Morning Sickness & Mahler

Expression • Fluency • Understanding
Written by Andrew Eales

Why are there some composers that we just don’t really like?

That’s a question that has reappeared in my thinking at regular intervals since I read a blog post on Norman Lebrecht’s site Slipped Disc way back in 2014 entitled 10 Works of Composers you never want to hear again. 

All this time later, the comments section of that post is still receiving periodic additions as more music lovers choose to name and shame the music that particularly irritates them.

A Facebook group for classical music lovers has recently had popular threads asking such questions as:

  • Which is your least favorite, most cringe evoking piece of classical music?
  • Name your three least favorite composers.
  • Which instrument most offends your ears?????

And in all three cases, these have attracted several hundred replies. Some of course protest that it is unthinkable that a proper music lover could lower themselves to answering such questions, as if somehow those who do are traitors to the cause, or maybe just a little bit uncouth. But it’s interesting to note that some world-class performers have been among those quick to share their dislikes!

What we need to remember, though, is that our answers to such questions are entirely subjective. Thankfully most people get this, and make little effort to justify their dislikes in objective terms. It is possible to objectively recognise a composer is great while not subjectively enjoying their music. It is when people forget this that they end up having pointless arguments with strangers online!

Morning Sickness

Way back in the early 1990s I was working for EMI Classics in London, and a nice perk of the job was the regular supply of freebies and samples – useful at a time when we were all transitioning from vinyl to compact disc.

As well as starting my classical collection afresh, I brought home the hits of the day, which included Charles & Eddie’s debut album Duophonic. In case you’re struggling to place Charles & Eddie, here’s a gentle nudge:

1993 was the year our son Jon was born, and through that summer my wife Louise battled with morning sickness, new dress sizes and a bizarre craving for ginger beer, accompanied by the vibes of Charles & Eddie as a regular soundtrack.

Of course the nature of such a record is that one soon moves on to something new, and sure enough, Duophonic was soon languishing on a shelf somewhere, perhaps never to be played again.

Then, a few years later, I grabbed it and, with the words, ”remember this?” shoved it into the CD player. Within moments Louise had an inexplicable urge to vomit.

You might be thinking, ”not surprising really!”, particularly if you’re not a fan of Charles & Eddie’s particular brand of soul, but bear in mind it had formerly been a favourite. The fascinating thing here is that Louise’s was so visceral a reaction, rooted in deep association, and one which has (purely for scientific purposes) been tested and confirmed on a couple more occasions!

We still don’t know exactly how the brain processes music, but one thing we know for sure – music is a language, and like any language it speaks through associations. Just as newborn baby Jon learnt to associate the word “Daddy” with the young chap adoringly smiling at him, so too Louise learnt to associate the music of Charles & Eddie with waves of intense nausea.

& Mahler

So who are my own personal “least favourite three composers”? It’s not an easy question to answer. There are certainly many composers whose music I can live without, but only a few whose music I actually recoil against. There are just two who quickly come to mind…

Firstly, Mahler, and I have no idea why. I am not going to try being objective about something that is clearly subjective. I remember as a child hearing a performance of Mahler’s first symphony, being blown away by it, and rushing out to buy James Levine’s recording on vinyl. I still like that work, in fact. It’s just … everything else he wrote.

Also a definite for the list – Philip Glass. Again, he is hardly an obvious choice. I like several of his contemporaries and associated composers, enjoy the post-minimal music that has become somewhat ubiquitous, and I’ve tried to like Glass too. But I just don’t.

I have absolutely no doubt that both Mahler and Glass have composed music which is artistically outstanding and technically brilliant, and whose legacy has moved many listeners. They have both made a huge contribution to Western Music, simple as. But personally, entirely subjectively, they are not for me.

In neither case can I blame morning sickness. The best explanation I can offer is that there is something about the energy of their music that just doesn’t sit well with me. I don’t like them simply because I don’t like them. And that will have to do!

Most days of the week I will happily add Schoenberg as my third name to the list. Once again, the energy of his music leaves me unsettled. The difference here is that there are days where the light goes on and I completely fall in love with his music. Short-lived, but enriching when they happen!

Taste is not good and bad

It’s easy to dismiss somebody as having “bad taste” if they like music that we don’t, or that we look down upon. But surely there is no such thing – beyond banter, good and bad taste are an artificial construct. There is just taste – without judgment – because the part that music has played in all our lives is entirely different from one listener to the next.

