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Ludwig Van
Toronto Montreal

'People should never be made to feel bad about what they are listening to' and 28 other things to tell a classical music snob

By John Terauds on April 24, 2013

(James Thurber cartoon)
(James Thurber cartoon for the New Yorker)

British author Matt Haig posted “30 things to tell a book snob” on the U.K. Book Trust’s blog last week. I mentally substituted “classical music” wherever Haig wrote “book,” and found myself agreeing with every point he made. So I decided to post my little modifications below — and discovered I had to remove one entry, because I couldn’t think of a musical analogy (You can read the original here.)

John Terauds

John Terauds

John Terauds, the founder of Musical Toronto, is currently a Divinity student at University of Toronto and a church music director. He joined the Toronto Star in 1988, was the classical music critic from 2005 to 2012, and continues as a freelance critic for the paper. He is the co-author of Roy Thomson Hall: A Portrait, a book written with Toronto Star Colleague, William Littler.
John Terauds

People should listen to classical music. Classical music is good.

But many are intimidated. One of the reasons people are put off classical music is snobbery. You know, the snobbery that says Downton Abbey and lacrosse and Pinot Noir and jazz fusion and quails’ eggs and literary fiction are for certain types of people and them alone?

There is something innately snobby about the world of art music. There is the snobbery of period versus new, of chamber music over symphonic, of seriousness over comedy, of length over brevity, of Anton Brucker over Gustav Mahler. And it is unhealthy. If art music ever dies, snobbery would be standing over the corpse.

So here is my message to classical music snobs:

1. People should never be made to feel bad about what they are listening to. People who feel bad about reading will stop reading.

2. Snobbery leads to worse concerts. Pretentious music and pretentious performances. Concerts as exclusive members clubs. Narrow genres. No inter-breeding. All that fascist nonsense that leads pop artists to think it is okay to be lazy with notes and for classical artists to think it is okay to not care what the audience wants or thinks.

3. If something is popular it can still be good. Just ask Mozart. Or the Beatles. Or peanut butter.

4. Get over the genre thing. The art world accepted that an artist could take from anywhere he or she wanted a long time ago. Roy Lichtenstein could turn comic strips into masterpieces back in 1961. Intelligence is not a question of subject but approach.

5. It is harder to be funny than to be serious. Tossing off a little scherzo with the right amount of motion and verve is often a lot harder than pounding out a Bach fugue.

6. Many of the greatest composers have written film scores.

7. It is easy to say something to people who are exactly like you. A bigger challenge lies in locating that universal piece of all of us that wants to be wowed, and brought together by a great piece of music. There isn’t a human in the world who wouldn’t enter the Sistine Chapel and not want to look up. Does that make Michelangelo a low-brow populist?

8. It does not matter about who the composer is. The only thing a piece of music should be judged by is its ability to move and/or provoke you.

10. You don’t have to be serious about something to be serious about something.

11. You don’t have to be realistic to be true.

12. You are one of 7,000,000,000 people in the world. You can never be above all of them. But you can be happy to belong.

13. The only people who fear people understanding what they are saying are people who have nothing really to say.

14. Pieces of music are not better for being hard to access or understand, any more than a building is better for having no door.

15. Mozart didn’t go to university, and he loved fart jokes.

16. Avoiding musical development doesn’t automatically make you clever.

17. Freedom is a process of knocking down walls. Tyranny is a process of building them.

18. There can be as much beauty in short (phrases, movements) as long. Sparrows fly higher than peacocks.

19. Snobs are suckers, because they have superficial prejudices.

20. The review I am least proud of, that I didn’t think enough on, was my most dismissive of simply written music.

21. Listening to a certain piece doesn’t make you more intelligent any more than drinking absinthe makes you Van Gogh. It’s how you play or listen, as much as what you play or listen.

22. Never make someone feel bad for not having heard or played something. Music is (often) there to heal, not hurt.

23. Imagination is play. Snobbery is the opposite of play.

24. I used to be a snob. It made me unhappy.

25. Simple isn’t always stupid. When I write a first draft it is complicated. There is mess. The second and third and fifteenth drafts try and get it to make sense, to trim away the frayed edges.

26. The playwright William Congreve was right when he wrote “music has charms to soothe a savage breast.” We need fewer savage breasts.

27. Inclusion is harder than exclusion. Just ask a politician.

28. The brain can absorb many things. So can a piece of music.

29. For me, personally, the point of music is to connect me to this world, to my fellow humans. We are all miles apart. We have no real means of connecting except via language. And the deepest forms of language are storytelling and music.

30. The greatest pieces appeal to our deepest selves, the parts of us snobbery can’t reach, the parts that connect the child to the adult and the brain to the heart and reality to dreams. Great music, at its essence, is the enemies of snobbery. And a music snob is the enemy of the music.

— by Matt Haig and bastardized by John Terauds

John Terauds

John Terauds

John Terauds, the founder of Musical Toronto, is currently a Divinity student at University of Toronto and a church music director. He joined the Toronto Star in 1988, was the classical music critic from 2005 to 2012, and continues as a freelance critic for the paper. He is the co-author of Roy Thomson Hall: A Portrait, a book written with Toronto Star Colleague, William Littler.
John Terauds
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