There's a scene in the movie Big Eyes where someone is nearly stabbed with a salad fork. It's a striking — even shocking — scene, and not the least because the surroundings are so very un-stabby. Elegant socialites in bejeweled cocktail dresses are standing around chattering in small groups. Fussy hors d'oeuvres sit on delicate china, waiting to be consumed. Antonio Vivaldi's "Spring" is playing in the background.
This scene reminded me of another scene in another movie, specifically the German art gallery scene from The Avengers. The tone is somewhat different — and the stakes somewhat higher — but once again a gathering of swanky people in fancy clothes turns abruptly into a scene of violence. This time, the accompaniment is a string quartet.
I can think of any number of scenes like this. Not scenes where upper-crust socializing is interrupted by unexpected violence, but scenes where classical music is used to imply classiness and sophistication. Put on a little Mozart, and we're swept away into a world of refinement, elegance, and charm. To be sure, it's overwhelmingly a world of surfaces — we're in the land of tittering laughter at an art gala, not raw confessions wrenched out in a private room — but there can be no doubt that it's a classy affair. (I'm primarily talking about diegetic uses here — times when the music is actually happening in the world of the story, instead of extra-diegetic uses where it's just happening in the soundtrack. Most movie scores would arguably fall under the classical umbrella, but you're usually not supposed to notice them consciously; here I'm dealing with moments where you're supposed to consciously notice the classical music as such.)
The flip side is that this is a very small emotional box to live in. It's polite laughter, not a bellowing guffaw. You might be melancholy, but there isn't enough room to be devastated. The most confrontational you can get is saying something arch. This is music you appreciate, not music you enjoy.
Fuck that. In other circumstances, I might offer up a spirited defense of this music's profundity, its rapturous songs and wild dances, its manic highs and aching lows. But in the face of all this classiness and refinement, my instinct is to go for the jugular and present the trashy side of classical music.
It would be trivially easy to stuff the rest of this post with examples drawn from opera and ballet, but the trashiness of Aida and its ilk is such a foregone conclusion that that hardly seems fair. We can likewise dispense with pretty much everything Sergei Rachmaninov ever wrote — the man who brought us the Paganini Rhapsody can hardly be said to be dealing in subtlety and refinement. One-hit-wonder-boy Carl Orff doesn't fare much better: the last two sections of Carmina Burana are as gaudy and déclassé as Dame Edna's face furniture.
Even Ludwig van Beethoven, whose late string quartets and piano sonatas spawned an entire discourse about Late Style replete with references to communing with another world, wrote trashy pieces on occasion. To our post-Mahler ears, the finale to his third symphony may not seem over-the-top, but in the context of early Romanticism, it's up there, with a good bit of cheekiness to boot. It isn't only famous pieces, either — Louis Spohr's justifiably forgotten second symphony (written in 1820, a fact you will never need to know) begins with a movement that assures us that even obscure things can exude trashiness.
Nor did trashiness rise and fall with European Romanticism. For all its minimalist credentials, John Adams's Lollapalooza is almost an exercise in contemporary trashiness, which is fitting for a work inspired by "an archetypal American word" to be "not unduly refined" [Wikipedia]. And while the bassoon is, perhaps, more given to buffoonery than trashiness per se, I defy anyone to listen to Carl Maria von Weber's Andante and Hungarian Rondo or the finale of Nino Rota's concerto and describe them as embodying dignified elegance and class.
(I've been focusing on orchestral music, since that repertoire still carries more cachet than anything written for wind band, but with such staples as Alfred Reed's Russian Christmas Music, John Barnes Chance's Incantation and Dance, and Charles Ives's Variations on America, the latter repertoire is rife with low-hanging fruit as well.)
I could go on, but I think I've made my point: Classical music is full of trashy pieces.
Now, just as there's a difference between corn and the corny, none of these pieces are trash. They are glorious, over-the-top, magnificent pieces that I love desperately. (Well, OK, not so much the Spohr* . . . ) The point isn't that classical music encompasses embarrassing pieces that we'd all rather pretend never existed (#Spohr), it's that classical music doesn't have to live in the tiny box of "classy". This isn't only music that you contemplate politely and sigh "Ah yes, delightful!" about when it's over, this is also music that you giggle about while it's happening and whoop for when it's done. You don't have to only "appreciate" this music, you can love it, too. It's not all Serious Business and Art. Some of it's just fun.
It's like the movies. Sure, some films are cinematic masterpieces that soar to great heights and undoubtedly earn the title of High Art. Some of them are also about giant robots punching giant monsters in the face. Sometimes you want the former, sometimes you want the latter, and there's nothing wrong with either.
So to my fellow classical musicians: There's no need to sweep these pieces under the rug, to hide from them in embarrassment or try to foist them off as actually profound. Embrace them, in all their glorious flamboyance, their joy and unbridled enthusiasm. Ours isn't an art form that somehow only traffics in the lofty and refined, and we're not doing anyone any favors by pretending it is.
And to people making movies: Maybe remember these pieces exist sometime? Sure, art gallery openings will probably always deploy tasteful string quartets along with the champagne, but that doesn't have to be the only time you use this music. Instead of using classical music only and exclusively to mark refinement, elegance, and (let's be real) a certain degree of stuffiness, stodginess, and conservatism, consider letting it mark the gaudy, the trashy, the absurd. Sometimes people go to the symphony for Artistic Elevation and to commune with the Tingly Numinous Emanations from Mount Parnassus, but sometimes — perish the thought! — we actually just do it to have a rollicking good time.
*Or the Weber. Can we all just admit that, whatever its historical significance, pretty much all of Weber's music is unremarkably bad? Let's end the charade and move on to better rep.