Encountering Elitism: Do You Deserve This Music?

Encountering Elitism: Do You Deserve This Music?

Mozart’s “Don Giovanni,” one of the three celebrated Da Ponte operas, is currently featured at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City; if you’re interested, the Cinemark at Hampshire Mall is having a live screening of the matinée performance on Oct. 29, starting at 1 p.m.

How would you dress yourself for such an opera, which is one of the most intense musical experiences you can ever have? Or for a full-length concert with the San Francisco Symphony at Davies Symphony Hall? The dress code might be described as a vague and unhelpful “nice” as always, but operas might be one of those rare occasions in our post-modern world where people get self-conscious about their attire. Think about the obnoxiously overpriced snacks and drinks, shining champagne flutes, gentlemen dressed in jackets and ties, and madams and young ladies in their evening gowns — are they enjoying these fanciful garments or enjoying being pretentious?

It is difficult to deny an elite culture nowadays around what we call “classical music.” Most people would not struggle so much in front of their closet if they were going to, say, a Lady Gaga concert. In fact, dressing is only a trivial component of musical elitism. No matter how much one is excited by the music and wants to sing or conduct along, or how much one craves an ice cream in the steaming operatic sauna or gets bored with the music and needs to complain, it seems the only correct thing to do is to push oneself backward in the seat and do none of the above.

It seems as if classical music appreciation at concerts requires the audience members to forsake all “worldly needs,” from talking to eating, and fully immerse themselves without reservation in the musical world. This form of musical elitism is more profound than the dress code. It establishes such music not as a form of entertainment that everyone can take part in on a daily basis, but as a special experience that transcends physical reality and requires particular mental and even spiritual attention. Indeed, in this postmodern world, the only occasions other than operas and classical concerts where people refrain from their ordinary activities and all-too-common multitasking are religious and cultish ceremonies.

By demanding from its audience manners different from those put on in their daily life — be it the way in which they get dressed or the numerous common activities from eating to talking — and a particular mindset detached from physical reality, this “consecration” of classical music at concerts is the musical elitism of our age. Contrary to common belief, “classical music” has become much more accessible than it used to be. Thanks to special outreach programs usually supported by public funding (which comes from tax money, in case you were wondering), the modern “classical” audience is significantly larger and more diverse in every way compared to those of 17th and 19th centuries, who witnessed the compositions of numerous operas and symphonic works that make up the largest portion of the current repertory.

Yet despite having a smaller audience during those historic times, “classical music” did not seem to lie beyond daily activities, operas were not at all fastidious about what the audience could do during performances or even if they paid any attention at all. Opera-goers during those times did all sorts of things that would simply be unimaginable nowadays. People talked to each other as they sat or stood through the whole performance, exchanged ideas about (or irrelevant) to the music, or had their meals. That people those times could easily sit through a five-hour long opera (thank you, Wagner) is historically imprecise, if not a pure myth. In the early 19th-century operas that are now recreated, there were occasional arie di sorbetto or “sorbet arias,” which were considerately composed so that the audience could get sorbet and gelato from the hawking vendors and would not have to pay attention to the usually not-so-impressive music singers. One would certainly get kicked out for doing any of these things during Rossini’s “Il Barbiere,” which is also currently featured at the Met Opera.

Thus, it is as if classical music in our time were saying: “you do not deserve this music if you cannot be prepared with a self better than your ordinary one; refrain from daily worldly activities such as talking and eating.” To be fair, this elitist idea that music was not intended for mundane enjoyment but for understanding and appreciation at a “higher” level is not unique to our time. At the latest, it started with the troubadours, poet-musicians who improvised or composed monodic songs in 12th and 13th century southern France, as well as the trouvères, who were the northern counterparts of troubadours. Troubadours and trouvères practiced an amusing form of “debate song” called tenso or jeu-parti, in which the two poet-musicians debated about a certain issue by singing. The topic of debate was very often poetry and music themselves, namely between “trobar clar,” or “clear” and “accessible” troubadour poetry and music, and “trobar clus,” or “closed” and “obscure.” Disciples of the former school believed that poetry and music should be made simple and accessible for all, whereas followers of the latter only addressed the connoisseurs, who were able to understand the obscure and difficult style. Raimbaut d’Aurenga, one of the most famous “clus” troubadour, sang ingeniously in his famous tenso with Guiraut Bornelh: “I do not like my songs to be confused, that the base and good, the small and great be appraised alike; my poetry will never be praised by fools, for they have no understanding nor care for what is more precious and valuable.”

The 14th century witnessed an apotheosis of musical elitism. Musicians were seemingly addicted to composing medieval motets in which different lines of texts as well as music are sung simultaneously. An ordinary medieval listener would not have understood why the anonymous motet Musicalis scientia/Scientie laudabilisi was exceptionally funny, not to mention someone who lives centuries later and does not know Latin or medieval music theory. In this extremely grotesque motet, the texts are didactic instructions of what not to do when composing or practicing the “science” of music. But the music does precisely what the text prohibits. When the text warns against dividing simple vowels, for example, the music divides the simple vowels in the ongoing text with hilarious and jumpy hockets (unnatural breaks in the melody).

The latter half of the 14th century witnessed the ars subtilior movement, music “subtle” in a way that only “true” musicians could understand and appreciate a style characterized by complex rhythms and irregular harmonies. A similar story was told during late 16th century, where the musica reservata style used “reserved” techniques of overt-text painting and surprising chromaticism and modulations intended only for connoisseurs and a small circle of knowledgeable audience. The obscure things that 20th century composers came up with, such as set theory and the 12-tone method, are but a modernist version of musical elitism.

As long as music continues to play a role in human society, musical elitism is not going to disappear. “Clar” and “clus” music definitely serve different purposes and audiences, but from an artistic perspective it is impossible to deny that the appreciation of a lot of good music requires a special musical knowledge and understanding, just like any other subject. The reason why musical elitism seems to be a problem is probably that, unlike other subject matters, music plays a conscious role in everyone’s life.

There is one thing, however, that people should realize. Maybe the ability to appreciate some “clus” music can legitimately make one feel “superior,” but never “pretentious.” A nice jacket probably does nothing to increase one’s ability to understand and appreciate “clus” and other sophisticated music. On the other hand, what is essentially wrong with popcorns and sodas, as long as their consumption do not disturb the musical experience of others?

But still, turn off your cell phone. Don’t be too confident that your carefully-chosen ringtone is always in perfect harmony with the performers.