids out there who lost their virginity during Brahms’s D-Minor Piano Concerto, but they don’t want to tell the story and you don’t want to hear it. The music attracts the reticent fraction of the population. It is an art of grand gestures and vast dimensions that plays to mobs of the quiet and the shy.

I am a white American male who listened to nothing but classical music until the age of twenty. In retrospect, this seems bizarre; perhaps “freakish” is not too strong a word. Yet it felt natural at the time. I feel as though I grew up not during the seventies and eighties but during the thirties and forties, the decades of my parents’ youth. Neither my mother nor my father had musical training—both worked as research mineralogists—but they were devoted concertgoers and record collectors. They came of age in the great American middlebrow era, when the music had a rather different place in the culture than it does today. In those years, in what now seems like a dream world, millions listened as Toscanini conducted the NBC Symphony on national radio. Walter Damrosch explained the classics to schoolchildren, singing ditties to help them remember the themes. (My mother remembers one of them: “This is / The sym-pho-nee / That Schubert wrote but never / Finished …”) NBC would broadcast Ohio State vs. Indiana one afternoon, a recital by Lotte Lehmann the next. In my house, it was the Boston Symphony followed by the Washington Redskins. I was unaware of a yawning gap between the two.

Early on, I delved into my parents’ record collection, which was well stocked with artifacts of the golden age: Serge Koussevitzky’s Sibelius, Charles Munch’s Berlioz, the Thibaud-Casals-Cortot trio, the Budapest Quartet. The look and feel of the records were inseparable from the sound they made. There was Otto Klemperer’s Zeppelin-like, slow-motion account of the St. Matthew Passion, with nightmare-spawning art by the Master of Delft. Toscanini’s fi erce renditions of Beethoven and Brahms were decorated with Robert Hupka’s snapshots of the Maestro in motion, his face registering every emotion between ecstasy and disgust. Mozart’s Divertimento in E-flat featured the famous portrait in which the composer looks down in sorrow, like a general surveying a hopeless battle. While listening, I read along in the liner notes, which were generally written in the over-the-top everyman-orator style that the media favored in the mid-twentieth century. Tchaikovsky, for example, was said to exhibit “melancholy, sometimes progressing to abysmal depths.” None of this made sense at the time; I had no acquaintance with melancholy, let alone abysmal depths. What mattered was the exaggerated swoop of the thought, which matched my response to the music.

The first work that I loved to the point of distraction was Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony. At a garage sale my mother found a disc of Leonard Bernstein conducting the New York Philharmonic—one of a series of Music-Appreciation Records put out by the Book-of-the-Month Club. A companion record provided Bernstein’s analysis of the symphony, a road map to its forty-five-minute sprawl. I now had names for the shapes that I perceived. (The conductor’s Joy of Music and Infinite Variety of Music remain the best introductory books of their kind.) Bernstein drew attention to something that happens about ten seconds in: the fanfarelike main theme, in the key of E-flat, is waylaid by the note C-sharp. “There has been a stab of intrusive otherness,” Bernstein said, cryptically but seductively, in his nicotine baritone. Over and over, I listened to this note of otherness. I bought a score and deciphered the notation. I learned some time-beating gestures from Max Rudolf’s conducting manual. I held my family hostage in the living room as I led the record player in a searing performance of the Eroica.

Did Lenny get a little carried away when he called that soft C-sharp in the cellos a “shock,” a “wrench,” a “stab”? If you were to play the Eroica for a fourteen-year-old hip-hop scholar versed in Eminem and 50 Cent, he might fi nd it shockingly boring at best. No one is slicing up his wife or getting shot nine times. But your young gangsta friend will eventually have to admit that those artists are relatively shocking—relative to the social norms of their day. Although the Eroica ceased to be controversial in the these crazy-kids-today sense around 1830, within the “classical” frame it has continued to deliver its surprises right on cue. Seven bars of E-flat major, then the C-sharp that hovers for a moment before disappearing: it is like a speaker stepping up to a microphone, launching into the first words of a solemn oration, and then faltering, as if he had just remembered something from childhood or seen a sinister face in the crowd.

