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My friend Bookworm has often done me the honor of linking my writings, and I return the favor whenever possible, not merely to be polite, but because she’s a fine writer who should be on your daily “to-read” list, and she often inspires me. Writing is my daily companion, and so is music, so I found this article of interest by Bookworm: 

A good friend of mine, who is an unusually interesting and learned person, was embarrassed to admit that he’s not overly familiar with Western classical music.  I took him to task for that, but not in the way you might expect.  Instead, I wrote him as follows:

I grew up in a home that confused classical European culture with morals. Considering that my parents lived through the Nazis, they should have known better. Whether you like Bay City Rollers and Verdi says nothing about what your core values are. Growing up in that environment, however, I accepted as true that ‘good’ people liked classical music, fine art, and looked down on tacky stuff and pop culture. (It was always vaguely humiliating to me that I was — and am — so charmed by Disneyland.)

Growing older and having lived with the consequences of those principles, I’ve learned that I made a lot of terrible mistakes in life based upon that so-called ‘value’ system. Having grown a lot wiser, I know now that I’d rather spend time with good people listening to top forty music, than with snotty, hate-filled, Progressives congratulating themselves on their ability to appreciate high opera and modern art.

Of course, some cultural things can give the game away about ones sense of decency. Someone who respects women, and opposes rape and using guns to commit random crimes probably isn’t going to be a fan of gangsta rap. I don’t think it goes the other way, though. That is, someone can have tastes that run to flowers and sunshine and vegetarianism, and then go and slaughter 6 million Jews, kind of like Hitler did.

If you’re ever tempted to think less of yourself or someone else because opera isn’t on the top of the playlist or a museum isn’t the preferred Saturday activity, please repeat this to yourself: Being cultured does not equal being moral.

(I should add that I actually adore a great deal of Western culture — except for the opera part. I love going to museums and I enjoy a broad-ish range of classical music. I just no longer think that those tastes somehow make me a superior person. Also, if you’ve ever been to Versailles, you know that even classical definitely doesn’t automatically equal good taste. Versaille is a hideous, gaudy testament to ostentation, and can be very enjoyable for precisely that reason.)

As regular readers know, I routinely run in the highest local circles of art music. By “art music,” I mean what most people call “classical” music. Classical music is most properly identified as the music of the Classical period—roughly 1750-1830—and composers like Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven. “Art music” encompasses all of the body of music from all periods—Renaissance, Baroque, Classical, etc.—normally played by professional musicians in formal settings and halls. However, the term “Classical” has become the generic, accepted word for such music, and I’ll henceforth use that term.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

I am the men’s section “leader,” and the President of the Board of the Southwestern Seminary Master Chorale, the principle chorus of the Ft. Worth Symphony. I have the extraordinary opportunity to perform the works of the masters with the FWSO every year. Choral singers can attest how rare it is for most choirs to have the opportunity to perform with a top tier symphony orchestra. I get that opportunity as often as eight times a year. And what sort of music do we do? Annually, we do two performances of Handel’s ‘Messiah,” and three of a Christmas concert. In recent years, we’ve also done Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, Orf’s Carmina Burana, the Bernstein Chichester Psalms, and within the next month we’ll be performing the Brahms German Requiem. We’ve also done several concerts of video game music, which inspired many audience members to dress as anime characters. Colorful.

I regularly perform at Bass Hall, a world-class concert venue. I’ve performed at the Meyerson in Dallas, another first-rate venue. I’ve performed around the nation, and helped debut an original work at Lincoln Center.

In truth, most Americans have been conditioned to think music is 2.5 minutes long. That’s the general average of radio airplay, and the kind of music—pop or country—that forms most musical tastes in younger years. But what about rap? Sigh. My students, upon occasion, ask if I listen to rap. I generally reply: “No; I listen to music.” The point, which I then explain to them, is that while rap has some of the elements of music, it does not have them all, commonly lacking melody and harmony. Rap is probably best categorized as accompanied poetry. It is classical music that has what rap lacks; the highest expression of the musical art.

