Death of a Snob

Photo I snapped of Hamo Thornycroft's "Lot's Wife" at the V&A in London last month.

My mom mentioned the other day that at some point when I was young, I went to a playdate at a house that had a piano. So I sat down and played a difficult little piece for a very polite audience, and when I was finished one father said, “That’s nice. Hey, can you play anything by the Beatles?”

I think that’s about the time I became very stuck-up about music—I’d realized at that point that outside of my parents’ house and my piano teacher’s studio, no one seemed to be listening to the type of music I was playing. So, like all young people who feel misunderstood when they like something non-mainstream, I became very snobby about music.

Like many quietly horrible things, like gelatin-based salads and casual racism, the music snobbery came from a place of misguided good intentions. Classical music had always captured my heart, lit up my imagination, and described all the complex emotions that defied language, and I couldn’t understand why people would turn their backs on so sublime an art in favor of the nonsense that came out of the radio. I erroneously decided that such ignorance had to be intentional, and as such deserved mockery.

I like to think that I was a nice kid, but my snobbishness knew no bounds, and got worse the older I got. It’s a miracle I made it out of high school with any friends left. If someone told me they liked “the Moonlight Sonata,” I’d snort. “You mean you like Beethoven’s Sonata No. 14, Op. 27 No. 2 in C-sharp minor, right? Have you even heard the third movement, or are you one of those people who just listens to the first and thinks that’s the whole thing?”

I was also so utterly convinced of the objective superiority of classical music that I was certain that, if one blasted Liszt’s “La Campanella” enough times in the hallway, the sheeple would snap out of it and recognize true greatness. Come to think of it, I think that’s the exact same reasoning that explains why people stand on street corners waving signs about Jesus.

Luckily for all the people who stuck around to put up with me, I had a couple of realizations:

1. The obvious thing: classical music, like all forms of art, is deeply personal. There’s no one magic piece, genre, or style you can use to get everybody hooked. My gateway drug was a “Classical Masterpieces” compilation CD set, but for somebody else it might be a Bugs Bunny cartoon or Fantasia. I spent so many years pooh-poohing John Williams as a Hollywood hack that it came as a surprise to me that his movie scores have led many people down the rabbit hole and turned them into real fans of classical music. Even after you’ve discovered the wonderful, wacky, colorful world of art music, what turns people on can vary wildly. I’m pretty sure there’s a dopamine center in my brain that’s exclusively activated by Beethoven, yet I know plenty of people for whom his music doesn’t do anything. (I have since repaired my friendships with these people despite their obvious shortcomings.)

2. The hard truth: if you exclude other fans of classical music because their reasons for loving it aren’t good enough for you, you’re not going to have a lot of allies left. You know, besides the really pedantic purists who analyze everything to death and insist you won’t truly appreciate this piece until you’ve read this one book in the original German by candlelight. I have met people like this (heck, I’ve been one of those people) and they are not very pleasant. Classical music lovers are classical music lovers, and concerts are way more fun with more people in the audience.

3. The really uncomfortable truth: classical music gets painted as an exclusive institution because it is. As much as we musicians and music lovers like to trumpet (pun intended) the universality of music, it is an unpleasant fact that the groups of people allowed to write, perform, criticize, curate, and preserve art music have been, and still are, limited to a small cohort defined by privilege. Often, when we talk about “classical music,” we really mean European and American music, and when we talk about European and American music, we really mean music written by European and American men, and when we talk about music written by European and American men, we really mean music written by European and American men of the upper and middle class and…you get the point.

And hey, the classism affects audiences, too. While enjoyment of music can be had at all levels of familiarity, people with more music education and experience are more likely to appreciate and support the arts. But music education isn’t exactly universal. Most kids who get to learn to play music are kids with parents who can afford to get them lessons and instruments and take them to concerts. Music classes aren’t offered in all schools, they’re usually the first thing to go when the budget cuts roll around, and music appreciation often isn’t something that’s taught along with history, math, or science (even though it’s a direct application of all three things combined). Classical music is a massively important cultural keystone, but it’s also extremely daunting for those not familiar with it, and its reputation for snobbery can turn people off from seeing what all the fuss is about. Writing off people for having no knowledge of music when they haven’t been given a chance to be exposed to it is…well, it’s as exclusionist as you can get without straight-up building a #*%^ing wall.

This combination of epiphanies killed my inner snob pretty quickly. A couple of years ago, if I heard a snippet of the William Tell Overture outside of a concert hall (which describes 100% of the times I have heard it), I’d sigh theatrically and say, “Poor Rossini.” Now? Sure, it’s a little annoying that Grieg’s “In the Hall of the Mountain King,” Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries,” and Vivaldi’s “Spring” are constantly churned out by commercials, movies, wind-up toys, et. al…but it’s admittedly also kind of cool that tunes from classical music are woven into the fabric of modern culture and kept alive in the ears of people who might not otherwise ever hear those melodies.

So what does it mean that I’ve renounced my snobbish ways? It hasn’t necessarily changed my tastes—I’m still pretty picky about what I listen to and like, and I have a very limited range of tolerance for most pop music—but my attitude has evolved a lot. I make it a point not to condescend to people who don’t know much about music, and in fact it’s kind of fun to figure out how to explain something I learned very technically in a way that’s approachable and relatable. I’ve learned that if someone likes something even tangentially related to classical music—movie scores, video game music, classical crossover, or heck, Für Elise—it means they like music, and it gives me an opportunity to indoctrinate them into my cult introduce them to other pieces or composers I think they’ll like.

It’s also affected the way I perform; there’s less “Let me show off for you and make a point about how amazing I am by playing all these notes” and more “Let me show you how amazing this music is and why I love it so much.” I think it comes through, for performances that have a lot more heart and substance.

And if nothing else, being un-snobby about music has made it so much easier to get along with other people who, when it comes down to it, love classical music for the same reason that I do: because it’s awesome.

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