What makes ‘neoclassical’ music so popular? Do lovers of kind-meditative piano sounds have no patience for complicated or confrontational passages? Do they regard listening to music not as an adventure but as a refuge?
Joep Beving is a good example of a musician who practices the neoclassical style. After the Dutch pianist gave up his classical music training, he ended up in the advertising business where he suffered a mental breakdown. In an attempt to clamber out of the valley, he rediscovered his instrument. Beving composed simple meditative works and managed to rebalance himself while playing. The pianist decided to put some successful tunes online and touched sensitive strings. Millions of people listen to his comforting, healing compositions, often written in calm three-four time. Thanks to his authentic creaking piano, it is as if Joep Beving is playing in your own living room.
Classical musicians who did complete their training noticed to their dismay that Deutsche Grammophon contracted the Amsterdam pianist without any hesitation. For decades, the German record company had been a home of solid classical music that fans could blindly trust. Anyway, Beving’s albums substantially lowered the average age of classical music buyers. Where Beving takes his seat behind the keys, people listen with devout attention. The sacred silence is interrupted only by someone blowing their nose because emotions have run too high.
Beving is not the inventor of this style. Ludovico Einaudi (b. 1955) developed an allergy to the avant-garde music of Stockhausen, Berio and Boulez during his conservatory studies. ‘Why should I make music that grates and chafes?’, the Italian pianist and composer wondered before indulging in the other extreme: accessible, smoothly played pieces that no one takes offense to. Einaudi complements his compositions with video clips he shoots in faraway, photogenic places. His followers also prefer to be filmed in evocative desolate landscapes, with Iceland seeming to be a favorite.
It is no coincidence that neoclassical music is often heard in films. Film music should appeal to a diverse audience, should not distract attention from the story and, above all, should be functional. Film composers who have broken through on their own include Yann Tiersen (Amélie, 2001), Volker Bertelmann (stage name Hauschka, Im Westen nichts Neues, 2022) and Nils Frahm (Victoria, 2015).
Listening to neoclassical music seems to be a means rather than a purpose for most people. A Spotify playlist filled with ear-caressing piano music at a calm pace helps (some) college students focus on their studies. These compositions usually have a verse-chorus structure common in pop music, so the transition from one genre to another is smooth for these youngsters.
Neoclassical music certainly has common ground with yoga as well. Yoga teacher Marcel Bot explains its workings: ‘The movements help you unwind, without being distracted by your thoughts.’ Similarly, neoclassical music can help you experience silence. Real silence feels awkward for many people. The impressions you get during the day stay in your head and distract you from the peace you hope to find.
Searching for inner peace is also possible in groups. During ‘recumbent concerts’, visitors can enjoy soothing music in harmonically broken chords from their yoga mats. Chances are greater that you will fall asleep during such a concert than that the music will really touch you.
The problem with Leonardo Einaudi’s music is that form and content differ too much. Commissioned by environmental organization Greenpeace, he wrote Elegy For The Arctic (2016), a piece of music as a warning about the effects of global warming. To make the music video, the pianist traveled to the Arctic Ocean where he floated around, grand piano and all, on a recreated floe among worryingly crumbling icebergs. The friendly music Einaudi performs from his ‘melting ice floe’, however, assumes no reason to panic. It is as if climate activists in the movie How to Blow Up a Pipeline don’t blow up the much-hated oil pipeline, but cover it with syrup and decorate it with colorful flowers.
Something similar happens when watching and listening to Einaudi’s recently released clip ‘Broken Wings’, an indictment of the disappearance of many bird species. The visuals are terrible, the music sounds unchanged reassuring.
Not all neoclassical music is as shallow as Einaudi’s. Max Richter regularly lets social commitment shine through in his work. With spoken texts, he keeps his listeners on their toes. Hania Rani enriches her music with influences from jazz and world music. Hauschka fills his piano with metal objects and adds carefully selected outside sounds that hold the listener’s attention. Nils Frahm provides his compositions with a sharp edge using electronic sounds. Remy van Kesteren and Lavinia Meijer ask ‘existential questions’ with their gentle harp music, and Matteo Myderwyk expresses both the Dutch countryside and his church background in piano and organ compositions.
Music educators eagerly hitch a ride on the success of neoclassical music. Nothing soothes like playing repetitive musical patterns yourself. Students are lured with texts like: ‘Anyone can learn to play neoclassical music.’ Both Einaudi’s music books and digital neoclassical sheet music are selling like hotcakes.
No matter how eloquent, after half an hour of neoclassical music, I yearned for stacked chords, rousing polyrhythms, desperately blowing brass sections and the musical articulation of human inability to reach others, injustice in the world, impossible love, inner conflicts, passion for life and a glimpse of heaven.