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What Classical Music Can Learn From ‘The Queen’s Gambit’


Have you avoided going to the opera or the symphony because you thought it might be too boring? Surely you can think of something more boring than that, such as the game of chess. So now explain why “The Queen’s Gambit,” the Netflix original series about a female chess player, has garnered a record 62 million viewers.

The viral hit about a Kentucky girl who overcomes life in an orphanage, substance abuse, and skepticism about her place in an exclusively male world provides lessons for any creative field that inadvertently telegraphs its cultural insecurity.

The marketing challenge in American classical music is often misstated as a need to get new audience members to come. Almost any concert presenter can put fannies in the seats by obtaining a grant to pepper the audience with public school students who will probably look out at an auditorium otherwise filled with white people their grandparents’ age.

The real challenge is getting new audience members of any age or background to come back. It’s an effort generally defeated by five intervening email messages from the symphony or opera company begging for donations.

But getting people to come back is Netflix’s specialty. The story of Beth Harmon’s triumph over pills, alcohol, and male chess domination hooks you in for seven episodes. Each return visit raises the likelihood that you’ll tell five other people to start streaming the series. It seems likely that at least one of those five will be asking for a chess set and board for Christmas.

Not only that, but “The Queen’s Gambit” features a fascinating juxtaposition of popular and classical music that surreptitiously telegraphs the ephemeral nature of most pop acts. Even the lead character, in a key moment late in the series, subtly declares her latent shift in interest to the classical arts, including serious art music.

This Dynamic Not Exclusive to Chess

It’s not like other forms of the performing arts haven’t needed their own viral fictional treatments. Broadway may have been booming when the pandemic struck in March, but at times back in the 1970s it seemed to be panting for survival as it struggled to regain a connection with what could be considered popular music. For many years thereafter, musical theater at all levels suffered from the reverse sex imbalance of a much greater interest among girls than boys.

Then the semi-silly “High School Musical” film franchise and, more particularly, the well-crafted six-season TV show “Glee” entertainingly attacked these issues head-on. Sneak into the next high school or community theater show audition after the pandemic is over and tell me whether these efforts haven’t caused higher turnout and better balance.

Classical music has tried to gain momentum through certain marketing addictions that they may think of as “viral” but are actually very stale. Every year around late winter and early spring I’m amused by the pile of print brochures from concert presenters around the country that still land in my mailbox. It seems that each upcoming season brochure is carefully designed so that the moment I open it, the first words I see are “Yo-Yo Ma.” I think the guy must have cloned himself five times over to be able to headline every American orchestra’s September gala.

Even the “Three Tenors” sensation of the 1990s had a restricted shelf life in goosing opera attendance. You had Luciano Pavarotti (a phenomenal concert presence but a limited stage actor), Plácido Domingo (now banished by Me Too), and José Carreras (lampooned, however unfairly, in a “Seinfeld” episode as “the other guy” whose name the characters couldn’t come up with). Where’s the American?

Accuracy Down to the Details

By contrast, notice the fresh and unusual faces in “The Queen’s Gambit”—not only Beth Harmon but the crazy-quilt of chess personalities among her men friends. You know that something previously ignored or misrepresented has suddenly gone viral when the insider details are accurately depicted for the first time.

Watch as Beth expertly lifts the opponent’s chess piece she’s capturing with her third and fourth fingers while grabbing her own piece with her thumb and index finger and placing it down on the square in a perfect choreographic “so there!” That’s exactly how many chess professionals do it.

Contrast this to the rampant mistakes in popular portrayals of classical music. Every TV commercial ever aired that shows a symphony orchestra begins with the conductor rapping his baton three times on the stand, which never happens in performance. And all depictions of opera look positively Wagnerian, as if the “Ring Cycle” monopolizes the world’s opera stages.

“The Queen’s Gambit” certainly sets out to portray pop music, at least, in its correct chronology. Beth first learns about rock ‘n roll at a 1965 house party when “You’re the One” by the boy band The Vogues comes on the black-and-white TV, and a schoolmate exclaims, “I love this song, turn it up!” Pop-culture websites have even mislabeled the progression of 1960s pop tunes ranging from the groovy (“Along Comes Mary” by The Association) to the psychedelic (“Venus” by Shocking Blue) as the “soundtrack” of “The Queen’s Gambit.”

Beth Learns the Beauty of Classical Music, Too

In fact, the series soundtrack is the terrific original score, written entirely in a classical vein, by composer Carlos Rafael Rivera. With the exception of one scene where Beth blows her second chance at defeating Russian world champion Vasily Borgov by showing up for the match hung over, the score is entirely in conventional Western musical keys and avoids any pretentious or purely academic postmodern “classical” musical aberrations.

Rivera deliberately does use the most evocative of minor keys to trigger a foreboding mood, often setting them in the special meter of 6/8 that alternates sets of three beats starting with strong and moderate impulses to generate a forward movement that seems both hypnotic and addictive.

Perhaps it’s an inside joke that at one droll moment in the series—quick cuts of Beth rapidly dispensing with her early-round opponents at the 1967 U.S. Chess Championship—she’s accompanied by Mason Williams’s crossover hit “Classical Gas,” a Top 40 radio curiosity of the era. Not long after that, Beth tells a new girlfriend, Cleo, that if she lived in Paris she would indeed “go to plays and concerts,” and she clearly means classical, not rock, music.

There’s a distinct message about introducing classical music to new American audiences in one of Harmon’s personal initiatives—learning Russian in a community college night course. Beth uses her new language facility to study Russian chess monographs and to eavesdrop on Borgov’s chess “seconds” and the accompanying KGB agents in Mexico City and Paris elevators.

Therein lies a clue about reaching American kids with little or no classical music education in their schools. They need to be introduced to the field with the later Russian musical tradition that only truly began in the mid-19th century, not the earlier German one reaching back to Bach.

Drop the Beethoven Complex

Classical music educators naturally have a Beethoven complex and believe music history has to be presented in chronological order. But they should take the hint that Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker” suite from nearly the end of the 19th century is always the most popular “classical” music at this time of year.

Another such story, real or fictional, is out there somewhere ready to go viral in the post-pandemic third decade of the 21st century.

In American culture, the surest way to hook new, younger listeners is right out of 20th-century Russia, with the lush if sometimes cloying music of Rachmaninoff, the spiky percussiveness of Prokofiev’s piano works, or the angular drama of a Shostakovich symphony. The riches of Beethoven are frankly an acquired taste for younger Americans raised on hyperkinetic media images, and can wait until later.

In a sly way, “The Queen’s Gambit” really does point to the American-Russian axis in classical music as much as it does in chess. Harmon has often been analogized to Bobby Fischer, the 1950s and 1960s American chess prodigy whose aggressive playing style was similar.

The far closer real-life analogy, however, is Van Cliburn, the 23-year-old pianist from East Texas who won the first International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow in 1958. Cliburn’s feat stunned the Soviet cultural rulers yet captured the hearts of a delirious Russian public in exactly the same way Harmon does in a figurative 1968 when she finally defeats Borgov.

Even without streaming services or the Internet, the Van Cliburn sensation had a popular impact on the diffusion of classical music that lasted for decades in America. Another such story, real or fictional, is out there somewhere ready to go viral in the post-pandemic third decade of the 21st century. For classical music in America, there is no substitute for finding it.