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Trump Is Wrong if He Thinks Symphonies Are Superior

And where, I’d ask the president, do the nonsymphonic genres of Western music fit in? Thelonious Monk or Stephen Sondheim? Or that 20th-century masterpiece, Frank Loesser’s “Guys and Dolls”?


A concert at the Elbphilharmonie concert hall during the Group of 20 summit in Hamburg, Germany on July 7.

Christian Charisius/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

“Eleanor Rigby,” I’d argue, is just as profound as Mahler’s “Resurrection” Symphony. But the Mahler, scored for large orchestra, chorus and two vocal soloists, is a whole lot longer, lasting more than 80 minutes. You have to have a penchant for hearing large-scale structures unfold over relatively long periods to appreciate classical music, though this can be an acquired skill.

It’s this large-scale quality, the sheer dimension of expression that the master composers strove for, that makes classical music different. This doesn’t mean it’s superior. But the art form is certainly ambitious and demanding. It asks for your time and attention. Even a 20-minute Haydn string quartet requires you to focus in order to grasp the structure, content and character.

Often, by intention, a composer will keep you guessing a little, wondering why a passage in a symphonic work seems so wayward, or where a phrase is leading to. Those who have no patience for this may resist the pull of a long score. But if you are inclined to go with it, the payoff can be exhilarating. That’s the specific quality, I’d argue to Mr. Trump, that makes Beethoven’s Seventh, or Messiaen’s ecstatic, 75-minute “Turangalîla-Symphonie” seem so monumental, not any inherent artistic superiority.

Now, in truth, classical music bears some responsibility for propagating the idea that the art form is the greatest. That perception probably started with Beethoven. The towering composers of earlier eras, even Bach and Handel, thought of themselves as artist-practitioners, creating the works their jobs demanded, even recycling existing pieces when pressed for time. I have to believe that Bach understood what a magnificent work his “St. Matthew Passion” was. From what we know, however, he probably assumed it would serve its purpose and eventually be retired.

But Beethoven more or less started the idea of the composer as colossus: a heroic visionary with a rare link to transcendent realms, creating symphonic works for the ages. That notion of the composer as a godly figure stuck around, at least during the 19th century. Wagner made it worse, overseeing the construction of an opera house in Bayreuth, Germany, that remains essentially a Wagnerian shrine.

That grandiosity transferred to the public consciousness and, eventually, to the president. Placing symphonies and classical music on an artificial pinnacle, as Mr. Trump did, also brought up another sore point: accessibility. If this art form is so superior, it must be prohibitively expensive. Indeed, good seats for the Metropolitan Opera are costly. But what about tickets for “Hamilton” (if you can get them)? Or a Jay-Z concert? As I’ve long maintained, in many urban areas, certainly a city like New York — with all the offerings of colleges and music schools, with all the Peoples’ Symphony programs and other such ventures — there is a plethora of free, or very affordable, high quality classical music events.

After his trip to Warsaw, Mr. Trump attended the Group of 20 summit in Hamburg, where the German host, Chancellor Angela Merkel, corralled world leaders into a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony at the city’s glittering new concert hall, the Elbphilharmonie. My colleague Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim reported that Mr. Trump “lightly bobbed his head along to the boisterous scherzo.”

Did Beethoven’s Ninth, with its “Ode to Joy” choral finale, an affirmation that “all men are brothers,” have an impact on our president? I’d normally put my money on Beethoven. But Mr. Trump has in almost every way been a norm-shattering force.

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