Why does classical music matter? Five truths.
On the evening of May 29th, 1913, the curtain rose at the newly-opened Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris. The theatre was at capacity, perhaps due to the rumours of the preceding weeks. Present were the most important creatives of the day; Pablo Picasso, Claude Debussy, Maurice Ravel. As a solo bassoon, in its strange and strangled high register, opened Igor Stravinsky’s ballet, ‘The Rite Of Spring’, choreographed by the legendary Vaslav Nijinsky, it was clear that it was to a deeply unsettled audience. What followed was something extraordinary.
As the piece developed, revealing Stravinsky’s guttural orchestral writing and Nijinsky’s bizarre choreography, so too did the audience’s agitation. Some say that objects were hurled towards the stage, blows were exchanged between concert- goers, and as many as 40 people were arrested. One account details Stravinsky holding onto Nijinsky’s coat tails so that he could lean over a balcony to call to the dancers, who could not hear the orchestra because of the terrific uproar. The Rite had caused a riot, and it was nothing short of a scandal.
It’s as far from the image of classical music that a lot of us have today as it is from the definition of scandal; it’s not really comparable to the Miley Cyrus twerking incident of more recent times. The thought that a piece of classical music was so divisive that it started a riot is a strange one by 2015’s standards. Perhaps music mattered more in 1913.
It’s easy to see why interest in classical music has waned. As I type I’m listening to a long-playing vinyl record (I’m one of those people) of Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 1, which clocks in at just under an hour from beginning to end. In the fast-paced 21st century, the century of ceaselessly buzzing iPhones and instant gratification, perhaps we are not willing to dedicate that much time to something intangible, something old and fusty and boring. Perhaps it would be impossible to listen for an hour straight without distraction. Perhaps the fact that an hour of Mahler of an evening is a viable option for me means I have too much time on my hands…
I think that classical music is hugely important, and I sense I’m preaching to the converted, as I doubt you would have invested in instrumental lessons for your child if you did not think so too. For me, there are few things more enjoyable than hearing the stylus of my Technics SL-B202 turntable crackle across the black vinyl into the opening bars of ‘The Planets’. Here are five reasons why;
1) All music is important. Experiencing an emotional response to music makes us human. I recently took a trip to Paris, and visited Opera Bastille for a performance of Debussy’s ‘Pelléas et Mélisande’. My French being in a neglected state, I faced a considerable language barrier everywhere I went, yet I shared an inexplicable experience with my fellow concert- goers. We were all moved by the universal language of music in one way or another.
2) Most importantly, because it’s beautiful, powerful, and moving. Try the Rachmaninov Piano Concerto, or Allegri’s ‘Miserere’, or ‘Dido’s Lament’, by Purcell, or ‘The Lark Ascending’, by Vaughan Williams. I defy you not to cry a little bit (even the Dads).
3) It makes you smart. A study carried out by clinical psychologists, commissioned by Spotify, showed that students who listened to classical music while they studied scored on average 12% higher. Some say there are health benefits (I’m expecting to live to the age of 192 because I listen to Mozart every day).
4) The British are really good at it. We have the top conservatoires in the world, and a plethora of amazing composers – Purcell, Handel, Elgar and Britten to name but a few. Lets face it, we’re not going to win the World Cup any time soon…
5) Because of this beautifully-written quote from ‘Why Classical Music Still Matters’, by Lawrence Kramer;
Despite the frigid connotations of its label, classical music is the very opposite of frozen in its presumed grandeur. Lend it an ear, and it will effortlessly shuck off the dead-marble aspect of its own status and come to as much life as you can handle. It will invite you to hear meanings it can have only if you do hear them, yet it will give you access to meanings you had no inkling of before you heard the music. It has nothing to do with the classic in the sense of a timeless monument that dictates a self-evident meaning and demands obeisance for it. It opens itself like a willing hand or smile, making itself available to you for self-discovery and reflection.
Dave Malkin is a guitar tutor for the Becky Dell Music Academy. To inquire about or arrange lessons with him, please contact Becky on 07889 365 297.