The Secret to Classical Music: It's Just Music

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This is the first in a series of posts about appreciating classical music. Follow up on the next two parts of the series here and here.

Even if you have eclectic tastes, if you're under 30, chances are good you listen to little or no classical music. This isn't an admonition; it's a fact, and one you've probably heard before in an admonishing tone. For decades, classical music has been in lugubrious decline. This trend has become a grave concern for people whose livelihoods are built on the music. Later this month, the League of American Orchestras is convening a conference to kick-start an "Orchestra R/Evolution." Whatever innovations they devise, it's likely that, barring some unforeseen revival of interest, this decline will continue.

That's where this essay comes in. Though I belong to that generation putatively responsible for the decline, I enjoy 300-year-old fugues. I was weaned on Outkast and the Kinks. And, weirdly enough, Prokofiev and the Pixies. I feel lucky to know the big secret: there's no trick. It's just music. It shreds, yearns, mourns, trills, rages, and smiles. The music is spine-tingling, angry, delicate, vulgar, snobby, bumptious, and transcendental. Anyone who loves music should feel comfortable pulling Messiaen into their mixes.

My thesis is that people aren't listening because they haven't had the right introduction, and because of the image. In today's world, the lovely words "opera" and "symphony" are redolent with snobbery. (If you want to signal a movie character is a pretentious aesthete, make him a lover of Verdi or—horror!—Wagner.) As I know too well, liking the music is seen as a bit eccentric, if not geriatric, pretentious, and politically reactionary: a bit like wearing furs or an ascot as a twentysomething. It's reasonable, if wrong, that many people share this 24-year-old New York man's view that it's "millionaire music."

I hope we can get past that. Classical music is old, but it isn't for old men. The music survived because it is some of the best work humans have done in four centuries. For the thrill of a late-Beethoven trill, it's worth getting past the admittedly stuffy, stagey conventions. (This is already happening in New York, where classical performers saw on nightclub floors.) Besides: the post-modern mind has a genius for stripping things—whether mutton-chops or sitars or kheffiyehs—from their context. It's time Bach, author of the most face-melting harspichord riffs known to man, came in for his turn.

So begins this series of posts meant to introduce my generation to classical music. It wouldn't dream to replace, but bows modestly to very fine precedents from Leonard Bernstein and Benjamin Britten. I will start next week with a starter-kit post on "How to Listen." Please share any ideas, questions, or suggestions you might have; the purpose is to enjoy.

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Benjamin F. Carlson is executive editor of The Atlantic Wire.

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