Beethoven Versus Kid Rock
I heard an ad on the radio recently, for a youth-oriented clothing company. The ad never mentioned a product. It merely presented a teenage girl saying: “I don’t like classical music. I don’t care if it’s supposed to be better or whatever! Rock and roll just makes me feel good, and no one can make me listen to classical music.” Then the name of the company was stated.
Hey, kids, buy our product, we hate classical music too!
Give It Up For Ludwig!
I picture a battle of the bands: Kid Rock is over here on stage one, Ludwig von Beethoven over there on stage 2. Where’s the crowd? Surging around Kid Rock, mostly. There’s no one over by Ludwig but a smattering of mostly middle-aged patricians in dinner jackets and evening dresses. Sidle close and you can hear them bemoaning the way the hoi polloi fail to perceive the superiority of classical music!
Now, let me say that in the course of talking to quite a few classical musicians, I couldn’t find one who claimed that classical music is better. “It’s just different,” they say. But let’s face it: the stereotype is out there—that classical music aficionados are snobs..
So I got to mulling the idea of one type of music being superior to another. It’s not like arguing that the Beatles are better than the Stones, or Mozart than Salieri. That’s comparing apples with apples.
Rating classical music above rock (or whatever!) is a different proposition. What could the argument possibly be?
High Music Versus Low Music
A certain ambiguity attends the term: what is “classical music,” exactly? In literature, “classical” refers to works so good, they survive the test of time. A book has to be old before it can be judged a classic. That’s not how the term is used in music. There are classical musicians operating right now. In fact, a composer can plausibly say he’ll compose a new piece of classical music tomorrow. Test-of-time has nothing to do with it—he already knows it will be classical.
Music scholars, incidentally, use “classical music” specifically for works composed after the Baroque period and before the Romantic—for Mozart and his rough contemporaries, in short. But we’ll ignore music scholars. Their definition is not what most of us mean by “classical music.”
No, most of us use “classical music” to mean the highbrow stuff played in concert halls. Every culture has its high music and its low music. The low music is what ordinary folks listen to in everyday life for pleasure. High music is what the aristocracy patronizes and supports. In the West, coming out of medieval times, that meant the church and then the various royal courts, which may account for the faint odor of snobbery surrounding classical music
No Garage Quartets
But there’s a good reason besides snobbery why classical music is linked to the rich. Classical music is a costly proposition. In any culture, classical musicians can’t just learn a few basics and let passion do the rest. They must train for years, like doctors (and the society must somehow support them through that long apprenticeship) because classical music is inherently rooted in a deep loam of tradition, which would-be practitioners must absorb before hanging up their own shingles.
Successful garage bands in rock and roll? Easily. But there will never be a classical music garage symphony orchestra.
Classical music, therefore, requires patronage. Historically, that’s where the aristocracy comes in. Even today, patronage is a part of that world. The San Francisco Symphony gets full houses and charges dearly for tickets, yet maintains an active fundraising department.
When’s the last time you saw a fundraiser for Kid Rock?
Scripted versus Unscripted Music
In the Western tradition, it seems to me, the invention of musical notation (completed by the 13th century) had a profound effect on the nature of classical music. Notation made it possible for a particular piece of highly organized music to be handed down to later generations, note for note.
Before this breakthrough, inventing music and playing music must have been the same thing: there was no separation of roles. After the breakthrough, some musicians could focus purely on planning what would be played. The composer’s role was born.
At the same time, notation took the lid off how complex a composition could be, because a composer could fuss with a piece of music at his (or her) leisure, analyzing its patterns intellectually and editing ad infinitum.
Without musical notation, Beethoven could never have created any symphonies.
Another Classical Tradition
And that’s pretty much what we mean by Western classical music today–music planned by one mind and played by others from scripted instructions. It may be worth noting that this is not inherent to classical music. Other classical traditions exist.
Take Indian classical music, for example. The rules are subtle and complex, to be sure. Indian musicians spend years, sequestered like monks, honing their craft, before they ever play in public. Each piece, known as a raga, is played in its own scale. The ascending scale is different from the descending scale. The piece begins with a definition of themes, then moves through elaborations of those themes, while the tempo evolves. One raga may take two or three hours to complete.
