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Classical villainy

It’s that time of the week when most of Samizdata’s readers and most of its writers like to creep away from their terminals and live a little. Time for another Brian screed with MORE in it.

But how can I reconcile my refined tastes with Samizdata’s preferred subject matter just now of monsters and war and mayhem. I’ve been making no secret lately of my liking for the blog written by The Two Blowhards, and for their sustained determination to talk about “culture” and not just about such things as politicians, Islamofascists and the exact guns and bullets and training manuals being used by the USA’s latest mass murderer. So what can this screed be about?

Well here’s a question that may connect these two camps: Why do so many of the villains of popular entertainment like classical music?

Not all fictional villains love classical music. But if a character in a TV adventure show does love classical music, then the chances are, overwhelmingly, that he’s the bad guy. One need only hear the tinkling of a classically played harpsichord or the smooth sound of a classically played violin to know at once Who Did It. The ultimate movie bad person of recent years, Hannibal Lector, is so fond of classical music that he actually listens to it while committing his murders. When escaping during, I think, The Silence of the Lambs, he simultaneously listened to one of the Glenn Gould recordings of Bach’s Goldberg Variations. (Is there, I wonder, a classically-oriented soundtrack CD of that movie?)

It can’t be, surely, that we classical music fans really are more disposed to villainy. Is there any research about that? If so I’d be amazed if it proved any such connection. (Although Britain’s own multi-murderous Doctor Harold Shipman does look just like the men I meet by the dozen in my favourite second hand classical CD shops, and I would not be at all surprised to learn that he has a fondness for classical music.)

But assuming, as I do, that musical tastes among real-life villains are much as they are among people generally, that provokes the question: why do the public like their villains to listen to posh music? Is it simply that they like their villains posh because they don’t like posh people? Class envy? A sort of popularised sub-Marxism? Partly that, I’m sure.

But I think there is something else going on here, to do with strong emotions – but strong emotions not expressed in the normal way, and with emotions which, however strong, are still kept ruthlessly under control, in the manner of the virtuosi who play classical music. We classical music fans have our feelings, but we keep them at arms length, so to speak, in a peculiar realm of selfish and controllable pleasure that cuts us off from the common run of humanity. Ordinary people, “normal” people, have pleasures which seem less self-consciously narcissistic (“Aren’t I superior for liking this?” – “The normal rules don’t apply to me.”) and are more likely to be collectively shared, and thus to unite them with the shared moral sentiments of the community as a whole. Classical fans have in common with murderers that they lack spontaneous normalness. They suppress their hearts with their brains. Classical music and murder are both “unnatural”.

To me there is nothing heartless or unnatural about classical music. I merely surmise that to many other people it seems heartless and unnatural.

Those damned Nazi concentration camp commandants haven’t helped – murdering Jews by day and listening to, and by all accounts being genuinely moved by, classical music when their horrid day’s work was done. Nazi Germany took classical music more seriously than any other regime in history.

Will there be comments on this? I hope so. And I wonder especially what those Blowhards might say about this. It’s their kind of question.

13 comments to Classical villainy

  • Alan

    As well as having a liking for “posh” music, the really evil villain of film or television must also have a well spoken “posh” English accent. This and the enjoyment of complex ideas encapsulated in a piece of music are clear indicators of “unnatural” behaviour in the minds of a lot of TV and film producers.

  • Philip Chaston

    Before the second world war, descriptions of classical music contained a moral component, and the act of listening to such pieces was viewed as morally uplifting. Classical music enhanced one’s sensibilities and reinforced the traditional link that what is beautiful is also good (probably with a religious stem for the idea).

    As you rightly pointed out, the Holocaust broke the linkage between aesthetics and morality, allowing representations of classical music that inverted their original power.

  • millie woods

    So where does that thesis leave Morse, the anti-villain opera lover. Oh I know, he’s the exception that proves the rule. Also in the land of the stereotypical, to Euro snots that is, American slobs, why are there so many 24 hour classical music stations and a weekly radio programme hosted by pianist Chris O’Reilly of young musicians aged 12 to 18? The answer just hit me – it’s villainy generating enterprise!

  • Dale Amon

    I’d look at it as the Dr. Moriarty Effect. Sir Arthur invented the archetypes of the Super Villain. I’m sure images of Adolf and Nazi High Command members in posh evening dress and sipping champagne whilst string quartets or an Orchestra play, as seen in many war movies also fed into this cultural icon.

    It’s not classical music == villain, it’s just that a villain who loves classical is probably educated, smart and wealthy enough to REALLY muck about with the world and seem more likely to get away with it unless we’re saved by another posh superhero like Mr. Bond.

    I feel quite certain Mr. Bond would prefer a classical background to his dry martini, Aston Martin, black tie and tuxedo and tall dangerous blonde.

  • Alice Bachini

    Classical music lovers “lack spontaneous normalness”?! I am speechless.

  • It’s not the music that’s evil it’s the subsidies.

  • I’m glad I’ve never seen a hollywood villain who’s been a prog-rock fan.

  • I’m rather suprised that you did not consider the obvious:

    Classical music = Dead White Male music = Hollywood liberal loathing.

    Go back to music-listening villans you mention. How many of those are other than white males?

    (Disclaimer: I do admit that most actors in general are still white males, but the villian/classical music population seems to go above and beyond this trend.)

    For example take the movie conversion of ‘The sum of all fears’. They took Clancy’s villian (Arab terrorists) and whitewashed the political implications of the movie by making it a resurgance of white Nazis, complete with little swastika rings and, you guessed it, classical music.

