When I was a child, my mother purchased 50 Great Music Treasures on two LP records from a TV add. Moreover, the ad assured her, if she acted right now, she would receive, absolutely free (!), 25 Great Music Treasures. So as a child, I listened to a total of 75 great music treasures. These were my introduction to classical music in my childhood, and I loved them. Now that LPs have become hot items again (who would have thought?), you can purchase both of these collections and obtain for yourselves the same initiation I had.
But this wasn’t my only avenue to the music of the centuries. As child, I listened unknowingly to Wagner, Liszt, Rossini, Grieg, and other orchestral masters while watching Bugs Bunny and his cohorts. The NBC evening news opened to the 2nd movement of Beethoven’s 9th symphony. The church organist ensured that we were well acquainted with Bach fugues. Commercials serenaded us to Leoncavallo with the new words “Where are the Rice Krispies?” Our local public radio station was filled from morning until night with classical music, with only a short break for “All Things Considered”.
The musical landscape has changed dramatically. The time allotted for classical music on our public radio station dwindled over my lifetime until it is now completely gone. The station now offers “news and information”, alleviated only by amusing game shows and other forms of humor. Apparently, Public Broadcasting Service listeners didn’t pony up the money for Brahms. Children’s cartoons and the evening news have their own music, written specifically for them. The church organ has disappeared except from the most traditional and staid of churches. Many music stores dispense with the infrequently browsed classical music section entirely in favor of rock, rap, country, and hip-hop.
And I remember the year 2004 as the year that every fast food merchant switched from easy listening to (very loud) rock music.
But why is that? Why did Beethoven vanish from the airwaves? Why is Bach no longer heard in church? Why did popular taste abandon centuries of music?
First, let me submit for your consideration something that can be forgotten: classical music was once the popular music of its age. The theater subscribers of the 18th and 19th centuries didn’t listen to classical music because they thought it was good for them. They listened to it because they enjoyed it. They paid good money to attend operas and concerts. Mozart, Haydn, Paganini, and Mendelssohn were the rock stars of their times. Tastes change, of course, but why so much?
Let me suggest an unpopular reason. Like Shakespeare, classical music is simply harder to understand. Shakespeare is difficult because much of his language has become outdated. Likewise, the classical musical ideas and forms are now unfamiliar. A symphonic movement can introduce multiple themes that need to be heard and understood to appreciate the coming development and recapitulation of those themes that occur later. There’s often a lot going on musically. The total experience can take 8 to 10 minutes — sometimes longer. If a listener doesn’t understand the first 3 or 4 minutes of a movement, he won’t understand the development and recapitulations that follows, making the entire piece incomprehensible.
Popular music has triumphed because it’s musical ideas are shorter and easier to understand. They fit easier into our lives. And, to be brutally honest, the listener doesn’t have to work so hard to understand them. The average rock song lasts 3 minutes and 30 seconds (though that limit is expanding). The main themes generally comprise a verse and a chorus, each lasting less than 30 seconds. Repetition of those musical themes happens within the first minute. It’s easier to remember them. I’ve heard popular music in which a measure or two of music has been repeated more times than I can count.
This, then, is what I think happened to Beethoven. He’s simply not understood anymore.
But, like those who went before him, popularity is fleeting. Who knows but that in 50 years, the Beatles will be similarly incomprehensible to young people who need even shorter musical ideas more robust repetition?
Oh, wait. Maybe that’s already happening.