One of the things we must understand about classical music is that it wasn’t intended to be something people just listened to sitting silently in a concert hall. In an excellent article in the New York Times, the author wrote, “When Chopin played his Variations on “Là ci darem la mano” with orchestra, the audience bestowed its showstopping approval after every variation. As late as 1920, a Berlin audience was applauding Ferruccio Busoni in the middle of ‘La Campanella.’ Liszt, the composer of that piece, was observed in dignified old age, yelling bravos from the audience as Anton Rubinstein played Mozart’s A minor Rondo. Hans von Bülow boasted to his students that his performance in the first-movement cadenza of Beethoven’s “Emperor” Concerto regularly brought down the house, no matter that the movement wasn’t over.” The author also states that “Liszt, Anton Rubinstein and virtuosos like them would have been offended had listeners not clapped between movements.” The point is that any pretense of inciting on silent audiences for classical music cannot be justified by claiming that that is how the music was intended to be heard. Silencing an audience has only taken the audience out of active participation in performances, replacing it with dullness and boredom.
This is all the more true for the generations of music lovers who are accustomed to clapping, jumping and singing along at concerts other than classical ones. The good time people have at popular artist concerts is due as much to the active part they can take, and the sense of community they are able to create that is simply not possible in classical music venues where people arrive as strangers and leave as strangers.
My purpose here is not to disrupt concert traditions, though honestly I think they need to be reconsidered, but instead to point out that in order for people to enjoy music, they must have some way to participate in the music making. Whether it is showing approval, or joining in with the performers with dance, singing or clapping, enjoying music must include doing. When deprived of these opportunities, people become detached from and indifferent to music in general. We see this happening all around us. Symphony music is more apt to be heard in the background of a film score than in a concert hall. Students are more apt to listen to music as background to doing homework, talking with friends, or even taking a shower. People don’t know what to do with music, because our demands on audiences have denied music as a verb, as Elliott defines it, and insisted on it being strictly a noun, as the aestheticians would have it.
Music only has been granted its rightful place in a culture when it emotionally affects us, ideologically inspires us, and physically moves us. Therein lies the legitimate justification for true music appreciation. If understanding sonata-allegro form, or rondo, or the beginning of the second theme group in a symphony doesn’t affect, inspire or move, then it is not really helping us appreciate music. Everything we teach under the guise of music appreciation must meet this test. Knowing that Beethoven wrote most of his masterpieces completely deaf inspires admiration at his feat, but even that would be worthless if the music itself did not cause us to marvel at the accomplishment. What matters ultimately is not what the composer put into the music, but what each individual, both musicians and participating audience alike, takes out of the music.
To the extent that knowledge about music helps, it too should rightfully be included in music appreciation education. But there can be no “music for music’s sake” in the sense that just knowing certain works or certain things about works is a worthwhile end in itself. If Beethoven or Wagner, or any musical innovator had been writing music for the purpose of it being used as an encyclopedia of music, to be studied, analyzed and understood from the inside out, I doubt that any of these great composers would have written great music. These musicians wrote what they did because they had something extraordinary to say through their music, and because they wanted people to enjoy their work. To appreciate music is no less than this: to grasp the expressive intent of the composer, connect it with our own passions and emotions and feelings, and to enjoy the meeting of their music with our own humanity. A successful music appreciation class or text will do just this. It will leave people hungering for the next live musical experience in which they know they will be more than onlookers or on hearers; they will be participants, enjoyers, and yes, appreciators.