I don’t identify with the listener who responds to the Eroica by saying, “Ah, civilization.” I don’t listen to music to be civilized; sometimes, I listen precisely to escape the ordered world. What I love about the Eroica is the way it manages to have it all, uniting Romanticism and Enlightenment, civilization and revolution, brain and body, order and chaos. It knows which way you think the music is going and veers triumphantly in the wrong direction. The Danish composer Carl Nielsen once wrote a monologue for the spirit of Music, in which he or she or it says, “I love the vast surface of silence; and it is my chief delight to break it.”

Around the time I got stabbed by Beethoven’s C-sharp, I began trying to write music myself. My career as a composer lasted from the age of eight to the age of twenty. I lacked both genius and talent. My spiral-bound manuscript book includes an ambitious program of future compositions: thirty piano sonatas, twelve violin sonatas, various symphonies, concertos, fantasias, and funeral marches, most of them in the key of D minor. Scattered ideas for these works appear in the following pages, but they don’t go anywhere, which was the story of my life as a composer. Still, I treasure the observation of one of my college teachers, the composer Peter Lieberson, who wrote on the final page of my end-of-term submission that I had created a “most interesting and slightly peculiar sonatina.” I put down my pen and withdrew into silence, like Sibelius in Järvenpää.

My inability to finish anything, much less anything good, left me with a profound respect for this impossible mode of making a living. Composers are in rebellion against reality. They manufacture a product that is universally deemed superfluous—at least until their music enters public consciousness, at which point people begin to say that they could not live without it. Half of those on the League of American Orchestras’ list of the twenty composers most frequently performed during the 2007–2008 season—Mahler, Strauss, Sibelius, Debussy, Ravel, Rachmaninov, Stravinsky, Shostakovich, Prokofiev, and Copland—hadn’t been born when the first draft of the repertory got written.

Throughout my teens, I took piano lessons from a man named Denning Barnes. He also taught me composition, music history, and the art of listening. He was a wiry man with tangled hair, whose tweed jackets emitted an odd smell that was neither pleasant nor unpleasant, just odd. He was intimate with Beethoven, Schubert, and Chopin, and he also loved twentieth-century music. Béla Bartók and Alban Berg were two of his favorites. He opened another door for me, in a wall that I never knew existed. His own music, as far as I can remember, was rambunctious, jazzy, a little nuts. One day he pounded out one of the variations in Beethoven’s fi nal piano sonata and said that it was an anticipation of boogie-woogie. I had no idea what boogie-woogie was, but I was excited by the idea that Beethoven had anticipated it. The marble-bust Beethoven of my childhood suddenly became an eagle-eyed sentinel on the ramparts of sound.

“Boogie-woogie” was a creature out of Bernstein’s serious-fun world, and Mr. Barnes was my private Bernstein. There was not a snobbish bone in his body; he was a skeleton of enthusiasm, a fifteen-dollar-an-hour guerrilla fighter for the music he loved. He died of a brain tumor in 1989. The last time I saw him, we played a hair-raising version of Schubert’s Fantasia in F Minor for piano four hands. It was full of wrong notes, most of them at my end of the keyboard, but it felt great and made a mighty noise, and to this day I have never been entirely satisfied with any other performance of the work.

By high school, a terrible truth had dawned: I was the only person my age who liked this stuff. Actually, there were other classical nerds at my school, but we were too diffident to form a posse. Several “normal” friends dragged me to a showing of Pink Floyd The Wall, after which I conceded that one passage sounded Mahlerian.

Only in college did my musical fortress finally crumble. I spent most of my time at the campus radio station, where I had a show and helped organize the classical contingent. I fanatically patrolled the boundaries of the classical broadcasting day, refusing to surrender even fifteen minutes of Chamber Music Masterworks and the like. At 10:00 p.m., the schedule switched from classical to punk, and only punk of the most recondite kind. Once a record sold more than a few hundred copies, it was kicked off the playlist. The DJs liked to start their sets with the shrillest, crudest songs in order to scandalize the classical crowd. I tried to one-up them with squalls of Xenakis. They hit back with Sinatra singing “Only the Lonely.” Once, they followed up my heartfelt tribute to Herbert von Karajan with Skrewdriver’s rousing neo-Nazi anthem “Prisoner of Peace”: “Free Rudolf Hess / How long can they keep him there? We can only guess.” Touché.

