How much satisfaction?

William F. Buckley
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Posted: May 01, 2002 12:00 AM
The most recent news on classical music in broadcasting is that the market for it continues to dwindle, with the result that even such consecrated enterprises as New York's WNYC, which was recently manumitted from city owership by raising many millions, is severely reducing the ration of daily classical music. Although I was never municipalized, I felt WNYC's pain. The New York broadcasting station I once had a voice in governing (WNCN) went from all-classical to all-rock 20 years ago because revenues had fallen below maintenance level.

What happened was instructive. An avenging angel from Chicago bought it, went classical ... and, a few years later, gave up. It is now all-rock. Commentators on the WNYC event, citing the experience of other classical radio stations, concluded ruefully that the audience wasn't there. Competing formats are edging in, mostly news and talk shows.

An interesting question arises, which I approach at the other end of the pain-pleasure question. Some years ago I was professionally interested in what I thought was a scientific inquiry, namely, can the degree of pain be quantified? Obviously a pinprick hurts less than a severed limb. But is it possible to answer the question: By how much is it more painful?

I ended up on the telephone with an obliging neurologist at the Yale medical school who said that to be sure, tolerance of pain varies from person to person, so that hypothetically painful X done to Martha can hurt Jane at X minus Y, hurt Elsie at X plus Y.

But , he said, there is no way to measure Y. The degree of pain is measured only empirically.

What about pleasure? Does listening to Beethoven's "Eroica" symphony bring a higher degree of pleasure than listening to contemporary rock? The operative conviction of classical music devotees is: Yes. But how does one prove it?

It is not easy. I remember finding myself wordless when an old friend addicted to racing horses asserted that he had as much gratification from seeing a horse race, especially if the finish were narrowly contested, as anyone could possibly get from listening to a great symphony. Uh uh, you can't mean it, I found myself saying helplessly. He pursued his point, telling me that he had aesthetic satisfaction from seeing the horses perform, dramatic satisfaction from viewing the horses straining for the finish line, and intellectual satisfaction from contemplating their pedigrees, the discipline of the trainers and the strategies of the jockeys. So much for the "Art of the Fugue."

One way to measure the gratification that classical music gives is to observe the pains listeners go to to seek it out. They line up for blocks to hear pianist Martha Argerich -- but so do they to hear Prince. You can argue that the profundity of the pleasure given by Bach exceeds that given by Johnny Mercer -- but, once again, how do you prove it?

Gratification is, to begin with, distinctive to the sense being stroked. Sexual pleasure is had at its own, unique level. So also the pleasure from food and wine, though there is no objective means of calculating the degree of extra pleasure taken from a Petrus '61 over a Merlot '02, or from veal prepared by Freddy Girardet over the veal prepared at the motor inn.

If it could be established that classical music provides a profounder satisfaction than the kind of music that attracts the listening audience (and the advertisers), should it be a civic obligation to instill in schoolchildren an exposure to it? A second question would ask, Does listening to classical music, at ages 9 to 16, in fact stimulate a lifelong appetite for it? Is it possible to get from an 80-year-old on his deathbed a kind of public affirmation of gratitude to the persons or schools that exposed him, as a child, to good music?

If the utilitarian aspect of any practice were discounted, would there still be a case for cultivating it? Asked whether intimacy breeds licentiousness, one seminar student said he didn't know, but that, on the other hand, a lack of intimacy breeds nothing at all. Food sustains life; what is it that good food sustains? Reading makes possible following traffic instructions, but should children be taught reading on the presumption that pleasure is derived from its exercise?

The television people who thought up the "Survivor" program should consider locking up a dozen people for a year with only the classics to listen to, while another dozen get only the rock music one hears on the radio. When they were set free, how would one go about testing satisfactions won by the first group over those of the second?

If the results proved anything heartening, they should be rushed to WNYC, to be broadcast during its talk shows.