360° Analysis

Ordering Noise: The Importance of Classical Music


July 21, 2013 05:59 EDT

Classical music is just sound, and it is beautiful to hear highly ordered sound.

In 1906, composer Richard Strauss premiered a daring and salacious opera titled, Salome. The story is based on a tale from the Gospel of Matthew. In its beginning, Salome declares her love for the puritanical prophet, Jochanaan (John the Baptist). When he rejects her advances, Salome, with all the fury of a woman scorned, seeks revenge with the help of her stepfather, Herod. In one of the opera’s most iconic scenes, Salome dances “The Dance of the Seven Veils” for Herod, slowly undressing one veil at a time. Herod, in return, executes the prophet Jochannan and brings his severed head to Salome. Salome, from necrophilia to the warped father-daughter relationship, has a dark mix of beauty, perversion and avant-garde spirit. Despite its subversive content, perhaps because of it, the Viennese public loved Salome, and Strauss as its creator.

The premiere of Strauss’ Salome reveals a world smitten with opera. Yet, Strauss was part of a dying tradition, one of the last Romantic composers, fond of a heavy dramatic aesthetic that waned as the 20th century surged forward. Society altered irrevocably during the two world wars. Technological and social advances forever changed the music industry and ways in which people connected to one another. By his death in 1949, the musical world Strauss had known in 1906 was hardly recognizable. Society had changed and opera and classical music no longer stood as a cultural beacon and a beloved form of entertainment.


Prior to the 20th century, opera and classical music were extremely popular art forms in the West. Opera was especially well liked. The beginnings of opera can be traced to the late 16th century Florence, Italy, where composer Jacopo Peri wrote Dafne, which is widely considered to be the world’s first opera. Throughout the 16th and 17th centuries, opera gained popularity and spread throughout Europe. By the 18th century, it had become one of the continent’s most widely cultivated musical forms. Its popularity eventually spread to America. In 1825, The Barber of Seville was performed in New York and became a staple for the New York elite well into the 20th century.

Opera evolved and changed with the times, each new generation contributing compositional techniques that paralleled contemporary societal values. Opera initially drew inspiration from Greek tragedies and wove themes and stories from these older works with the art of the age: dance, madrigals and solo song. As classical music progressed, opera became more sophisticated. In the 18th century, Classicism countered the heavy drama of 17th century Baroque music. Focusing on melody, tonality, and the integration between music and words, classical composers such as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart created operas in this light, yet rich musical voice.

The 19th century brought Romanticism, an aesthetic that moved back towards laborious, effusive self-expression, painful longings and, as a result, fuller operatic works. Richard Wagner’s revolutionary use of leitmotifs — musical themes that accompanied specific characters and ideas — elicited intense, emotional and psychological effects from audiences. His scores pushed the limits of tonality, and garnered the term Gesamtkunstwerk (Complete Artwork), for a reason: in Wagner’s hands, opera became even more of a spectacle.

As opera increased in popularity, a culture formed around its practice and participants. Since its beginnings, opera has been an expensive art form. As time passed it remained primarily entertainment for the rich, but it also reached a wider audience. Classical musicians and opera stars went on international tours. In the early 1900s, advertisements for classical events and jazz bands were placed in the same place in the New York Times. It was common to find an advertisement for opera replaced by one for a tap dance the next day. Opera was exciting, it showcased divas with international renown. These divas, often sopranos, were pernickety, talented and garnered loyal followings amongst operagoers and the general public. In 1906, when tenor Enrico Caruso was arrested at the Central Park Zoo for pinching the bottom of a lady (which he blamed on a monkey), the story was splashed onto the front pages of newspapers across America. Far from ruining his reputation, it only heightened his celebrity. Composers, too, were revered. When Strauss travelled to America in 1904, he was greeted with the utmost respect, received at the White House by Theodore Roosevelt and shown around the floor of the Senate. People discussed contemporary composer Gustav Mahler with the same fervor. The behavior of opera stars and composers was constant fodder for news and press, akin to current tabloids.

The Tumultuous 20th Century

Then, in the 20th century, the bubble of tonality that had classified the previous 200 years, burst. Modernism emerged in a fragmented cluster of genres and ideas. Igor Stravinsky caused riots with his primal ballet The Rite of Spring. Jazz surfaced in America as a new and unique way to think about music. World War I — and then II — produced a new generation of composers wary of opera and its ties to the past. Inventions such as vinyl, film recordings and radio changed the music industry forever, creating new ways to distribute music and new musical instruments.

These changes ended the cultural dominance of classical and operatic music in the United States and Europe. Opera had always been difficult to produce and it paled in comparison to cheaper alternatives such as Broadway plays and musical theater. It seemed stodgy and dated next to minimalism and experimentalism. Rock-and-roll, Tin Pan Alley’s popular ballads, and the ever-evolving jazz all deliver a fresher form of music. With new genres and the rapid development of the film industry, celebrity culture formed outside of the opera world. People were more interested in talking about the latest silent movie star than the new soprano. This lessened the social and cultural impact of opera; it lost its niche in Western culture.

