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.


  1. During a concert @ Eastman, Howard Hanson saved my music librarian butt. Despite that & the fact that the National Music Camp’s theme is from his 2d Symphony, I’ve never cared for his compositions. I’ve tried listening to his works and to be grateful for his help, but it just doesn’t seem to work.


    Comment by Larry Retzack — February 15, 2012 @ 7:18 pm

  2. A resounding second to the concept that the atonal composers absolutely do not seem to create”music.” I find it painful to listen to them. I am happy that there are others who agree with me.


    Comment by Nina Sparks — February 15, 2012 @ 11:39 am

    • Hi Nina,
      Thank you for reading and replying and, most of all, for agreeing with me and others about atonal music.
      So far, no defenders of it have responded.
      That says something, no?


      Comment by welltemperedear — February 15, 2012 @ 2:50 pm

  3. Morning, Jacob! Just some musings regarding Contemporary Classical music:

    I, too, share your blind spot regarding the Viennese 12-tone/serial school — but then I think most Classical Music listeners here in the US have that blind spot as well, and really always did. I can recall that, starting in the early ’60’s and continued through the mid ’80’s, American Classical compositions were by and large relentlessly jagged, tuneless, rhythmless, loud, and angry — and this output was by and large from the respected composers of the day, who in very broad terms said that Serialism was “all you could have anymore” if you wanted to be taken seriously in the serious — i.e., Classical — music world.

    Henry Pleasants wrote a book in the ’60’s called “The Agony of Modern Music”, and basically argued that Classical Music was in fact exhausted, and that “Jazz” would and should replace Classical compositional “conceits” entirely.

    Well, that was then, and this is now — and the “nowness” isn’t as Pleasants had predicted, or hoped. I personally was and am a great fan of American Classical music, the “Golden Age” of which was 1930-60 or so. I believe that now we can define the “American sound” as having sprung pretty directly from a combination of Igor Stravinsky’s Neo-Classicism and the new aesthetic of “Les Six” (Poulenc, Milhaud, Satie, Mompou), and of course spearheaded by Aaron Copland here in the US. When Stravinsky and Copland both sanctioned Serial writing as the path forward in the mid-50’s, they IMO put an end to really a quite fruitful and promising direction in Classical Composition, and replaced it with musical imperatives that are, from most Classical Music listener perspectives, too fundamentally unmusical in nature — much as Pleasants indicated in his book.

    I was a little surprised at Mikko Utevsky’s reaction to the Paulus Oratorio — I found it musically very satisfying throughout, the “Visions” section being particularly good in that regard — and I mention this because it was a very good example of the present approach to Contemporary Composition. There is now a renewed interest in seducing the Classical listener with a shrewd combination of head-and-heart tools — not just violently raping the Classical listener, demanding that he/she “learn their place” in the new order of things. American Neo-Classicism is, well, sort of back — and I for one applaud that.


    Comment by Tim Adrianson — February 13, 2012 @ 9:17 am

  4. […] Classical music survey: What musical blind spots do you have? What works and composers just don&#821… ( […]


    Pingback by Love in Search of a Word « Bringing Europe Home — February 12, 2012 @ 9:50 pm

  5. My blind spots are generally more piece-specific than composer-specific. And I will say that the particular performance can sometimes make or break the work for a listener.

    I will also say that one great way to open one’s eyes to blind spots is to learn more about the composer and about the piece itself. Then, at least, one can appreciate the music even if it not a top choice for listening. Often, for me, with a greater understanding comes a greater enjoyment. On the other hand, while I understand and appreciate certain works or styles, I still do not choose to listen to them.

    For the folks here wondering about early music, some ideas:

    Start with Josquin, especially the motets, and then go to Palestrina.
    For Biber, start with the Passacaglia for solo violin.
    For Monteverdi, start with the 4th and 5th Books of Madrigals.

    Good listening.


    Comment by Steve Kurr — February 12, 2012 @ 3:40 pm

    • Hi Steve,
      Thank you for reading and responding so intelligently.
      I agree with everything you say, and think that reading about music history and learning the biography of composers can indeed add to one’s enjoyment of the music.
      It may not make a particular piece or composer a favorite, but it can turn it from something that puts you off into something that adds some pleasure and instruction to your life and listening.
      And of course, history an biography can also deepen our enjoyment and understanding of our favorite composers and works.
      Thank you for adding that dimension to the discussion.
      It seems so obvious and common sensical, and yet it is often not followed these days.


      Comment by welltemperedear — February 12, 2012 @ 10:10 pm

  6. I’m young enough I have an excuse for several major gaps in my understanding, but my ignorance of Brahms should probably be dealt with sooner rather than later. I just haven’t been able to see what makes him so extraordinary. Give me Beethoven, Mozart, Haydn or Schubert any day. Granted, I’m working on the second quartet right now, so that may help. But I still don’t “get’ the symphonies at all.

    For early music, I’ve found I really like some of the sacred music of Solomon Rossi, and I’m fond of Monteverdi’s “l’Orfeo,” but I haven’t been tremendously moved to seek out more than what falls in front of me. I often avoid contemporary music – recently, performing Stephen Paulus’ “To Be Certain of the Dawn” reminded me why (although the prices of preparation was enough to drive me away from it without playing a single note).


    Comment by Mikko Utevsky — February 12, 2012 @ 12:27 pm

    • Hi once again Mikko,

      You are indeed young enough to have gaps, and major gaps at that. But then at any age, we all have gaps. And you already are familiar with much more classical music than most teenagers, or even most adults. The favorites you name, I would say, bode very well.