All we have is our personal reaction to the music we hear, very often influenced by external factors that have nothing to do with the quality of the music itself.

So go on: at the risk of joining a bandwagon, who are the composers who you would rather send to a desert island than take with you to one?

Do feel free to share your comments below, but just remember, it’s all highly subjective!

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Published by

Andrew Eales

Andrew Eales is the author of HOW TO PRACTISE MUSIC, published worldwide by Hal Leonard. He is a widely respected piano educator and published composer based on Milton Keynes UK.

12 thoughts on “Morning Sickness & Mahler”

  1. Human being is a very complex mechanism for the perception of information ,processing and reaction to it; and all this is constantly changing. The music I wanted to listen to yesterday, will not fit tomorrow, there are days when I’m listening to Schoenberg, in the other days of Bach, this may change to Thelonious Monk, Berlioz, Pachelbel, Ornette Coleman, Dave Brubeck oriental music … Who can say with authority, why is this so?

  2. I agree with about subjectivity, in a past life, I had to deal with color and it’s subjectivity when selecting it. I finally went to a psychological research approach to save hours of arguing and debating with clients. Like junk food or falling in love, sometimes there is no explaining it. I do not like Berlioz for example…he just does not butter my parsnips…there is just no connecting point…but I love Ornate Coleman, lol…thanks for the post!

  3. Wagner every time. Too rich, overblown, and all those leitmotifs to keep track of….. There are people out there who bossily tell me I “have to” learn the appreciate Wagner; interestingly, many of the same people seem unable to explain to me why they love the German composer’s music so much and what makes it special for them…..

    Because of my active concert-going (c 2 per week), I try to be very open-minded (and open-eared) in my listening and it’s rare for me to actively dislike much these days

    Did I mention Wagner?! 😉

    Did I mention Wagner? 😉

  4. First of all, I love the Charles and Eddie single – at 1.58 one of the best “whooooo’s” since Michael Jackson (actually it was about the same time). Anyway, I probably haven’t tried hard enough but I’d never been able to enjoy the music of Vaughan Williams, Mahler, and Benjamin Britten (had to sing in the “War Requiem” once).

  5. LOL – I loved your post! Being a mom; I know to avoid certain things! Scents; are my kryptonite!

  6. Lol – the bit about morning sickness rings very true here. Several films, tv shows and CDs are now off limits, due to my wife’s associations.

    My least favourite composer has to be Ludovico Einaudi. Every time I hear his supposedly peaceful, relaxing music I find myself wanting to bash someone’s head in. I would very genuinely prefer to watch paint dry than deliberately listen to his stuff.

    Next is the whole Strauss family. All those billions of cheesy, identical waltzes, without a single moment of drama, make me want to claw my ears off. And I’d also bundle Sousa in with them.

    And finally Mozart. I don’t hate Mozart, but I don’t often want to listen to it – except the Requiem. The Requiem is sublime.

  7. I could probably add Wagner to my list, and Walton too (I was once given an album of Belshazzar’s Feast but could never get into it). Richard Strauss, I’ve tried, but for the most part, his music leaves me unmoved. I will, for the most part, defend Philip Glass though. I know operas in Sanskrit are probably a step too far for the average listener (including myself), but Pianoworks and the music from The Hours are both beautiful to my ears.

  8. Thanks for the opportunity for a rant. I can’t say I have a permanent bottom three composers; my prejudices vary from week to week. The most consistent over the years are Berlioz, who does not butte my parsnips, either, (“What a good thing this isn’t music.”, Rossini on the Symphonie Phantastique) – always excepting The Shepherds’ Farewell to the Holy Family, Anton Webern and Edgar Varèse.

    The nearest my wife and I got to divorce was over Béla Bartók, who Siân couldn’t stand. Odd, too, that Tchaikovsky couldn’t stand Brahms (“What a giftless bastard!”, whereas I love both of them.

    May I please put in a plug for Hindemith?
    Eugen Jochum made a spirited, and sometimes ravishingly lyrical, live recording of Symphonic Metamorphosis on Themes by Carl Maria von Weber with the LSO (available on YouTube)
    His ballet suite, Nobilissima Visione (which I fell in love with in 1958) with Klemperer conducting the Kölner RSO is also available.
    By the way, is it true that when conducting, Hindemith sometimes made his players sing their lines?

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