The thing about these cerebral punk rockers is that they were easily the most interesting people I’d ever met. Between painstakingly researched tributes to Mission of Burma and the Butthole Surfers, they composed undergraduate theses on fourth-century Roman fortifications and the liberal thought of Lionel Trilling. I began hanging around in the studio after my show was over, suppressing an instinctive fear of their sticker-covered leather jackets and multicolored hair. I informed them, as Mr. Barnes would have done, that the atonal music of Arnold Schoenberg had prefigured all this. And I began listening to new things. The first two rock records I bought were Pere Ubu’s Terminal Tower compilation and Sonic Youth’s Daydream Nation. I crept from underground rock to alternative rock and finally to the full-out commercial kind. Soon I was astounding my friends with pronouncements like “Highway 61 Revisited is a pretty good album,” or “The White Album is a masterpiece.” I abandoned the notion of classical superiority, which led to a crisis of faith: If the music wasn’t great and serious and high and mighty, what was it?

For a little while, living in Northern California after college, I thought of giving up on the music altogether. I sold off a lot of my CDs, including all my copies of the symphonies of Arnold Bax, in order to pay for more Pere Ubu and Sonic Youth. I cut my hair short, wore angry T-shirts, and started hanging out at the Berkeley punk club 924 Gilman Street. I became a fan of a band called Blatz, which was about as far from Bax as I could get. (Their big hit was “Fuk Shit Up.”) Fortunately, no one needed to point out to my face that I was in the wrong place. It is a peculiar American dream, this notion that music can give you a new personality, a new class, even a new race. The out-of-body experience is thrilling as long as it lasts, but most people are eventually deposited back at the point where they started, and they may begin to hate the music for lying to them.

When I went back to the classical ghetto, I chose to accept its limitations. I realized that, despite the outward decrepitude of the culture, there was still a bright flame within. It occurred to me that if I could get from Brahms to Blatz, others could go the same route in the opposite direction. I have always wanted to talk about classical music as if it were popular music and popular music as if it were classical.

For many, pop music is the soundtrack of raging adolescence, while the other kind chimes in during the long twilight of maturity. For me, it’s the reverse. Listening to the Eroica reconnects me with a kind of childlike energy, a happy ferocity about the world. Since I came late to pop, I invest it with more adult feeling. To me, it’s penetrating, knowing, full of microscopic shades of truth about the way things really are. Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks anatomizes a doomed relationship with a saturnine clarity that a canonical work such as Die schöne Müllerin can’t match. (When Ian Bostridge sang Schubert’s cycle at Lincoln Center a few years ago, I had the thought that the protagonist might never have spoken to the miller girl for whose sake he drowns himself. How classical of him.) If I were in a perverse mood, I’d say that the Eroica is the raw, thuggish thing—a blast of ego and id—whereas a song like Radiohead’s “Everything in Its Right Place” is all cool adult irony. The idea that life is flowing along with unsettling smoothness, the dark C-sharpness of the world sensed but not confirmed, is a resigned sort of sentiment that Beethoven probably never even felt, much less communicated. What I refuse to accept is that one kind of music soothes the mind and another kind soothes the soul. It depends on whose mind, whose soul.

The fatal phrase came into circulation late in the game. From Machaut to Beethoven, modern music was essentially the only music, bartered about in a marketplace that resembled pop culture. Music of the past was either quickly forgotten or studied mainly in academic settings. Even in the churches there was incessant demand for new work. In 1687, in the German town of Flensburg, dismissal proceedings were initiated against a local cantor who kept recycling old pieces and neglected to play anything contemporary. When, in 1730, Johann Sebastian Bach remonstrated with the town council of Leipzig for failing to hire an adequate complement of singers and musicians, he stated that “the former style of music no longer seems to please our ears” and that expert performers were needed to “master the new kinds of music.”

