Listen To This

by Alex Ross

The New Yorker, February 16 and 23, 2004

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 élitism that tries to manufacture self-esteem by clutching at empty formulas of intellectual superiority. Consider some of the rival 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. Music is too personal a medium to support an absolute hierarchy of values. The best music is music that persuades us that there is no other music in the world. This morning, for me, it was Sibelius’s Fifth; late last night, Dylan’s “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands”; tomorrow, it may be something entirely new. I can’t rank my favorite music any more than I can rank my memories. Yet some discerning souls believe that the music should be marketed as a luxury good, one that supplants an inferior popular product. They say, in effect, “The music you love is trash. Listen instead to our great, arty music.” They gesture toward the heavens, but they speak the language of high-end real estate. They are making little headway with the unconverted because they have forgotten to define the music as something worth loving. If it is worth loving, it must be great; no more need be said.

When people hear “classical,” they think “dead.” The music is described in terms of its distance from the present, its resistance to the mass—what it is not. You see magazines with listings for Popular Music in one section and for Classical Music in another, so that the latter becomes, by implication, Unpopular Music. No wonder that stories of its imminent demise are so commonplace. The Web site ArtsJournal features a media file with the deliberately ridiculous name Death of Classical Music Archive, whose articles recycle 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 on television, ignored or mocked by Hollywood. But the same story could have been written ten years ago or twenty. If this be death, the record is skipping. A complete version of the Death of Classical Music Archive would go back to the fourteenth century, when the sensuous melodies of ars nova were thought to signal the end of civilization.

The 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). 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. Nor is the classical audience aging any faster than the rest of America. The music may not be a juggernaut, but it is a major world. American orchestras sell around thirty million tickets each year. Brilliant new talents are thronging the scene; the musicians of the august Berlin Philharmonic are, on average, a generation younger than the Rolling Stones.

The music is always dying, ever-ending. It is an ageless diva on a non-stop farewell tour, coming around for one absolutely final 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. For now, it is like the “sunken cathedral” that Debussy depicts in one of his Preludes—a city that chants beneath the waves.


The critic Greg Sandow recently wrote in his online journal that we partisans of the classical need 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 generational storytelling 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. It is a paradise for passive-aggressives, sublimation addicts, and other relics of the Freudian world. Which may explain why it has a hard time expressing itself in the time of Dr. Phil.

I am a thirty-six-year-old white American male who first started listening to popular music at the age of twenty. In retrospect, this seems strange; perhaps “freakish” is not too strong a word. Yet it seemed 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. They came of age in the great American middlebrow era, when the music had a much different place in the culture than it does today. In those years, in what now seems like a surreal 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 sympho-nee / That Schubert wrote but never fi-nished . . . ”) NBC would broadcast Ohio State vs. Indiana one afternoon, a recital by Lotte Lehmann the next. In my house, it was the Boston Symphony broadcast followed by the Redskins game. I was unaware of a yawning gap between the two.

Early on, I reached for my parents’ record collection, which was well stocked with artifacts of the Golden Age. I listened to Toscanini’s Brahms, Koussevitzky’s Sibelius, the Budapest Quartet. The look and feel of the records were inseparable from the sound they made. They said so much to me that for a long time I had no curiosity about other music. 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 fierce recordings 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 at the world 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 Orson Welles parodied brilliantly in “Citizen Kane.” Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto, for example, was said to be “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 roughly matched the pattern of the sound.

