Monday, September 12, 2011

Thoughts on Highbrow/Lowbrow, and the Atmoshpere/Perception of Classical Music

In my reading of Highbrow/Lowbrow this week, I have enjoyed reading about the historical “progression” of the sacralization of classical music. It has helped me understand the background of today’s attitudes towards classical music, and perhaps helped me realize some things that might be done better to perpetuate classical music in the future.

The influential late 19th century Boston music critic John Sullivan Dwight claimed that classical music is a highly intellectual form of art meant for the highly intellectual portion of the population. To reach those who were not as “lofty,” one would have to compromise the integrity of the masterworks to endow them with popular appeal. In the late 19th century, popular appeal for classical music began to be viewed as something negative, indicative of the music's being reduced in its complexity in order to be enjoyed by the uneducated in classical music. The mixing of genres in a program for variety, the performances of virtuoso soloists, or the omission of a movement or movements from a lengthy multi-movement work became viewed as disgraces to the purity of the music. Therefore, it was best to let classical music remain a “highbrow” art. Such an attitude still prevails today in the classical music world, and even when it doesn’t, the public’s perception of classical music is still primarily one of an intellectual, “stuffy” institution.

Unlike the classical music leaders in the late 19th century, however, there are many classical musicians today who do not have a condescending attitude towards musical outreach, and actually want people of all backgrounds (“intellectuals” or not) to have the chance to hear and appreciate classical music. I attended a chamber music performance this week that attempted to appeal to both classical musicians and non-musicians alike. The venue was a fairly casual one. It was quite small, and is used for both classical and non-classical music. The performers introduced each piece verbally, and programmed a wide variety of music from Schubert to a newly-composed work commissioned by the ensemble. Some of the items on the program were single-movement works, while others were individual movements taken from multi-movement works. The set-up of this program was conducive to making the music accessible to all audience members, and even invited participation--their programs included a space on the back to include any reactions or thoughts about the performance. I do not mean to say that any of the characteristics of the performance I have just listed are the “best” ways to make classical music accessible, but they are some approaches that I was able to see in action.

The formal and often cerebral manner in which classical music is usually presented might prevent listeners from enjoying the music as a living work of art, or prevent their interests from being piqued by a piece they have never heard before. Therefore, an audience that is not well-versed in classical music might find it difficult to thoroughly enjoy the typical classical music concert simply because of presentation. The “highbrow” atmosphere distracts the audience from the experience of the music itself for both non-musicians and perhaps even those who are educated in classical music. Classical music is music, after all. Referring back to our discussion in class last week on the definition of music, it is a human expression capable of communicating emotions and ideas, and also of being enjoyed. Therefore, maybe a change in our perspective of how to present classical music is called for in a time such as ours when classical music is viewed as an isolated, “dying” art.

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