David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

The Elitist’s Credo

It is not at all natural to want to listen to classical music. Learning to appreciate it is like Pascal’s wager: you pretend to be religious, and suddenly you have faith. You pretend to love Beethoven–or Stravinsky–because you think that will make you appear educated and cultured and intelligent, because that kind of thing music is prestigious in professional circles, and suddenly you really love it, you have become a fanatic, you go to concerts and buy records and experience true ecstasy when you hear a good performance (or even when you hear a mediocre one if you have little judgment.)

Berlioz detested the music of Bach: he did not want ot enjoy it. Stravinsky despised Brahms, but came around to him at the end of his life. Not all composers are easy to love: Beethoven was more difficult than Mozart, Stravinsky harder than Ravel. Some composers, on the other hand, bring diminishing dividends over the years to their amateurs. One can revive a taste for Hummel or Saint-Saens, but it is not nourishing over a long period. (A little Satie for me goes a long way: I am never in a hurry to return to him.) Those amateurs who love a composer are the only ones whose opinion counts; the negative votes have no importance. The musical canon is not decided by majority opinion but by enthusiasm and passion. A work that ten people love passionately is more important than one that ten thousand do not mind hearing.

Charles Rosen, “The Irrelevance of Serious Music”

I like Charles Rosen, both as a writer and as a pianist. (How many people in the history of the world have been truly proficient in music and writing?) Rosen sounds like an elitist in this passage and in rather many others (he is not tolerant of ignorance or dilettantism and disdains populism). It’s a very carefully circumscribed elitism, however, since he reserves his praise for the passionate enthusiasts. Still, he can’t resist sniping at those who are indiscriminate; it’s true, there is nothing more vexing to the discriminating amateur than the freshly-minted fan who loves everything, and I guarantee you, at least one of those ten people is going to be someone who will enthuse the next day about the latest piece of pap to come down the pipeline. But an elitism around enthusiasts is still preferable to one which says, “A work that these ten people love is more important….”

1 Comment

  1. It grows increasingly difficult to have an interest in classical music or fiction and not be elitist. Because the non-elitist position is to ignore or reject the forms completely. We aren’t quite there yet, perhaps, but we are not far off. Can we call a group elite when no one outside that group cares anymore?

    Or are we talking about elitism as a subset of that already tiny group? In any case, if it is an elitism to oppose lists such as this one— http://www.avclub.com/articles/the-best-books-of-the-00s,35774/—then sign me on the elitist dotted line. Populism within a select community might be the most revolting position of all.

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