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But You Knew That Already, Of Course...

It's time for classical music to let go of pretentiousness.

by Drew McManus
October 2, 2006

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But You Knew That Already, Of Course...

Among all of the contemporary forms of art, I've always felt classical music has the most potential for growth. Unfortunately, it has a nasty habit of getting in its own way by perpetuating decades old exclusive barriers.

At the same time, many classical music institutions are trying harder than ever before to consciously tear some of these barriers down. However, I find that some of these issues are so entrenched in the behavior and actions of long time classical music enthusiasts; they may not even realize they are unconsciously contributing to the problem.

Two recent events have brought this issue to the forefront in my mind.

The first occurrence was while I was attending the gala ceremonies for the opening of the Nashville Symphony's new $123.5 million symphony center. On my way out of town, I purchased a Sunday edition of the local newspaper, The Tennessean. In that edition, they had several wonderful features, including a 32 page insert dedicated to the new symphony center.

However, when I reached a section entitled "What to know before you go to the show" I found one of the most glaring examples of how decades of exclusive behavior has worked its way into how the mainstream consciousness views classical music. The article included a couple of paragraphs about etiquette:

"Please hold your applause until the appropriate time. In some pieces of music, the orchestras will pause briefly for about 10-15 seconds between movements. 

The audience should hold its applause during the short breaks in music, until the end of the entire piece. The conductor will signal when a piece is finished by putting his or her arms down and turning to the audience." 

I was very disappointed to see Nashville's premier newspaper publishing instructions for how to assimilate to what is essentially Pavlovian behavior in the first place.

The second occurrence happened while listening to a classical music radio station the other week. The announcer was talking about an opera that was opening later that month. This particular opera isn't considered standard repertoire so the announcer took some time to talk about the story line.

Initially, I was very interested since this particular work was unknown to me and I was looking forward to learning more. That's when it happened; the announcer used the phrase "of course" when mentioning that the plot was based on a traditional French story.

"…of course, we all know this plot comes from the traditional French story of…"

Since when are we all supposed to know this fact? The opera in question isn't a particular renowned work and if you aren't up on traditional French narratives then I suppose that means you're just a member of culturally unwashed.

I was instantly offended by the remark and turned the radio off. Normally, it takes a great deal to push me over the edge but it is exactly this sort of behavior that has contributed to classical music's decline.

I have never met the announcer in person so I have no idea if he regularly behaves like a pretentious snob but the words rolled off of his tongue so easily it made me feel like this wasn't a unique occurrence. He used the phrase so effortlessly that even though I have a traditional music conservatory education, this announcer made me feel like I should be ashamed of some good old fashioned ignorance. In any other situation, I would have been eager to learn about something new but his attitude and approach just made me angry.

Imagine how new listeners must feel when they encounter an attitude exemplified by this radio program. It is not an issue of "if" they encounter this attitude but "when". The pretentiousness in classical music is so engrained that it is nearly a part of the collective DNA, but that's not a good reason for it to continue.

In the end, I don't favor banning phrases or words - after all, two wrongs don't make a right - but what should change are attitudes and perceptions. If classical music lacks the ability to effectively examine itself from a perspective of someone on the outside looking in, what hope is there to realize classical music's potential sooner rather than later?

As I mentioned at the beginning of this piece, classical music has tremendous room for growth. Furthermore, it is an art form worth nurturing as an individual and sharing between neighbors. Nevertheless, in order for us to get to a point where that attitude becomes internalized, it is going to take a great deal of conscious effort in the here and now.

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Telemann from Fairfax VA writes:
October 4, 2006
Pour it on, Drew!

Drew's points are on target. Recent developments have moved in interesting directions. On the one hand, as Drew points out, using the example of the Nashville music facility, as well as the new Disney-sponsored hall in California, and the fine new facility in Kansas City Missouri, classical music is getting shots in the arm here and there in the country. More and more symphonies are mobilizing outreach to patrons.

On the other hand, the basic Apartheid system separating the professional establishment from audiences is still robust.

As a consequence, the decline in Classical music in the US has slowed, and may even reverse itself in a few places, but continues. Young people get virtually no exposure to Classical unless they are lucky enough to have a musical family or special school circumstances. .

But the cause of the precipitous decline from was once a vibrant entertainment and art form, the professional music establishment, is still holding out resolutely in its battlements.

The leading music writers - if they write anything designed for the larger music public at all - speak in confident tones about the mystical world of superior music with which they are in intimate contact, and into which they allow the unwashed public occasional glimpses out of generosity of spirit.

Although program note writers for big opera and symphonic performances are smart enough not to directly insult the public, one need only read Charles Rosen or other musical sophisticates to know that the cognoscenti regard the fgeneral music loving public's feelings and opinions about music as virtually worthless.

When articulate criticisms of the music establishment emerge, like the books of Jacques Barzun, or Nicholas Tawa- they are never challenged or rebutted directly - they are simply ignored. It's worked so far in keeping the reins of music firmly in the hands of the pros.

All the more important for those of us with the courage of our suspicions to speak up, communicate, plan and instigate!

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