Why Classical Music? by Marcia Peck

Recently, one of our board leaders commented to me, “I know you prefer playing classical music to Pops…”  I think he meant to demonstrate his sensitivity to the reluctance of orchestral musicians to play more and more pops shows, a proposed change-of-course intended to bring new listeners into the hall.  I remember my answer clearly.  “I think it’s important to say, we don’t merely ‘prefer’ classical music.  It is who we are.”

Every year my father, a high school music teacher, used to take his Music Appreciation class to the Metropolitan Opera, the gorgeous old Met at 39th and Broadway with its tiers of gilt and velvet.  When I was seven years old, he let me accompany them for the first time.  We saw Carmen.  It was the 50’s, before supra titles, and I recall poking him intermittently to ask, “What’s happening now, Daddy?”  And he patiently whispered the essential plot points—love, betrayal, jealousy, murder—into my ear.

Everything made an impression on me: the sumptuous hall, the costumes, the singing.  I was in it for the spectacle, but by the final curtain it was the music that bedazzled me, the score that embodied the turbulent story.  Whatever the limitations of my young sensibilities, I was transfixed, as was my father’s entire class, a supremely unsophisticated group of teenagers from the New Jersey side of the Lincoln Tunnel.

Back then, the word “music” meant what we now refer to as “classical” music.  If we meant something other than the world of Bach, Beethoven and Brahms, we specified “popular” music.  Most kids, even in a town like mine, played an instrument or sang in a choir or—at minimum—took my father’s Music Appreciation class in hopes of an easy credit.  This was before we lost arts programs in the schools and Pop Culture became the mega-money-making industry it is today and began to drown out the masterworks that used to be part of everyone’s vocabulary.

Now I worry that there are people who live their entire lives never having heard even a recording of a Beethoven symphony, let alone a live performance.

Can we play Pops?  Of course.  Compared to what we are capable of doing, it’s a cinch.  Do we sometimes enjoy it?  Absolutely.  As when a favorite performer like Doc Severinsen brings his first-rate arrangements.

But does pops keep us fit for the demands of Beethoven or Bartôk?  And, most of all, does it prepare a new audience for Brahms or Mahler? Absolutely not.

We don’t “save” classical music by offering a completely re-engineered concert format meant for a completely different type of listener.  We save it by honoring it for what it is—one of humanity’s highest achievements.

It’s true that classical music asks more of its listeners than pops, just as it asks more of the musicians.  It has more complex things to say.  It illuminates human emotions for which words don’t suffice.  A symphony communicates aspects of the human experience that can’t be conveyed in a three-minute “song.”

Happily, however, classical music requires of its listeners, not necessarily the ability to “understand,” but a willingness simply to listen.  We are not required to “get” classical music.  I certainly didn’t “get” Carmen at seven years old, not on any intellectual level.  But that one magnificent experience stayed with me for a lifetime, as I suspect it did for every one of my father’s hard-sell students.

My colleagues and I are committed to the limitless capacity of classical music to nourish the inner lives of everyone it reaches.  We are committed to performing the very best that humanity has to offer at the highest level.  And, I would argue, highest level is the key.  For who hasn’t sat through a mediocre rendition of Beethoven’s 5th and wondered as a result, “What’s so great about that?”

As an enlightened society, we are meant to aspire to more than mere entertainment. We are meant to allow great music in, to let it settle in our DNA, and to bask in the glimpse it offers us of a universe greater than we can otherwise imagine.

The Minnesota Orchestra is the one Minnesota institution that can bring the gift of great, soul-enlarging symphonic music, played at peak levels, to our community.

Marcia Peck
Cellist, Minnesota Orchestra

32 thoughts on “Why Classical Music? by Marcia Peck

  1. Why Classical Music? by Marcia Peck speaks for so many of us who love the Classics with the Minnesota Orchestra and, of course, enjoy the fun of Pops on occasion.