The first music that I loved to the point of distraction was Beethoven’s “Eroica” Symphony. My parents had a disk 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—a C-sharp that unexpectedly sounds against the plain E-flat-major harmony. “There has been a stab of intrusive otherness,” he 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 searingly intense 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 the works of Eminem and 50 Cent, he might find it shockingly boring at best. No one is slicing up his wife or getting shot nine times. But I would submit to my young gangsta interlocutor 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 grand 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.” That wasn’t what Beethoven wanted: his intention was to shake the European mind. 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, 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. Composition at its most intense is a rebellion against reality. No one except the very young demands new music, and even when we are young the gates of inattention crash down quickly. Composers 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. For more than a century, the repertory has consisted largely of music by dead composers. Yet half of those on the American Symphony Orchestra League’s top-ten most-performed list—Mahler, Strauss, Ravel, Shostakovich, Prokofiev—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. Scriabin, Bartók, and Berg were three 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 final 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, spying nameless entities on the horizon. “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 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 able to tolerate any other performance of the work, not even Britten and Richter’s.

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 days and nights 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 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 d.j.s liked to start their sets with the shrillest, crudest songs in order to scandalize the classical crowd. I tried to one-up them by ending my show 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 Schoenberg had anticipated all of 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 strange 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 somehow 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, popular 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 to pop music late, 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. 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. (Listening recently to Ian Bostridge sing the Schubert cycle, 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. Depends on whose mind, whose soul.

On my iPod I’ve been listening to the new Missy Elliott song “Wake Up.” It’s an austere hip-hop track with a political edge. Something about the music sets off my classical radar. There are, effectively, only three notes, free-floating and ambiguous. The song begins with a clip of a voice shouting “Wake up!” The voice rises up a tritone, and that interval determines the notes. The idea of generating music from the singsong of speech is ancient, but “Wake Up” reminds me in particular of two minimalist pieces by Steve Reich, “It’s Gonna Rain” and “Come Out.” Both use tapes of impassioned black voices to create seething electronic soundscapes. Whether Elliott and her producer, Timbaland, have listened to Reich is beside the point. (If you say, “Of course they haven’t,” ask yourself what makes you so certain.) The song works much like Reich’s compositions, building a world from a sliver of sound. It’s almost manic and obsessive enough to be classical music.


The fatal phrase came into circulation late in the game. From Monteverdi to Beethoven, modern music was the only music, bartered about in a marketplace that resembled modern pop culture. Concerts were eclectic hootenannies in which opera arias collided with chunks of sonatas. Barrel-organ grinders carried the best-known arias out into the streets, where they were blended with folk tunes. Concerts in pre-classical America were a stylistic free-for-all, a mirror of the country’s mixed-up nature. Walt Whitman mobilized grand 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 overwhelm 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. “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 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.” Scholars eventually defined the Classical Era as Viennese music of the late eighteenth century, especially Mozart and Haydn, who, in their day, had been racy, modern figures. The word was nonsense from the outset.

The rise of “classical music” mirrored the rise of the commercial middle class, which employed Beethoven as an escalator to the social heights. Concert halls grew quiet and reserved, habits and attire formal. Improvisation was phased out; the score became sacred. Audiences were discouraged from applauding while the music was going on—it had been the custom to clap after a good tune or a dazzling solo—or between movements. Patrons of the Wagner festival in Bayreuth proved notoriously militant in the suppression of applause. At an early performance of “Parsifal,” listeners hissed an unmusical vulgarian who yelled out “Bravo!” after the Flower Maidens scene. The troublemaker had reason to feel embarrassed; he had written the opera. The Wagnerians were taking Wagner more seriously than he took himself—an alarming development.

Composers liked the fact that listeners were quieting down; the subtle shock of a C-sharp wouldn’t register if the crowd were chattering away. Even so, the emergence of a self-styled élite audience had limited appeal for the likes of Beethoven and Verdi, who did not come from that world. The nineteenth-century masters were, most of them, monstrous egomaniacs, but they were not snobs. Verdi wrote for the masses, and he scandalously proclaimed the box office the only barometer of success. Wagner, surrounded by luxury, royalty, and extreme pretension, nonetheless railed against the emergence of a “classical” repertory, for which he blamed the Jews. His nauseating anti-Semitism went hand in hand with a sometimes deeply charming populism. In a letter to Liszt, he raged against the “monumental character” of the music of his time, the “clinging and sticking to the past.” Another letter demanded, “Kinder! macht Neues! Neues!, und abermals Neues!” Ezra Pound condensed this thought as “Make it new.”

