Classical music matters even more today

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JS Bach cartoonThe official launch of the new Classical FM 102.9 radio station in Collingwood this past weekend reminded me of my own past history with classical music, but also why it matters so much to have classical music in our lives. And why we need to keep that cultural lifeline to our musical past alive and active.

Classical music binds us to our past, to our civilization and our culture. Music reflects the styles and tastes of the era in which it was composed, as do art and literature. And while some people may think it stuffy, much of it was actually the pop music of its day.

I was brought up in the 1950s and early 60s listening to light classical fare at home, but without any specific interest or focus on musical style. My parents liked the music, but I can’t recall any particular era or style they liked more than any other. They listened to a smorgasbord of what we’d call “easy listening” music and it was hard for a young boy to distinguish between a piece by Mantovani, Mitch Miller or a classical quartet.

(I, of course, was plugged into my crystal radio at night listening to rock and roll music, and later on my two-transistor portable radio… my parents’ music seemed old-fashioned compared to Dion, Elvis and the Beatles.)

We didn’t discuss classical music at home: it just was there, part of the aural landscape. We had a few of those “popular hits of classical music” albums on vinyl for the 33 rpm stereo player, and a collection of pieces on 78 rpm on old record player (I think it had been my grandparents’). The latter was in the basement where I would sit and play the music for hours, running through the 78s while I read books and comic books.

We had a lot of operetta, too, in the 78s, mostly Gilbert & Sullivan. I learned some of it by osmosis. I can still sing the words of some of the songs I heard then, too. My father used to sing many of the songs in the car when we drove to the cottage or to visit my grandparents. When I was a a lad, I served a term…. still makes me smile.

But I never really appreciated classical music per se until many years later. In the late 1960s, my then-girlfriend and her friends at university were all cultural snobs; at least they seemed that way to a hippie-ish youth playing guitar pop-blues-rock-folk music. But they taught me to like – and soon love – a wide range of classical composers and pieces.

I learned from them; I learned to like the music because that’s what my girlfriend liked. It’s amazing and amusing what love does for a young man.

My first passion in classical music – following their interests – was for J.S. Bach and his Baroque contemporaries. I read the book Gödel, Escher, Bach by Douglas Hofstadter in the late 70s and learned to appreciate the mathematical power and complexity behind Bach, but before then I learned to like just the music itself, without intellectualizing it.

My tastes back then were formed mostly by what was in the record collection of my girlfriend and her friends. Through them I also developed an interest in Scarlatti, Bach’s sons, and other Baroque composers, particularly Vivaldi. I think I can listen to the Four Seasons endlessly, even today, and still find something interesting or new in it.

And I learned about how each piece can be interpreted by the arranger or performer or conductor so that seldom do two performances of the same piece sound exactly alike. In fact, sometimes the different interpretations can be surprisingly unalike and entirely change the way you hear a piece.

Bach matters to us today, as John van Rhein wrote in the Chicago Tribune,

…because his music gives us a pristine world of beauty and symmetry we can only look to longingly amid the messiness of everyday existence. Bach speaks profoundly to our emotions even at his most intellectual.

I think for me the most profound change in my attitude when I came to feel the music, not just listen to it. When I let its emotional core wash over me and sweep me away, and affect my moods. When strains of music could make me happy, sad or pensive.

In the New York Times, Anthony Tommasini wrote about the resurgence of popularity of classical music and why it matters to us today:

Classical music invites listeners to focus, to take in, to follow what is almost a narrative that unfolds over a relatively long period of time. Length itself is one of the genre’s defining elements. I do not contend that classical music is weightier than other types of music. Mahler’s “Resurrection” Symphony is no more profound than “Eleanor Rigby.” But it’s a whole lot longer.

It’s interesting he should pick Eleanor Rigby – one of the most musically complex pieces by the Beatles, infused with classical music elements and instrumentation. A very profound piece, for pop music in general. The same comparison cannot be made with any song on today’s Billboard chart. No one would every call a hit by, say, Rhianna or Justin Timberlake “profound” unless speaking sarcastically. (Other adjectives might apply, however: repetitive, shallow, derivative…)**

Over the years, my tastes broadened and I started to listen to everything broadly described as “classical,” from Gregorian chant to John Cage. I found comfort and passion in Grieg, Smetana, Tchaikovsky, and Barber. I learned to appreciate Shostakovitch and Stravinsky as much as Elgar and Vaughn Williams. I wasn’t trained or educated to it in any way, I just learned to appreciate the music through listening.

