Beethoven, painted in 1804 by Joseph Mahler.

‘A classic is something that everybody wants to have read and nobody wants to read,” quipped American writer Mark Twain about literature.

The keen social critic may have also been talking about what is commonly called classical music and contemporary audiences.

Relegated to the category of things “good for you” but not fun — like going to church, going to bed early, or keeping smart remarks to oneself — it is often given a socially practiced nod of approval before being personally dismissed as stuffy, haughty, dull, and “not for me.”

And a good number of people will say they have already “gotten it” by hearing it in movies, TV commercials, and Warner Brothers cartoons.

A glance at a 2012 National Endowment for the Arts report says that for several years there had been a drop in classical music attendance — as well as other live events. Even an informal survey with many of my associates indicates a lack of interest in attending classical music concerts or even listening to symphonic music — even though the music is more available than ever.

To echo famed American wordsmith Yogi Berra, “Classical music has become so familiar, nobody knows about it.”

Nobody, that is, except the billion-plus people in China, where a company pulled together a reputed $40 million to purchase New Jersey’s pre-eminent classical music institution, Westminster Choir College of Rider University, when Rider’s president and board put it on the market to make some cash.

The premiere of Messiaen’s ‘Quartet for the End of Time’ in 1941.

While that transaction is the subject of ongoing litigation, the Juilliard Music School has seen an opportunity to expand its institution and is investing in China with its new Tiianjin Juilliard School, opening in 2019.

“There’s no question that (China is) putting together the infrastructure for what very much in 50 years could be a very central role for Western art and music in China,” said Juilliard School president Joseph Polisi in an Asia Times interview.

China’s interest in Western music has been something I occasionally ponder. After all, China has a long musical tradition that has endured for centuries. But something happened where many Chinese people became attracted to Western music. And during Mao’s Cultural Revolution — when Western music was denounced as bourgeois and counter-revolutionary — there were Chinese classical music lovers who were actually willing to risk lives and wellbeing to pursue it.

Meanwhile, while there is a supportive yet diminishing older audience for classical music, many younger New Jerseyeans would rather “die” than go to a concert hall or — heaven forbid — the opera. It’s a division reflected in NEA reports showing classical music audience patrons ages 18 to 24 comes to an average of 8.7 percent of the total audience.

So what gives?

I am not sure, but two concerts coming up offer the opportunity to think aloud about Western music – especially since one is featuring one of the most famous of famous symphonies.

If you’re thinking: Da-da-da-daaaa! You’re right. Beethoven’s Fifth will be performed by the Princeton Symphony Orchestra on Saturday, February 2, at 8 p.m., and Sunday, February 3, at 4 p.m., at Princeton University’s Richardson Auditorium.

I asked PSO music director and conductor Rossen Milanov for some personal comments on this piece.

At one point in the paragraph-long reply he says, “It is what a symphony should be.” He then equated the composition that premiered in 1808 with “a journey, one winding through “despair, doubts, hopes, disappointments, dreams, nightmares, visions of victory, and ultimately a triumph.”

He ended by saying: “The journey from darkness to light found in Beethoven’s Fifth is one of its most powerful expressions” — a point that gets lost in commercials designed to grab attention and sell shoes or stomach relief pills.

Although one would not use Milanov’s words while hearing the symphony appear on the car radio during rush hour, the listener would get a sense that something may be going on – but probably not reflect too much on it. After all it’s a familiar artifact of the past. A work that famous for being famous.

But what would a person think if it were new and never heard before? A review of one of the earliest performances provides that experience.

The author is E.T.A. Hoffman whose short story “The Nutcracker” was the source for the one of the world’s best known ballets.

program and premiere of Messiaen’s ‘Quartet for the End of Time’ in 1941.
The program of Messiaen’s ‘Quartet for the End of Time’ in 1941.

“Beethoven’s instrumental music opens to us the realm of the monstrous and immeasurable,” writes Hoffman in the Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung (General Music Newspaper). “Glowing rays shoot through the deep night of this realm, and we sense giant shadows surging to and fro, closing in on us until they destroy us, but not the pain of unending longing in which every desire that has risen quickly in joyful tones sinks and expires.”

