With Malice towards Mahler


The problem with classical music



Rajneesh Narula

(Another in my occasional essay series)



There are few things that are more eurocentric than music produced by a symphony orchestra. Anyone growing up in Africa or Asia will attest to the difficulty of appreciating western classical music. It is, for us, an acquired taste, not least because of its love of excess.


If this observation causes you to raise your eyebrows quizzically, and you are about to condemn me to a cultural leper colony, let me begin by drawing your attention to Mahler’s seventh symphony, a performance of which I attended recently.


It seems Mr Mahler, desperate for a ‘hit’ after the sixth symphony received a lukewarm reception, travelled to the countryside in search of inspiration. After hearing the outcome, I must sadly conclude that he returned from his vacation without achieving his objective, assailing his unsuspecting audience with a Teutonic interpretation of what we would today recognise as a traffic jam in Kowloon. It should be subtitled, ‘all the noises I heard on my holidays, and some I made up, in no particular order’. I believe strongly that he also rejoiced in his ability to provide gainful employment to every musician in Vienna (or Prague), for he has overlooked no instrument to astound our aural senses. There are banjos, harps, guitars, triangles tympani, all the usual instruments, plus cowbells, objects that look and sound like hollow avocadoes and sheets of metal that have no discernible musical contribution to make. He should be hailed as the father of the stream of consciousness movement in the music world.


Now to my slur on the musical heritage of the western world. My own interest in classical music started precisely because it didn’t make any sense.  Those of you who know me will recognise that I am as a dog with a bone when something does not make sense.  I once visited – at the age of 14 – the home of a certain Theophilus Vaz (known by students as ‘Doctor’ not because of academic or medical qualifications, but because he drove a ramshackle Mercedes and used words no one understood). He happened to be listening to Beethoven’s fifth, which I suddenly recognised as being part of the sound track of Saturday Night Fever.  I was astounded to realise that the snippet Travolta dances through is just a few minutes long, but the original runs for about an hour. Many questions arose in my pubescent mind, and I proceeded to borrow cassettes from his collection, and play them back for days on end.


I wondered whether Europeans were gifted with larger brains than ours, that they could absorb, interpret and appreciate 40 instruments being played simultaneously. Or did it reflect the complexity of life in the west, that such an excess of information was the normal course of events? Did it reflect an idealised, musical version of how western people saw the world? Did they have a greater attention span in Europe that they were able to sit motionless for 2 hours?


Perhaps it evolved from the need to fill up a large hall with music, and in the absence of amplifiers and speakers, 6 violins are necessary instead of one? Or did the early composers get a commission from the musical instruments manufacturers association, the more instruments your symphony has, the larger the commission? As it has its roots in religious performance, did they believe that God might not appreciate it high up in heaven if it didn’t somehow reflect the complexity of His universe, and if it wasn’t loud enough?


Of course, I now have come to realise that Europeans are no different from the rest of us, but I remain sceptical about some aspects of the symphony. With the exception of chamber music, much of western classical music cannot be danced to. It does not mimic life, with a few exceptions (see remark about kowloon traffic jam). Worst of all, it is elitist, and represents conceit for the working classes. It cannot be performed without a horrendously large budget for musicians and instruments, a massive hall, and multiple breaks during which one sips champagne. You even had to dress up in spiffy expensive clothes to be let in. It was not until the twentieth century before it came to be available to the masses through recordings. I contend that it represents the worst of Europe’s class system – if you wished to be accepted in ‘civilised’ society, if you desired to circulate with the blue-blooded, you must be seen to enjoy it, and not question its excesses.


Music, it seems to me, should evoke feelings, to make you relax, to raise your spirits, to take you away to another place or time in your life, or simply to provide hope, underlining emotions or alleviating them. Certainly Beethoven does this, as does Mozart, some of Dvorak. I recognise most requiems, military themes, as achieving this, or to inspire patriotism, as some composers do. In other cases, composers have written a soundtrack to ballets, operas and films, and this succeeds because it enhances or underscores another artistic performance. But when classical music tries to mimic life as a stand-alone experience, it fails miserably, because nature and people (except when they fight, or are at war) are not that complex, not so given to the baroque. Does spring or summer really sound like Vivaldi’s interpretation?  I spent hours listening to the four seasons, and it is only because I had the CD cover that I was able to tell which season his mind was trying to conjure. We are told by some expert that Mahler’s seventh has ‘…the sounds of wind and water, bird and animal noises….sometimes played straightforwardly, sometimes distorted’. I recognised not one animal, except for the cows thanks to his prolific use of cowbells. Perhaps his desire to distort got the better of him.


The point I am making is that Mahler and others have created musical ouvre’s that have been stylised and forced for the wrong reasons. The wilful use of excess as an artistic statement, the desire to impress rather than evoke, the call to create an abstract stand-alone experience which speaks to the aesthetic rather than functional purpose of music, is, to my mind, an abuse of the artistic license.  Music has a duty to satisfy the emotional cravings of the listener, not to dictate. When the use of excess is an egotistical testament of the composer, this is a sin against humanity which needs to be questioned rather than accepted. 


Madrid, 060425