Classical Music: Transformative, Not Tranquilizing

As we eagerly anticipate the opening of the RCO season next weekend, I wanted to point your attention to a wonderful blog entry (from his weekly blog “On the Record” at written by orchestra guru, Henry Fogel. It is a very compelling argument about the substance of classical music. Good food for thought.

Classical Music: Transformative, Not Tranquilizing by Henry Fogel

One of the problems that the classical music world faces is the different ways that people experience music. The truth is that classical music is not meant to be background music. It is often not meant to “soothe,” should in fact shake you to your roots frequently. But if you look at some of the marketing that is done by the recording industry, even by some orchestras or presenters, you’d think that we were closer to Montovani than Monteverdi.
How often I’ve heard, in my career, “after a hard day at work, I want to come to a concert, sit back, relax, and let the music just wash over me.” How often I’ve seen marketing that panders to this concept by inviting the ticket buyer to “let the lush sounds of Rachmaninoff relax you.” We hear of shopping malls that play classical music to either keep ruffians away–I’m not sure if it is supposed to annoy them or bore them out of the mall–or to mollify tensions by providing relaxing, soothing sounds.Clearly, those of us in the business of presenting classical music cannot take any listeners for granted, and in fact should welcome any kind of listening. And I don’t say that because it is economically good for us (though I’ll admit that it is). I say it because any approach to listening means that the listener is at some level appreciative of the music, and most of us are in this business because we are proselytizers. We believe in this music. We believe in its transformative power, its ability to fundamentally reach human beings on a level way beyond words. And therefore any listener, however he or she approaches the music, is something we cherish. However, it is also our job to make clear that there is much more to this music than lush, rich sounds. And yet much of our industry has encouraged the “just let it wash over us” approach–almost presenting it or talking about it as high-quality background music. Classical music radio in much of the United States is perhaps the prime casualty of this kind of thinking. Having visited more than 200 cities in the past ten years, and being an habitual searcher for classical music on the radio, I find myself deeply depressed at the proliferation of stations that identify themselves as “classical music” outlets but won’t broadcast vocal music, modern music, or even full-length symphonies. I remember once driving with my wife and hearing the announcer intone “Next we’ll hear the 2nd movement of Brahms’s Symphony No. 2.” I turned to my wife and said “Wow! All of it?” I dare say that the U.S. now has more so-called classical stations of this kind than stations that are actually meant to be closely listened to. Even more depressing is hearing those stations promote themselves. “Spend relaxing hours with WXYZ,” or “Let the soothing sounds of classical music accompany you through the day on WXYZ.” Station promotions of this nature are horrifyingly common. I’m trying to imagine Beethoven thinking this way about his late quartets or “Eroica” Symphony, not to mention Shostakovich about his Eighth Symphony (not that these are works one is even likely to encounter on a station like that). Would it be a wry smile or deep anger that such descriptions would engender in them?Those of us in the business of presenting and promoting music need to do a better job of explaining and clarifying the transformational qualities, the deeply moving potential, of our music. We need to remember that while a part of what we do is related to “entertainment”–and I have no gripe with entertainment; Suppé’s overtures have their place in our lives–what we do is also much, much more than entertainment. It is up to us to manage the expectations of our audiences and potential audiences, and to explain why it’s a good thing that you shouldn’t let the music wash over you.

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