As if that wasn’t enough, Hoffman continues with, “Beethoven’s music sets in motion the machinery of awe, of fear, of terror, of pain, and awakens that infinite yearning which is the essence of romanticism. He is therefore a purely romantic composer. Might this not explain why his vocal music is less successful, since it does not permit a mood of vague yearning but can only depict from the realm of the infinite those feelings capable of being described in words?”

It would be easy to think that the reviewer was interpreting the music in an imaginative way to suit himself — and fill his column. But he actually was pretty accurate about what was in the music.

Beethoven admitted pretty much the same idea when in his early 30s he wrote a letter to his brothers about going deaf.

“What a humiliation when someone stood beside me and heard a flute in the distance and I heard nothing, or someone heard a shepherd singing and again I heard nothing. Such incidents brought me to the verge of despair; but little more and I would have put an end to my life; only my art held me back . . . I will seize fate by the throat. It will not crush me entirely!”

And the music would express or carry that message.

But there is something else that puts the symphony at the top of the heap.

In his 2006 program notes for a Philadelphia Orchestra performance of Beethoven’s Fifth, respected musicologist Christopher H. Gibbs writes the “reason for the great fame and popularity of this symphony is that it distills so much of Beethoven’s musical style. One feature is its ‘organicism,’ the fact that all four movements seem to grow from seeds sown in the opening measures. While Beethoven used the distinctive rhythmic figure of three shorts and a long in other works from this time, it clearly helps to unify the entire symphony . . . Beethoven’s innovation is not simply that this brief passage may ‘mean’ something, but that listeners are prompted in the first place to ask themselves what it means.”

The sound and shape are clear enough to tell the listener it is about resolve and spirit.

And that has been historically reflected in the irony that during World War II the beleaguered British claimed a German composer’s affirmative work to reflect their own resolve.

The reason, in part, is the that the beats of the four opening notes reflects the Morse Code taps for the letter “V,” the symbol of victory made famous by Winston Churchill’s raised hand with fingers indicating V.

But the overwhelming reason must be that they gave themselves to the work’s intent “to seize fate by the throat.”

Interestingly the Princeton University Concerts presentation of Olivier Messiaen’s “Quartet for the End of Time” — on Wednesday, February 6, at 6 and 9 p.m. at Richardson Auditorium — also deals with fate and is a direct product of World War II.

As New Yorker magazine music critic Alex Ross notes, “The most ethereally beautiful music of the 20th century was first heard on a brutally cold January night in 1941 at the Stalag VIIIA prisoner-of-war camp in Gorlitz, Germany. The composer was Olivier Messiaen, the work ‘Quartet for the End of Time.’ Messiaen wrote most of it after being captured as a French soldier during the German invasion of 1940. The premiere took place in an unheated space in Barrack 27. A fellow inmate drew up a program in Art Nouveau style, to which an official stamp was affixed: ‘Stalag VIIIA 49 gepruft [approved].’ Sitting in the front row — and shivering along with the prisoners — were the German officers of the camp.”

A writer for the camp’s newsletter reviewed the concert with the following: “It was our good fortune to have witnessed in this camp the first performance of a masterpiece. And what’s strange is that in a prison barracks we felt just the same tumultuous and partisan atmosphere of some premieres: latent as much with passionate acclaim as with angry denunciation. And while there was fervent enthusiasm on some rows, it was impossible not to sense the irritation on others. The last note was followed by a moment of silence, which established the sovereign mastery of the work.”

In one of the most extreme situations of 20th century Europe, the composer was able to get manuscript paper from a guard, befriend fellow camp musicians, obtain a used piano for the performance, and create a transcendent work.

A devout Catholic who said, “I simply want to faithfully illuminate the teachings of the Church,” Messiaen was affected with “synaesthesia,” a condition that blends sense responses. “I realized that I also connected colors to sounds, but intellectually, not with the eyes. In fact, when I hear or read music, I always see color complexes in my mind that go with the sound complexes.”

