Frances Wilson: Learning Taste and Discernment in Classical Music

Guest Post: The tyranny of the minority – Learning Taste and Discernment in Classical Music

About the author: Frances Wilson is a pianist, piano teacher, writer, concert reviewer and blogger on pianism and music as The Cross-Eyed Pianist

For the full 3-D experience, Frances has made a Spotify playlist, so that you can listen as you read!

“The passions, whether violent or not, should never be so expressed as to reach the point of causing disgust; and music, even in situations of the greatest horror, should never be painful to the ear but should flatter and charm it, and thereby always remain music.” Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)

Trying to write about taste and classical music is an almost impossible task, for one person’s taste may be another’s epitome of tacky. Music – and especially classical music – even more so than art or literature, is highly subjective, the enjoyment and listening a very personal experience. I come up against this time and again in my concert reviews, with commentators on my blog questioning my opinion of a particular performance or performer, some even suggesting my hearing must be at fault. (One thing to get clear from the start: classical music critics don’t know everything and should never be regarded as the ultimate arbiters of taste – though an arrogant few would like to be).

Classical music ingénues are often quite afraid of engaging with the genre for several reasons. The world of classical music is absolutely huge – it embraces many eras, styles, and nationalities – and knowing where to begin is often the first major hurdle for the novice. Added to this, there is the prevailing idea that classical music is elitist, highbrow, boring, irrelevant, cliquey, and inaccessible; that concert halls are populated by (mostly) elderly snobs and pretentious poseurs; and that the music itself was written by a bunch of long dead white German guys in pomaded periwigs.

But an appreciation of classical music can be learnt, and very easily. I was lucky as a child growing up: my parents loved classical music, on LP and in the concert hall, and I was regularly taken to concerts and operas. Music was played in the home too – my father was a fine amateur clarinettist, and I was encouraged to play the piano and the clarinet. I played in an orchestra, sang in several choirs at school and university, and regularly listened to Radio Three (quite an esoteric activity for a teenager in the early 1980s!). I can tell the difference between Baroque and Classical, Romantic and Modern, and, having studied music to A-level (and piano performance to the equivalent of post-graduate), I have a fair idea of how it evolved, and is put together. I still go to concerts (at least one a week) and I play a lot of music at home. Why? Because I love it. It’s escapism, therapy, and sheer pleasure. It makes me laugh, it makes me cry. My taste in music changes frequently, and I use my concert going as a way of exploring new repertoire, as well as the recommendations of friends and colleagues in the profession.

Discernment is defined as the ability to judge well, but if you have no previous experience of classical music, how do you start and on what basis do you judge your listening and concert going?

A few suggestions for discerning and pleasurable listening:

  • Tune in to a classical music radio station. No longer the preserve of hushed reverential tones and obscure musical esoterica, BBC Radio Three has reinvented itself in recent years to become far more accessible. The Breakfast programme is a useful starting point with a good mix of short(ish) works to enjoy. A list of each day’s playlist is published on the station’s website so if you hear something that really grabs you, you can find out what it is. ClassicFM is often criticised by stalwart classical music affiocionados for its “populist” approach, but it is also a great introduction, and you’ll hear all the big warhorses of the classical repertoire.
  • Use a music streaming service such as LastFM or Spotify. Both offer suggestions based on your listening and it’s easy to sample music to decide what really takes your fancy.
  • Go to a concert – preferably in the company of someone who knows a little more about it as many concert newbies are nervous about the etiquette of the classical concert experience – how to behave, when to clap, etc. The Proms, the three-month music festival held (mostly) at London’s Royal Albert Hall is a good place to start. The atmosphere is more relaxed and you’ll have the opportunity to hear some of the finest musicians and orchestras from around the world. The Southbank Centre boasts three concert halls, and offers a huge variety of music from big orchestral performances to small-scale recitals, late-night concerts and talks. For a more serious concert experience, Wigmore Hall is a fantastic venue, that “sacred shoebox” (Vikram Seth, An Equal Music) just five minutes from the bustle of Oxford Street. Here you can enjoy top class chamber music in a beautiful, intimate setting. Live music is wonderful, with its unique sense of risk, energy and excitement – something you will never capture in a recording, even a “live” one.
  • Seek out classical music in more unusual settings. These days it’s not confined to the traditional concert hall, and I have enjoyed fine music in pubs, churches, artists’ studios and even people’s homes. This allows you to get up close and personal with music and musicians, and you often have the chance to meet the musicians too. It is also a reminder that most music composed before c1850 would have been enjoyed in the domestic setting of the salon or at home. Some good small venues in and around London: Sutton House, 1901 Arts Club, The Red Hedgehog, Riverhouse Barn.
  • Sometimes having a “narrative” or “theme” outside the pure music can help to connect with all the new stylistic complexities being displayed, in which case try Beethoven’s 6th ‘Pastoral’ Symphony, Holst’s The Planets, Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, Saint-Saens’ Carnival of the Animals, and most of Debussy.
  • Don’t listen blindly. Pinpoint aspects that really appeal and why, and use this to inform further listening. For example, if you’ve enjoyed Chopin’s piano music, why not try some Debussy or Szymanowski (I call this “lateral listening”).
  • Just because it’s popular doesn’t mean it’s all bad. There’s a difference between music that becomes popular to the point of cliché, for the reason that it is actually very good (for example Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, Ravel’s Bolero, Beethoven’s ‘Moonlight’ Sonata or Debussy’s Claire de Lune), and music that is really popular because it’s deliberately written for popular appeal (a common issue with a number of contemporary “classical” composers).
  • Classical music is more familiar than you imagined: you’ve undoubtedly heard it in tv adverts, film soundtracks, in shops, lifts and hotels. Fall in love with classical music and you’ll be hooked for life.

Why do we hate modern classical music? An article by Alex Ross, music critic of The New Yorker


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  1. BettyHerbert

    This is a much-needed one for me. I know less than nothing about classical music, and it embarrasses me. I just don’t know where to start, and I’m conscious that the ‘wrong’ choice will lead to sneering from the classical aficionados.
    I did once ask a friend to introduce me to the world of classical. He kicked off with some Elgar, I said I felt like I was in the Tory party conference, and he told me to piss off and wouldn’t play anything else after that.

  2. Elgar represents a very particular “British” musical sound, and his association with national events such as the Cenotaph ceremony (where Nimrod is always played) and the Last Night of the Proms (Pomp & Circumstance March) definitely adds to the “Tory Party conference” aura about him. Of course, it probably wasn’t like that when his music was first heard! For more interesting English sounds try Ralph (pronounced “Rafe” to please the afficionados!) Vaughan Williams – Lark Ascending, Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis – or Holst (the Planets).

    Any classical music afficionado who sneers at your lack of knowledge is not worth knowing! I think part of the problem with classical music is not the music itself, but a certain strata of people who go to concerts and who want to try and keep it exclusive. But there are plenty of orchestras/ensembles/musicians who are actively making the music more accessible. The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment does music in pubs, and late night concerts, with a “meet the musicians” speed-dating service afterwards. All good fun – and great music too!

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