Unfortunately, the European bourgeoisie, having made a demigod of Beethoven, began losing interest in even the most vital living composers. In 1859, a critic wrote, “New works do not succeed in Leipzig. Again at the fourteenth Gewandhaus concert a composition was borne to its grave.” The crazy modern music in question was Brahms’s First Piano Concerto. By 1870, seventy-five per cent of works in the Gewandhaus repertory were by dead composers. The fetishizing of the past had a degrading effect on composers’ morale. They began to doubt their ability to please this implacable audience, which seemed prepared to reject their wares no matter what style they wrote in. If no one cares, composers reasoned, we might as well write for connoisseurs—or for each other. This was the mentality that gave birth to the phenomenon of Arnold Schoenberg. The relationship between composer and public became a vicious circle; the more the composer asserted independence, the more the public clung to the past. A critic who attended the première of the “Eroica” saw the impasse coming: “Music could quickly come to such a point, that everyone who is not precisely familiar with the rules and difficulties of the art would find absolutely no enjoyment in it.”

The American middle class carried the worship of the classics to a necrophiliac extreme. Lawrence Levine, in his book “Highbrow/Lowbrow,” gives a devastating portrait of the country’s musical culture at the turn of the twentieth century. It was a world that abhorred virtuosity, extravagance, anything that smacked of entertainment. Orchestras dedicated themselves to “the great works of the great composers greatly performed, the best and profoundest art, these and these alone,” in the redundant words of the conductor Theodore Thomas, who was the founder of the modern American orchestra. Early in his career, Thomas tried to attract the masses, conducting in parks and beer gardens. Later, he decided that the working classes could never appreciate greatly great great music like Beethoven’s. He was a marvellous conductor, by all accounts, but his infatuation with “cultivated persons” set a bad precedent.

Within a decade or two, American symphonic culture was so ossified that progressive spirits were calling for change. “America is saddled, hag-ridden, with culture,” the critic-composer Arthur Farwell wrote in 1911. “There is a conventionalism, a cynicism, a self-consciousness, in symphony concert, recital, and opera.” Daniel Gregory Mason, a maverick Columbia professor, similarly attacked the “prestige-hypnotized” plutocrats who ran the New York Philharmonic. He found more excitement at open-air concerts at Lewisohn Stadium, in Harlem, where the audience freely expressed its enthusiasm. Mason delightedly quoted a notice that read, “We would respectfully request that the audience refrain from throwing mats.” His sentiment still rings true—concerts would be better if there were more throwing of mats.

In the nineteen-thirties, Farwell’s populist philosophy took root. A generation of composers, conductors, and broadcasters embraced the idea of “music for all.” The storied middlebrow age began. David Sarnoff, the head of NBC, had a vision of Toscanini conducting for a vast public, and the public duly materialized. The first broadcast day of CBS featured an American opera: “The King’s Henchman,” by Deems Taylor. Hollywood studios hired composers such as Korngold, Copland, and Herrmann and pursued the modernist giants Schoenberg and Stravinsky (both of whom asked for too much money). F.D.R. funded a Federal Music Project that in two and a half years entertained ninety-five million people; there were concerts in delinquent-boys’ homes and rural Oklahoma towns. A Boston reporter pictured one Federal opera performance as a storming of the Bastille: “Drivers, chauffeurs, and footmen were occupying the seats of the master and the madame at 83 cents a chair.”