Not to say that new opera wasn’t being created. Throughout the 20th century, a handful of composers continued to write. In the 60s and 70s, they experimented with new ways of storytelling. Some, such as Phillip Glass’ Einstein on the Beach, told no story at all. Others, such as Harrison Birtwistle’s The Mask of Orpheus, presented different versions of a single story. Nixon in China, by composer John Adams, entered the standard repertoire in the late 80s and combined classical music with minimalism to create a postmodern sound. In 2012, Dutch composer and film and stage director Michael van der Aa collaborated with British novelist David Mitchell to create The Sunken Garden, an opera that made use of 3D effects, video projections and live action. Overall, however, opera grew less popular, stuck in a rut, telling an 18th century story to a 20st century world.

Opera Today

Nowadays, statistics for opera and classical music in America look rather grim. The Metropolitan recently stated that it is lowering ticket prices for the 2013-14 opera season. The average price of admission will drop by 10 percent. The standard opera attendee is, according to a 2008 NEA Survey of Public Participation of the Arts, 48-years-old, a year older than the NEA survey in 2002. For classical music, the NEA graphs show that between 1992 and 2002, the largest age group attending classical music was between 35 and 44 in 1992, and between 45 and 54 in 2002. These numbers indicate that while opera and classical music attendees do age, few people, outside of a core group, have become interested in the art form.

It made sense for rebels of the 20th century to eschew classical music and free themselves from the confines of not only its music, but the highly classist culture that accepted it. As the 21st century picks up speed, however, relegating opera and classical music to the elderly and the well-off no longer serves a cultural purpose. Enough time has passed so that disassociating from classical music does not signify cool counterculture. At this point, opera has a stuffy elitist stereotype because, sadly, the opera community itself often reinforces that stereotype. Stravinsky puts it nicely: "Music is, by its very nature, essentially powerless to express anything at all… if, as is nearly always the case, music appears to express something, this is only an illusion and not a reality. It is simply an additional attribute which, by tacit and inveterate agreement, we have lent it, thrust upon it, as a label, a convention – in short, an aspect which, unconsciously or by force of habit, we have come to confuse with its essential being."

It is a great loss that people often react negatively to classical music. In their book, Healing at the Speed of Sound, Alex Doman and Don Campbell (also authors of The Mozart Effect), discuss the positive neurological effects of classical music on the brain. They argue that classical music is enjoyable and beneficial to the individual because it “primes the brain.” The brain “loves its complex structure and symmetrical architecture, which have a demonstrable positive effect on brain activity cognition and behavior.” On a molecular level, classical music is able to stimulate more genes involved in changing and creating connections between brain cells.

There is no doubt that in the fast-paced world of the 21st century, opera is different from other types of music, more difficult to understand, enjoyable with a little backstory, and more of a time commitment. Yet, sectioning off classical music from popular music creates an unnecessary distinction and separates modern music from its rich and vast history. It ignores the fact that music is created to connect and bind people rather than divide them. It disregards the fact that popular music and classical music share a history, that Beethoven and Mozart were just as controversial and culturally relevant in their day as Bob Dylan or Kanye West, pushing boundaries, stirring up debate and baring their truths to the world through music. Most importantly, it disregards the thematic similarities between popular and classical music. Both forms stemmed from an urge to express the extremes of the world and reflect it back to the people in a more accessible form, both desire to capture beauty and to comfort.

This is why stories about people like Gustavo Dudamel are so inspiring. Gustavo is a Venezuelan conductor who, as legend goes, began conducting to his stuffed  animals at the age of eight. He comes from a modest middle class family who was lucky enough to have access to a program called El Sistema. Founded by Jose Antonio AbreuEl Sistema is a brilliant organization that has set up free musical centers in the barrios of Venezuela’s poorer areas with the belief that music echoes life; the discipline, teamwork, and confidence of the orchestra practice room provides children with valuable lessons. In addition to making a space for children to learn and grow, Abreu uses music to bridge social barriers between the rich and the poor. “Today,” he says, “we can say, that art in Latin America is no longer a monopoly of elites and that it has become a social right.” Abreu believes in the transformative powers of art and music to bring out the best in humanity.

Dudamel shares Abreu’s ideals. He works especially hard to make classical music an experience that is inclusive to those of all social classes. At the end of a performance, Dudamel instructs the musicians to bow to the audience, then face the cheapest seats, the ones known as “orchestra view”. He is a figurehead for a new approach to classical music, one that is inclusive and uses music as a tool for positive social change. One that sees classical music similar to the way they did in the 18th and 19th centuries — a natural part of the human experience — rather than endorsing the current paradigm in which classical music is as a dated form of self-expression for a crusty elite.

As Stravinsky pointed out, underneath all the social and historical layers, classical music is just sound, and it is a beautiful thing to hear highly ordered sound, to watch it fly through the world resounding in the hearts of young and the old, rich and poor.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

Image: Copyright © Shutterstock. All Rights Reserved.


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