Highbrow vs Lowbrow: Dan Golding defends Highbrow Music

by Dan Golding , June 3, 2014Leave a comment

Last week at the Highbrow vs Lowbrow Cultural Showdown, six of our favourite writers faced off to defend their preferred cultural forms. This week, we’re publishing their speeches in full for your edification. Here, Dan Golding defends highbrow music.

The worst thing anyone ever did for classical music was label it ‘highbrow’.

Just the words ‘classical music’ conjure up immovable preconceptions. Classical music is old, angry men in tops and tails. Classical music is stuffy and serious. Classical music doesn’t even let you clap when you want to.

Classical music has today become one of three things: it is a lullaby for an ageing, elite generation who want to display their wealth. It has become relaxation music for boring people. And it has become a kind of medicine that will magically make babies smarter, even if you play it to them while they’re still in the womb. Classical music has been carefully sanded down into meaninglessness.

But really, classical music can be crude, and gross, and offensive, and generally, it is at its best when it’s all of these things. There’s very little that’s highbrow about what we now call highbrow music.

Let’s turn to Mozart, the music of cucumber sandwiches with the crusts cut off.

Consider, for a minute, one of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s lesser-known works from 1782, a canon in B-flat major for three voices, ‘Leck mir den Arsch fein recht schön sauber’. If you’re not fluent in German, here’s a translation of Mozart’s lyrics:

Lick my ass nicely,
Lick it nice and clean,
Nice and clean,
Lick my ass.
That’s a greasy desire,
Nicely buttered,
Like the licking of roast meat,
My daily activity.
Three will lick more than two,
Come on, just try it,
And lick, lick, lick.
Everybody lick their ass for themselves.

Your preconceptions about classical music be damned.

It is incredibly sad that classical music has now become the domain of the rich and elite. At the premiere of Stravinsky’s ballet The Rite of Spring in 1913, the audience rioted. Although the music was beautifully violent and the ballet choreography jarring and deliberately sexual (the whole thing is about sex, as so many classical works are), it was class that prompted the riot too. The rich, elite aesthetes (who have taken over today) began to boo the performance – to which the audience in the cheap seats cried out “Shut up, bitches of the 16th Arrondissement”. I guess that would be a bit like going to the ballet today and telling the ‘grubs’ (to use a Christopher Pyne-ism) of Toorak to shut up.

So yes, highbrow music might be tuxedos, and serious men that tell you not to clap, and ballerinas receiving a cool $100m in the federal budget for a boarding school while every other art form starves.

But classical music is also open class warfare at the ballet. Classical music is also Steve Reich’s tape experiments that led to the Beatles creating Revolution Number 9. Classical music is Stockhausen’s Helicopter Quarter, which is performed by a string quartet with each member in a separate flying chopper.

On top of all of this, classical music is also some of the most evocatively beautiful, challenging, violent, and complex music ever created.

Classical music is Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra, used in 2001: A Space Odyssey as the only appropriate music in existence to accompany the dawn of civilisation, the birth of knowledge, and science. Classical music is ‘Ode To Joy’ in A Clockwork Orange, and it’s Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue over Woody Allen’s black and white images of Manhattan.

Classical music is Aaron Copeland’s Fanfare for the Common Man, which says something so universal about humanity that Mitt Romney used it at campaign stops — obviously not knowing that the composer was a gay, Jewish communist.

Classical music is also the only music to comment on humanity’s greatest crimes and traumas. Adorno famously wrote that there could be ‘no poetry after Auschwitz’ — but there was music, like Henryk Gorecki’s painful, desolate Symphony of Sorrowful Songs.

Classical music is Life. All of it. Not just the glossy, casual bits, but all of it. From licking arses, to class warfare, to global tragedy.

So don’t ever take the easy way out of writing it off as just highbrow. Highbrow music can mean a hell of a lot.


Dan Golding is a critic, journalist, and academic. Dan writes about videogames, music, and film for a variety of publications.



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