Perhaps the boldest forward leap was the invention of a hybrid music combining European tradition and new popular forms. Duke Ellington wrote symphonic jazz for Carnegie Hall; his “Black, Brown, and Beige” was heard there in 1943. Morton Gould and Leonard Bernstein wrote for orchestra, jazz ensemble, and Broadway without worrying about the ranking of each. The ultimate phenomenon was George Gershwin, who rose through Tin Pan Alley and then through the orchestral world, transforming America’s idea of what a composer was. For all his Jazz Age glamour, some part of Gershwin remained a lonely classical kid—the hard-practicing pianist who had filled scrapbooks with concert programs from Cooper Union and Wanamaker’s Auditorium. In Vienna, in 1928, Gershwin met his idol, Alban Berg, who had the Kolisch Quartet play him the “Lyric Suite.” Gershwin then sat down at the piano, but hesitated, wondering aloud whether he was worthy of the occasion. “Mr. Gershwin,” Berg said sternly, “music is music.”

The middlebrow utopia sputtered out quickly, and for a variety of reasons. Federally funded arts projects fell victim to a classic American culture war—the Republicans versus the New Deal—for which fanatics on both the left and the right were to blame. Orchestras that had flourished on radio foundered on television. (No one wants to get that close to oboists.) But the real problem was with the competition. Jazz was satisfying a hunger for popular art that in previous eras only classical composers had been able to satisfy. Ellington and Mingus were pulling off the same synthetic feat that Mozart and Verdi had accomplished before them; they were picking up pieces of every form of available music—African-American, Latin, Gypsy, Debussy, operetta—and transforming them through the force of their personalities.

Lately, I have been reading the young intellectuals who embraced jazz in the twenties, and I recognize their urge to join the party. Carl Van Vechten, the notorious author of “Nigger Heaven,” started out as a music critic for the Times; he witnessed “The Rite of Spring” and embraced Stravinsky as a savior. Then his attention began to wander. He found more life and truth in ragtime, Tin Pan Alley, and, eventually, blues and jazz. In a 1917 article for Vanity Fair, he predicted that Tin Pan Alley songwriters were likely to be considered “the true grandfathers of the Great American Composer of the year 2001.” For young African-American music mavens, the disenchantment was more bitter and more personal. Some were children of a middle class that had taken to heart Dvorák’s 1893 prophecy of a great age of Negro music. The likes of James Weldon Johnson awaited the black Beethoven who would write the music of God’s trombones. Soon enough, these aspiring violinists, pianists, and composers came up against a wall of racism. Only in popular music could they make a living. Many—Fletcher Henderson, for example—turned to jazz.

The twenties saw a huge change in music’s social function. Classical music had given the middle class aristocratic airs; now popular music helped the middle class to feel down and dirty. There is American musical history in one brutally simplistic sentence. I recently watched a silly 1934 movie entitled “Murder at the Vanities,” which seemed to sum up the genre wars of the era. It is set behind the scenes of a Ziegfeld-style variety show, one of whose numbers features a performer, dressed vaguely as Franz Liszt, who plays the Second Hungarian Rhapsody. Duke Ellington and his band keep popping up behind the scenes, throwing in insolent riffs. Eventually, they drive away the effete classical musicians and play a takeoff called “Ebony Rhapsody”: “It’s got those licks, it’s got those tricks / That Mr. Liszt would never recognize.” Liszt comes back with a submachine gun and mows down the band. The metaphor wasn’t so far off the mark. Although many in the classical world were fulsome in their praise of jazz—Ernest Ansermet lobbed the word “genius” at Sidney Bechet—others fired verbal machine guns in an effort to slay the upstart. Daniel Gregory Mason, the man who wanted more throwing of mats, was one of the worst offenders, calling jazz a “sick moment in the progress of the human soul.”

