Classical music falls on deaf ears

A silly experiment by a Washington Post writer reveals a problem with attitudes toward classical music.

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Thanks to Audiofile reader Gil Hagi for sending me an interesting article from the April 8 Washington Post. Titled “Pearls Before Breakfast,” the article is an account of a little social experiment conducted by Post writer Gene Weingarten. Weingarten enlisted superstar violinist Joshua Bell to play for 45 minutes during the morning rush hour at D.C.’s L’Enfant Plaza Metro station. Bell was given no fanfare and no announcements were made; he just set up shop, opened his case to collect change and proceeded to play a series of classical pieces in “an experiment in context, perception and priorities — as well as an unblinking assessment of public taste: In a banal setting at an inconvenient time, would beauty transcend?”

What do you think happened? Were the busy passers-by stopped in their tracks by the heavenly sounds of the master violinist sawing away on his Stradivarius? Or did the majority of people just go about their business? Pat yourself on the back if you said the latter — Bell was met with general indifference. As the article explains, of the 1,070 people who walked by the celebrated musician, a mere seven stopped to listen for more than a moment and only 27 gave any money — to the tune of $32.

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The apathy came as a surprise to Weingarten, whose article evinces the kind of elitist snobbery that’s exactly what classical music doesn’t need. From the description of the crowd at one of Washington’s most “plebian” subway stations (“ghosts” with “ID tags slapping at their bellies”) to Bell’s shock at the fact “that people were actually, ah … ignoring me” to the title’s insulting swine allusion, the reader is treated to highbrow condescension of the highest order.

That’s not all, though. One of the people who actually stopped to listen is described thus: He “doesn’t know classical music at all; classic rock is as close as he comes. But there’s something about what he’s hearing that he really likes.” Translation: Dummies can like classical music too! Then there’s the guy who didn’t notice Bell because he’d been listening to the Cure on his headphones. Specifically, he’d been listening to “Just Like Heaven,” which Weingarten sorrowfully notes is “about failing to see the beauty of what’s plainly in front of your eyes.” Because, you see, the Cure is by definition inferior to whatever Bell was playing. There’s even a labored effort to make some sort of loss-of-innocence connection when Weingarten notes that almost every child who passed by had tried to stop and listen before being dragged away by harried parents. To which I say, kids eat boogers.

Sure, it’s a shame that people didn’t pause and genuflect at the brilliance before them, but, hello, they had jobs to get to. That’s not the societal travesty that Weingarten makes it out to be. Who’s to say half the people who ignored Bell didn’t go home and listen to classical music? What’s more, the article’s fundamental question — will the great unwashed be able to recognize the uplifting brilliance of classical music? — reveals an attitude that keeps people away from classical music. Is it surprising that masses of people aren’t hugely inclined to embrace a form of music that’s largely assumed to be above them? Given classical music’s aging audience, the question needs a quick answer, because that aging audience may soon disappear.

— David Marchese

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