February 2014 - Posts
Why am I mangling the title of a famous song by Duke Ellington ? I'd like to talk about the importance of context in classical music . As I see it ,it's a major stumbling block to enjoying classical music for many .
When most people think of music ,they think of SONGS . Pop songs . Rock songs etc . What do these songs deal with for the most part ? Love . Possibly politics or some other things . But while vocal music is a very important part of classical , much of it is purely instrumental . Symphonies,concertos , sonatas ,symphonic poems , suites , etc .
So many people are just not accustomed to listening to purely instrumental music . If you take someone and play him or her a recording of a symphony by Beethoven , or a sonata for piano,or a string quartet etc and that person has no background in this kind of music , knows next tonothing about classical ,chances are it will mean nothing to that individual . Possibly ,it might sound interesting , and it might pique his curiosity , but it might also be totally puzzling . Or boring or irrritating .
This person has no context,no frame of reference when it comes to classical music . You might compare it to speaking a language that person does not know at all to him . In order to understand a language and speak it , you need to study it carefully .
Actually , getting familiar with classical music and learning about different genres and forms in it , the history , etc , is nowhere near as difficult as learning ,say , Chinese,Japanese or Russian . But you DO need to leanr SOMETHING about it in order to REALLY gain enjoyment and mental stimulus from it . It wasn't a problem for me as a teenager , since I doscovered it on my own and began devouring every recording , book and and magazine I could get my hands on . I soaked it all up naturally . All the information I could find about it . But I'm not a typical example of how people get interested in classical music .
I read everything I could about composers and their works ,their lives , etc . And I went through rigorous musical training as a music major in college and graduate school . Some people are lucky enough to have had parents who love classical music and who play recordings of it at home and take them to concerts . I didn't come from a very musical family , but somehow ,I discovered classical music when I was about 13 and the rest is history .
What can people do to gain that all important context and frame of reference ? There are plenty of good books explaining classical music for the uninitiated ,and plenty of internet resources . It's all out there for anyone who is willing to give classical music a chance .Now if there were only more peope like this in America . . . .
It's not "politically correct "for lovers of classical music to denigrate Pop music, Rock , or other kinds of non-classical music . To do so,or even to say you prefer classical, is to open yourself up to accusations of being a "snob" and an "elitist ". But it's perfectly acceptable for people to denigrate classical music , to dismiss it as "stuffy, boring and elitist ", irrelevant ,passe , a plaything for the wealthy , a musty old art form consisting almost entirely of dated music from the past , or even racist . Music dominated by "Dead White European Males ".
But these notions are all myths . And unfortunately , these myths have closed the minds of so many people to the possibility of enjoying so much magnificent music written over the centuries . It's a fact - many people dislike classical music not because of the music itself ,but because they've heard these myths repeated over and over .
Of course, there's no law that says you MUST love classical music , nor should there be one . If some people don't like it, that's certainly their right . But they shouldn't dislike it for the wrong reasons ! As the old saying goes , "Don't knock it if you haven't tried it ". And so many people haven't really TRIED it . Classical music is probably the most diverse kind of music in existence in terms of musical styles and genres .
There is music by so many composers of different nationalities, many NOT European , and styles have changed vastly over the centuries . The musicof Stravinsky is vastly different from the music of Beethoven . Beethoven'smusic is vastly different from the music of Claudio Monteverdi who lived in Italy in the late 16th and early 17th centuries . The music of Monteverdi is very different from Palestrina ,also of Italy , who lived a couple of generations before him . And so on .The music of Philip Glass , who is still very much alive , is vastly different from Stravinsky's .
The music of Richard Wagner , a German , is vastly different from the music of Giuseppe Verdi, an Italian born in the same year , 1813 . Orchestral music is very different form opera , and chamber music is very different form both . There's such amazing diversity in what we call classical music . So people should not listen to just one or two pieces of it and decide they don't like the whole shebang . Can you imagine someone who grew up isolated from the world and saw of movie for the first time , and decided he or she didn't like movies ?
So if you're going to listen to some classical music , listen to various types of it ; orchestral , opera , chamber music , art songs etc . Chances are you will like some classical works and not others . It's just the same with movies . We all like some , but not others . However,with classical music , you often need repeated hearings before you know whether you like something or not . You should always be wary of rejecting a work immediately . Give it a chance .
There are also some unfortunate people who don't like classical music because of music appreciation classes they took as children or teenagers in school . If a teacher does not a good job of explaining this kind of music , is a boring , apathetic teacher , etc , the effect can be deadly and close a young person's mind for life . However, too many public schools have long abandoned music appreciation classes altogether , and so many young people get zero exposure to classical music . This has done possibly even more damage to the cause of classical music . It's not the fault of these young people that they get no exposure to it . If you mention the name Ludwig van Beethoven to them you will get blanks states and they will reply "Ludwig van who ?"
