My Love-Hate Affair with Classical Music

I first encountered classical music in summer camp when I was ten. The cabin next to ours had the only record player in camp, and the only record was "Voices of Spring" by Strauss, which they played over and over and over again.

Later that summer, I spent a month by the sea with my parents, in a cottage that had an old Victrola and half a dozen albums. But there, I could play it or not, as I chose. I quickly singled out Prokofieff's "Classical Symphony" and Mendelssohn's "Fingal's Cave Overture" and played them over and over again. Every time I heard "Fingal's Cave", the hairs stood up on the back of my head. I had never before been so excited by music.

That fall, in a New York City public school, I had to attend a twice weekly class called Music Appreciation. The idea was to train us to enjoy classical music. The method was to play the piece through, and then, in subsequent 'quiz' classes, to start an unannounced record and award a point to the first raised hand that correctly identified it--the boys being pitted against the girls. To help us remember the title and composer of each piece, we learned to sing a little jingle to each melody. For example:

This is the symphony / that Schubert wrote and never finished.

'Twas Liszt wrote / Hungarian Rhapsody Number Two!

Finale, finale, Willian Tell / Finale, finale, Willian Tell /Finale, finale, Willian Tell / by Rossi -i ni!

Tchaikovsky wrote this so we could learn today/A-an-dan-te / Ca-an-ta-bil-e.

This is Fifth Symphony / This is Fifth Symphony / Beethoven! / Beethoven!

Morning is breaking / Peer Gynt is waking / Morning from Peer Gynt by Grieg

I think that I shall always like / Traumerei-i written by-y / Robert Schu-u-mann

Spring has come again with all its birds and flowers / Spri-ing So-ong by-y Me-en-de-el-sso-ohm
If you know the music, try singing them for yourself.

There were dozens more, but I'll spare you. It turned out that I didn't need these mnemonics and could identify any piece after the first two notes. At first, I liked some of the selections, but they soon became mere bargaining chips in my bid for social acceptance. Before my coming, the boys had lagged pathetically behind the girls; now, they had a champion. Class after class, I would make a clean sweep, pitching a no-hitter against the girls. I wallowed in my new-found popularity with the other boys and entertained them with improvised lyrics of my own, some of which were rather naughty. Eventually, the girls complained that the boys had an unfair advantage and asked the teacher to declare me a 'girl' on alternate quiz days. I don't remember how the matter was resolved, but at least I was spared the indignity of a sex change.

Such were my introductions to classical music, with diverse results. Sixty five years later, I don't merely dislike "Voices of Spring", I hate it, almost as much as I hate "Happy Birthday to You", which makes me so rigid with revulsion that I can barely blow out the candles.

But "Fingal's Cave" still makes my nape hairs stand up in ecstasy. And it was just the beginning of a long self-guided journey that has led me to a highly eclectic taste in music that is still growing and changing. The shower stall vibrates every morning with my attempts at opera and my car radio, permanently tuned to the local classical station, sometimes plays music that can make my driving a danger to myself and others.

But what of the music appreciation classes? Years later, in graduate school at Caltech, I met a fellow New Yorker. After the usual exchanges of geographic and athletic reminiscences, I discovered that he had been subjected to the same classes in another part of the city. We compared jingles gleefully but then admitted to each other that, though we liked classical music, we did not like any of the pieces from those classes.. This was partly because we couldn't listen to the music without hearing those little jingles in our heads. But it was mostly because we had resented the way they had tried to ram classical music down our unwilling ears. Perhaps that is why I have steadfastly resisted all attempts by others to educate my musical palate. I have been repeatedly told that I must love Bach ("it is music in its purest form") but I just nod politely and slink back to Puccini and Satie.

My love-hate affair with the classics gave me a valuable lesson about life in general. I learned that if you want someone to like something, the only thing you can do is bring them together, once or twice, and then back off. If you try to force them together again and again, or try to play cute games to encourage familiarity and acceptance, you'll probably end up creating dislike. That holds for music and food--and I think also for ethnic and social groups. I suspect that "diversity" cannot be mandated or enforced. It either happens or it doesn't, and the more you try to force it, the more likely you are to breed dislike. And I think that's what may be happening in the Middle East, and in America, right now.

Paul Shlichta is a research scientist and an occasional contributor to American Thinker
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