    They converted it from being relevant (indeed prescient, given 9/11) to today’s events to an irrelevant popcorn-muncher.

    In this case, more disturbing than hollywood’s reverse racism is the loss of crucial context. Tom Clancy’s main point was how disturbingly easy it is to build a nuke using tools available to the optical industry. In relation to creating the fission bomb in the book, one character observes: ‘what is a work of genius the first time (the manhatten project) is the work of a tinsmith soon thereafter.’

    I do not exaggerate when I say that the public’s understanding of this key point of nonproliferation may be essential to the survival of millions of Americans. Yet in this censorship in the name of racial harmony, the vital point is lost.

    It is similar in flavor to the knee-jerk ‘anything but terrorism’ approach to media coverage of Richard Reid, The DC sniper, and the 4th July LAX shootings. The people must be protected from things that might cause them to judge Islamofacists, even if their danger must be actively hidden.

    And like all censorship, it merely breeds contempt for the censor and a desire for untainted information.

  • Many thanks for the kind words about 2blowhards. We love you guys too! And we’d like to thank our agent, who made all this possible…

    What a fun topic to muse over. I’m not sure I have anything much to add beyond the reflection that the villain-who-loves-classical-music has become a showbiz stock character.

    And also to wonder: Why do some showbiz-generated character types catch fire with the public, and not others? Showbiz keeps coming up with character types it hopes will work for the public, and (in a very evo-bio, free-market kind of way) the public decides which ones it likes enough to take on as a member of the rep company that plays in the popular consciousness. Once there, the character often develops and grows in ways that are completely disconnected from reality.

    But it’s great fun trying to figure out “what works” (do you Brits use that phrase?) in showbiz. Why does one career take off and another doesn’t? Why does one physical type (or even hairstyle) strike a nerve for a few years? Why does one character get embraced for years while others fall by the wayside?

    Toyota succeeded because it made a better car at a better price and marketed it well. Pretty straightforward. Can success in showbiz (where nothing’s a necessity, and everything has to do with such indefinables as delight and pleasure) ever be explained even halfway directly?

    That said, I wonder if one part of some kind of explanation might involve the love-hate relationship Americans have with adulthood and sophistication. Americans tend to feel they don’t really, or shouldn’t really, have to grow up, or ever develop any sophistication. We left the old country to get away from that kind of stuffiness. We get to be happy and irreverent for a lifetime.

    Yet those damn mature old-world people with their damn educated tastes… It’s kinda sexy. Might they actually be onto something? Nice suits. Nice haircuts. Good, if overrich, food. The sex probably gets pretty kinky…Yet, no way I’m going to let them look down at me and my tastes, no sirree. Fuckin’ snobs.

    That’s a bundle of criss-crossing, charged-up feelings for many Americans. So maybe the classical-music-loving-bad-guy gives us pop-culture-victim, happy-rube Americans a chance to project and thereby enjoy that whole mess.

    But maybe not…

    A complicating factor: I’m told that audiences at the recent Hannibal film cheered when Hannibal made his first appearance onscreen, and rooted for him throughout. So he’s become a kind of classical-music-loving cannibal hero.

    What might this new development mean?

    Best, Michael

  • Dale Amon

    Hmmm…. if someone looks at you hungrily on the subway, make sure your safety is off?

    BTW, I’ve met Bernie Goetz, hero of every subway rider. 🙂

  • Interesting discussion. The Hollywood stereotypes about classical music get under my skin too, but movies and TV commercials are the only exposure to classical music that many people have. Maybe a few people will see through the stereotypes and just appreciate the music.

    I have some more musings on this subject on my blog.

  • “As you rightly pointed out, the Holocaust broke the linkage between aesthetics and morality, allowing representations of classical music that inverted their original power.”

    Coincidentally, on Friday I saw a German documentary of Nazism called “The Architecture of Doom.” The film made a fairly compelling argument that Nazism was different from most political movements in the sense that it was essentially an aesthetic movement (of the most terrible kind). Hitler, an artist and architect, was deeply influenced both by Wagner’s anti-Semitic theories and his music. Their murderous ideology was based upon the notion of trying to “purify” the races, and create a “pure” Aryan race, free from imperfections.

    In some ways, this makes the Nazis seem even more abhorrent. They weren’t just acting for political advantage (as Stalin did), but rather because they genuinely believed they were acting in the best interests of humanity. Their evil was pure and sincerely crouched in the language of aesthetics–they got an aesthetic thrill out of mass-murder.

    This is probably the reason why Lector et al listen to classical music–because it shows that they have a highly developed, cultured sense of aesthetics. This leaves the audience with the impression that the villains find their terrible violence compellingly beautiful, and that’s why they do it. It makes them a whole lot creepier with little extra addition to the story.

    At the same time it helps to connect them with the most human of endeavors–artistic expression. As you say, the love of classical music separates the villain from the viewer, but it also makes them appear more developed, educated and intelligent–the greatest aspects of humanity. If the villains are inhumanly and totally evil, they become easy to laugh at (like the Halloween movies), but they are no longer scary.

    Probably the archetypical example of a classical music-loving villain is Alex from a Clockwork Orange. His love of Beethoven is not just for effect; it’s actually integral to the story. His love of classical music is equated with his love of violence, and the treatment that removes his love of violence also makes him hate the 9th. The treatment removed his humanity, and as a result removed these two loves, almost as a unit. He became a flat automaton. He regained his love of violence and his love of music at the same time he regained his humanity. And he was cured alright.

  • “Why do so many of the villains of popular entertainment like classical music?”

    I think it’s political.
    Kind of like in the urban legend sense…
    Like why it’s always the non-virgin who dies in horror movies.