There are no easy answers as to how to remedy this unfortunate situation , and how to increase the popularity of classical music . But something MUST be done ,and I'm convinced that it CAN be done . It certainly won't be easy , but it's not impossible .
No, this isn't about the great writer and humorist . It's about the alleged "death" of classical music . Yes, rumors of the death of classical music have been greatly exaggerated , like the death of Mark Twain long ago . Classical music is neither dead nor dying , for all its undemiable problems .
But recently , one Mark Vanhoenacker , writing for slate.com , went so far as to declare classical music dead and buried . (How do you pronounce his name, anyway ?) He trotted out all the usual facts and half-truths ; the audience is aging ; there's a lack of younger people at concerts , numerous orchestras and opera companies ,not only in the U.S. , have gone under or are close to it . It's difficult to sell out performances ; the costs of running opera companies and orchestras are prohibitive ; audiences are predominantly white ; there's a woeful lack of new music which audiences like .
Vanhoenacker also sets up at least one or two straw men ; "fancy clothes " are a problem . He does not state whether the fancy clothes are worn by either audiences or the performers . Audiences don't wear "fancy clothes " for the most part ,and there is no dress code requiring formal attire . Orchestras dress somewhat formally ,but so what ? What's so horrible about a concert where the men are wearing tuxedos or black ties ? How can this make going to concerts a less enjoyable experience ? Would it be nicer if they all wore dungarees and T shirts ?
In addition , the author mentions "incomprehensible program notes " at concerts . This might be a problem in some cases ,where the writer doesn't do a good job explaining the music or the circumstances behind the composition of the works , but the writers, who tend to be professional musicologists , don't generally write as though they were writing scholarly papers for a conference of musicologists or highly technical analyses by music theorists , which are certainly highly technical and esoteric . Personally , I have not heard a great many stories about program notes being incomprehensible .
But classical music , for all the difficulties it faces , is far from "dead " or even being moribund . Wolrdwide , there are still more professional orchestras ,opera companies , chamber ensembles , solo instrumentalists of all instruments , choruses , opera and concert singers than ever before . And there is most definitely an audience for them . The vast majority have not gone under .
There are also more composers than ever before , and by no means all of them are white males . The notion that there is a lack of new music is a myth . Since the year 2,000 , numerous new works have been premiered ; orchestral works, operas , oratorios , etc in a wide variety of compositional styles ranging from rather old -fashioned conservative works designed not to distress audiences to works of mind-boggling complexity which are extremely challenging an daunting listenign experiences .
Many critics and composers say that the repertoire of classical music has become "ossified ", and performing groups tend to repeat the same old familiar masterpieces to the exclusion of new works . This is a half truth . There is a canon of lastingly popular operas, symphonies,concertos etc , and many opera companies and orchestras tend to concentrate on these , but there are many exceptions to this rule . Every year , there is a steady stream of new works by many different composers from all over the world . Of course , most of these works will never achieve a lasting place in the reprtoire , but this is true of the vast majority of works written over the centuries .
Far from being "ossified ", the repertoire of classical music is in constant flux . In addition to the established, beloved masterpieces , there are new works every year ,plus revivals of works which had been long neglected . In addition to live performances , a staggeringly wide variety of classical music is available on CD , and more and more is becoming available on DVD . If you want to hear music beyond the familiar works of Mozart, Bach, Beethoven , Tchaikovsky , Ravel and other famous composers , you can hear music by composers few people but diehard classical music fans have ever heard of . More than you could ever imagine . Lots of interesting music which has been undeservedly neglected .
The internet now enables you to hear the entire range of western classical music ranging from works written over five centuries ago to the latest works by living composers . If you want to see an opera performance but don't wnt to pay for expensive tickets or don't live anywhere near an opera house , you can now see live performances by the Metropolitan opera at your local movie theater for about $ 20 dollars instead of $ 350 for one of the better seats at the Mets home in Lincoln Center . Or you can wait until the DVD comes out .
On youtube, you can hear an amazingly wide variety of classical music for nothing . You can hear recordings and see entire concerts by the world's greatest orchestras ,conductors, pianists and violinists etc . Works by just about ANY ocmposer ,period . You can see complete operas by many different composers complete with English subtitles . Sung by the world's greatest singers, living and dead . You can stream live and recorded performances by the Metropolitan opera on their website .
Is it a feast or a famine for classical music today ? You might say both . But don't ever believe anyone who says that it is either dead or dying .