The “Sublime-O-Meter”

We thought Mahlergate was yesterday’s news, but two new pieces of commentary just popped up.  One was an op-ed in the New York Times written by an audience member, saying that the cellphone episode was “a defining moment in the career of Mr. Gilbert”–even though it had little to do with Gilbert’s actual music-making.

The other commentary was from‘s Culture Gabfest, a podcast where Slate’s critics sound off on the cultural events of the week.  Since classical music is almost never part of their conversation, it’s instructive to hear what they have to say about it:

…this Mahler symphony which was described, basically, as like, objective fact in the New York Times, as “one of the most sublime, perhaps the most sublime bit of music ever.”  WHAT? Like the idea that, you know…”if it was like a Rodgers and Hammerstein revue, it would have been OK, but because it’s this sublime Mahler moment…”  [laughs]
 I like the factuality of that statement.  “We used the Sublime-O-Meter, and that’s it!  And so it’s the most sublime.  So of course you can’t play the Marimba during it.”

They’re referring to the statement that the ringtone went off “during one of music’s most sublime moments,” in this Times story.

We reply: WHAT? It’s not okay to call a piece of classical music “sublime”?  Doing so somehow denigrates other genres, even when they’re not mentioned?  And note how quickly the actual Times quote is twisted around to mean “this is the most sublime music ever.”

What’s wrong with merely saying that the best classical music is among the best music anywhere?  Pop music lovers often go much further than that, arrogantly pretending that no other music is even relevant.  Take Rolling Stone’s list of “The Greatest Singers of All Time”: all post-1950 American popular singers with a few token Brits.  Not even Édith Piaf, Robert Johnson, or Mahalia Jackson get a nod.

So, apparently classical music lovers are always seen as snobs, even when they’re not, while everyone else gets a pass with their snobbery.

–Amanda and Michael

About thousandfoldecho

Everyone likes classical music. Not everyone knows it yet.
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8 Responses to The “Sublime-O-Meter”

  1. Pingback: Friday Nerdy Music Links: It Was In A Movie and Everything! | Miss Music Nerd!

  2. Merri Heineman says:

    It wouldn’t have been okay in any concert or theater setting, but I think the point was that the ‘marimba’ went off at the end of a symphony. For over an hour, the orchestra has been creating this performance and building toward this final moment. And this egregious thing happens. The Culture Gabfest person is settling for being snarky rather than trying to understand the incident.

    (And I’m another person who came to this blog thanks to the I-Phone Marimba Man)

    • Exactly. Who says that musical theater audiences wouldn’t have been equally outraged if an iPhone alarm kept going off during “You’ll Never Walk Alone”? Our guess is, no one would bat an eye if that were described as “one of the greatest songs of all time.” Maybe classical music has earned the snark (see comment below), but it’s time to get past it.

  3. Sneakeater says:

    People who aren’t fans of classical music are touchy about classical music. We all know this.

    I have a non-classical-music-fan friend who saw the title of Alex Ross’s first book and said, “Oh, so he’s saying that everything that isn’t classical music is noise?!” (Of course, that’s the OPPOSITE of what he was saying.)

    You only have to read Richard Taruskin’s great essay “Music and Mystique” (you can access it through a Google search), however, to see how classical music got itself into this bind. More than a century of idiotic claims that classical music (and its fans) were somehow morally superior to other musics. It’s easy to see why outsiders are touchy.

    Even though it’s ironic, since, as Alex Ross has observed, now classical is the new alternative.

    • Thanks for pointing us back to the excellent Taruskin article. I wonder why it’s so hard for classical music to shed the taint of snobbery. Are we just dealing with the baggage of past snobbery? Or do classical music lovers continue to secretly harbor the conviction that our music is aesthetically superior, even though we know that such sentiments aren’t politically correct? Or, do the rituals of classical music concertgoing inadvertently project a sense of smug snobbery, even if it’s unintended? Or, all of the above?
      Full text of the Taruskin (horribly formatted) at:
      One of our favorite quotes from it is here:

      • Sneakeater says:

        1. I vote for “all of the above”.

        2. If you hit the print button in the terribly-formatted Taruskin page, you get a well-formatted version.

  4. Cap'n says:

    Adapting an old viola joke–Why is classical music so snobby? It saves time.

  5. Cap'n says:

    Adapting an old viola joke–why is classical music so snobby? It saves time!

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