Theme and Variations

Thoughts and experiences of exploring classical, jazz, and other art music.

Thursday, August 01, 2013

I Wasn't Raised On Classical Music, Part 1: What It Isn't

I know I haven't blogged in a long while, but I have still been listening to music. A Lot.

I have been a bit active on Facebook, a bit less on Twitter, and I often post links to stories about classical music. I am sure that most, (certainly not all) of you were, like me, not raised on this art form. Through a series of blog postings, I want to encourage those who do not listen or don't like or, most importantly, don't understand classical music, to get from where you are to where you will be happy to be.

 But first I must address the term "classical." Though the true nature of the term has been familiar to me since my first visit to the Harvard Book Store, I didn't really give it much thought until I heard Maestro Robert Greenberg give a semi-rant on the use of the term. In proper terms, "classical" refers to the art and history of the Greco-Roman period (Classical). It also refers to a period of time in music for (with some slight disagreement of exact dates) the compositions written from 1750 (the year J.S. Bach died) to 1827 (the year Beethoven died). This is called the Classical period (capital C). There is even a scientific field called "classical physics" which refers to the science prior to the quantum and relativity revolutions. Mr. Greenberg (his name is a form of the name of my state, Vermont) has problems with the widely used and general acceptance of the word "classical" to refer to the genre of music we think of when we say classical (lower-case c) music. It is certainly a term that gets a lot mileage, and I understand his objections to the use of it.

He has offered alternatives. As the most prolific and popular professor with The Great Courses his foundational course is entitled How To Listen to and Understand Great Music. Now, I really like that term, "great", because you can make it "Great" and now you have a whole new term which refers to multiple things.

His suggestion is to use the term "concert" music, which I don't think really helps things. Even "Concert" doesn't help, and I think that is because we all think of a concert as a general term for a musical performance, be it Concert, Jazz, Rock, even Hip-hop and Rap.

So, I will stick with the term classical music for the most part, because it is generally more recognized in some fashion by my targeted readers. However, out of respect for Dr. Greenberg, and because it also gives me another modifier to which I can refer without being redundant in the same paragraph, I will occasionally use the term Concert music (or concert music) as well.

Whew. All that text and I haven't even gotten to the point yet. So let's get there, shall we?

When the unitiated hear references to classical music, they usually think of long, complicated works by (and here is another term often used in art circles) Dead Germans. Those that indulge in this genre are upper-class, intellectual types with college degrees and use big words like "Baroque." They are the core audience of public radio, drive European make automobiles (or a Cadillac), and have at least two generations of heirs (a.k.a old people). To see an orchestra performance requires owning and wearing a tuxedo (generally the men) or a designer evening gown (generally the women). The tickets are expensive. There's a protocol to being a member of the audience ("Do I clap yet?") that is arcane as Illuminati rituals. It is boring music, just a bunch of notes that are best reserved for background music in fancy hotel elevators. It is hard to understand, and just one musical work can go on for over an hour (never mind an opera through which you might sit for four hours...more on opera in a future entry).

I'm sure there are more misunderstandings or objections than those, and I'd love to hear them, please leave comments.

 The bad news is most of those characteristics exist in some form in the Concert Music world. However, the good news is they are in no way requirements for understanding and enjoying it. If you are reading this (and thus still with me) and you can hear, you have everything you need to understand and appreciate classical music. Just as in understanding wine (another misunderstood art form, with many of the same characteristics, and enjoyed by the same people) your explorations can be as complicated or as simple as you like. And like most people who drink wine, you may not understand it, but you know what you like. I'm willing to bet you already have some Concert music favorites and don't even realize it; even opera favorites.

Well, if it isn't some rarefied, incomprehensible high art form, what is it? That will be the main subject of Part 2.

 I take on this task because I wasn't raised on Concert music. Those of you who knew me from high school know I was strictly a redneck country and western fan, particularly of Western Swing and Texas Outlaw music (Willie and Waylon). I got pulled into the classical genre by, of all things, movie music. James Horner's music for the Star Trek movies was like traveling through space (which was its job after all), and I hungered for more. It occurred to me that orchestral music - classical music - might hold such treasures.

So I began to listen to the public radio station in Corpus Christi, KEDT. I didn't understand much of what I heard, but once in awhile I did. And then one day I heard a work that took me into outer space.

The piece was entitled Variations on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, written by the English composer Ralph Vaughn Williams. (By the way "Ralph" is pronounced "Rafe", go figure.)  It reminded me of the hours I spent on the roof of the carport on clear, South Texas nights, staring into the heavens until I felt like I was drifting through the stars.

Found one!

 I bought an LP, which also had on it a work for violin and orchestra named The Lark Ascending, also by Vaughn Williams. I loved it! Before long I heard symphonies by Brahms, and orchestral works by Sergei Rachmaninov (hey, didn't Eric Carmen have a song that sounded like that? Two?) that had melodic parts I liked, with some other stuff in between. Of course I heard Bach and Mozart and knew that I was supposed to like them, and they did seem to have some kind of recognizable structure that appealed to my mind, which at that time was filled with exotic mathematics and physics concepts and the workings of electrical circuits (leading to my first degree, in Electrical Engineering). But to be honest, for the most part I didn't understand what I was hearing.

(To be continued in I Wasn't Raised On Classical Music, Part 2: What It Is)

Music In My Head: Largo Al Factotum, from Rossini's opera The Barber of Seville. If you watched Looney Tunes as a kid, you've heard at least some of it. Think Figaro.