Skip to: Content
Skip to: Site Navigation
Skip to: Search


Why does contemporary classical music spurn melody?

Proponents of modern symphonic music cast unhappy audiences as unenlightened. But for most listeners, music elicits emotional rather than intellectual responses. Certainly, classical music should should challenge and evoke. It just shouldn't sound like bus crashes.

By Michael Fedo / February 11, 2011

Coon Rapids, Minn.

A few years before he passed, my father and I were discussing contemporary symphonic music. Like most concertgoers, Dad didn't care for it – except he wasn't like most concert-goers. He was a charter member of the Duluth, Minn., Symphony Orchestra, and sat in its French horn section for nearly 40 years.

Skip to next paragraph

He said that during his tenure Duluth conductors scheduled at least one modern unconventional score each season. "During all those years, the orchestra repeated Beethoven, Mozart, Tchaikovsky – most of the classical canon – many times," he said. "But we never again replayed a modern composition."

In 1986, when he became music director of the Minnesota Orchestra, Edo de Waart was an advocate of contemporary composers. On a radio talk show, a caller asked him, "Why do we have to listen to music that sounds like bus crashes?" To which the maestro replied, "Sir, you're living in the wrong century." In other words, get used to the dissonance.

Another view: Why concerts are boring

But ticketholders had little patience with discordance, and Mr. de Waart and the orchestra largely reverted to the familiar oeuvre of classic works.

An acquired taste?

The Guardian, in London, recently published a piece called "Why Do We Hate Modern Classical Music?" by Alex Ross, in which he argued that we shouldn't. He urged that fans of symphonic music embrace the new, pointing to acceptance of abstract and conceptual art following years of critical and popular rejection.

While works by Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollack, and others have generated millions of dollars in sales, there's a difference between painting or sculpture and music. An objet d'art's worth is measured by how much a collector will pay for it. Visitors to an art museum, as Mr. Ross does point out, can glance at a piece and move away. A concertgoer is probably stuck in a seat for 20-plus minutes, gnashing teeth while the orchestra plays a cacophonous opus in something like 37/9 time.

Ross also opines that since classical music is an acquired taste, enduring exposure to modern expressions will develop an appreciation for 20th- and 21st-century compositions. The problem: Some tastes are more easily acquired than others. Would periodic servings of fried tripe produce diners ravenous for the dish, or would those predisposed to abhor it continue to do so? (No offense intended to connoisseurs of fried tripe.)


Read Comments

View reader comments | Comment on this story