Thursday, October 06, 2011

The Real Problem With Classical Music

Robert Schumann, proof that
emo haircuts can indeed be
effective on 19th-century dudes.
When choosing repertoire for my students, I always give them a few choices so that they can pick a new piece that seems to fit them best. Last week, one of my students had trouble picking a sonatina. After a few questions, she finally confessed to what her misgiving was: composers for the most part have weird names that none of her friends would ever have these days. In her words, "Why aren't there any composers named Jennifer?"

Let's look at the first names of a few famous composers to see if she has a point:

  • Frederick
  • Ludwig
  • Wolfgang
  • Gioacchino
  • Arnold
  • Antonin
  • Jean-Philippe
  • Felix
  • Johann
  • Johannes
Now let's look at the first names of a few currently popular recording artists:
  • Adele
  • Selena
  • Christina
  • Wayne
  • David
  • Niki
  • Katy
  • Britney
  • Justin
  • Bruno
More than a slight difference, to be honest. There are a few composers with normal names such as Robert, George, and Richard (pronounced with a "k"). There are also a few pop artists with exotic names such as Rihanna and Gaga. But for the most part, my student was correct, and to make matters worse, the great composers are almost always middle-aged men with crazy hair and/or wigs.

Maybe part of the process of composers being accessible has a lot to do with their names sounding, well, normal. Unpretentious. 

We finally agreed on a sonatina by Samuel Arnold, as I was able to convince my student that he would have almost certainly been called Sam by his 18th-century London bros.

Finally, I would like to set the record straight with my student, who needs to be assured that there are indeed composers named Jennifer. Here is part of the second movement (aka Fiery Red) of Jennifer Higdon's Piano Trio played by violinist Ryoko Arai, cellist Yuiko Arai, and pianist Gloria Shih: 

[Update: Casey McCann has written a very elegant response to this post, which you can read here.]


  1. "There are a few composers with normal names such as Robert, George, and Richard "

    A rather xenophobic post that misses the likely socio-historical reasons why she doesn't know any composers called Jennifer.

  2. it's true! They *do* sound really up themselves. Freddie, Wolfie ... Fe..lix...yeah. I wonder if they came home from a tough night composing and got into their boxers and drank em...ale. Or whatever.

  3. ahhhh - a rose by any other name ehh?? There's a Shakespeare teaching opportunity in there somewhere :-)

  4. @Mike, you fail to detect the satire behind my post - classical music needs to look beyond the 18th and 19th century warhorses if it is to survive. Composers nowadays (just like kids) have a rich variety of multicultural names, and kids often have trouble relating to 200-year-old European ones.

    @Jessica Perhaps I should have omitted Jean-Philippe, as shortening it to JP creates a perfectly fine name that many would dig.

    @MJ Sadly, I was never a Shakespeare fan...

  5. Anonymous5:42 PM

    part of the beauty of studying a classical art is the historical aspect. given names, hairstyles, clothing styles, etc are constantly changing and our names, outfits, and way of life will undoubtedly seem dated in 200 years. that goes for your list of popular artists as well as your classical ones. although you came up with a quick solution to keep her working on a new piece, i think the bigger picture here is that student needs to embrace the history associated with classical music study. i don't have the same response to these "weird" names at all... instead, thinking about it makes me realize how far removed we are from these earlier periods. instead of feeling unrelated to the people, i feel more inclined to investigate their lives and times. that's what's let me be a student of music for life.

  6. @Anonymous Yes, learning how to appreciate an era is part of the classical music experience. My issue in the article is how to get younger listeners to relate. They're having trouble identifying with the music and the composers. What can we do to help them?

  7. This is at the heart of all education, not just music: finding ways to make connections for students. If a student is not connected to what they are learning, they will have no ownership and will have more difficulty in learning the skill, information, knowledge, etc. you are trying to teach them. Also, as Mike and Anonymous touched upon, this presents an opportunity to share socio-historical knowledge with your student and help them see the "bigger picture." But you will never get them to see it if they aren't engaged and interested and EXCITED beforehand.

    I think Chris has done an excellent job of putting this quandary into simple terms. I do not think his goal was to slander the names of famous composers or to suggest students should ignore their work simply because their names sound funny.

    I also thank Chris' student for being frank enough to make this comment. If you are not facing this issue with your students, you are either not listening to them or they are too afraid to speak their mind (minus the increasingly rare exception wherein students have a pre-existing inclination towards/love of/interest in classical music).

  8. I would think having them compose, themselves, would create a link with the old dudes, as fellow creative artists. I don't think it's a bad thing that the music of our traditional repertoire is written by (alas, mostly) men with names like Johann or Ludwig. Fact is, step over to Germany or Holland, and meet guys named Johann, Ludwig etc. I think names like Britney, Kiara, Zachary, etc are pretty weird ...... but they're my students, so I deal.

  9. Thought-provoking post! And great discussion. I have some ideas on how to get students to connect with classical music - my response is here:

    As a side note: I do have a student named Felix. And another named Frederick. So far they haven't gotten into wigs or composing, but they're still young.

  10. @Li'l Ned: Oh yeah! That's another great point. I have a soul connection with some of these guys as a fellow songwriter/composer. It's great to be able to get inside the head of a composer and imagine the circumstances in which a piece was written.

  11. Anonymous5:58 PM

    Most of these names are european names, and many of them are still popular in european countries.

    Would like to recommend a current "classical" music piece that might interest younger listeners.

    Modest Machinery - William Tell Overture

  12. Interesting points. This morning my coffee tastes even better.

  13. Just like to add that there is another composer called Jennifer: Jennifer Linn - one of my favorite contemporary American composers! Her work, published by Hal Leonard, is very accessible for students, with a fresh, neo-impressionistic sound.