As Tommasini also notes, classical music helped defined us both culturally and individually, historically. It continues to do so:

To Professor Kramer, as he recently told The New York Times, classical music by definition “is addressed to someone who has a certain independence of mind.” It “almost posits for its audience a certain degree of Western identity, which includes that sense of individual capacity to think, to sense, to imagine.”

[youtube=https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GD3VsesSBsw]

Somewhere along the road, I learned to like opera. I don’t remember exactly when that personal epiphany occurred, but I recall driving home from work in the mid-80s with Madame Butterfly blaring from my car speakers as loudly as any of today’s teens play their rap. Nessum Dorma moved me deeply. It still does. O Fortuna can raise goosebumps on my arms. The coronation scene in Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov still thrills me (having a bass as the lead singer in an opera is simply amazing…).*

[youtube=https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=70RIWenSlns]

And Un bel di vedremo, from Madame Butterfly can reduce me to tears. Anyone not moved by this piece has, I believe, no heart, no soul.

[youtube=https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Uut6X4E-Kgk]

I remember a few years ago having a conversation with a young woman in my store who complained that the background music I had playing wasn’t in English. She didn’t like it because she didn’t understand the words. I countered by saying that music is not about words, but about emotion, and she should listen to it with her heart, not just her ears. Feel the beat, feel the rhythm, feel the energy and the passion. Listen outside your own narrow cultural background. She didn’t get it. When I played opera, even the piece above, she winced.

Classical music suffered dwindling popularity in the face of new genres of exciting, energetic pop music that arose in the early 20th century. Music that appealed to dance, to drinking, to new intellectual and sociail freedoms. Music that was short, often structurally simple, and fun; something you could hear on a radio between advertisements, and go out whistling the tune. Stuff you could learn to play, too, that didn’t require years of formal, classical training.

Yet classical music matters as much today as classical literature, art and sculpture does. A symphony is as important to us as a great novel, poem or painting. And music has greater longevity in our personal lives. We may listen to a piece of classical music many times, while we may only ever read a novel by Austen or Dickens once. We may listen to the entire suite of Beethoven symphonies but barely get through half of Ulysses or Don Quixote. And each interpretation, each performance of a piece may make us hear it anew, while each viewing of a painting might not inspire us to further insight.

It’s hard today to imagine the excitement and tension classical music once generated barely 100 years ago. As Leo Weekly describes it, “…the electricity coursing through the musical world in 1906 in anticipation of the premiere of Richard Strauss’s opera “Salome.”

Word had gotten out that Strauss had created something beyond the pale — an ultra-dissonant Biblical spectacle, based on a play by a British degenerate whose name was not mentioned in polite company; a work so frightful in its depiction of adolescent lust that imperial censors had banned it from the Court Opera in Vienna.

But it seems that, increasingly of late, pop music doesn’t always suit the moods or interests of a greying populace that wants a little more peace and quiet, more mood, more calm and less bass. The pop music of today especially alienates the older generations who look fondly back to the explosion of creativity and talent in the 1960s and 70s, and hear today’s sounds as merely derivative, repetitive pap.

So where do you turn to for more fulfilling sounds? Classical music. And now we have a local classical music station to cater to that demographic and those tastes. It’s still contemporary music, still living, vital music and will be as long as arrangers and performers continue to interpret the score and realize their visions for new audiences.

I am happy to be able to set my car radio and alarm clock to this station, and to have it available for those times I want the gentle ministrations of music without the distraction of pop words and beat.

~~~~~

Between that time when I was first introduced to classical music by aficionados and when I opened up to opera, my horizon of musical appreciation extended beyond the boundaries of Western culture to embrace Chinese, Japanese and Indian classical forms. Which I like to listen to from time to time even now, but admit to not fully understanding. I did study the sitar, briefly, in the 70s, but on my own, without the benefit of a proper teacher.

** Don’t get me wrong: I like and listen to a lot of pop music, and I play it, too. There’s a lot of talent out there, and many great musicians. But what passes as the top-40 list is usually not where the talent lies; it’s where the marketing is focused. And besides, for all it’s fun to listen to, there isn’t a lot of high culture in pop music, like there is in classical.

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