Why are audiences turned off by modern classical music? Alex Ross, author of The Rest Is Noise, has written an engaging article in the Guardian exploring some contributing factors to the public’s general distaste for modern classical music. Ross has watched people leave during concert performances and points out that, “Some Prommers are still traumatised by the shock of encountering Harrison Birtwistle’s ultraviolent piece at the 1995 Last Night of the Proms.”
Take a moment to Watch: Panic – Harrison Birtwistle. Featuring Johan van der Linden Saxophone, Wilbert Grootenboer Drums, Doelen Ensemble o.l.v. Arie van Beek. 9-10-10 De Doelen, Rotterdam
Isn’t the best music supposed to stir emotion? I am stirred right in the pit of my stomach after listening to Panic.
In his article Ross describes a scientific theory that indicates a preference for simple tonality is wired into the human brain, and a sociological explanation that boils the issue down to the discomfort of being trapped in a seat for a prolonged period of time. After (thankfully) dismissing these theories, Ross offers the following insight
The core problem is, I suspect, neither physiological nor sociological. Rather, modern composers have fallen victim to a long smouldering indifference that is intimately linked to classical music’s idolatrous relationship with the past.
Conclusion? Audiences don’t like to hear anything new.
It makes sense, and it is a point of view that has been debated many times before. Historically many of the “great” composers have dealt with their fair share of scathing reviews and attacks upon their exploration of melody and harmony.
Please listen to the clip below as you read the crude review of Ballade No. 3, by Chopin written in 1842:
Ballade In A-Flat, No. 3, Op. 47
Composer: Fryderyk Chopin
Performer: Sergei Rachmaninov
Chopin has hardly ever carried further his particular system of harmony than in his Third Ballade. Nothing but the nicest possible execution can reconcile the ear to the crudeness of some of the modulations. These, we presume, are too essentially part and parcel of the man, ever to be changed; but it is their recurrence, as much as the torture to which he exposes the poor eight fingers which will hinder him from ever taking a place among the composers who are at once great and popular.
(H.F. Chorley, The Atheniaeum, London, December 24, 1842.) Lexicon of Musical Invective
The same treatment was given to Giuseppe Verdi. Here is a clip of Pavarotti singing La donna è mobile from a film version of the opera Rigoletto,1983: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xCFEk6Y8TmM
Rigoletto is the weakest work of Verdi. It lacks melody. This opera has hardly any chance to be kept in the repertoire. (Gazette Musicale de Paris, May 22, 1853)
Translated from French, Lexicon of Musical Invective
I think the point is clear, and there is no need to mention how respected and admired Chopin and Verdi are today. Though it does seem strange to know that at one point or another the work of classical composers such as Chopin, Verdi, Stravinsky, Wagner, Berlioz, Ligeti, Britten and countless others has been, or currently is, considered noisy, boring, shocking or just plain ugly sounding. At the end of the day what difference does it make? The works that have staying power will remain, and perhaps the next generations of listeners will be shocked to learn that there were audience members during the early twenty-first century that thought avant-garde, modern classical music was dissonant and strange. (We can debate exactly what is meant by the terms avant-garde classical music all day, so just go with your gut on this one.)
For reasons I will never fully understand many people have a distaste for opera (shocking), and I am sure just as many people feel the same way about pop, rap, country, folk music, and on and on. (Please do not turn my remark into an age issue). The reason for this aversion may be as simple as exposure. I am sure most of us have had an experience where we did not like something at first, but then acquired a taste for it. This taste metamorphosis can occur with food, film, clothing, politics, etc. I do not believe something as personally affecting as music would be any different.
Alex Ross wrote a wonderful article, and it is a good thing that we are conversing and debating these questions. As long as the composers keep composing, and the audiences (small as they may be) stay interested, we can hope to one day gain insight from hindsight.
Photo: Pete Checchia, Curtis Institute of Music Symphony Orchestra.