The Thinking 

Jessica Goes to the Orchestra

November 22, 2010


MY TEENAGE SON AND I accompanied my elderly parents to the orchestra last week. We sat behind a young woman of about 20 years of age whom I will call Jessica. Jessica had long luxurious blonde hair and large, expensive sunglasses that were propped on her head. She wore leggings and boots. Her handbag was an enormous leather tote, so large it might easily accomodate two severed heads if things should ever come to that, and her nails were professionally manicured with a frosty tint.

Jessica was at this performance of one of the world’s premier orchestras to complete an assignment for a college class on music appreciation or history. We knew this because we saw her berating someone who appeared to be an instructor before the concert. The instructor was reluctant to give Jessica the written assignment sheet because she mistakenly thought Jessica did not have a ticket. Jessica procured the assignment after aggressively reciting her rights.

Our diligent scholar then attended a brief lecture sponsored by the orchestra before taking her seat for a concert that included Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto in D major, Opus 35. In the moments before the concert began, Jessica turned to a student behind her and expressed anger that the program was going to last a full one hour and forty minutes. She rolled her eyes. The whole thing was ridiculous, her expression seemed to say, but the length of the program was a special outrage. To think of people carrying on such nonsense for a full hour and forty minutes. These classical musicians had worked their whole lives slaving away at their instruments, submitting themselves mind and body to one of the most exacting art forms ever invented by humankind, but that was no excuse for taking up so much of Jessica’s time.

As the conductor took to the podium, Jessica pulled out her water bottle and revived her dehydrated cells, sending the sound of crinkling plastic throughout the acoustically engineered hall. She checked her text messages. When the musicians began to play, she started to furiously write on her assignment sheet, apparently recording her studied observations of these hack performers. For a full five minutes or so, she wrote and wrote and wrote. I would be surprised if Jessica didn’t get an A. The fluidity with which she registered her impressions, crossing t’s and dotting i’s with the sort of precision that characterizes only the most dedicated of scholars, made me think Jessica knew what it takes to get an A.

Having completed the obligatory assignment, Jessica then sat back. She proceeded to endure.

She played with her hair. She checked her text messages. She looked around the hall. She drew more life-sustaining fluid from her water bottle. She rested her head on her hand. It’s amazing how much time one hour and forty minutes really is. It’s amazing how little difference expensive acoustics make. If Tchaikovsky could only have spent but a short time with Jessica, he might have saved himself a lot of trouble, perhaps become a businessman or an athlete instead. When the concert came to a close at last, she quickly put on her coat and turned to leave.

Unfortunately, her neighbors all around were clapping and standing. There were too little old ladies to her left whose enthusiasm was sustained and joyous, women whose lives had reached this point because they apparently had nothing better to do. Their eyes were misting. They seemed determined to express their gratitude, as if applause mattered, as if the musicians could hear their hands, as if all this wasn’t over. They were not letting Jessica out of her row. They continued to clap and stand in place. Jessica, who tried to commmunicate her desire to leave by facing her clapping neighbor to the left and staring at her with unsmiling vehemence, was imprisoned for another five minutes or so in this concert hall, this priggish monument to the past. Finally, the ordeal was over. Jessica returned to real life. Jessica was free. She had learned a valuable lesson. Never, ever take a music appreciation course again.


                                                                  — Comments —

Thomas F. Bertonneau writes:

Outrage at unfamiliarity (especially at sophisticated unfamiliarity) is a typical college-student reaction. Since K-12 education is nowadays largely contentless, except for constant reinforcement of the vapid “self-esteem” idea, the content-vacuum can only be filled up by commercial culture, which means MTV. Finally, the MTV fare fixes the subject’s taste at an infantile level (maybe we should call it a “sexualized-infantile” level). The three-minute “rock” or “rap” song, with its vapid content rooted in resentment against the adult world, becomes the only esthetic experience that the subject wants or will tolerate. It is very hard to make inroads against this powerful inculcation. I assault it whenever I can, by showing silent films and operas in my classroom. For example, in connection with Vergil’s Aeneid, I like to screen one of the video recordings of Berlioz’ opera The Trojans, which takes two or three class-periods to play through. It is fascinating in a morbidly curious way to watch the students in the darkened room. Some few, making an effort or being somehow more spiritually receptive than the others, settle into the experience and get something from it. Many squirm and fidget the whole time. I ruthlessly police the room for cell phone usage and “texting.” Of the students who squirm and fidget, some, as you say, have “total contempt” for object. The demand that they pay attention to it therefore strikes them as nearly lethal. I suppose that it really is nearly lethal, in the sense that, in order for the subject to take pleasure in a symphony or an opera, the stunted person with the infantile taste has, in a sense, to die. Only then may the person with an adult sensibility, who is open to beauty, can be born. So then “Jessica” in the concert hall. She really was (understood this way) trying to stave off death. Her plight is that she cannot understand the need to be “reborn.”

Stephanie Murgas writes:

As a classically trained musician myself, I think Jessica should probably have “noted” that she was extremely fortunate to attend the concert of a Russian composer, because they are naturally very fast. She was very lucky to have escaped the wrath of Wagner and his Ring Cycle, which takes 3 days to perform. Opera is the highest form of all Western music, and she is not worthy to enjoy it. Music appreciation is difficult because music is a continually evolving process, and cannot be understood properly unless the listener is a) completely in the moment or b) completely out of his mind.

