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.

Visitors looks at a painting by 20th century U.S. artist Jackson Pollock.
Did Jackson Pollack's drip paintings speak to you the first time you saw them?

Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty Images.

Last month I wrote a piece for Slate about how our affection for works of art changes over time, with Mozart's The Magic Flute as my personal case in point. For me, that opera started as a clunker and ended as beloved and unsurpassable. My article took a look at how some works of art grow on us, some come to annoy us, and some stay on our list of favorites but evolve over time as we ourselves evolve. In our own hearts and minds, after all, a work of art cannot be deeper or broader than we are. But time tends to add depth and resonance and also discrimination, to us and to what we love.

I asked Slate readers to send in their own experiences along those lines. Here is a sample of some of your often heartfelt stories. I'll add some echoing stories of my own.

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The most direct kinds of experiences readers shared concerned works that first put them off and then settled in. "Jackson Pollock," wrote one reader. "Never had any time for him or abstract expressionism, which I studied a lot of in university. It all seemed so pointless." Then he happened on a biography of Pollock that filled in some of the dimensions behind those writhing surfaces, including "the dimensions of his struggle." That did the trick: "From there it has been a delight." He returned to one Pollock show five times.

That kind of thing happens a lot, especially with work that on the one hand seems too dense or strange, or on the other hand too easy and ingratiating. The latter is a common response to Mozart. In a lovely email, Emily Wright recalls a transformation similar to mine when she saw the Bergman film of the opera:

I thought The Magic Flute was foolish when I was young, and then I saw Bergman's version. The faces [of the audience] during the overture started the process of change. The serpent told me immediately that this was magic, and hokey magic at that. The three little boys in the balloon persuaded me of the sweetness of the magic, and which point I was hooked, and have been ever since.

I once thought Schubert sublime (Jussi Björling), then dismissed him as light (Kathleen Battle) then realized, at a home concert not unlike the ones Schubert had, that the music has been sublime all along.

These changing experiences are indeed indications of changes in us. I have become more patient, open, and respectful of others' efforts as I have grown older. I have also become less patient with unearned wishes and sloppy performances.

Emily's response shows the importance of strong performances in putting a piece across. It's hard for a work in any of the performing arts to transcend a lame interpretation. At the same time, a splendid evening can't make you love something that's not your thing. Years ago I saw the celebrated performance of Alban Berg's opera Lulu live at the Met, with Julia Migenes-Johnson in the title role. I remember thinking at the end, "I've just seen about as fine a performance of this opera as there's ever going to be. Now I can say with confidence that I don't like it nearly as much as Wozzeck" (the latter being Berg's first opera, one of my handful of all-time favorites).

Sometimes the road to loving a composer can be through a different genre than the first one you encounter. Malin Hu writes that in a high-school musical appreciation class, "My teacher raved about Brahms' symphonies—the third one, in particular … I felt compelled to order a recording of those symphonies from Amazon. I listened to them a handful of times, but the works were great inscrutable blocks of sound, incomprehensible to my ear." She relayed this to a pianist friend, who told her to try Brahms' chamber music. That did the trick. "Its intimate nature, in which each line of music is more discrete and easily followed, made his musical language more transparent, approachable. … When I felt ready to give the symphonies another try, I felt that I could "get" them at last. … With Brahms, I never feel that I am being hit over the head with pathos. The darkness and passion are encoded more obliquely into his music, but perhaps that's what makes it all the more powerful."

Robert Kunath reports a path from aversion to obsession with a composer. He was a classical music fan "since the Cleveland Orchestra children's concert that I heard in fifth grade. … By junior high I was listening raptly to Beethoven, Haydn, Handel, Mozart, and, not long after, Brandenburg Concerti and Rameau. But I was impervious to Sibelius." The occasional Sibelius he heard on radio seemed "wan and meandering." Then he read a magazine description of the Fourth Symphony and was struck by some adjectives not usually indicating a fun time: bleak, austere, hermetic. Gotta try that, he said. He bought the Karajan recording of the Sibelius Fourth and Fifth. "I listened that night, puzzled but fascinated. And the next day, and the next, and the next. For a month." Robert reports that "I've got 32 recordings of it now, and I don't know how I lived without those glorious symphonies. But I had to grow up first."

Bleak and austere aren’t often qualities that appeal to youth. Neither is quiet and subtle. I was already into classical music in my teens, but I kind of wished all of it was loud. Even Le Sacre du Printemps lost steam for me when the quiet stuff started. There's an old line that Mozart is too subtle for youth, and there's something to that. I teach at a music school, and a shocking percentage of the students are indifferent to Mozart.

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.

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.