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February 2014 - Posts

It Don't Mean A Thing If It Ain't Got That Context .

   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 . . . .



Posted: Feb 25 2014, 10:12 PM by the horn | with no comments
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Why Do So Many People Hate Classical Music ?

   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 . 

Posted: Feb 24 2014, 09:36 PM by the horn | with no comments
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Mark Twain Was Right !

  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 ,  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 .

Posted: Feb 18 2014, 11:02 PM by the horn | with no comments
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