What does classical music, also known as art or serious music, do for us? The state spends vast amounts of taxpayer money on concerts, venues, broadcasts and commissions, yet most people are not beneficiaries of an art form often considered elitist. Concert halls might be difficult to fill in many Western countries but in the East, particularly China, classical performers are lionised and halls are bursting with locals eager to savour the music and inspire their children. Is it time to reevaluate art music before state subsidies dwindle and Western music migrates to the East?
Many composers are revered for their intellectual, socio-political and historical contribution to our culture, and above all, for the personal, emotional, and spiritual impact of their works. Gerard Willems, an authority on Beethoven, offers some insights into the composer’s power and relevance: ‘Beethoven’s music approaches our purpose on earth through its reflection of nature and intense awareness of values important to humanity: beauty, intensity, diversity, and complexity. These concepts, built into his works, give us pleasure… Like eating a piece of chocolate or being in love, his music can lead to a state of mind when the whole world seems a better place.’
Bach, arguably the greatest composer of all, was largely motivated by celestial concerns. The marginalia in his Lutheran Calov Bible would indicate his identification with the Levite family of musicians that glorified God with their music and generated the resplendent cloud inside the ancient Jewish Temple. But much of the power of his transcendent music was achieved through the association of specific emotions using intervals, keys and pitch according to baroque musicology and aesthetics. Undoubtedly, Bach believed his own music was divinely inspired to direct people’s minds and hearts to the Almighty. Integral to church history, Bach’s music was also influential in the introduction of jazz, and the mathematical development of the atonal twelve-note scale that advanced contemporary classical music.
The flaunting of Bach and Beethoven in diverse politics speaks to the power of their music. Bach’s works provided consolation during the period of East German protests before the Berlin Wall fell. The German Democratic Republic exploited similar music for political propaganda designed to instill high ideals and commitment from the working class. Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 was often performed in Nazi Germany. Known as the Victory Symphony by Second World War allies, the four-note opening motif represented the letter V in Morse code and introduced BBC wartime broadcasts. Stalin attempted to harness music to his politics when he expected Shostakovich to convey triumphant nationalism and majesty in his Symphony No. 9. Instead, Shostakovich composed an abstract, whimsical piece devoid of soloists, chorus, or inscription. Stalin was appalled and banned the work. In Verdi’s opera Nabucco, music served political idealism when the chorus of the Hebrew Slaves, ‘Va’ Pensiero’, became the Italian anthem for unification and independence.
Influenced by the philosopher Theodor Adorno, music was heavily politicised in the mid-twentieth century. Adorno believed classical music should be a tool for organised revolt and anointed the radical, atonal new music with superior intellectual, social and political values. It was another charge of elitism against an art form nurtured by the church and aristocracy. A further detraction came from former Oxford English Professor John Carey, who promoted the notion that artistic judgement was relative and dependent on subjective preference. By levelling music genres, the ideology of relativism effectively downgraded art music. He also stigmatised classical music as secular worship for the elite and wealthy.
Restrictedness and exclusivity became entrenched after Queen Victoria adopted Mendelssohn’s conversion of the concert into a reverential-style church service, not to be interrupted until the performance ended. However, the accusation of elitism in today’s society is mistaken. Concertgoers, students and teachers come from all socio-economic groups. Many people are unaware of the classical music soundtracks for movies and would be surprised to learn of the subversive elements in the music of Mozart, Beethoven and Shostakovich.
In spite of its critics, art music has revealed significant social benefits. There is good evidence that music education for children improves academic performance and can influence creativity, imagination and self-expression. The widely copied El Sistema music program in Venezuela trains disadvantaged children destined for a life of crime. A study that piped classical music into London Underground stations in dangerous suburbs, showed a significant reduction in robberies, assaults and vandalism. Music therapy is well established in drug and alcohol rehabilitation, mental illness and physical disabilities, and studies have shown that newborn babies undergoing painful procedures did better with Mozart in the background.
But ultimately, music is an entry to a private emotional, reflective, and numinous experience. Music celebrates life and love and provides solace in loss, and happiness in times of joy. The great compositions are emotional representations in sound, often changing at high speed. Mozart can arouse supreme happiness followed by sadness several bars later. Schubert conveys his reflections on life and death, often miniaturised in song. Beethoven energises listeners and arouses a sense of mastery. He also invites reflection by compelling us to listen with concentration, especially during slow movements such as the first movement of the Moonlight Sonata, when time seems suspended. For today’s audience, Mahler has particular relevance with his expansive landscape of social concerns and search for existential meaning.
Of all the arts, music imparts the most direct form of emotional expression without restraint. Moreover, the emotion can be tangible immediately, when the sound seems to hit the skin. Music can offer consolation by identifying painful, deeply buried feelings or stimulating catharsis, even without specific associations. In these respects, it might be considered a form of therapy. Many people are not aware that appreciation for art music requires only a small investment of exposure and focused attention. However, our age of hectic work, child management schedules, social media and Netflix leave little free time.
In today’s frenetic world, art music offers a restorative oasis as well as an abundant cultural treasure.
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