A Guide On How To Enjoy Classical Music
Issue   |   Tue, 10/23/2012 - 23:36
Image courtesy of bach-cantatas.com
Mahler’s symphonies can be just as pleasurable as popular music — they just require a few more listens.

I’m very excited for the Amherst College Orchestra’s upcoming season, because they’re playing two of the greatest pieces of music ever written: Beethoven’s 5th Symphony and Mahler’s 5th Symphony. Of these two, you’ve probably only heard the former. While the latter is one of Mahler’s better-known works, it is still quite obscure in comparison to Beethoven’s 5th. I want to convince you to not only go to the concert featuring Mahler’s 5th, but also to go prepared. It might seem odd to write about a concert so far in advance, but the kind of preparation I’m advocating requires more than just a week.

Let’s talk about obscurity and ubiquity in classical music. Ubiquity is really the exception, not the rule. You can find the 20 or so pieces of classical music anyone has ever heard on a Sporcle quiz, and only some of them are actually considered “great pieces” by music aficionados. That leaves out the hundreds/thousands (whatever) of masterpieces the general public doesn’t know particularly well. Mahler’s 5th is one such masterpiece.

But even if the word “masterpiece” intrigues you, don’t just show up to Buckley expecting it to blow you away in the same way that Beethoven’s 5th will. If you go to both concerts without any preparation, I predict you will love Beethoven’s 5th and be bored by Mahler’s 5th. In fact, you don’t have to take my word for it. Look up both pieces on YouTube, and give the first movement of each piece a listen. I’m sure you’ll like Beethoven’s 5th much more. Why is that? Is it because Beethoven’s 5th is just better? I guess that’s a reasonable explanation: Beethoven’s 5th is really the only good piece of classical music out there, which accounts for both why you like it and why you hear it everywhere in pop culture. Mahler’s 5th isn’t really that good, which is why you’re bored by it and why you never hear it anywhere (except for the adagietto in “Death in Venice”).

That explanation is incorrect. Mahler’s 5th is just as catchy as Beethoven’s 5th, but you haven’t listened to it enough to hear its beauty. I use the word “catchy,” because in my experience it’s the only word I can possibly use to describe a great piece of music without people associating it with the intellectual, academic appreciation of classical music — which some people seem to think is the only way to enjoy it. If I say a piece is “beautiful,” it’ll be interpreted as some abstract beauty of form and symbolism that you can only understand if you’re a very experienced listener. However, if I say it’s “catchy,” people know what I mean: it sounds good like how most normal songs sound good. With this diction comes the risk of selling the music short, for “catchy” songs are often regarded as unsophisticated or shallow, but I certainly don’t mean that. To get just a little philosophical, I would argue that, qualitatively, the type of pleasure you get from “Bad Romance” and from great pieces of classical music is the same, but, quantitatively, the pleasure you get from the latter is much stronger and more powerful.

The caveat, however, is that to get this greater enjoyment out of classical music — or even any enjoyment out of it — you must know the piece well, and the only way to do that is to listen to it over and over again. That’s hard to do, because the first few listens are boring, and it’s all too easy to give up at that point and put on your favorite Beatles song. It takes a little bit of blind faith — listening to a piece of music you’re getting nothing out of on the hopes that you’ll maybe like it after hearing it the seventh time — but I promise it’s well worth the effort.

Let’s go back a couple paragraphs: why is it that, right now, you like Beethoven more than Mahler? Is it that Beethoven wrote better music? No, here’s the better theory of causality: Beethoven’s 5th is well known and Mahler’s 5th is not, for complicated reasons that don’t matter, and you like Beethoven’s 5th more precisely because you’ve heard it more. This music is complex, and it takes several listens to actually hear the melodies — yes, catchy melodies just like in those songs by bands that everyone likes so much. Terrible mash-ups and movie soundtracks have already prepared you for the Beethoven component of this season, but no one has prepared you for Mahler.Only you can prepare yourself for Mahler, and it’s incredibly easy: search on YouTube, go on Spotify, buy a CD (just kidding) or somehow gain access to some performance of Mahler’s 5th Symphony. In fact, one of our many privileges as Amherst students is access to the Music Library at Arms, from which you can check out many different recordings of Mahler's 5th (among thousands of other CDs of all kinds of music), and I highly recommend taking advantage of it. Put a recording of it on in the background while you do your homework, and your brain will gradually process it for you. Over time and over many repeated listens, you will start to hear everything as a melody, and then on May 4, the Amherst College Symphony Orchestra’s live performance of it will blow your mind.

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