    • Been playing classical music, opera included to my grand daughter since she was born. When she was 2-1/2 she sat through Haydn’s The Creation. Pretty long isn’t? At age 6 she set through Wagner’s Das Rheingold. (Haven’t tried Gotterdammerung…LOL would be a bit too long for her). Her favorite conductor is James Levine (actually the only one she knows by name, but recently at the ABT in the Met she turned to me and quietly asked “Do you know who is conducting?” All this because I have always made a point of explaining EVERYTHING, INCLUDING THE CONDUCTOR). Kids should be taught early as possible, if they are they will be classical music lovers. I have one and as a grandmother I am glowing with happiness that my love of music is being transfered to this little girl:) IPK, Old Saybrook, CT

  2. Thank you for sharing this your thoughts and feelings. It’s helpful to understand. I started to listen to classical music when my daughter took up the viola. I listen all the time now and hope to get to more of your concerts as well.

  3. As a former cellist, I couldn’t agree more whole-heartedly! It is certainly tragic in many respects that there are school systems that are cutting arts and music programs, but I’d like to believe that there will come a day that the pendulum will swing in the other direction, and the prior detractors that saw these programs as frivolous, will recognize the brilliant creativity that is inspired in children, and ADULTS, upon hearing pieces of classical music; I know it certainly did for me. I am a thousand-fold more sensitive to my environment, and the emotions of others as a result of it. Simply put, I am significantly more attuned to the subtleties of life, and yes, I do attribute much of that to my early exposure and appreciation for Classical music at an early age.

    I am tremendously grateful for this blog. Thank you!

  4. I wholeheartedly agree! My first live music was Madame Butterfly done by Scottish Opera when I was about 15 in the 80’s, we went on a school trip, sat in the ‘gods’ as the school likely got free/cheap tickets. Previously I’d only heard music on the radio. I didn’t know Italian, but I knew music, and was able to follow the emotional roller-coaster and was in tears at the end. It was only later that I discovered the story and began to appreciate it. Don’t dumb down music for the populace, keep educating them in the GOOD stuff. And MO play it so well. Sad to see you are not coming to Edinburgh this year so I can cheer you on with my Stars and Stripes.

  5. This is the BEST article I’ve ever read about the importance of teaching classical music! Thanks for writing it. Can I have your permission to print it and hand it out to my students?

    • The Minnesota Orchestra Musicians would love for you to print it and use it with your students! We also are planning a education tab (coming soon!) so please check back with us often.
      Best to you!

  6. Not only do I agree, but as a composer of “concert / classical music,” there are times I want to make people listen to classical music. It is simply one of the best things you can do for your mind and your brain. When I was eight years old, my mother brought home a flute and said “YOU are going to take lessons and learn how to play this.” Very shortly after I was listening to the classical music radio station and, on occasion, going to symphony concerts in addition to playing small recital pieces. I was hooked. That first flute was 54 years ago. Eventually I also got a piccolo, another flute and a piano and learned the piano well enough to major in piano in college.

  7. Having a son who was totally involved in music from an early age benefitted our entire family. Even if we had no idea what he was playing, we were hearing it and appreciating it. Younger son tagged along to marching band competitions, concerts, lessons etc. and saw the importance of working with a group to produce a superior “product”. We parents came to understand our musical son and his unique characteristics, making us even more proud of him. Our love of classical music came from our son. Music brought us together in so many ways. Here in St. Louis, we have a great orchestra, too. However, we no longer have a classical radio station, which is a very sad state of affairs. I hope this situation will be remedied in the near future. Families need classical music for enrichment of life!

  8. What a wonderful article, so beautifully and movingly expressed.
    I agree with it 100%. My own dear Father introduced me to music from the moment I was born…yes, growing up in England, ‘music’ always meant classical. I tried to do the same for my own two sons and am happy to say that they love music the way I do.

  9. Thank you for your thoughtful post. As an orchestral violinist myself, I see the need to have a program that touches the musicians, allowing us to provide a true heart-felt performance for the audience, as well as the need to ‘get butts in the seats,’ as I’ve heard management people say. Personally, I have just as much fun playing the pops concerts as the classical series concerts, but I agree that it is, in a way, underestimating the potential and intelligence of the audience. Instead of offering completely separate concerts, there should be a way to combine things, at certain performances, so the audience can be introduced to a ‘great novel’ after they have read a ‘novella.’
    I must say, however, that I think your mention of “mediocre renditions of Beethoven’s 5th” might be a bit offensive to some. I think a comment like that might serve to separate and isolate the “professionals” from those who play and perform as young players, amateurs, and emerging professionals. It seems to be a slightly derogatory comment meant to inflate the ego and importance of people who should be well beyond needing that. Always remember – what you think of as someone’s ‘mediocre rendition’ might be an incredibly moving and heart-felt performance for someone else. I am sure you meant to say that it is important to have professional versions of these great works so that people can experience them in as near a flawless way as possible, but it comes across a little bit conceited.

