Every group has its snobs. Each group forgets that it has its prejudices. Gladly, we can learn from our mistakes, and in this particular failing, we can sometimes receive a simple reminder and not a bump on the head.
We were a group of young musicians that year, long ago. We’d been playing or singing with varying degrees of instruction and diligence for little more than a decade. We knew and loved the great pieces of classical music. We thought we knew them, more accurately.
The Chicago Symphony was coming to Austin, and we were most eager to hear them. In Texas, the opportunity to hear fine groups, when we were young, came rarely. Not to slight local groups, or indeed the ones we ourselves played in, but we knew that we were in for a treat. Chicago. Perhaps the best symphony in the world.
We sat down and opened our programs. In a word, we were disappointed. Here we had the best symphony, and the featured piece was Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Our eyebrows raised, our foreheads furrowed, our hopes fell. It’s a great one, to be sure. We’d all played it or, for the singers, heard it. We had laughed at PDQ Bach’s version (One of the narrators here is Gifford Nielsen, a member of my church and a famous quarterback who once was asked to speak when I was scheduled. Imagine. He was gracious about it, as was I. 1981, San Angelo, Texas. Another story, as we say.)
It wasn’t that we were thinking it was trite, exactly. Perhaps we were hoping for the emotional roller coaster of Shostakovich, the warm and subtle harmonies of Brahms, the mysterious drama of Mahler, or the wit and energy of Hindemith. Bruckner even, who still confused us a bit. Beethoven, we thought, could be played by anyone, well enough.
And then we heard the first notes. Familiar, yes. Expected, no. The director and the performers knew something about this piece that we did not. Call it talent or experience, depth or height or width. It didn’t matter to us any longer. The Chicago Symphony gave a performance of such clarity and beauty, apparent even to some foolish young musicians, that we could scarcely breathe. (You can watch Sir George Solti and the Chicago here, years later, of course.)
Obvious lesson: Don’t be snobby. Listen (or look or read) with an open mind. Perhaps the inclination fades with age, but that is certainly not a given. A friend told me of an incident in which a couple he was with looked at a room full of people at a fine restaurant and declared that no one was there. Two hundred perfectly nice people but none who were anybodies.
The second lesson is less obvious but more important: The ease of the way has little to do with the importance of the destination. As familiar as the Fifth might be, and as little difficulty as it demands of the player, its message transcends its ease. We must never take for granted that anything—events, decisions, works of art, advice, principles—is not useful or wise or excellent simply because it is accessible or obvious or easy. And that, my friends, is one way beauty can be truth.