The contempt flowed both ways. The culture of jazz, at least in its white precincts, was much affected by that inverse snobbery which endlessly congratulates itself on escaping the élite. (The singer in “Murder at the Vanities” brags of finding a rhythm that Liszt, of all people, could never comprehend: what a snob.) Classical music became a foil against which popular musicians could assert their earthy cool. Composers, in turn, were irritated by the suggestion that they constituted some sort of moneyed behemoth. They were the ones who were feeling bulldozed by the power of cash. Such was the complaint made by Lawrence Gilman, of the Tribune, after Paul Whiteman and his Palais Royal Orchestra played “Rhapsody in Blue” at Aeolian Hall. Gilman didn’t like the “Rhapsody,” but what really incensed him was Whiteman’s suggestion that jazz was an underdog fighting against symphony snobs. “It is the Palais Royalists who represent the conservative, reactionary, respectable elements in the music of today,” Gilman wrote. “They are the aristocrats, the Top Dogs, of contemporary music. They are the Shining Ones, the commanders of huge salaries, the friends of Royalty.” The facts back Gilman up. By the late twenties, Gershwin was making at least a hundred thousand dollars a year. In 1938, Copland, the best-regarded composer of American concert music, had $6.93 in his checking account.

All music becomes classical music in the end. Reading the histories of other genres, I often get a warm sense of déjà vu. The story of jazz, for example, seems to recapitulate classical history at high speed. First, the youth-rebellion period: Satchmo and the Duke and Bix and Jelly Roll teach a generation to lose itself in the music. Second, the era of bourgeois grandeur: the high-class swing band parallels the Romantic orchestra. Stage 3: artists rebel against the bourgeois image, echoing the classical modernist revolution, sometimes by direct citation (Charlie Parker works the opening notes of “The Rite of Spring” into “Salt Peanuts”). Stage 4: free jazz marks the point at which the vanguard loses touch with the mass and becomes a self-contained avant-garde. Stage 5: a period of retrenchment. Wynton Marsalis’s attempt to launch a traditionalist jazz revival parallels the neo-Romantic music of many late-twentieth-century composers. But this effort comes too late to restore the art to the popular mainstream. Jazz recordings sell about the same as classical recordings, three per cent of the market.

The same progression worms its way through rock and roll. What were my hyper-educated punk-rock friends but Stage 3 high modernists, rebelling against the bloated Romanticism of Stage 2 stadium rock? Right now, there seems to be a lot of Stage 5 classicism going on in what remains of rock and roll. The Strokes, the Hives, the Vines, the Stills, the Thrills, and so on hark back to some lost pure moment of the sixties or seventies. Their names are all variations on the Kinks. Many of them use old instruments, old amplifiers, old soundboards. One rocker was recently quoted as saying, “I intentionally won’t use something I haven’t heard before.”Macht Neues, kids! So far, hip-hop has proved resistant to this kind of classicizing cycle, but you never know. It is just a short step from old school to the Second Viennese School.

The original classical is left in an interesting limbo. It has a chance to be liberated from the social clichés that currently pin it down. It is no longer the one form carrying the burden of the past. Moreover, it has the advantage of being able to sustain constant reinterpretation, to renew itself with each repetition. The best kind of classical performance is never a retreat into the past but rather an intensification of the present. When you hear a great orchestra perform Beethoven’s “Eroica,” it isn’t like a rock band trying to mimic the Beatles—it is like the Beatles re-incarnated. The mistake that apostles of the classical have always made is to have joined their love of the past to a dislike of the present. The music has other ideas: it hates the past and wants to escape.


I have seen the future, and it is called Shuffle—the setting on the iPod that skips randomly from one track to another. I’ve transferred about a thousand songs, works, and sonic events from my CD collection to my computer and on to the MP3 player. There is something thrilling about setting the player on Shuffle and letting it decide what to play next. Sometimes its choices are a touch delirious—I had to veto an attempt to forge a link between György Kurtág and Oasis—but the little machine often goes crashing through barriers of style in ways that change how I listen. For example, it recently made a segue from the furious crescendo of “The Dance of the Earth,” ending Part I of “The Rite of Spring,” right into the hot jam of Louis Armstrong’s “West End Blues.” The first became a gigantic upbeat to the other. For a second, I felt that I was at some madly fashionable party at Carl Van Vechten’s. On the iPod, music is freed from all fatuous self-definitions and delusions of significance. There are no record jackets depicting bombastic Alpine scenes or celebrity conductors with a family resemblance to Rudolf Hess. Instead, music is music.

