Tell Me Who’s Watching

Tell Me Who’s Watching

One of the best perks of being a Twitterer is that occasionally someone will screw up and type 140 or fewer characters that he didn’t mean to. This must have happened last Thursday, when a sharp-eyed Twittering composer of my acquaintance alerted me that @BBCMusicMag (the Twitter presence of the BBC Music Magazine, unsurprisingly) posted and then hastily deleted the following tweet:

Worst period of music? Classical. It hasn’t got the sophistication of Baroque, nor the passion of Romanticism. So there.

Nice try, @BBCMusicMag. On the internet, someone is always watching you; sometimes, that someone has a weekly word quota to meet.

Living in the UK, I found that classical music has retained the luster of prestige much better there than it has in the U.S.A. A corollary of this heightened regard is that the “brow” of UK classical music discourse stretches lower than it does in the States; because a larger share of middle-class Britons patronize classical music, the conversation sometimes drips past the Times all the way down to Sun-level triviality. And if there was ever a word to describe the utter ridiculousness of declaring a “worst period of music,” “trivial” is it.

Is Haydn less sophisticated than Handel? I’d need to be convinced, and @BBCMusicMag’s smug flippancy isn’t going to convince me. Is Schumann more passionate than Beethoven? Who is @BBCMusicMag to render such a judgment? The years between 1750 and 1825 gave us two major democratic revolutions and a host of other Enlightenment palpitations. The changes that took place in art music during the same time encapsulate, in miniature, many of those same sociocultural developments.

I grok the opinion that the Viennese Classical era is maybe the least sexy of our received periods. Its holy trinity—Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven—are overplayed, and that familiarity has probably bred a certain amount of contempt among @BBCMusicMag’s cosmopolitan editors. The sound-world of large-C Classical music, perhaps, is less appetizing than elaborate modal counterpoint or unrestrained chromaticism. However, what happens in Classical music is what matters, its formal (or, to put it differently, experiential) possibility-space, its interrelational potential: the music, in other words, as opposed to the sound. Adorno’s theme-whistling dilettante must have stumbled upon the password to the BBC Music Magazine’s Twitter account; surely no professional music writer would make such an asinine statement before a global audience, even if he thought better of it shortly afterward. So there.

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6 thoughts on “Tell Me Who’s Watching

  1. jchang4

    Twitter weaklings
    I’m kind of sick of political correctness. It’s one thing to be polite, but it’s an entirely different thing to get rid of discernability completely. I am not afraid to say that, for the longest time, I hated Mozart. Probably because it was all my teacher ever assigned to me and I was sick of it. I still don’t like Mozart much, though I do appreciate his stuff now, whereas I didn’t appreciate it before. So what if someone wants to favor one music period over another. Does it hurt the classical period’s feelings or something? You don’t have to (pretend to) like everything.

  2. colin holter

    Does it hurt the classical period’s feelings or something?

    No, of course not – and I wasn’t suggesting that condemning an era of classical music is silly because it’s “mean.” My point is just that we should expect more thoughtful music criticism than @bbcmusicmag brought to us that fateful night. My opinion is that a conversation about whether Classical is the “worst period of music” should include conversations about performance practice, emergent forms and harmonic resources, systems of patronage and compensation, the ramifications of Kantian and Hegelian philosophy, the impact of Aufklärung on cultural production, etc.

    The BBC’s Music magazine occupies a market niche that doesn’t really exist so much in the US – people who like classical music but don’t really care about any of the shit I just listed. If we suddenly had a major influx of those kinds of people in the States, I sure wouldn’t turn them away, but the fact that we don’t means we usually don’t have to put up with half-baked mass media declarations about classical music.

    By the way, it’s since been made clear to me that the tweet’s tongue was rather more firmly in its cheek than I’d assumed. My bad, @bbcmusicmag. At least they’re getting some mileage out of it on Twitter. . .

  3. Leos

    Of course it is perfectly natural to prefer certain periods of music history — though I hasten to add that it is also entirely possible to love and delight in music from all of them — but such idiotic blanket statements say far more about the maturity level of the person uttering them than about the music. I must say that it is hard for me to imagine that anyone who really knows the music of Haydn and Mozart could accuse them of lack of sophistication or expressiveness. Our ideas of what is expressive are still heavily biased toward late nineteenth and early twentieth century notions of such.

  4. Leos

    and another thing …
    And, by the way, of the first Viennese triumvirate, Haydn is not overplayed, certainly not compared to Mozart and Beethoven. I still believe him to be the least appreciated of the three.

  5. I_Edo

    And gatorade is better than water, ’cause it’s got electrolytes…

    Unless you’re allergic to glucose-fructose syrups…


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