But within that subtle framework, the music is entirely improvised. The musicians choose what particular notes to play on the spot. No raga is ever played twice.
Mahler and the Case of the Missing Key
The Western approach to music, the scripted approach, lends itself to structural complexity. The medium lures composers in that direction. And the musical results give the intellect much to feast upon.
Classical pianist Patty Avery, a long-time music teacher, told me, “I appreciate many forms of music. BUT: what’s different about classical music is the depth. You find so many levels and layers, so much organization, so much room for interpretation. But you have to put in a lot time studying, not just to play it or compose it, but also just to hear it, really. Classical music isn’t quick and immediate. That’s why it struggles to find an audience these days–our culture is into quick and immediate.”
Let me illustrate what might be meant by the intellectuality of classical music. A college buddy of mine, Jan DeWeese, himself a musician and abstruse musical thinker, used to rave about the “lost key” in the symphonies of his favorite composer, Gustav Mahler. He said the lost key represented rootless modern humanity’s search for a true home.
I didn’t know what he was talking about.
I haven’t seen him in twenty years, but I decided to call the man now and get an explanation. Today, DeWeese teaches at Lewis and Clark College and plays Brazilian music on the mandolin, but he retains a powerful jones for classical music. I said, “Jan, tell me again about Mahler’s lost key.”
He didn’t know what I was talking about.
But he was willing to speculate. “I was probably thinking about the management of tonality that the great German composers achieved.”
Umm… management of tonality?
“The whole concept of a symphony is the musical odyssey,” DeWeese went on. “You start from a home key, there’s a departure, and then a return through a labyrinth of musical complications. The great composers like Beethoven take you as far as possible from home and get you back safely. Mahler took that form to an apex. But he didn’t come back and hit the primary themes obviously hard like Beethoven. In Mahler symphonies you’re lured to the edge of resolution in a key that you think is home, but it turns out to be a temporary perch. And your psyche knows you’re not there yet. Mahler awakens a sense of longing for that lost key, that lost true home.”
“Now Jan,” I said. “Be honest–do you really hear all that when you listen to Mahler?”
Yes, he did. “It takes analysis to prove what’s happening,” he said, “but the normal listener experiences the psychology of different keys deep in his musical physiology.”
I guess I’m not a normal listener. There’s no way that halfway through a Mahler symphony, any part of me feels my distance from the key in which the theme was first stated. Mahler’s lost key? Hey, I’m still trying to find my lost garage key. I don’t doubt Jan’s experience, but I know I need a lot more training before I can have the same experience.
It seems to me that every type of music starts as a sensory experience, but from that platform, Western classical music goes to the intellect (and through the intellect to a rich range of possible emotions).
Popular music goes directly to the emotions and the physical body—it’s got a beat you can dance to. The aura of superiority that surrounds classical music may really reflect a valuation of mind over body, intellect over emotions.
My friend Joe Quirk, a fool for the hardest of hard rock, says, “Okay, classical music has complexity but does that make it superior? Some people would say that what counts is raw emotional power.”
If Beethoven versus Kid Rock boils down to intellect versus emotions, reason versus passion, mind versus body, I think we’re right back to “not better, just different.”
I’ll take it one step further. Several centuries ago, the invention of notation elevated musical values such as structural complexity. But the last hundred years of technology may have thrown a new monkey wrench into the works. Actual musical performances can now be passed on to future generations for judgment.
The raga can still be played only once, but it can be heard countless times. The sessions that produced John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme were a unique event in time, but our children’ children can now experience that event, not just a reconstruction of it by other musicians.
Perhaps structural complexity must now compete with such values as immediacy, excitement, and emotional power. The former may be more common in classical music, but the latter is surely more likely to show up in less rigidly scripted., more improvisational forms such as jazz and some rock.
So when we take up the question of what music produced today will have an audience hundred of years from now, I’d say all bets are off. The Beatles? Snoop dog? Nirvana? Radiohead? They might have as good a chance of surviving the test of time as Morton Feldman, John Cage, or Phillip Glass. We just don’t know.
And that’s good news for Kid Rock (whom, incidentally: I’ve never heard: I just like the name.)