Taruskin on the "Defense of Classical Music" Pt. 1

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Classical Music,

Why Bother?

Joshua Fineberg

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Why Classical Music

Still Matters

Lawrence Kramer

Richard Taruskin begins his essay, “The Musical Mystique” by rightly deriding a pseudo-meaningful, pretentiously artsy-fartsy “experiment” perpetrated by violinist Joshua Bell at the behest of A WashingtonTimes reporter in which Bell posted himself in the most annoying and least appropriate place in the subway system and played Bach on his priceless fiddle, in order to record the supposedly a-cultural apathy of the average commuter.  This sophomoric experiment hardly needed to be made.  You could go into a doctor’s office where the piped in Muzak might be a movement from, let’s say, a Mozart piano concerto, and record the apathy of the patients.  In fact, its arguable that authentic lovers of so-called “Classical” music are exactly the sort of persons who object to the trivialization and degradation of music represented by its infliction on a defenseless commuter or patient population that is given no chance to decide what it wants to hear, or if it wants to hear anything at all. 

If I have to hear music in a dentist’s office, restaurant, or subway, I vastly prefer that it be bad music.  Not only because bad music is less distracting, but because I like to hear great music as a deliberate choice, with a relatively formal listening posture.  Real music lovers don’t want music all the time, and are disinclined toward the use of background music.  This includes real music lovers who prefer popular genres, as well.  

So far so good, Taruskin’s point is agreed.  But then he comments, “In one respect, though, the caper was instructive.  It offered answers to those who wonder why classical music now finds itself friendless in its moment of self perceived crisis-a long moment that has given rise in recent years to a whole literature of elegy and jeremiad.” Why are sideshows like the Bell experiment presumed to prove anything about classical music generally? Aren’t commuters, etc. smart enough to recognise that silly stunts don’t sully Bach, or prove anything at all about the viability of classical music? And is classical music friendless? Here in Chicago we recently had a magnificent performance of Mahler’s 6th symphony.  I’ve been discussing it all week with my friends and students.  Aren’t we friends of classical music? Or is it a numbers game? There aren’t enough friends, perhaps.  But why would I care that 99 per cent of the American population at large doesn’t give a hoot about Mahler? What sort of “obligation” does anyone have to any kind of music? I think Taruskin rightly considers that no one has any sort of obligation. Again, this point is agreed. We would indeed have a problem if the Chicago Symphony orchestra went away.  We would have a problem if less visible local orchestras went away, as well.  But this doesn’t seem to be happening.  Millions of people sort of liking something a little bit means less than hundreds of people deeply committed to something, provided the threshold of at least minimal commercial viability is passed. 

Why all the insecurity? It couldn’t possibly matter to me what Taruskin thinks about Schoenberg; he doesn’t love it, and therefore doesn’t understand it.  It means a great deal to me what Pierre Boulez thinks about Schoenberg, however. But it doesn’t matter to me what Pierre Boulez thinks about Shostakovich.  He doesn’t love it, and therefore doesn’t understand it. But it matters a great deal to me what Richard Taruskin thinks about Shostakovich.  I personally dislike almost all popular music with which I’m acquainted.  So what. It’s not because I’m an elitist Teutonic racist, either. Ironically, Taruskin, who loves classical music and has given his life to the subject, doesn’t appear to acknowledge the perfectly possible sincerity with which one can abhor popular music and be exclusively inclined to the classical repertory, with no other guiding principle than personal taste.  The 99 percent of the population that prefers various articles from popular genres neither intimidates me, nor is in a position to force their taste on me.

Taruskin takes plenty of shots at hoity-toity classical music lovers, with occasional justification. But he could as well take some shots at the sort of idiot who likes certain pop styles, who expresses ludicrous sentiments such as “Why don’t you forget about those out-dated European guys, and listen to music that normal people like.” I’ve heard plenty of nonsense like this in my time.  It’s a kind of reverse snobbery.  I’m tempted to respond in such situations, “If you’ll carfully listen to Die Frau Ohne Schatten, I’ll carfully listen to Doggy-bone Snoop’s latest album.  Two can play at that game, mister!