Why do I have to like Mozart? The harmful objectivity culture in classical music

I don’t like Mozart. There, I said it. 

For years I was ashamed to admit I didn’t like Mozart.

Even that word admit, is a problem. It’s like it is a crime, I didn’t steal a car, rob a bank yet I use the same language to talk about my subjective taste in music.

The classical music industry indoctrinates us with this view that to dislike ‘the great masters’ is heretic, to dislike them is to dislike classical music.

The same dozen composers are taught to us, shoved non stop down our throats since childhood as the only classical music, not even the only worthwhile classical music, but the only classical music.

3 years ago I hadn’t even heard of Cecile Chaminade or Chiquinha Gonzaga or Joseph Boulogne, even in a derogatory way.  Thousands of classical music fans across the world still can’t name a single female composer.

It’s such a problem. This narrow view is the only thing we learn and it destroyed my relationship with classical music for most of my adult life thus far.

What rekindled the fire for me? Florence Price. 

Florence Price, the other hundreds of female composers and the hundreds of male composers of all the varying skin colours across the world.

They made classical music interesting. They gave my love of classical back to me, actually they didn’t give it back, it never really existed as a child. What I experienced as a child was a shadow, not this burning flame, the thrill I experience now.

And it’s not because these composers are women. It’s not because they’re black or Aboriginal, it’s not their gender or race or sexuality. It’s their music which resonates with my being so much more deeply and with so much more meaning than Haydn or Bach ever did. It’s because their music is so wonderfully varied. It’s like as a child classical music was all indigo, no other colours existed and now? Now there’s an entire rainbow of colours from which to choose.

For me, now, in this present moment, classical music is interesting, not just interesting, it’s fascinating. It’s so cool, so mindblowing, every week is a new adventure, a new obsession. It’s so exciting to know that there is so much more than the standard industry propaganda. Not just this tiny dull lump of coal but an entire cave full of sparkling diamonds.

And yet it’s painful. Every time I hear a new composer it’s sad. It wrenches my heart to know that I’m 33 and only just discovering Margaret Harris or Louis W. Ballard and Ma Sicong. It’s horrifying that this life changing music was kept from me for decades of study.

Just thinking that instead of being dragged to Traviata for the umpteenth time I could have been seeing Frederick Douglass by Dorothy Rudd Moore,

Instead of the gazillionth performance of Handel’s Messiah I could have been melting away to Margaret Bonds’ The Ballad of the Brown King.

There’s so much traditionalist backlash to the current calls for diversity. So many people complaining that if they change the current programming at all they will lose audiences.

Classical music is losing audiences left and right. You lost this audience member for 15 years. If it wasn’t for a chance shift at the Southbank at the WOW festival showcase in 2018 I’d still be lost to you. 

Countless numbers of people are disengaged from classical music. How many thousands of people I wonder? How many thousands disengaged by the preaching of superiority of the art form, preaching the superiority of Mozart?

How many people would be interested if a wider variety of classical music was presented?

People who like Mozart are never going to stop liking him, never stop going to hear his music. But presenting a wider variety of music will gain you a wealth of new audiences.

I don’t go to classical concerts that feature the same old boring stuff again and again, being constantly reminded that this is all some people think there is. All Mozart sounds similar to me, repetitive, boring and utterly tedious.

Classical concert programmes that feature only ‘the great masters’ do not get my patronage. If it’s got Mozart, Beethoven or Bach on the programme I won’t go, I’m not wasting my money.

I completely understand that some people can listen to Beethoven over and over again. I have the song Seasons of Love from Rent in my head every single week. I also go and see Les Mis on an annual basis. And like I say I will never ever get tired of exploring the eternal brilliance of Florence Price.

But not everyone wants to hear Beethoven again and again. We don’t all have the same taste and why should we? Why can’t a classical music programme cater to varying tastes?

Oh wait, it can. Mine does. There is something for everyone in every single one of my radio show. Classical music from all genders, all skin colours, all eras, all styles on every episode of The Daffodil Perspective. 

I heard pianist Stewart Goodyear talking about his experience listening to Beethoven for the 1st time as a child, how it moved him. He listened to all his sonatas in one sitting and when he grew up he wanted to re-create that intense experience with his Sonatathon, where he performed the whole set of sonatas in one go.

I can understand that. I respect that special connection. It’s a similar experience I had listening to Florence Price for the 1st time. It was so intense, an entire world opened up for me and I listened to her music obsessively on repeat for weeks.

That special connection with Beethoven – I appreciate that some people may feel it but I can’t stand his music. I can tolerate the Pastoral Symphony but that’s about it. I don’t like Mozart at all. I don’t care for Bach or Chopin or the lesser Schumann.

Only now do I feel brave enough to say this. Growing up in this classical music environment I felt that it was unsafe to say these things.

And it’s not just that I don’t like Beethoven and Haydn etc, but it so over saturates everything, so overplayed during my youth that the little meaning many of these ‘great masters’ had in the beginning has been completely destroyed by decades of forced exposure.

And sure, there are always people who don’t like classical music at all. And that’s just fine. As long as we give them the choice of the whole rainbow of classical. Not just the indigo of the ‘great masters’. 

