Is classical better than other music?
Not content with yesterday's sideways glance at this question, let's address it head-on today: Is classical music better than any other kind? I'll let you know what I think. But I'm more interested in reading your thoughts, so please share.
My short answer is: Sometimes, but not always. And in some ways, but not in all ways. For the ultimate in scale, in permanence and in profundity, the greatest classical works by the greatest classical composers are without equal. To express oneself musically in large forms, big ideas, fine detail and maximum impact, classical music provides a tradition and a range of resources that other genres can't match, great as they can be. There is no "jazz St. Matthew Passion", no "rock Beethoven 9th", no "Broadway Ring." It's no coincidence, by the way, that the examples I chose are all German, for it's in the Austro-German tradition that the qualities I ascribed to classical music took their fullest form. Not that there aren't other ways to think about classical music, thank goodness.
Now for some "buts." But most classical music doesn't fulfill the above goals, or even strive for them. But some classical music is frivolous, trashy, silly and made for fun. But some classical music is a crashing bore. But just slapping the "classical" label on your music doesn't make it better than other kinds.
Then, there are the things other kinds of music have that classical doesn't, at least to the same degree. Jazz features — indeed, demands — spontaneous creativity and high-wire virtuosity uniquely its own, along with moments of passion, ecstasy and beauty to match any other art. I can be more moved by a great cabaret singer doing pop standards than by a classical song recital — and I'm more likely to understand the words. Same goes for Broadway (especially Sondheim) vs. opera. And my recent forays into modern rock and pop, mostly of the "indie" variety, have at times left me speechless (believe it or not) at its creativity and emotional power. As with my favorite classical pieces, I find new things in the best pop albums each time I listen, no matter how many spins I give them. Again, please add your favorite music to my list (and please hip me to a CD or two).
It's another non-coincidence that each example in the previous paragraph is closer to the musical vernacular than most classical is. That's a good and important thing. For just as mutli-lingual people tend to revert to their mother tongue when expressing the deepest emotions, so do the musical styles we grew up with say something to us that no other kinds can. Thus, the music that speaks the language of my first musical loves, pop and rock (jazz and classical came later) reaches me in a way that music that speaks the language of fin-de-siècle Vienna or 52nd Street in the '40s can't quite, though I love them too.
So I agree with those who insist that others who haven't tried classical music are missing out on one of life's richest pleasures. But I believe just as fully that classical fans who wouldn't consider listening seriously to other kinds of music are making as big a mistake — and I wonder what other pleasures they're walling themselves from.
Please, please, please share your opinions and favorites!