Slate Readers on How They Learned to Love Mozart, Brahms, Jackson Pollock, and Other Acquired Tastes

Arts, entertainment, and more.
June 1 2012 3:55 PM

Art That Grew On You

Slate readers on Mozart, Brahms, Jackson Pollock, and other tastes that took some acquiring.

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It takes time, sometimes. But now and then the revelation of an artist’s greatness is quick and simple: "After pretty much ignoring chamber music for much of my classical music listening life," writes David Beattie, "I fell in love with it one Sunday afternoon" when he heard Beethoven's String Quartet Op. 132. "I hadn't realized that all the emotional power and pain of a Mahler Symphony could be packed into a string quartet. What was even more powerful was watching the players themselves. I was close enough to see the expressions on their faces, hear their breathing, appreciate the flawless integration of the performance. … It's one thing (and a grand thing) to appreciate the pure music, it's another great thing to see the factory floor, to marvel how it all comes together."

This is a worthwhile point in an era when recorded music is heard so much more often than live: Real music is live music. Recently I heard my first live performance of Steve Reich's haunting and hypnotic Music for Eighteen Musicians. Watching the players leaning over their instruments, the fierce concentration on the faces of the ones who had the hardest stuff, the cues given by the players in this conductorless piece, the performers moving from one instrument to another and sitting down to listen during their rests, and no less the cute singer and the kinetic percussionist—all these elements added dimension to a piece I've loved for decades.

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Sometimes you really have to work at it. Some of my favorite pieces and composers came around because I took time and effort. As a teenager I read that Beethoven's Eroica Symphony was supposed to be great. I happened on a $1 record of it in a rack of random discs at Pruitt's Supermarket in Chattanooga, Tenn. and with great anticipation took it home to listen. In one ear and out the other. So I tried again, and again, and again. Around the 20th time through it started to sound coherent and riveting. (Only later did I realize that it was a cheapo recording in every way. And that the Fifth Symphony would have reached me much faster.)

When I first heard the scrawny tone and cracked notes of Miles Davis, I said it sounded like he was playing on scarred lips. When I first heard Thelonius Monk, I said he sounded like he was playing with his elbows. At first Billie Holiday was too much smoke-filled rooms and romantic despair for me. Those three got on my short list fairly quick, but Duke Ellington was harder. OK, everybody said he was important, but to me the stuff had always sounded scruffy and predictable. Finally, in case I was missing something, I got a pile of Ellington records from school and listened to nothing else for a week. After that I was a fan for good. I'll add once again that familiarity does not always breed fondness. For a graduate-school project I studied the Elliott Carter Double Concerto for two months. I'd known and thought I liked a lot of Carter when I started, but by the end of the study I found I didn't need to hear any more of him.

I'll end with Tiffany Campbell, who reminds us that there's a lot to be said for love at first hearing. It's Mozart again.

I was 9 years old and I heard the 4th act of The Marriage of Figaro," "Contessa perdono," in a record store with my sister in San Diego. I started crying it was so beautiful. My sister looked at me like I had gone insane. … She was there for some English Beat tapes. She bought it grudgingly and I listened to it over and over. … Years later while living abroad during college I made sure I saw The Marriage of Figaro in London and cried like a baby, and traveled to Germany and Austria … so that I could listen to his music.

There's all kinds of love, the easy kind and the hard-won kind, the ones you didn't expect, the ones you resisted, the ones that blindsided you. Readers wrote in about their passions for F. Scott Fitzgerald, for Bach and Bob Dylan, and explained why they find Van Gogh scary. Mostly it was about love. All varieties of love help make life worth living, and in contrast to some varieties, artworks don't criticize your driving or ask for a divorce. I remember a woman who called in to a radio show I was on concerning Brahms. "I'm 90 years old and blind," she said, "But I play the piano and I still have a life in Brahms." Art is just as big or as small as you are, and it loves you exactly as much, and as long, as you love it.

Jan Swafford is a composer and writer. His books include Johannes Brahms: A Biography and Charles Ives: A Life With Music.