Classical music = ‘sinister civility’

Writing for The American Scholar, the San Francisco-based critic Theodore Gioia examines the film industry’s habit of linking evil characters and violent actions to classical music – often classics, such as J.S. Bach’s “Air on a G String” and the “Ode to Joy” from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, that aren’t at all ominous in mood.

Gioia asserts that film-makers are stoking a “current cultural psyche” that associates intelligence, sophistication and formality with calculated villainy. “Evil is a byproduct of brainpower. The implication is that aesthetic sophistication and psychopathic violence spring from the same mentality, a decadent hyperintelligence that becomes so cultivated that it savors homicide as a refined pleasure like [b]aroque cello.”

Classical music once had a robust niche in popular culture (the Marx Brothers’ “A Night at the Opera,” the Looney Tunes cartoons, Walt Disney’s “Fantasia”), but since the 1960s has become a “a kind of shorthand for sneering affluence and institutionalized elitism.”

Portraying villains as classical aficionados strikes “a chord of Everyman angst deep in the American subconsciousness: a vein of populist paranoia that suspects the shiny trappings of high society – galas, gowns, orchestras – exist to disguise the brutal source of its wealth. Decorum is an accomplice to depravity. . . . [T]he symphony becomes the sound of that sinister civility,” Gioia writes:


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