Andrei Strizek

pianist - music director - writer

NPR Music's Guilty Pleasures

For the past few weeks NPR’s Deceptive Cadence blog has been running a series on “Guilty Pleasures,” interviewing regular contributors about music they are “embarrassed to love.”

The stated premise is commendable:

Over the years, friends and acquaintances who know my passion for music have asked, "So, what are you listening to these days?"

It's tempting to respond with something like, "Oh, I'm back in one of my big Mahler phases again." It sounds impressive and it's easier than admitting to what I might be really listening to — which could indeed be Mahler, but could just as likely be some schlocky pop band.

There's pressure on classical people to: a) never admit liking pop music and b) always maintain distinguished taste in classical music itself. Conversely, lovers of pop, rock and other genres might feel bashful about a secret love of Beethoven. So here's where I'm throwing all of these hang-ups out the window — and I invite you to do the same.

Yet, in actuality, the premise of this series seems to be that there are the Great Composers, the ones we all know: Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Wagner, Mozart, etc. And there are the lesser composers, the ones who have been brushed aside by music history (or music history classes) or who have – heaven forbid – become popular with a large audience, mainly for their inclusion on concert programs as crowd-pleasing encores, on a “pops” concert, or a “greatest hits” compilation CD.

At least, that’s how it appears to me. In many ways, this is understandable. Many academically trained musicians learn this in music schools and conservatories. As Bruno Nettl writes (in Heartland Excursions: Ethnomusicological Reflections on Schools of Music),

In the conversational rhetoric of the Music Building, “great” refers mainly to the largest works. It is no coincidence that in one of the few books about the concept of musical masterworks the first two works mentioned are Don Giovanni and Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelung.

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The great composer-deities are obviously present. Their inscribed names adorn the building inside and out, six master (four of them German) instructing students assembled for weekly convocations in the auditorium that all important issues of music reside within a 150-year span and nothing else is needed – this is the great music. (He is directly referencing Smith Music Hall at the University of Illinois, but this can be seen in institutions across the country.)

Having this background, it’s understandable that someone might think of Strauss, Rachmaninov, or Tchaikovsky as a guilty pleasure. They’re popular composers, and have traditionally been frowned upon by classical music institutions.

We all have guilty pleasures. It is beyond my scope here to examine why we have guilty pleasures, or what makes us consider them “guilty.” But I strongly recommend reading Carl Wilson’s fantastic book Let's Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste and watching his interview on The Colbert Report:

 

 

He doesn't come away with a newfound love for Celine Dion, and neither did I after reading the book (and listening to her), but he has great insight into the notions behind our musical tastes and pleasures.

It can be a blow to our egos and senses of musical taste if we are to hear that a respected individual finds music that we enjoy is treated with the impression that it's not supposed to be worthy of enjoyment. Personally, I went through that journey with the music of Gershwin (among others), that wasn’t uprooted until I took a semester-long seminar on him (corresponding blog post here), and I regret the missed time spent listening to, performing, and appreciating Gershwin's music.

I think many people in the classical music world agree that we want that music to be spread to as many people as possible. But can we do that do that by making people feel guilty about enjoying Copland, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov, Vivaldi, or Strauss? Are people really embarassed by listening to those composers?

The artists who regularly post on NPR's blog, and the blog itself, overall do a great job of expanding audience's education. I’m grateful that NPR started a classical music blog (much as I am for their jazz and indie pop blogs). But they missed the mark with the guilty pleasure series. The "behind-the-scenes" view we get from conductors, composers and performers is great; the out-dated mode of thinking behind this needs to be reexamined.