September 7, 2011
University of Wisconsin-Madison

Classical Music

Yi-Fu Tuan

[Dr. Tuan is no longer writing regular Dear Colleague letters. This is a special essay written for his readers.]

   Alex Ross and Anthony Tommasini are, respectively, music critics of The New Yorker and The New York Times. They are friends, but are not quite on the same wavelength regarding classical music. Ross notes that, to the general public of our time, classical music has the smell of moth balls and that the very word “classical” is redolent of the past, a snobbish past in which ladies and gentlemen wish to be seen in their finery and admired for their cultural taste rather than to listen. Also in the same symphony hall are snobs of another kind, detectable by the music score spread over their knees, their eyebrows knitted in deep concentration, except when angry glances are thrown at a neighbor who can’t quite suppress a cough. And, then, there is the third type of snob, young and very well educated. They, in their sophistication, are reluctant to acknowledge their CDs of Bach and Mozart, but are happy to boast their library of jazz and the Blues, W.C. Handy and Louis Armstrong, Bob Dylan and the Beatles, as well as the latest in Punk Rock and Heavy Metal. Their one shame, musically speaking, is that in their adolescence they fell briefly under the spell of Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony.

   Ross himself was under the exclusive spell of classical music until age 20, when he suddenly found new life and new joy in music that takes place in less formal settings–certainly not ones with chandeliers overhead–in which the audience, overwhelmingly young, are rapturously engaged with the throbbing sound of gyrating performers on stage. In Ross’s book Listen To This (2010), his comments on classical music are always detailed, using musical notations to illustrate a fine point in a particular composition or a segment of a composition. And he can be wholly admiring. For example, taking advantage of technology, he put Mozart’s all twenty-seven renditions of the Kyrie on the computer. Listening to them one by one, he was astonished by Mozart’s inexhaustible inventiveness: his Kyries “range from the ravishingly sweet to the forbiddingly severe, each a convincing simulacrum of the power of the Lord.” Why doesn’t Ross treat the music of Bob Dylan and the Beatles, which he calls the high art of our time, with the same respect–that is to say, with the same detailed analysis bar by bar, and the same attention to the work’s overall structure? Ross’s appreciation seems to be more about how Dylan or the Beatles perform, as though they are performing artists rather than composers. Another trait of reviewers of popular music, including Ross, is that they pay as much attention to the lyrics as to the music itself. By contrast, no reviewer of Schubert’s Die Schöne Müllerin will let the music play second fiddle to the words.

   A characteristic of classical music, distinct from music of earlier times and modern popular music, is its exceptional range of pitch and loudness. In the same classical piece, one may hear notes that soar into the sky and notes that hug the earth, notes so soft as to be barely audible and notes so loud as to be deafening. Corresponding to this range of sounds is a range of moods that can vary from tenderness to anger, from withdrawal to triumphalism. A combination of “dove” and “crocodile” was how a critic of Beethoven’s time described Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony. What I miss from popular music are the extremes. Since much of it is vocal, accompanied by the guitar, both of which have limited range, this is hardly surprising. But why my emphasis on mood? Well, as I see it, the range, subtlety, and force of how we feel toward nature and other people defines our humanity; and no human creation does a better job of expressing them, better even than the pictorial art of Ma Lin and the verbal art of Shakespeare, than certain compositions of the classical masters.

   Anthony Tommasini of the New York Times  recently attempted something in his music column that his counterpart in the New Yorker is unlikely to indulge–unlikely because Ross is too cautious and perhaps also too sophisticated. Tommasini ranked the top 10 classical composers, omitting only the living. They are–in order of greatness--Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Schubert, Debussy, Stravinsky, Brahms, Verdi, Wagner, and Bartok. Readers of his column quickly offered disagreement, especially at the lower end of the list. Why Bartok rather than Mahler or Bruckner? Tommasisni himself wavered only in his choice of number two. Mozart or Beethoven? He handed the honor to Beethoven largely on the basis of an epiphany about Beethoven during the early 1980s when he heard Leon Kirchner conduct the Harvard Chamber Orchestra. Kirchner began with the Piston symphony, a work of the 1950s, followed by Debussy’s “La Mer,” completed in 1905, but somehow made the Debussy sound more modern than the Piston. “After intermission, Peter Serkin joined Kirchner for a performance of Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto that brought out the mysticism, poetic reverie, and wildness of the music. The Beethoven sounded like the most radical music in the program by far: unfathomable and amazing” (The New York Times, January 23, 2011).

   Will any popular art of our time be as timeless? Will anyone, two hundred years from now, still regard Ellington’s “Ebony Rhapsody,” the Beatles’s “Yellow Submarine,” or Dylan’s “Blood on the Tracks,” as radical, unfathomable, and amazing? I don’t like the word “low,” as in “highbrow and lowbrow” art–the expression is officious and dismissive--but surely there are grounds for saying of some musical compositions that they are “great” and of others that they are “good” or “popular”?  

Yi-Fu Tuan


All text and essays on this site © Yi-Fu Tuan. Published irregularly. All rights reserved.
Terms of Use, How to Cite.
home Subscribe to Dear Colleague letters Publications and Research Dear Colleague