The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music survey: What musical blind spots do you have? What works and composers just don’t speak to you?

February 12, 2012

By Jacob Stockinger

I find much to praise in the honesty and intellectual forthrightness of people who admit that some important and widely accepted kinds of classical music – or art, in general – somehow escape them.

It is as though they are saying: I don’t care what everyone else thinks or says, this just doesn’t speak to me somehow.

It isn’t always the result of ignorance, stupidity or insensitivity.

It can also happen with some pretty standard works and some really big or important composers. I know of serious classical music fans, for example, who just don’t like Handel, Mozart or Brahms.

There are other examples.

Take NPR’s “Delayed Cadence” blogger Tom Huizenga (below) on the music Haydn, a towering figure who never quite connects with him as he should:

On a smaller scale, the gifted and urbane American pianist Jonathan Biss (below), who has started a Beethoven sonata cycle and who has written an outstanding book on Beethoven (“Beethoven’s Shadow”), responded to Huizenga’s challenge by admitting that he feels bad about his ignorance of Brahms’ vocal music, especially his duets:

It is a good exercise to try on oneself. It can point to directions to grow in. Or, if you hear the same response others, it can validate your own responses. It will be telling to see who else responds to NPR’s challenge in the coming weeks and months, and what else they say.

And what about The Ear? you may wonder.

One of my major blind spots is a lot – though by no means all — of pre-Bach music, especially scratchy violin sonatas by, say, Heinrich Biber (below).

I also have a blind spot with a lot of contemporary classical music.

Both of them too often just seem boring and tedious, kind of like R&D (research and development) music. I mean, it is good music, even great music sometimes, like that of the Renaissance composer Claudio Monteverdi or the contemporary composer Osvaldo Golijov. But too often I hear it and think, ho-hum. For me, I guess, J.S. Bach (below) remains the Big Bang.

But surely my biggest musical blind spot is the Second Viennese School of Arnold Schoenberg (below), Anton Webern and Alban Berg.

Even a century after this music was written, it just doesn’t reach me directly or speak to me with enough urgency. It still seems like one ambitious but failed experiment, despite the pleas of musicians, critics and historians I respect and despite the supposed revolution that this atonal, 12-tonal and serial music brought about. Just give me a tune, please.

But what about you?

What do you consider to be your major blind spots?

What major composers or major works just escape you or disappoint you?

Are there other composers and music that you think is overrated by others?

The Ear wants to hear.

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