It seems to me that a lot of younger listeners think the way the iPod thinks. They are no longer so invested in a single genre, one that promises to mold their being or save the world. This gives the life-style disaster called “classical music” more of a chance. Although the music is far from attaining any sort of countercultural cachet, it is no longer a plausible target for teen rebellion, given that all the parents listen to the Eagles. (A colleague pointed out to me that the movie “School of Rock” pictures a private school where classical music is forced down students’ throats. The closing credits don’t specify which alternate universe this is set in.) Committed rock fans are likely to know a fair amount about twentieth-century composition, especially the avant-garde. Mavens of electronic dance music list among their heroes Stockhausen, Terry Riley, and, especially, Steve Reich, who avoids the temptation to sue his less inventive admirers. Mark Prendergast’s book “The Ambient Century,” a history of the new electronic genres, begins, startlingly enough, with Gustav Mahler.

The new buzzword in progressive circles is “post-classical.” The phrase was coined by the writer Joseph Horowitz, and it neatly expresses exasperation with the C word without jettisoning it. It also hints that life will go on even if monuments of the old classical empire falter. The scholar Robert Fink is even predicting a Richard Strauss-style “death and transfiguration.” Post-classical composers are writing music heavily influenced by minimalism and its electronic spawn, but they are still immersed in the complexity of composition. They just don’t need to advertise an entire course of study on the surface of a work. Likewise, new generations of musicians are dropping the mask of Olympian detachment (silent, stone-faced musician walks onstage and begins to play). They’ve started mothballing the tuxedo, explaining the music from the stage, using lighting and backdrops to produce a mildly theatrical experience. They are finding allies in the “popular” world, some of whom care less about record sales than the average star violinist. The London Sinfonietta, for example, will be playing a program next month of Aphex Twin, Jamie Lidell, and other sonic scientists from the Warp Records label, pairing their work with the constructions of Reich and Cage. The borders between “popular” and “classical” are becoming creatively blurred, and only the Johann Forkels in each camp see a problem.

The strange thing about the music in America today is that large numbers of people seem aware of it, curious about it, even mildly knowledgeable about it, but they do not go to concerts. The people who try to market orchestras have a name for these annoying phantoms: they are “culturally aware non-attenders,” to quote a recent article in the magazine Symphony. I know the type; most of my friends are case studies. They know the principal names and periods of musical history: they know what Nietzsche said about Wagner, they can pick Schoenberg and Stravinsky out of a lineup, they own Glenn Gould’s “Goldberg Variations” and some Mahler and perhaps a CD of Arvo Pärt. They follow all the other arts—they go to gallery shows, read new novels, see art films. Yet they have never paid money for a classical concert. They almost make a point of their ignorance. “I don’t know a thing about Beethoven,” they say, which is not what they would say if the subject were Henry James or Stanley Kubrick. This is one area where even sophisticates wrap themselves in the all-American anti-intellectual flag. It’s not all their fault: centuries of classical intolerance have gone into the creation of the culturally aware non-attender. When I tell people what I do for a living, I see the same look again and again—a flinching sideways glance, as if they were about to be reprimanded for not knowing about C-sharps. After this comes the serene declaration of ignorance. The old culture war is fought and lost before I say a word.

