Relaxing Classical Music?

Relaxing to music picIs this the most “relaxing” piece of classical music? asks Radio Three of Arvo Pärt’s contemplative and spiritual ‘Spiegel im Spiegel’.

Spiegel im Spiegel / Arvo Pärt
“Relaxing” is not a description I’d immediately associate with this piece – it’s far too trite for such a sophisticated work (its sophistication lies in its absolute simplicity and the austere rigour applied to its construction) and the word undermines the power of this music.

Over on ClassicFM, great swathes of its programming and website are devoted to “relaxing classics” and “smooth classics”: “the most relaxing music ever composed” states the station of a list of works including Debussy’s Claire de Lune, Gymnopedie No. 1 by Satie, the slow movement of Rachmaninov’s second piano concerto and Einaudi’s ‘Berlin’. Alex James, formerly of the pop band Blur and one of the station’s presenters, declares “I find all classical music relaxing to be honest“. Does he include the ‘Rite of Spring’ in this, Handel’s ‘Hallelujah’ chorus, ‘Night on a Bare Mountain’, or Mahler’s ‘Resurrection’ symphony? Or maybe he’d prefer to chill out to Penderecki’s ‘Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima’, which opens with shrieking strings, redolent of fingernails being dragged across a blackboard……

Night on a Bare Mountain / Mussorgsky
There are any number of articles and scientific studies out there vaunting the therapeutic benefits of listening to music. Calm, soothing and (usually) slow music has been proven to alleviate stress, lower heart rate and blood pressure, and ease depression. Music can provide a great comfort and a place of retreat or escapism. A whole industry seems to have been built on the premise that classical music is “relaxing” and it continues to prove a great marketing tool for record labels and some radio stations.

But to describe classical music as “relaxing” does a great disservice to so many works in the repertoire, reducing them to musical wallpaper or unobtrusive background noise instead of valuing them for what they really are. It mocks the achievements of Bach, Beethoven, Schubert, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov et al. It suggests that classical music is harmless and benign, and discourages engaged or attentive listening. If we constantly speak of classical music in this way we devalue it, undermine its greatness and its huge variety and promote the idea that it’s all “easy listening” – and if we do that, how do we introduce classical music newbies to composers such as Mahler, Schoenberg, Sibelius, Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Messiaen, Ligeti, Crumb, Ades, Birtwistle……? And assigning classical music the function of “relaxing” background music, to be played while you complete your tax return or cook dinner, is equivalent to describing it as “boring” – which anyone who has given the vast, wonderful repertoire a chance will know just isn’t true.

I don’t believe listening to classical music should be regarded as a passive activity. It was, and is, written by sentient people, people with emotions to share or a message to convey. It is born out of love, death, triumph, tragedy, loss, war, power, joy – feelings we can all connect to even if we cannot know the exact emotions of the composer at the time of writing. It was, and is, intended to fascinate the ear, stimulate the mind and elevate the soul and senses. It should shock, awe, terrify, annihilate, grab you by the throat, leave you breathless and have you listening on the edge of your seat. Active, engaged listening puts us in touch with the visceral qualities of music.

Music serves many purposes and we each listen and respond subjectively and intensely personally to what we hear. It can be transporting, taking us to other realms of our imaginations. It can evoke powerful emotions, recall past events or people, provoke a Proustian rush of memories. It can excite, amuse, tease. It can be deeply unsettling or ethereally serene. It can reduce us to tears or fill us with joy – and those of us who work in and with classical music should be trumpeting what’s so vital in this music, inspiring others to explore the repertoire and discover its transformational power.

Vespers / Rachmaninov

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