Beethoven and a Barcalounger

MILES HOFFMAN is violist for the American Chamber Players, a music commentator for NPR's "Morning Edition" and the author of "The NPR Classical Music Companion."

I RECEIVED an offer in the mail the other day from the Musical Heritage Society. It offered to sell me -- indeed, it suggested that I would miss a great (and final) opportunity by not buying -- the complete “Serenades for Orchestra of Mozart” on compact disc. And why was I to buy these serenades? Because, the society assured me in italics on the outside of the envelope, they were “the perfect relaxing music.”

The perfect relaxing music! Gee, was it possible that the Musical Heritage Society was aiming its pitch somewhere just a teensy bit below the very summit of Western musical/cultural/intellectual/spiritual/poetical/humanistic/aesthetic ideals? Why didn’t it just come right out and call the CD set “Mozart for Massages” or “The Perfect Music to Smooth Out the Bumps on Your Next Elevator Ride”? I held the envelope close to my ear, thinking that if I listened very carefully, I might just catch the sound of the poor composer spinning in his unmarked grave.

But as I waxed huffy, little internal alarm bells began to ring, and I became aware of a dangerous rise in my PCMSQ -- Personal Classical Music Snootiness Quotient. After all, what’s wrong with relaxing to music? Well ... nothing. And what’s wrong with relaxing to good music? Again, nothing. Who am I -- who is anybody -- to say why and how a person should listen to music and what he or she should take from the experience?

And isn’t it also true that our purposes and intentions naturally vary in different situations, and that we’re entitled to listen to music in one way at one time and in another way at a different time? People listen to music in elevators, true; but couples kiss in elevators too, and at curbside check-in, and I doubt it would occur to them that that’s all that kissing can -- or should -- ever be.


And speaking of why people listen to music, did you know that when “classical” public radio stations survey their audiences, the most common answer to the question “why do you listen to classical music” is “because it’s soothing”? That’s right, “soothing.” Now think of Beethoven for a moment, the man whose very name defines “classical music” for many people. He wrote music that sends the soul soaring, that plumbs the depths of human despair, that shatters silence with violent assaults. Beethoven’s Fifth, for example, is many things, but

Well, I have my theories about the word. I think that in many cases it’s a convenient stand-in for other words and for concepts that don’t fit neatly into one word. I think “soothing” often means “reassuring”: reassuring in that the listener knows that his musical expectations will be fulfilled; that there remains order, dependability, familiarity and continuity in our disturbed and disturbing universe (order far removed from the brutal banality of so much “popular” music); that the music, and the time spent listening to it, will somehow seem meaningful and good.

Then again, it’s also entirely likely that “soothing” sometimes just means soothing: a few moments of “Clair de Lune,” perhaps, after a “Twilight of the Gods” kind of day? And at times it may even mean (gulp) “relaxing.”

The fact is, good composers have always faced a kind of conflict of interest. They work very hard to write compelling music, music filled with wonder, beauty and fascinating invention, and they dearly hope that their audiences recognize and appreciate their accomplishments in those marvelous and sometimes subtle realms. But they also want their audiences to be big. And the two goals have never been entirely compatible. Never, in the history of music.


It’s fine -- no, it’s wonderful -- for an audience to be musically knowledgeable and attuned to the most delicate subtleties, if only because in music, as in all the arts -- and as in football, cooking, gardening and love, for that matter -- with added knowledge and experience come added levels of appreciation and added possibilities for delight. Who wouldn’t wish those possibilities for someone, or for oneself?

But even if I don’t know the difference between a nickel back and a pulling guard, I can still take great joy in my team’s touchdowns, and I can love the flavors of a dish even if I can’t name them. Some people are going to like a piece of music just because it’s got catchy rhythms or pretty melodies; some will like another piece because the sounds are “cool,” or another because it gets loud and brassy, or another because it stays soft and silky and seems to melt their cares away. And there is nothing to be proved or gained by disparaging or deriding these “unsophisticated listeners,” these countless mere music lovers, when today, as in the past, it’s their patronage (and their purchasing power) that has kept musicians in clothes, kept music organizations afloat and helped to keep a glorious art form alive.

Still, I’d much prefer our classical music marketers aim high, rather than low, especially because low targets tend to get lower and the slope toward outright pandering -- “Mozart Babes” anyone? -- is very slippery. And I admit that I find more value in celebrating the power of great music to elevate, rather than anesthetize, the human spirit.

But I won’t get too bent out of shape by the Musical Heritage Society’s marketing campaign. And perhaps Mozart wouldn’t have either. Business is business, after all, and if the performances are good and the CDs sell, why not? Mozart certainly knew the value of a dollar -- or of a taler, because he was always running out of them -- and those of us who love his music have no reason to complain if more people listen to it, in whatever way and for whatever reasons they choose.


You know, come to think of it, I may even buy those serenades myself.