Defending Classical Music

taken from a review of
Who Needs Classical Music?
Cultural Choice and Musical Values

by Julian Johnson,
Oxford University Press

In the early 17th century, a poet stirred by the rich polyphony of church music declared that it showed him “the way to heaven's door”. Unhappily, reactions to classical music in our time are often less visionary.

As indifference to classical music grows, Julian Johnson, an academic and composer, not only makes the case for the relevance of its subject, but launches a larger attack on attitudes which threaten to marginalize both classical music and high art in general, replacing their unique depth with the frissons of fashion and sensation. For Mr. Johnson, mainstream culture has become saturated with the youth values of immediacy and novelty. Geared to commodities and advertising, it dismisses the more deliberate and complex responses which classical music requires as outmoded, unsellable and elitist.

Indeed, so as to survive, classical music has in places begun to adopt the trappings of pop. Classical charts are dominated by easy-listening compilations, crossover albums, tie-ins with films and ad campaigns, and photogenic young performers of frequently limited talent.

But even this kind of appeal has more to do with media than music. Mr. Johnson is concerned that some people who profess a fondness for classical music are really more attracted by its image, staking a snobbish claim to what is perceived as an elite activity without making the effort of attention which classical music depends on and radically repays.

The very ubiquity of music in the modern world is part of the problem. Mr. Johnson regards recording as a double-edged sword—excellent for making masterpieces available at the touch of a button, deleterious as an encouragement to treating them merely as an agreeable background noise to suit a mood, while away the time, half-ignore and interrupt at will.

At the heart of Mr. Johnson's argument is this sense that the classical impulse is different from simple entertainment. Classical music offers not merely the basic pleasures of melody, harmony and rhythm, but the meanings which these elements can reveal when explored in the process of composition by a master. It is just this intense emotional and intellectual engagement, shared by composer and listener, that pop music and pop culture reject: it is definitely not cool, a quality which denies complexity, in which work followed by chilling out define the parameters of being human.

By contrast, Mr. Johnson's idea of humanity is inherently complex, involving “the tension between the bodily and the intellectual, the material and the spiritual.” “We understand ourselves as particular, physical beings, but we also value the ways we exceed the physical, the ways our capacity for thought, feeling and imagination seem to transcend our bodily existence.”

Mr. Johnson insists that this experience is not remotely elitist, but part of a natural human desire to possess more life, in more comprehension and abundance.

(edited by David Van Alstyne)

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