But more importantly he says, “My faith is the grand drama of my life. I’m a believer, so I sing words of God to those who have not faith. I give bird song to those who dwell in cities and have never heard them, make rhythms for those who know only military marches or jazz, and paint colors for those who see none.”

That the two works mentioned here are extended tonal arrangements that somehow explore and capture the human situation and spirit is something that seems to go missing from public discourse about classical or Western traditional music — with orchestras and marketers attempting to make such music more friendly or a good date night, as in a recent Philadelphia Orchestra campaign.

Meanwhile across the world in China people are embracing classical music as something powerful, serious, and vital.

As reported in the 2012 Wilson Quarterly article about classical music’s popularity in China, “There may be no place in the world where the great works of the Western classical music tradition are so widely admired as in China. Some 36 million Chinese children are studying the piano, six times the number of American children. Government has poured money into majestic new music halls such as the Shanghai Opera House and the National Center for the Performing Arts in Beijing.”

Mentioned in the article is Hao Huang, a professor of music at Scripps College and author of the International Journal of Music Education article “Why Chinese People Play Western Classical Music: Transcultural Roots of Music Philosophy.”

The New Jersey-born pianist equated the Chinese interest in classical music and training to their own ancient traditions and to the idea that formal classical training reflected the Confucian value of self-discipline.

According to Huang, Confucius believed the study of music was “an indispensable way to train the mind” and considered it more important than mathematics and writing.

Thousands of years later, in 2016, another claim about music — traditional Western music to be exact — was made by researchers at the South China Normal University in Guangzhou. It was called “The Difference between Aesthetic Appreciation of Artistic and Popular Music: Evidence from an fMRI Study.”

According to the researchers, the study provided “clear neuronal evidence supporting the view that artistic music is of intelligence, while popular music is of physiology.”

A Pacific Standard article summarizing the study notes that the researchers used a test sample of 18 men between the ages of 18 to 28.

The team then “created very brief musical excerpts (12 to 24 seconds apiece). Half were taken from opera, while the others were from pop songs. While in an MRI machine, each participant listened to five classical excerpts, five pop excerpts, and seven similarly brief clips of ‘meaningless musical notes.’”

The researchers found that different types of music produced different response patterns in the brain’s reward circuitry with “the sub-cortical reward region more sensitive to popular music while the cortical region was more sensitive to artistic music.”

Pacific Standard notes that the cognitive empathy regions were more responsive to artistic music than popular music or meaningless notes.

“This finding makes sense when you consider the actual experience of engaging with a great piece of music, or any other work of art,” notes the article. “‘Empathetic engagement between an audience and artworks is considered a crucial element for artistic appreciation, especially in the music domain,’ the researchers write. A listener must enter into the world of the composition and connect with the emotions the composer is trying to convey.” Just as in the “worlds” created by Beethoven and Messiaen.

The above-mentioned Huang says there is an irony that China’s current enthusiasm may be the future for Western classical music as “living art form” rather than in the West where it has been “marginalized by the contemporary entertainment industry as an esoteric genre for a privileged few.”

There is additional irony that an American university couldn’t see that a serious musical institution could be an asset, that American businesses hadn’t stepped in to protect a cultural asset from being operated by a company in a communist country, and that many of our fellow Americans seem to be turning deaf ears to a power that could just lift us when we come face to face with the most terrifying manifestations of fate.

Beethoven’s 5th Symphony and Brahms Piano Concerto No. 1, Princeton Symphony Orchestra, Richardson Auditorium, Princeton University. Saturday, February 2, 8 p.m., and Sunday, February 3, at 4 p.m.. $10 to $90. www.princetonsymphony.com.

Quartet for the End of Time, Princeton University Concerts, Richardson Auditorium, Princeton University. Wednesday, February 6, 6 and 9 p.m. www.princeton­universityconcerts.org.

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