Rebooting classical music

Why Beethoven's 5th is more than just a ringtone

Rebooting classical music

You probably missed it, but Western Civilisation came to an abrupt end last week. Its end was not due to instability in the worldwide financial market, the wanton destruction of archeologically important antiquities in Palmyra, or even the migrant crisis unfolding across Europe. No, this was a whimper, not a bang: a small-scale marker, indicating the end of the West’s ability to be a cultural force.

What happened was this. I heard someone receive a phone call, and their ringtone was the most famous five bars and eight notes in classical musical history – the short-long-short-long ‘duh-dur-dur-durrr’ opening of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. This in itself might be a little crass, but it actually makes a really ringtone, and didn’t presage the end of Western Civilisation. It’s what I heard after that, spoken by one well-dressed individual to another, which made me realise just how far we have fallen:

“Who uses the Judge Judy theme as a ringtone?”

The other shook his head, not at the idea that one of the most instantly identifiable motifs in all of western music was completely missed by his colleague, more to express incredulity that someone would like the Judge Judy theme so much, they’d put it on their phone.

These were not kids playing dumb, they looked like middle-management types chewing through ‘their lunch’ not ‘the restraints’, and he sounded entirely genuine in his incredulity. There was no understanding that this eight note ‘riff’ was, in fact, one part of one of the cornerstones of classical music. I started thinking of Arthur Dent desperately singing those first five bars to the Vogon guard before being thrown into deep space in The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy. It didn’t have an effect then, it didn’t have one now. Beethoven is just a writer of theme tunes and ringtones.

If you look deeper into the Classical abyss, nothing stares back at you. The majority of Classical music sales are compilations of ‘Classical Chill-Out’ or ‘Mellow Classical Moods’ often played by the likes of André Rieu, Il Divo, or Katherine Jenkins, with five-minute snippets of well-known orchestral music knitted together into one. If you read the ‘blurb’ surrounding such compilations, the composer, conductor, and orchestra are rarely mentioned, just the ‘talent’; the violinist, pianist, or singer. And it’s almost always a violinist, pianist, or singer.

In part, the problem is one of education, or lack of it. A generation ago, school children in the UK and the US used to receive music lessons. While some of those lessons were grudgingly received, they were still lessons… and they rubbed off. While not every school student wound up listening to Brahms on a regular basis, they did at least learn some appreciation of music beyond that in the charts. Music education is now optional in middle, junior high, and high school in the US, although in the UK, the Protect Music Education campaign has managed to successfully preserve music education in schools. However, even this hides a darker tale: UK school funding cuts have reduced the number of children learning an instrument.

Without a basic music education, listener musical attention spans shrink, and that applies to all kinds of music. This is one change we’ve seen hit the audio world hard. It’s a relatively well-known ‘trick’ in audio demonstration circles that if you want to clear a demonstration room, nothing works as fast as ‘difficult’ music. In the past, that meant playing Boulez, Ligeti, or Messiaen, but today that applies to almost any piece of classical music. Even those audiophile staples, such as Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances or Un Bal from Berloz’ Symphony Fantastique, are not popular with much of today’s audio show public, who will leave a room at the first sound of a string section. And yet, classical music played right can be captivating: I’ve seen a room fill with listeners at the sound of a virtuoso violinist playing Paganini.

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