I’m imagining myself on the other side—as a thirty-six-year-old pop fan who wants to try something different. On a lark, I buy a record of Otto Klemperer conducting the “Eroica,” picking this one because Klemperer is the father of Colonel Klink, on “Hogan’s Heroes.” I hear two impressive loud chords, then something that the liner notes allege is a “truly heroic” theme. It sounds kind of feeble, lopsided, waltz-like. My mind drifts. A few days later, I try again. This time, I hear some attractive adolescent grandeur, barbaric yawps here and there. The rest is mechanical, remote. But each time I go back I map out a little more of the imaginary world. I invent stories for each thing as it happens. Big chords, hero standing backstage, a troubling thought, hero orating over loudspeakers, some ideas for songs that don’t catch on, a man or woman pleading, hero shouts back, tension, anger, conspiracies—assassination attempt? The nervous splendor of it all gets under my skin. I go to a bookstore and look at the classical shelf, which seems to have more books for Idiots and Dummies than any other section. I read Bernstein’s essay in “The Infinite Variety of Music,” coördinate some of the examples with the music, read fun stories of the composer screaming about Napoleon, and go back and listen again. Sometime after the tenth listen, the music becomes my own; I know what’s around almost every corner and I exult in knowing. It’s as if I could predict the news.

I am now enough of a fan that I buy a twenty-five-dollar ticket to hear a famous orchestra play the “Eroica” live. It is not a very heroic experience. I feel dispirited from the moment I walk in the hall. My black jeans draw disapproving glances from men who seem to be modelling the Johnny Carson collection. I look around dubiously at the twenty shades of beige in which the hall is decorated. The music starts, but I find it hard to think of Beethoven’s detestation of all tyranny over the human mind when the man next to me is a dead ringer for my dentist. The assassination sequence in the first movement is less exciting when the musicians have no emotion on their faces. I cough; a thin man, reading a dog-eared score, glares at me. When the movement is about a minute from ending, an ancient woman creeps slowly up the aisle, a look of enormous dissatisfaction on her face, followed at a few paces by a blank-faced husband. Finally, three grand chords to finish, which the composer obviously intended to set off a roar of applause. I start to clap, but the man with the score glares again. One does not applaud in the midst of greatly great great music, even if the composer wants one to! Coughing, squirming, whispering, the crowd visibly suppresses its urge to express pleasure. It’s like mass anal retention. The slow tread of the Funeral March, or Marcia funebre, as everyone insists on calling it, begins. I start to feel that my newfound respect for the music is dragging along behind the hearse.

But I stay with it. For the duration of the Marcia, I try to disregard the audience and concentrate on the music. It strikes me that what I’m hearing is an entirely natural phenomenon, nothing more than the vibrations of creaky old instruments reverberating around a boxlike hall. Each scrape of a bow translates into a strand of sound; what I see is what I hear. So when the cellos and basses make the floor tremble with their big deep note in the middle of the march (what Bernstein calls the “wham!”) the force of the moment is purely physical. Amplifiers are for sissies, I’m starting to think. The orchestra isn’t playing with the same cowed intensity as Klemperer’s heroes, but the tone is warmer and deeper and rounder than on the CD. I make my peace with the stiffness of the scene by thinking of it as a cool frame for a hot event. Perhaps this is how it has to be: Beethoven needs a passive audience as a foil. To my left, a sleeping dentist; to my right, an angry aesthete; and, in front of me, the funeral march that rises to a fugal fury, and breaks down into softly sobbing memories of themes, and then gives way to an entirely new mood—hard-driving, laughing, lurching, a little drunk.

Two centuries ago, Beethoven bent over the manuscript of the “Eroica” and struck out Napoleon’s name. It is often said that he made himself the protagonist of the work instead. Indeed, he engendered an archetype—the rebel artist hero—that modern artists are still recycling. I wonder, though, if Beethoven’s gesture meant what people think it did. Perhaps he was freeing his music from a too specific interpretation, from his own preoccupations. He was setting his symphony adrift, as a message in a bottle. He could hardly have imagined it travelling two hundred years, through the dark heart of the twentieth century and into the pulverizing electronic age. But he knew it would go far, and he did not weigh it down. There was now a torn, blank space on the title page. The symphony became a fragmentary, unfinished thing, and unfinished it remains. It becomes whole again only in the mind and soul of someone listening for the first time, and listening again. The hero is you.

Alex Ross: The Rest Is Noise

Posted by Alex Ross on May 05, 2004 | Permalink