How can we understand classical music?
Getting into classical music has never been so exciting, easy and cheap
When I was nine, my parents came home unusually late from work for months. Then each time they were completely exhausted and just groaned: "Mahler!" That had to be something really bad, I thought at the time, "Mahler".
My parents were professional musicians in the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra (today Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra). My mother is a harpist, my father a cellist. And when I was nine, the orchestra recorded all ten symphonies by the Austrian composer Gustav Mahler on CD. A project like this takes months, maybe years, and it gets down to business.
Although I come from a family of musicians, I found classical music myself very late. I know what it is like not to understand this music. After seven years of reluctantly taking piano lessons, my parents gave up in exasperation: you no longer have to go to class, they said. But if you stop now, you will regret it. I was fourteen. Of course I stopped and of course I regretted it.
Because today, discovering classical music, even beyond the big names, is one of my hobbies: I have been recommending more or less unknown pieces on Twitter for years, and after years of mostly no reaction to it, that changed suddenly this summer. Several people asked me for playlists that they could use to get started with classical music. These often shared playlists in turn led the herb reporter to offer to write a short introduction here.
I am not a music teacher, not a trained music mediator, but due to my early contact with the classical world, I am not afraid of contact with concert halls and opus numbers. At the same time, however, I know how annoying it can be to be forced to do something you don't like, how the classical music scene trips itself up with its listening habits, and since I can pretty much trace how I can go from complete disinterest to great enthusiasm came, I'm making this little attempt to help you into this world.
Thanks to smartphones and music streaming, a whole world is open to you
Getting into classical music has never been so exciting, easy and cheap as it is today. Today you can listen to practically the entire history of music for around ten euros a month. And that everywhere. Thanks to smartphones and music streaming, a whole world is open to you and nobody can stop you.
Of course, my parents know the milestones of classical music by heart, they have practiced and played them often enough themselves. As a child and adolescent, I spent a lot of time with them in concert halls, read the names of the composers on my parents' sheet music and in the programs flying around, and thus got to know these milestones. But then I discovered a whole new world.
With the triumph of mp3 and the sharing platform Napster Beginning in the late 1990s, I suddenly got access to music that was clearly written for symphony orchestras, but the names of the composers! - didn't tell me anything. How could that be? When I confronted my parents with my found objects, the reactions were mostly the same: I basically found out who the composer had “breakfasted” with, ie copied from. Why that was just an "epigone" of Mozart, a few talented copycat. Why one does not know this or that "rightly". The only access my parents have to music that they do not yet know is through the - mostly derogatory - comparison with what they already know. Everything else is either “before Bach”, “a pupil of Beethoven”, “in the style of Wagner” and so on. Nothing can stand for itself; in reality everything is always related to something else. The classics of the classic are so classic, so to speak, that nothing can stink against them. Which of course is not true.
But why, of all things, classical music? Classical is old-folk music, it is said, a stiff, elitist undertaking and boring to death. The classical music scene uses a crazy secret language, and if you don't know what Allegro, Adagio and Sonata mean, if you can't do anything with opus numbers and keys, then you can leave it at once.
Isn't classical music what is driven out as a child in music lessons? Peter and the wolf, Peter and the wolf, another Peter, another wolf. Classic is definitely where you don't know whether you can clap or not. Classical concerts are very expensive and the music is completely out of date. Besides, I don't have any suitable clothes. And these are just a few of the resentments I encountered while researching around for this post.
Listening to classical music takes time
The classical scene is not entirely innocent of this perception, but elitist behavior is not a special problem in classical music. Ask someone who is familiar with whether this or that is still hip-hop or already pop, and they will tell you something too. The boundaries between the genres are closely guarded everywhere. The connoisseur attitude is at least as bad in techno as in classical music, and the door policy in Berghain is stricter than in the Philharmonie.
Nevertheless, the classic is not a popular sport. Classical listeners have higher educational qualifications and on average earn more than the average. The connection is relatively clear: listening to classical music takes time. It's hard to do it on the side, at least not really. So if you have hardly any free time because work and family take full advantage of you, if you have no leisure, it will be difficult for you with the classical music.
Barbara Hallama, who worked for iTunes, Google Music and Klassik Radio, says that we used to read about new music and then listen to it. We bought CDs and then looked at the cover for a long time and read the booklet before we were anywhere to play them. Today it's the other way round: I can discover music on streaming services without first having to know anything about the artist, the genre or anything else.
Recommendation algorithms make it possible. Only afterwards can I read the background, discover other pieces by the same composer, use hearing aids and so on. The music streaming ensures that the music is actually in the foreground again and less its social context, the acrobatics of the opinion makers in the respective genres or the exploitation interests of the music industry.
Today we can concentrate solely on what makes classical music so special: there is probably no human emotion, no matter how delicate or strong a feeling, that has not been brought into the form of classical music. In other words, there is probably nothing that you cannot find in classical music somewhere.
You can learn music like a language
But: Classical music does not become accessible to you simply by listening. The romantic notion that music is a universal language that everyone understands is wrong. Berthold Seliger writes in the 2017 book “Klassikkampf”: “Let's listen to sacred flute music from New Guinea or Haitian voodoo ritual music, or the Azerbaijani mugham by Alim Quasimov. Do you understand these 'languages'? " Seliger's conclusion is sobering: "Every child knows that you have to learn a language, that you don't understand a language easily."
Even if it is said again and again in Sunday speeches: Music is a language that you have to learn - if it is a language at all. Because we can't discuss in music, we can't write a constitution in music, we can't even order a pizza. And when it comes to classical music, the following applies even more: you have to learn to listen.
New: The complete classic series is now also available as a book. For reading or giving away. This book, including dozens of free music examples from five centuries, enables you to get started with classical music. Order now
Holger Schulze and Ivo Zedlitz contributed to this article. Editor: Rico Grimm; Final editing: Vera Fröhlich; Photo editor: Martin Gommel.
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