    • Amy,
      Thank you for your recent reply to my article. You point out–and rightly so–that I didn’t make clear when I referred to “a mediocre rendition of Beethoven’s 5th” that I meant US, not our friends and colleagues in orchestras across the spectrum. We work hard to perform at our best at all times. Yet sometimes conditions on stage as well as time restraints make that a definite challenge compared to what we can do with a full week of rehearsal, a carefully conceived stage set-up, and a full complement of musicians. And unfortunately these conditions are often generated by POPS. We find that frustrating, as I’m sure you, as a violinist, can understand.
      I should have added that our colleagues in orchestras at every level are vital in building support for great music.
      Thanks for giving me the opportunity to clarify.
      Marcia Peck

  10. Arthur Fiedler, iconic conductor of the Boston Pops called people who “preferred” classical music to the Boston Pops “Culture Vulters”!
    I had to stop playing my 1820 Prescott Bass due to poor health. It is
    now in the hands of the Principal Bassist of the Handel & Haydn Soc., founded in 1815, who call themselves a “period” (instruments) orchestra.

  11. Thank you for an enlightened article which expresses how I, too, feel about Classical music and its importance in our society. I don’t just “like” Classical music, I don’t merely love it, I live and breathe it. I write it as an expression of my soul and I listen to it as often as possible. When I hear of some musical institution going belly up, like an orchestra, or hearing about Tower Records going out of business or losing the Schwann catalog, I have to wonder, why does it happen to something like this, why are all the “popular” musicians doing so well? It’s as though we’re being walked out on in the middle of a performance — like Stalin walking out on Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, then writing the editorial “Muddle instead of Music.” Well, I have hopes for the future, no matter the difficulties, and I hope to see the next generation properly educated so the Classical tradition never dies.

  12. Today, it seems that a lot of people want to be in the music business, but without having to actually learn an instrument or to read music. Thus, the birth of HipHop/Rap music stars. I was introduced to classical music the old way, in grade school listening to Peter and the Wolf and other similar performances on 78s. I loved all of it, especially going to the high school to hear the Pittsburgh Symphony. I can appreciate the effort that goes into any musical performance, but I reserve my greatest affection for the classics.

  13. I’m reading this in a Starbucks – just here to do my bills. And my friend Dr. James Bass (University of South Florida) posted this on his Facebook.
    I read your article Marcia…and I realized tears were slipping out. Your beautiful article brought back the memories of GREAT classical music and what it has done in my life. How it moves me. And it all started because a friend took to me a classical concert – dragging me against my will. And I listened – and was forever changed.

  14. My class went to a youth concert of the MN orchestra a while back (197?) and they performed the Rite of Spring. I am afraid that many orchestras now “pops” up the youth and education concerts and infotain rather than enlighten a raw audience. Vienna Philharmonic uses whatever program they are performing that week be it Mahler, Mozart or Schoenberg. Let’s play what we do best and in a proven format.

  15. Marcia, I love what you say about classical music. Yes, popular music is great to listen to as well. The famous quote by Duke Ellington, “there are two kinds of music, the good stuff and the other stuff.” However classical music and classical art explores and expresses the human condition in much greater depth and complexity. When we listen and when we play we response to the subtle nuance of human emotion not just the general categories. I’ve been listen to the great music of the Minnesota Orchestra since I was in elementary school. It has inspired me my whole life. I’ve learned from its musicians as my teachers. My heart is with this great orchestra and it MUST be preserved.

    Larry Hutchinson
    Bassist, Detroit Symphony Orchestra

  16. Hear, HEAR! I agree, and that is why I am making sure that my granddaughter is taking piano lessons, listening to classical music in my home and auto, and attending concerts with me. As she was listening to the slow movement of Mozart clarinet concerto in the car, she said “Gramma, that music makes my eyes water”. You’re never too young to appreciate the best music ever created…..