      Regarding Brahms, I would add this: If you start with his chamber music, wait to do the thickly scored string quartets. Try starting with the Piano Quintet in F minor; the three violin sonatas and two cello sonatas; and the first String Quintet. I personally would also add in the early Piano Sonata in F minor, the Op. 10 “Edward” Ballades and the late piano pieces of Opp. 116, 117, 118 and 119. As for symphonies, start with the Fourth and work backwards, then add in the two piano concertos (especially No. 2), the Violin Concerto an the Double Concerto for Violin and Cello. Add in the sublime “German” Requiem. I bet by then you will be hooked.

      As a fan of Classical-era composers, I expect that you will readily pick up on the counterpart and classicism of Brahms, and respond to them. Try some more Brahms, and please get back to me — to us — with your reactions. (You should also know that Brahms saved and championed a lot of classical music you like by buying up neglected manuscript scores and by editing editions, including the music of Beethoven and Schubert.)

      Early music, especially that music before J.S. Bach, is even more of an acquired taste and will come, I suspect, with time. But there is nothing wrong with being picky about what you like. Still, expose yourself to unknown things old or new, just to give them a chance. You may find yourself very surprised — and pleased.

      And thank you for your refreshing candor and intellectual honesty. Those are excellent qualities for a musician to have at any age, a let alone yours.



      Comment by welltemperedear — February 12, 2012 @ 2:16 pm

      • I have to confess, I’ve heard the Double Concerto and the Violin Concerto and been thoroughly unimpressed by both (the former was with the Milwaukee Symphony, and the soloists’ intonation was unforgivably bad for a professional concert, which didn’t help matters). But maybe I’ll learn to like them by working through the rest of his work first, particularly the symphonies. Thanks for the recommendations!


        Comment by Mikko Utevsky — February 16, 2012 @ 9:25 pm

  7. I am with your feelings on the second Viennese school and Katrina’s sentiments on Messiaen,although I do usually enjoy going through Levine’s CD of Berg, Shoenberg and Webern, and Eri Klas’ recording of Berg. However, along with most things by F.J. Haydn, Lutoslawski, or Xenakis, I don’t go out of my way to listen to them. I do find Messiaen’s music beautiful most of the time, but they are often more drawn out than I am willing to sit through.

    As a trombonist, I am more of a meat and potatoes listener (Bruckner, Mahler, Shostakovich — though I don’t understand the last’s 14th Symphony at all), but my first love is actually Early music; it’s just unfortunate that I don’t get to play much of it.

    I am less familiar with the Biber violin sonatas, but a CD I have loved since around junior high (it was my first string-feature purchase) is ‘Unarum Fidium’ by John Holloway, featuring the sonatas of Schmelzer. Perhaps you would like them more than the Biber?


    Comment by Patrick P — February 12, 2012 @ 10:56 am

    • Hi Paitrick,
      Thank you for reading an deploying.
      You make very good points, remarks and suggestions.
      And the fact that your instrument (the trombone) helps to explain your music preferences is also true in my case.
      As an avid pianist, I respond with great immediacy and emotion to great piano music.
      I suspect the same could be said of string players, singers, wend players and brass players.
      We reward with loyalty what most rewards us.


      Comment by welltemperedear — February 12, 2012 @ 2:20 pm

  8. I’m only just beginning to appreciate music by Piazzolla, after trying to learn to like it for several years. It still sounds pretty weird to me sometimes, but I’m not analytical enough to understand why.
    However, I am fascinated by the sound of the bandaneon, and of course, the driving rhythm, which often sounds quite feverish. In fact that’s an adjective one might apply to Piazzola’s music as a whole.


    Comment by Ann B. — February 12, 2012 @ 6:48 am

    • Hi Ann,

      As always, thanks for reading and replying so thoughtfully and with such candor.

      Piazzolla is a very interesting case, especially since he uses so many elements of “crossover” music — using the tango and Argentinian or South American culture the same way that Haydn, Beethoven, Schubert, Chopin, Brahms, Dvorak, Tchaikovsky and Bartok used European folk and ethnic elements, especially dances, in their music.

      Piazzolla studied in Paris with Nadia Boulanger, who advised him to incorporate his own culture into the larger “classical” culture the same way she advised Aaron Copland to use elements of American culture (“Appalachian Spring” and “Rodeo” and Negro spirituals) into his music. T think she also said the same things, with the same great results, to the Mexican composer Carlos Chavez.

      If you want a really heart-wrenching and lyrical piece by Piazzolla, I suggest listening go the piece “Adios, Nonino,” the elegiac piece he wrote in memory of his father right at the time of his father’s death.

      His own performing groups are fun, especially if you like the bandeneon. But I really like the three volumes of arrangements by violinist Gidon Kramer and guests on Nonesuch. (I am especially fond of the first volume. I also like the two piano versions of PIazzolla that Emanuel Ax did with Pablo Ziegler. (It has a great version, by the way, of “Adios, Nonino” and you can hear excerpts of it for free by going to’s record department.)

      Keep listening. His music and the sensibility it embodies are very rewarding and authentically New World AND classical. I am sure it will grow on you.



      Comment by welltemperedear — February 12, 2012 @ 9:29 am

  9. Berlioz and Messiaen, not in any order.


    Comment by Katrina Querriera — February 12, 2012 @ 12:07 am

    • Hi Katrina,
      Thank you for reading and replying.
      I am with you on many works by Berlioz, though I do love “Harold in Italy” and many parts of the “Symphonie Fantastique.”
      As for Messiaen, and I am in much more complete agreement. The music usually doesn’t speak to me or me — though there are a few exceptions — and, to be honest, neither does the heavy religious overlay he put on everything he did.


      Comment by welltemperedear — February 12, 2012 @ 9:18 am

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