Myths of Classical Music Debunked (Mostly)
For those of us who make our living performing classical music, loving it is a no-brainer. Explaining it to the uninitiated is another matter completely. It has become increasingly more difficult for the general population to take the plunge and listen to classical music. Personally, I think it’s because of one or more of the myths below. It is very important that we classical types don’t treat novices or beginners like idiots – You don’t like classical music? You must be a moron who barely graduated eighth grade. We need to avoid that misconception because the music is simply too important to be missed by anyone. Read on for some of the worst offender myths when it comes to excuses not to enjoy classical music.
Myth the First – Classical Music is Boring
Verdict – False
Of all the myths surrounding classical music, this one is the least true. Like anything else, there is good and bad classical music. There is fast and slow, loud and soft, and happy and sad. One could argue that these opposites within any piece of music are what make it great. I will admit there is boring classical music. At the same time, there is boring pop and rock music. Some music that many people find boring is actually very beautiful. Two examples would be the famous Barber Adagio or the song And So it Goes by Billy Joel. Both gorgeous, and both completely devoid of action (or, as an old friend called it, banging).
Obviously knowing a little about any given work makes it easier to enjoy. Listening to Tchaikovsky’s Piano Trio knowing that he wrote it after the death of his best friend (even though he hated the thought of piano and strings) makes the piece that much more interesting. Knowing that Mozart composed the overture to his masterpiece Don Giovanni the day of the premier makes that work even more enjoyable.
Myth #2 – There Is No Good Modern Classical Music
Verdict – False (big time)
Baloney. Even if you consider “modern” to be, say, the last 25 years you’d still be wrong. I’ll just leave this link here and let you tell me that it’s not great music. It was written in 1998. Many people consider music of the 20th century until now to be modern music. As the years go by, that is starting to drift more towards the mid-20th century (maybe the ’40s or so). That still puts music by great composers such as Barber, Copeland, Stravinsky, Sibelius (died in ’57), and Shostakovich firmly within the modern spectrum.
Again, knowing a little about the music or the composer always helps. To me, there is no better overview to modern music than The Rest is Noise by Alex Ross. He starts at Richard Strauss (died in 1949) and goes all the way until now. Great reading no matter how much you know about classical music.
Myth #3 – Classical Music Concerts are Only for Rich People
Verdict – False
Have you ever bought tickets to see the Chicago Symphony or Atlanta Symphony? Then you’ve seen just how expensive they can be. You could turn to alternatives like the Elgin Symphony (45 minutes west of Chicago) or the Georgia Symphony (30 minutes north and west of Atlanta). The ticket prices are much lower (as low as $10-$20) and the ensembles are both very good.
The thing is, good classical music can be heard for very little money, or even free if you look for it. The Grant Park Music Festival in Chicago is a great example. Lawn seats are free (the pavilion has seats that can get spendy), and you can sit on a blanket and enjoy a glass of wine and a sandwich (both of which you can bring in, no problem). The musicians are first rate – there is an audition process, and the music is varied and excellent.
Tanglewood in the Berkshire mountains of Massachusetts is another great example. Lawn seats aren’t free, but they’re pretty low, and you get to see the Boston Symphony along with some great guest artists. I was a student there and stood in the back for the most famous concert in the history of the festival (probably – I’m just bragging).
There are many alternatives to the major symphonies that will save big money. Every state has community or regional orchestras within 30 minutes of you. Obviously, you should see one of the great symphonies at least once before you die, but you don’t have to break the bank the rest of the time. Not for nothing, I recently spent $250 on two tickets to see Billy Joel at Wrigley Field so it ain’t just classical music that’s expensive.
Myth #4 – Classical Music is Only for Nerdy Musicians
Verdict – False (mostly)
Or arrogant nerdy musicians who think they’re too good for the rest of us. First of all, that is not true. The part about classical music being only for stuck-up nerds. Musicians, like actors or other performers, are by nature a little arrogant. One has to be to perform in front of people at a high level.
It is simply false that all classical musicians are geeks (or poindexters, nerds, weirdos, etc.). Most of us have many other hobbies and interests outside of our profession. I enjoy playing golf, watching sports, and making beer. Many otherwise classical musicians perform regularly with bands at clubs. Our taste in music isn’t just classical either. To your left is an image with the first few songs found on my phone. Click the image for full size. It is just a snippet of what I listen to daily.
Sometimes we may come off a bit conceited. I try not to, but it’s hard to respond without exceptional sarcasm to people who think classical music is stupid or boring. If a person is truly interested in finding out more, I am more than happy to drop some knowledge on them. Classical music is just too wonderful to be ignored. Without Mozart, there would be no Freddy Mercury. Without Beethoven, there would be no Beatles. It’s really that simple.
Myth #5 – The Songs are Too Long
Verdict – False (mostly)
Yes you might have to stop your mail if you’re going to hear a Wagner opera or Mahler symphony, but there are countless great works that are less than 20 minutes long. When I was conducting a student/community orchestra years ago, I would always program one concert with only concert overtures or other short pieces. In school, one conductor called a similar concert we were playing “bloody chunks from the classical repertoire.” It was a concert completely made up of single movements from larger works. A wonderful program despite the indelicate name. This is another of these myths I can’t stand.
Many symphonies perform sections or single movements regularly. Such pieces include the Intermezzo from Cavalaria Rusticana, the Mahler Adagietto, “Nimrod” from the “Enigma Variations,” or the Scherzo from Dvorak’s 7th Symphony. All of these are under 10 minutes (although sometimes the Dvorak Scherzo and the Adagietto can run a little over depending on who’s conducting).
Yes, it’s true that some classical masterpieces are quite lengthy – Beethoven 3rd (about an hour), Mahler 3rd (100 minutes), Bruckner 7th (75 minutes) – but you can work up to that. Operas and ballets are all very long, but they tell a story. The Ring Cycle (four operas by Wagner) is over 15 hours long. Not recommended for a novice listener (or even some musicians). Despite the length of some works, there is plenty to listen to that is about the same length as the B-side of Abbey Road.
Myths of Classical Music – Final Thoughts
Verdict – Finally, the end
I love music. All kinds of music. There are very few styles of music I dislike – most country, hardcore hip-hop, really avant-garde classical. But even within these groups there is music I enjoy. Classical music is very personal to me. Like a prom song that reminds you of specific time in your life, certain symphonies or chamber music works do the same for me (both good and bad I’m afraid). The myths above are just a few of the excuses people use to hate on classical music. Like most myths, they can be debunked and laid to rest. Hopefully.