  17. I grew up on Baptist hillbilly music, Dylan, and the Beatles. There was almost no orchestral music in my home except for Peter and the Wolf and cartoons. I still love all of that music. I know that exact moment when I became aware of great music and what a composer was. I loved piano and had enjoyed many of my pieces, but then one day, somewhere in 3rd or 4th grade, I got a little Bach Prelude. I felt like I was going to explode from the excitement. There was something different about this music and I couldn’t wait to play more pieces like it. It would be many years before I would find my way to Minnesota and our wonderful orchestra. It was hearing Beethoven’s 3rd for the first time, that set me on fire for great orchestral music. It’s impossible to relay how much the 30 + years of listening to the Minnesota Orchestra has impacted my life as a musician and teacher. I will never take the Minnesota Orchestra for granted and will fight with everything I have to help you carry on the tradition of excellence for the next 100 years.

  18. Thank you, Marcia, for a wonderful article! I was in your father’s Music Appreciation classes and, as you might remember, graduated the same year as you. I credit your father with my lifelong love of classical music. In fact, I went on the become the organist for several churches in northern NJ in my “younger days”! I would certainly love the opportunity to see/hear the Minnesota Orchestra if they come to NY. I’ve even been able to instill an appreciation of classical music in our daughter, now 29. My wife, on the other hand, is a hopeless case! Let’s “catch up” sometime.


  19. “Now I worry that there are people who live their entire lives never having heard even a recording of a Beethoven symphony, let alone a live performance.” – This line brought tears to my eyes…

  20. Beautiful and heartfelt article, thank you. As a former professional hornist and current public school music teacher, I couldn’t agree more with both your article and the supportive comments. My question is, why, if we all believe so strongly about the value of school music programs and if all the many studies prove how important music studies are for our children, are we not insisting that music be a core curriculum subject in all of our schools? Education is the factor that will save our orchestras, as ignorance does not foster appreciation and understanding.

  21. I’ve never seen this so beautifully articulated. We don’t just play classical music because we *like* it, or because we *prefer* it to other career paths. We play because nothing else is enough, because without this music, our lives are left lacking.

    Bravo. I hope your article touches at least some of the management… And I hope you all get back to work soon. I’ll make a special trip to see you, and get at least one butt in a seat

  22. Bravo to a beautifully written article. A board of executives and politicians that make programming decisions based on what THEY think the masses (or a select demographic) want to hear has doomed their organization to demise and failure. As programming becomes more diluted, gimmick-filled and single event oriented, the more the audience member that will pay for (and afford) a season ticket will be disenfranchised. Board members say that “people don’t want to hear Bach, Beethoven and Mozart anymore”. What they really mean is: THEY don’t want to hear Bach, Beethoven and Mozart!

    When and where will administrators find the courage to actually put into practice what they know is right- what will ultimately save their arts organization? This is beyond contracts and salaries and programming and demographics and all the rest. It’s about saving just a small space in our lives for the feeding of the world’s collective soul. Where else can you commune with great artists, either long dead or alive and present, as their art is re-created, and you are part of the process of creation?

    I pray that the administration of the Minnesota Orchestra can find the courage to do what they in their hearts know is right, and become a beacon of hope and challenge to all those who are fighting for survival of the arts.

  23. Marcia, thanks for your fine article about the essence of who we are! Pops concerts and “crossover” bring in the money, but classical nourishes the soul….
    You have such a wonderful orchestra and I hope that the difficulties will be resolved soon. You are all in my thoughts. Sandra Goldberg, Zürich Chamber Orchestra

  24. Thank you for your accurate and balanced article! As an active conductor, I have been preaching the same messages for decades….especially as the tsunami of ‘entertainment’ has swept over our society.
    I am pleased to see your clarity regarding the diverse intentions involved in both ‘classical/abstract/concert’ music and those which produce commercial entertainment.

    I also lament the artistic confusion and subsequent ‘dumbing down’ that has infected our fine arts world over the past 30 years.
    All the best from Canada!

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