Well into the nineteenth century, concerts were eclectic hootenannies in which opera arias collided with chunks of sonatas and concertos. Barrel-organ grinders carried the best-known classical melodies out into the streets, where they were blended with folk tunes. Audiences regularly made their feelings known by applauding or calling out while the music was playing. Mozart, recounting the premiere of his “Paris” Symphony in 1778, described how he milked the crowd: “Right in the middle of the First Allegro came a Passage that I knew would please, and the entire audience was sent into raptures—there was a big applaudißement;—and as I knew, when I wrote the passage, what good effect it would make, I brought it once more at the end of the movement—and sure enough there they were: the shouts of Da capo.” James Johnson, in his book Listening in Paris, evokes a night at the Paris Opéra in the same period:

While most were in their places by the end of the first act, the continuous movement and low din of conversation never really stopped. Lackeys and young bachelors milled about in the crowded and often boisterous parterre, the floor-level pit to which only men were admitted. Princes of the blood and dukes visited among themselves in the highly visible first-row boxes. Worldly abbés chatted happily with ladies in jewels on the second level, occasionally earning indecent shouts from the parterre when their conversation turned too cordial. And lovers sought the dim heights of the third balcony—the paradise—away from the probing lorgnettes.

In America, musical events were a stylistic free-for-all, a mirror of the country’s mixed-up nature. Walt Whitman mobilized opera as a metaphor for democracy; the voices of his favorite singers were integral to the swelling sound of his “barbaric yawp.”

In Europe, the past began to encroach on the present just after 1800. Johann Nikolaus Forkel’s 1802 biography of Bach, one of the first major books devoted to a dead composer, may be the founding document of the classical mentality. All the earmarks are there: the longing for lost worlds, the adulation of a single godlike entity, the horror of the present. Bach was “the first classic that ever was, or perhaps ever will be,” Forkel proclaimed. He also said, “If the art is to remain an art and not to be degraded into a mere idle amusement, more use must be made of classical works than has been done for some time.” By “idle amusement” Forkel probably had in mind the prattling of Italian opera; his biography is addressed to “patriotic admirers of true musical art,” namely the German. The notion that the music of Forkel’s time was teetering toward extinction is, of course, amusing in retrospect; in the summer of 1802, Beethoven began work on the Eroica.

Classical concerts began to take on cultlike aspects. The written score became a sacred object; improvisation was gradually phased out. Concert halls grew quiet and reserved, habits and attire formal. Patrons of the Wagner festival in Bayreuth, which opened in 1876, were particularly militant in their suppression of applause. At the premiere of Parsifal, in 1882, Wagner requested that there be no curtain calls for the performers, in order to preserve the rapt atmosphere of his “sacred festival play.” The audience interpreted this instruction as a general ban on applause. Cosima Wagner, the composer’s wife, described in her diary what happened at the second performance: “After the first act there is a reverent silence, which has a pleasant effect. But when, after the second, the applauders are again hissed, it becomes embarrassing.” Two weeks later, listeners rebuked a man who yelled out “Bravo!” after the Flower Maidens scene. They did not realize that they were hissing the composer. The Wagnerians were taking Wagner more seriously than he took himself—an alarming development.

The sacralization of music, to take a term from the scholar Lawrence Levine, had its advantages. Many composers liked the fact that the public was quieting down; the subtle shock of a C-sharp wouldn’t register if noise and chatter filled the hall. They began to write with a silent, well-schooled crowd in mind. Even so, the emergence of a self-styled elite audience had limited appeal for the likes of Beethoven and Verdi. The nineteenth-century masters were, most of them, egomaniacs, but they were not snobs. Wagner, surrounded by luxury, royalty, and pretension, nonetheless railed against the idea of a “classical” repertory, for which he blamed the Jews. His nauseating anti-Semitism went hand in hand with a sometimes charming populism. In a letter to Franz Liszt, he raged against the “monumental character” of the music of his time, the “clinging firmly to the past.” Another letter demanded, “Kinder! macht Neues! Neues!, und abermals Neues!” Or, as Ezra Pound later put it, “Make it new.”