That’s what I did, I found the rainbow and I was so mindblown I’ve spent 2 years, 2000 hours volunteering to champion it, promote it.

There’a a lot of talk about making music that speaks to the whole of humanity, not just the small proportion of upper class white men. I know, I’ve been one of those voices but I think we need to take it further.

It’s not just that Florence Price’s music resonates because we’re both mixed race. Not just because of similar experiences. It’s also because her music was nothing like I’d heard before.

It’s not just playing music by black composers because black people make a significant proportion of thr world population. It’s exposing audiences to a much wider variety of music than the narrow version to which we are currently exposed.

It’s about giving audiences more of a choice.

There’s other discussions disparaging pop music, of people’s diminishing attention spans, simpler music.

I call bullshit.

What about the fact that you only offer one colour of the rainbow and that one section of music you do offer, many of us feel is not worth listening to?

We might engage with classical if we felt it was worth our time.

Actually this is my exact experience. Bach is not worth my time. Verdi is not worth my time. The lesser Schumann is definitely not worth my time.

I didn’t engage with classical music for years because the tiny amount on offer was not worth my attention.

Last year I sat on the tube going home and listened to an entire piano concerto by Emilia Gubitosi, from start to finish non stop. I’ve not done that willingly for at least 20 years, maybe ever. I was so surprised with myself, that I could stand listening to a 20 minute piece of classical music all the way through, doing nothing else.

This concerto by Emilia Gubitosis, my word it was incredible. I was shocked until I realised the problem wasn’t with me, rather my previous experiences of classical music.

It wasn’t that I couldn’t listen to a 20 minute long piece of classical music it was because I didn’t want to listen to a 20 minute long piece of classical music by one of those ‘great master’ composers.

And it’s not just that they’re all dead white men. It’s not just that they’re all the same gender and skin colour. Their music is actually very similar stylistically. All coming from the same Austro-German tradition. 

Whereas Chinese composers like Xin Huguang, Chou Wen Chung, Liu Zhuang, Mingxhin Due use a lot of Chinese folk music too in their art. Many African-American composers use spirituals in their art – Florence Price, W.G. Still, Rosephanye Powell. All these composers bring an infinitely greater wider variety of styles and traditions to the table. And it’s not just nationalistic, folk influences but many other ideas, new additions, different expressions of classical music.

Then there is the ‘dead’ in the dead white men.

The constant drumming in that the only worthwhile composers died over a century ago!

20 years of just hearing music from 19th century and before. It really makes a very clear statement – that classical music died in 1910, that the only important music was written in the 17th, 18th and 19th century and everything after that sucks.

And not just this constant subliminal message either. There’s so much literature and discussion that music from the 20th century doesn’t compare to those ‘great composers’

This messed with my head for decades because I mostly like classical music composed within the last century.

This idea that everything from the 20th century onwards is inferior to Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven et al is deeply, deeply flawed, deeply troubling.

The idea that one person’s taste in music is inferior to another is just wrong.

And if affects us all.

Which leads me onto the next problem. Being influenced by an artist doesn’t make that person’s art inferior either. This constant rhetoric that everyone was influenced by Mozart so therefore their music is inferior is just bullshit.

This happens in pop music too (just mention The Beatles to a white British man in his 70’s)

Whoever invented the wheel was possibly influenced by rolling logs. They used to move objects around by rolling them on a line of logs. The wheel was invented by someone who saw a great design and saw how it could be made better, more efficient.

It’s the same with music. Composers are always influenced by those that came before. It doesn’t mean their music is of lower quality. Directly the opposite more like. They take great bits, add their own flair, own inventions, own unique style, change various things and create better art.

I think classical music has got consistently better as time goes by.

The music of 18th century Vienna wasn’t the apotheosis of artistic achievement, far from it. It was merely a stepping stone in the journey to create better art.

And now we have this incredible plurality, this amazing buffet of choice.

Classical music as we know it may originally be Western European art music and its origins in Europe mean that mostly white people wrote it up until the last century and a half, but with colonialism then a globalised society, new technology means that now people all over the planet, of every hue and colour create classical music. So we have a great variety of styles, many many different experiences and cultures mixing to create a vast spectrum of music.

My own journey led me to all these amazing composers but more than that it gave me the freedom to choose. It gave me this most precious gift. I’ve listened to hundreds of composers over the past two years and nstead of this blind sheep following the industry I got the freedom to pick and choose. Instead of dismissing all classical music as boring, I got to explore the whole range of it and decide for myself what is worth keeping in my own personal library.  I got the chance to really look at it all, I’ve revisited many of the ‘great masters’ I was indoctrinated with growing up and you know what – some of it holds up for me. I decided a lot of the current canon I really don’t like and I decided there were some pieces, some composers I really do like, music that after 20 years or more still brings me joy.

I still adore Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker, I saw it when I was 10, I was mesmerised then and I still love the music. I love Borodin’s Polovstian Dances, Debussy’s The Girl With The Flaxen Hair and many of his other pieces (not Clair de Lune) I like Felix Mendelssohn’s Hebrides Overture, Prokofiev’s Lieutenant Kije, Jupiter from Holst’s The Planets is always pretty cool.