Hurricane Betsy writes:

If a person wasn’t raised with classical music, the last thing I’d do is make them sit through The Trojans or anything else lasting more than 10 minutes. If they are fidgeting and uninterested, it is not because “they [are] stunted person[s] with infantile taste.” That was a cruel thing for Thomas to say. No one is a better human being for having sat through The Trojans or a Russian concert at someone else’s decree. “Music Appreciation” is ridiculous, unless you are already a classical music fan and are eager for further insight.

I was exposed to classical music endlessly at home from childhood (even though we were pisspoor and living on a farm) because my dad had the radio on the classical station day and night. After I left home I eagerly sought out concerts and buying my own records. Eventually, I could happily sit through a live opera performance and couldn’t get enough. My parents and my school teachers never made me listen to any kind of music I didn’t want to listen to and I am a better person for it.

Suppose a classical music freak was forced to sit or stand through Ozzy Osbourne and his band for 2 hours. Or, better still, Pig Destroyer.

Laura writes:

I agree it is preferable to be exposed to difficult music or literature first at home. However, if education never exposed students to anything they didn’t already like, it would be nothing more than a form of pandering.

Michael S. writes:

Never mind the Ring (which, strictly speaking, takes seven days to perform)… if this woman thinks an hour and forty minutes (with an intermission) of relatively light music is too much, she’d never make it though any Wagner opera. Parsifal or Götterdämmerung — the first portion alone before the first intermission — runs about two hours; Act III of Die Meistersinger — two hours. Even the Dutchman or Das Rheingold — about two-and-a-half hours of continuous music, no intermission. A long Mahler or Bruckner symphony — 60 to 80 minutes. Other Wagner acts require one to sit still for a good hour at a time.


College students, for the most part, are losers, culturally speaking. I had nothing but contempt for people like Jessica when I was in college. My attitude hasn’t changed.

Laura writes:

Classical music is not going to be enjoyed by everyone and that’s fine. But for a college student to possess contempt for it or anger at its mere existence suggests college has failed in some basic way.

Mr. Bertonneau writes:

Regrettably, Hurricane Betsy has not thought her propositions through to the end. She writes, “If a person [weren’t] raised with classical music, the last thing I’d do is make [him] sit through The Trojans or anything else lasting more than 10 minutes.” But these are college students, who, on being admitted to the university and accepting the invitation to matriculate, have agreed to submit to a well-rounded higher education. That is to say, they have agreed to open their horizons and rise to the occasion of new, serious experiences, as part of their education. Some of these new, serious experiences belong to the elective domain and have to do with the professional qualification of students for the careers that they wish to pursue; others, mandatory rather than elective, have to do with a general, liberal education aimed at cultivating the knowledge of high traditions and at creating civilized sensibilities. Students who fidget during The Trojans also resist the readings; they no more want to read Vergil or Shakespeare than they want to sit still and listen to Mozart’s “Prague” Symphony.

All competent humanities professors understand this and that is why they assign essays and schedule quizzes regularly – to put coercive pressure on reluctant students to do the work and then to assess whether they have done so. The professors do this, moreover, with the awareness that they are participating in an ongoing civilized project of propagating high culture across the generational barriers. I do not classify any of these pedagogical realities as “cruel,” but merely as necessary. Were one to apply Betsy’s reasoning universally, we would not “force” students to read Vergil or Shakespeare; we would not even force them to sit through classes, which last a minimum of fifty-five minutes where I teach – five times longer than Betsy’s ten-minute maximum. Very swiftly there would be nothing left in higher education worthy of the name. (There is, of course, another discussion implied by all this, but that is for another occasion.)

Betsy writes, “No one is a better human being for having sat through The Trojans… at someone else’s decree.” I disagree. Someone who, despite his restlessness, pays attention to a serious experience lasting longer than ten minutes has, at the very least, exercised his faculty of patience, that quaint virtue. Very likely he has gained much more. By the way, the phrase “at someone else’s decree” is quite misleading. College is not involuntary; students compete to be admitted and then, when successful, they agree to the conditions of matriculation. One of these is to be exposed to a civilizing dose of belles-lettres and the fine arts. Students have volunteered for Wordsworth and Beethoven from the moment they said “yes” to registrar. I don’t know whether it would be “cruel,” but it would certainly be pandering and cynical to leave students bereft of edifying encounters with great books and music.

As Betsy herself points out, esthetic appreciation always has a beginning. Betsy used to hear classical music on the radio. Good. My students – most of them – have never heard classical music on the radio. The only music they have ever heard is of the MTV variety. When I expose students to good music – and I do so whenever I can justify it although I am a literature teacher and not a music teacher – it is, for most of them, their beginning, without which there will never be any growth or blossoming of real appreciation. On a related matter, perhaps Betsy will let us know what the appropriate word is for someone whose entire outlook – esthetic, ethical, and everything else – is informed by MTV and youth culture. If the word were not “infantile” or “savage,” what would it be?

Finally, Betsy writes: “Suppose a classical music freak was forced to sit or stand through Ozzy Osbourne and his band for [two] hours. Or, better still, Pig Destroyer.” But this is to embrace a total and repugnant relativism, as though Berlioz or Rachmaninov were freely interchangeable with electronically amplified pornography. This is to imply that savagery is equivalent to civilization, a notion that is itself savage.

Part of the crisis under discussion every day at The Thinking Housewife is the loss of tradition and of the civilizing knowledge that tradition imparts to those who receive it. Ignorance of tradition is incompatible with civilization. Perhaps this is why, as ignorance becomes increasingly the norm, the civic scene looks less and less civilized.



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