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A president's ill-informed grandiosity

"We write symphonies," United States President Donald Trump proclaimed on July 6 during a speech in Warsaw, Poland.

When this curious quotation first circulated among music lovers, it seemed a bit baffling coming from a leader who had not previously evinced much affection for the classical repertoire. Alas, taken in context, Mr Trump's point was all too clear and dismaying.

He was asserting that Western culture is fighting forces of "radical Islamic terrorism" bent on testing our resolve; he questioned whether the West has the "will to survive" the onslaught. During one riff, Mr Trump extolled the richness, history and, indeed, the superiority of Western culture. "We write symphonies," he proudly proclaimed, as if to prove his point.

Many commentators seized on the line as a clue to the President's thinking, his "white-nationalist dog-whistling," as Jonathan Capehart, a columnist at The Washington Post, bluntly put it.

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But the President's smug invocation of the Western symphonic heritage also pressed a sore spot for me as a music critic.

Nothing impedes the appreciation of classical music - and keeps potential listeners away - more than the perception that it is an elitist art form, that composers throughout history, and their aficionados today, uniformly consider it the greatest, loftiest and most ingenious kind of music. Few classical music fans,in my experience, argue that the Western symphonic repertory stands apart from or atop music of other cultures, or other types of Western music.

But with just three words, Mr Trump buttressed this unfortunate perception. Did he mean that Beethoven's Eroica Symphony is simply greater than, say, an Indian sitar master playing a classic raga? Or an exhilarating Indonesian gamelan ensemble?

And where, I'd ask the President, do the non-symphonic genres of Western music fit in? Thelonious Monk or Stephen Sondheim? Or that 20th-century masterpiece, Frank Loesser's Guys And Dolls?

The Beatles' Eleanor Rigby, I'd argue, is just as profound as Mahler's Resurrection Symphony. But the Mahler, scored for large orchestra, chorus and two vocal soloists, is a whole lot longer, lasting more than 80 minutes. You have to have a penchant for hearing large-scale structures unfold over relatively long periods to appreciate classical music, although this can be an acquired skill.

It's this large-scale quality, the sheer dimension of expression that the master composers strove for, that makes classical music different. This doesn't mean it's superior. But the art form is certainly ambitious and demanding. It asks for your time and attention. Even a 20-minute Haydn string quartet requires you to focus to grasp the structure, content and character.

Often, by intention, a composer will keep you guessing a little, wondering why a passage in a symphonic work seems so wayward, or where a phrase is leading to. Those who have no patience for this may resist the pull of a long score.

But if you are inclined to go with it, the payoff can be exhilarating. That's the specific quality, I'd argue to Mr Trump, that makes Beethoven's Seventh, or Messiaen's 75-minute Turangalila-Symphonie seem so monumental, not any inherent artistic superiority.

Now, in truth, classical music bears some responsibility for propagating the idea that the art form is the greatest. That perception probably started with Beethoven. The towering composers of earlier eras, even Bach and Handel, thought of themselves as artist-practitioners, creating the works their jobs demanded, even recycling existing pieces when pressed for time. I have to believe that Bach understood what a magnificent work his St Matthew Passion was. From what we know, however, he probably assumed it would serve its purpose and eventually be retired.

But Beethoven more or less started the idea of the composer as colossus: a heroic visionary with a rare link to transcendent realms, creating symphonic works for the ages. That notion of the composer as a godly figure stuck around, at least during the 19th century. Wagner made it worse, overseeing the construction of an opera house in Bayreuth, Germany, that remains essentially a Wagnerian shrine.

That grandiosity transferred to the public consciousness and, eventually, to the President. Placing symphonies and classical music on an artificial pinnacle, as Mr Trump did, also brought up another sore point: accessibility. If this art form is so superior, it must be prohibitively expensive. Indeed, good seats for the Metropolitan Opera are costly. But what about tickets for Hamilton (if you can get them)? Or a Jay-Z concert?

As I've long maintained, in many urban areas, certainly a city like New York - with all the offerings of colleges and music schools, with all the Peoples' Symphony programmes and other such ventures - there is a plethora of free, or affordable, quality classical music events.

After his trip to Warsaw, Mr Trump attended the Group of 20 summit in Hamburg, where the German host, Chancellor Angela Merkel, corralled world leaders into a performance of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony at the city's glittering new concert hall, the Elbphilharmonie. My colleague Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim reported that Mr Trump "lightly bobbed his head along to the boisterous scherzo".

Did Beethoven's Ninth, with its Ode To Joy choral finale, an affirmation that "all men are brothers", have an impact on our President? I'd usually put my money on Beethoven. But Mr Trump has in almost every way been a norm-shattering force. NYTIMES


  • The writer is chief music critic for the New York Times.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 05, 2017, with the headline 'A president's ill-informed grandiosity'. Print Edition | Subscribe