That being said I’m not sure any of them crack my top 10, even top 20 classical composers.

My favourite classical composer is undoubtedly Florence Price (as all my friends know). Other favourites include Adolphus Hailstork, Chen Yi, Teresa Procaccini, Valerie Coleman, Michiru Oshima, Clara Schumann is the boss.

I don’t really like opera, I don’t really like art songs from all I’ve heard so far. With a few exceptions – I love La Esmeralda by Louise Bertin and the 5 minutes of the opera Frederick Douglass, by Dorothy Rudd Moore, that have been recorded are simply breathtaking.  I don’t really like classical music pre 1800, again there are a few exceptions (Marianna Martines!!!!! And Hildegard von Bingen!!!!. I don’t really like string quartets and generally don’t like the violin unless it’s folk violin. Again there are numerous exceptions to everything.

Clarinet is my favourite instrument, I adore wind music in general, most wind and brass instruments, particularly the lower stuff – bassoon, bari sax, trombone, that’s my jam. Love wind bands.

This is all my subjective musical taste. It’s taken me a long time to come to terms with it and accept it but I have.  I love the music I listen to and it gives me such pleasure.

Then there is everything else I love. This morning I was listening to 1930’s swing, 80’s Japanese city pop, Beyonce, Balkan folk, 2010’s bubblegum pop queen Carly Rae Jepsen, Ghanaian highlife and the musical Rent.

I’m not embarrassed. I’m not ashamed of my taste in music. None of the above are guilty pleasures. Why should I feel guilty listening to music that makes me feel so much?

Like I said I gave myself the most invaluable gift when I started doing The Daffodil Perspective, the gift to choose. I want everyone to be able to have this experience. To have the freedom to explore EVERYTHING that classical music is, pick what they like, experience what they like and leave the rest to others. No toxic shame, no guilt trips, no archaic hierarchy, no snobbery, no sexism or racism or white supremacy, just great music that speaks to us.

I’ve been fighting for 2 years and I will continue fighting for classical music. I will fight for my classical music. I won’t fight for the mainstream industry version. I won’t fight for a narrow, boring art form from centuries past.

I will fight for a music that’s alive, that’s rich and exciting, enthralling in its diversity and variety, I will fight for an art form that isn’t superior, that gives people a choice, that’s not a ridiculous hierarchy of snobbery and bigotry, an art form that makes space for EVERYONE to belong.

Elizabeth de Brito

Creator and producer of The Daffodil Perspective

The Daffodil Perspective is released every two weeks on Mixcloud, free to stream for 14 days. Listen to the latest show here.

This article, as with all the work on The Daffodil Perspective is completely voluntary. If you enjoyed this article and the site please consider donating something to help my work continue.

2 thoughts on “Why do I have to like Mozart? The harmful objectivity culture in classical music

  • October 26, 2020 at 2:35 am
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    It is amazing just how subjective we all are when it comes to listening to music. It is also amazing how narrow the world of “classical music” used to be, and what a wonderful time, in some ways, we are having musically because all of a sudden the options of what we can listen to through our various devices has expanded exponentially.

    Let me put my experience into perspective: when I was growing up and when I was studying at Juilliard I never heard a single piece of orchestral music written by a woman. I knew about Lili Boulanger, and I knew about Amy Beach, but didn’t hear their music until I was in my later 20s. I became obsessed with Boulanger and her sister Nadia’s cello music through a recording. Then I discovered Pauline Viardot (who was my “Florence Price,” a composer I learned about in the 1980s, but wouldn’t be able to hear her music for decades) and Clara Schumann. Then came Fanny Mendelssohn. After a while I started seeking out music for violin and piano and for viola and piano, and played a concert every year of music written by the composers my pianist partner and I discovered. We have played these concerts for nearly 20 years, and have discovered dozens and dozens of extraordinary composers like Amanda Maier, Germaine Tailleferre, Henriette Bosmans, Ethel Smyth, and Marion Bauer. I am pleased to say that I gave the very first performance of Price’s “Adoration” in its now-familiar violin and piano arrangement (because I made the arrangement that is widely played today).

    When I started writing music seriously in the very late 1900s, I would have been thought of as a “woman composer,” and, as such, was not taken as seriously as I would have been taken if I were man. I am proud to say that now, a mere twenty years into the 21st century, I belive that I am finally thought of as simply “the composer” for people who play the music I write. It is a relief and a pleasure.

    I have to say that I still love Bach (I play his music every day), and I love Haydn almost to the point of distraction. I admire Mozart more and more, and always find new things to admire in Beethoven’s string quartets (particularly when they are performed really well). I also love Schubert, and get inspiration from both Schumanns. Musical abillity has no gender. Musical expression is deeply human, and therefore flows through all of us. We love music (as listeners, as writers, and as players) with a part of ourselves that defies time and place, and like our capacity for love, our capacity for music is boundless.

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  • October 26, 2020 at 9:01 pm
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    Thank you for ranting. I agree with about 60% of your opinions (including Mozart) and find it very refreshing to read someone who is unembarrassed to be opinionated!

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