Therein might be a way to understand musical tastes. Pop music, while it can be very pleasing and inspiring, is generally not very long or complex. By its very conventions, it’s a form of music limited in its expressive abilities, not only for the composer and performer, but for the listener. That doesn’t mean it’s not fun to play or hear; that’s how I got my start in music, and I play it, from time to time, even now. Perhaps the highest levels of rock music have been realized in rock operas like the first—Tommy by the Who—and Jesus Christ Superstar. In addition, there are virtuoso rock players whose level of skill and musicality approaches that of classical music virtuosos.

Even so, there is no doubt that symphony players are virtually always more highly skilled than the musicians of virtually any other genre. This is hardly surprising as such musicians commonly have the advantage of graduate level education, and decades of practice and performance at the highest levels.

I’ve always been musical, but talent is merely undeveloped potential. As a child I could hear music and reproduce the melody and chord structure on the piano. As a teenager I took up the guitar—one of the easiest instruments to learn to play—and for the most part, played by ear, a very powerful “ear.” I picked up bits of music theory here and there, and in my early 30s took a music degree, which was a revelation. Suddenly, I understood all that I had been doing all of my life. I suddenly understood the difference between a G7 chord and a G major 7 or a G minor 7 chord. That education opened the entire world of music to me. I could play things I couldn’t touch before, but more importantly, I could understand them.

Did that make me a snob? Hardly. Musical skill, or the appreciation of music, does not necessarily a snob make. The patrons of the Symphony, even most of the players, run in social circles removed from mine. We mix upon occasion at post-performance receptions, but that’s about it. In the world of the arts, most are, unsurprisingly, of the progressive persuasion. While we mesh musically, we are oil and water in most other ways. I don’t discuss politics with them and they’re happier for it. If they knew my skills with firearms alone, they’d likely be horrified. Interestingly, that’s not necessarily true of choral musicians. Many singers are conservatives. I have some theories about that, but that’s a topic for another article.

We are often amazed at the choices–of all kinds—of others. My students ask me to which kind of music I listen and my answer amazes them: “I listen to whatever I’m rehearsing or performing. I don’t listen to the radio.” I’ve played all manner of music, from rock to country to jazz to big band, to Broadway shows to classical. I’ve played by ear, by well-rehearsed scores, even by cold sight-reading on the spur of the moment. I even once played the cannon in a performance of the 1812 Overture. While that makes me musically diverse and experienced, it does not, by itself, make me moral or intellectually superior.

Ludwig Van Beethoven

Ludwig Van Beethoven

Ultimately, an appreciation for opera or other classical music generally indicates that the listener may have some education in music, or at the least, that they have spent some time and money developing an appreciation for a more complex and demanding kind of music, but not necessarily anything else. It certainly doesn’t make one more moral, or in any way better than people that lack that education or that have not spent the time and money learning to appreciate that music.

Barack Obama, for example, is generally considered by the self-imagined elite, to be a virtual deity, perhaps the most highly evolved and intelligent human being ever to walk the Earth, yet he is certainly not known for the refinement of his artistic tastes. Expensive tastes on other people’s dime to be sure, but not artistic refinement.

Some of the most moral, kind and decent people I’ve ever known have little or no appreciation for classical music, primarily because they’ve not had the opportunity to develop it, and their choices in life have propelled them in other directions. I’ve no doubt they’d appreciate that music, but if they never hear it, they’ll still live full, meaningful, happy lives.

I can’t help but believe that those that seek out great music are better for it. Good people are only uplifted, made more whole by exposure to the best accomplishments of humanity, while the evil degrade and debase all they touch. I think life is better with great music—performing the works of the masters I cannot help but to see and feel the hand of God–and I’ve ordered my life to include it, though sometimes, I find the sheer energy and dedication necessary to produce it at the highest levels exhausting. I’m only human.

Bookworm is right: there is far more to being moral than being “cultured.” Ultimately, I’d rather know and associate with people that are funny, generous and kind. In my experience, many musicians are, but not enough to mistake that for mere musicianship or the appreciation thereof.