Top Five Myths Surrounding Classical Music

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Last year, researchers in Paris found that concert violinists couldn’t tell the difference in sound between a 300-year-old Stradivarius and a modern instrument. While, certain skeptics such as Christian Tetzlaff may have known this all along, the study seems to contradict a long-held belief in the superiority of these legendary instruments. It’s not the only fable within the classical world. Here are our top five myths:

1. The Mozart Effect

While we’d like to think that just listening to Mozart would add a few points to our IQ, the composer’s genius can’t be tapped into through his music. The myth of the Mozart Effect began in the early 1990s with a study that linked higher scores on certain spatial-temporal tests and listening to a Mozart sonata. Their findings led to the misconception that Mozart makes you smarter. A cottage industry specializing in feeding Mozart to children sprung up overnight, however, successive studies have never been able to prove that the music has any lasting effect on intelligence.

2. Mozart’s Death

Wolfgang A. Mozart’s death also seems to have begotten another cottage industry surrounding the mystery around his death and burial. While it’s true that his body was disposed of in an unmarked grave, his death didn’t go unnoticed. In fact, dozens of people mourned him at his home and in an obituary in the Vienna newspaper, Weiner Zeitung. The Prague Orchestra arranged a memorial in its city that attracted about 3,000 people to the church, and an additional 2,000 stood outside.

3. The Great, All-Powerful Conductor

Larger than life conductors such as Arturo Toscanini, Herbert von Karajan, and Bruno Walter seem to steer classical music through the 20th century. However, music writer Norman Lebrecht punctures their glowing reputations in his 2001 book, The Maestro Myth. Lebrecht argues that these towering figures did more harm than good by commanding huge salaries at the expense of the orchestras that employed them.

4. Classical Music is Too Expensive

A common misconception among the general public is that classical music and opera tickets are unaffordable. Sure, the best tickets at the Metropolitan top out at $415, but most seats are less, including Family Circle seats, which are $25. Both Carnegie Hall and the New York Philharmonic have even less expensive options. New Yorker critic Alex Ross, who maintains a comprehensive list of affordable venues on his blog, The Rest Is Noise, pointed out that “classical events aren’t nearly as expensive as most people assume, especially in comparison with the extravagant pricing schemes for élite pop acts.”

5. The Curse of the Ninth Symphony

Noting that neither Beethoven, Bruckner, Dvorak and Schubert lived to write a tenth symphony, Gustav Mahler felt he was tempting fate as he approached those numbered symphonies. Instead, he composed the great song cycle Das Lied von der Erde, which he later called his ninth symphony, and claimed what we know as his Ninth, actually his death. “He reasoned that it was past ‘the curse’,” Alma Mahler later said. However, the fact that Mahler died with his tenth symphony unfinished only augmented this superstition. Still, Shostakovich, who composed 15 symphonies, didn’t seem to be affected.

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Comments [3]

David from Flushing

Another area of musical myth is what constitutes good acoustics in a hall. I suspect preferences in this matter have changed over the years as other fashions. I always find it curious that the amount of reverberation one finds in modern opera recordings seems far greater than what encounters in opera houses. I once read of an opposite extreme where an architect stated that the ideal hall was highly sound absorbent with a good band shell on the stage. Obviously he favored the ambience of outdoor performances.

Jan. 15 2012 05:55 PM
David S Bundler

Now just a minute, Herbert was worth every cent. take a look at the first chair players of the late 60's early 70's and you will find the greatest solists of the 20th century. Sibelius said Herbert conducted his works better than anyone else he had heard. I am not a fan of Toscanini, since he seems to think he who finished first wins, (a sort of anti-Klemperer), but at least he, and the others, had a vision of what they wanted, and if that vision sells, others must agree. Having seen Herbert, I can say he had a presence that arrested one's attention long before the music started. His only mistake was correcting the timpani in the scherzo of Bruckner's 9th. All our heros have clay feet, but why focus on the feet? This myth is no myth, I was there, I saw, and more importantly; heard.

Jan. 13 2012 08:04 PM
Michael Meltzer

The trouble with examining the Mozart proposition is there is no standard for describing what constitutes "listening."
There are people who will sit in a window overlooking the busy street all day. If you ask one of them about the details of a certain accident or altercation, they will have virtually no recollection, the quality of their "watching" was the most cursory. Another person will be able to pick up a pencil and draw the whole scene down to the last detail. "Watching" was a very different affair.
Listening is analagous. We are all wired differently, from sensory perception to internalization.

Jan. 13 2012 04:06 AM

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