(Buckle up. The first few paragraphs are outrageously tangential, and then we get to the main point.)
I am coming to have a closer relationship with classical music after realizing that it is perhaps the only thing that helps me enjoy or look forward to washing dishes. I don’t have a dishwasher, and I cook a ton (and I’m a messy cook), so there’s lots of washing up to be done in a very small kitchen, but instead of setting a timer for how much time I will devote to the task, I put on a pair of headphones and set to cleaning, not only does time go by faster, but I enjoy it far more and learn something about a new piece of music, if that’s what I’m listening to.
A few family members in the past few days (one of whom being my mother) have mentioned listening to classical music, which made me excited and a bit surprised (although I suspect my mother’s taste in classical music is the kind of “a little Vivaldi in the background never hurt anybody” kind of thing [I paraphrase from Benjamin Zander’s talk here that I’ve shared before
(and use parentheses extensively)], the more ‘easy-listening’ variety of classical music, from the actual Classical era, and not anything too loud).
(Also, I’m so sorry for the tangents and parentheses so early on, but I have decided it is time to coin a new term for the entire genre of what is called ‘classical music’, loosely defined as music played by an orchestra or some combinations of instruments found in an orchestra. Using the capital C for the Classical era to differentiate from classical music as an entire genre does not a distinction make. I am calling for a new term. Not ‘instrumental’ because that sounds too new-agey, not ‘symphonic’ because the scope is not broad enough, as it refers to a specific orchestration, so we’re trading one problem for another. Is there a term for classical music that does not limit the genre by time period, orchestration, or style? Am I asking too much?)
Back to the what I was saying: classical music (lowercase c means the genre as a whole, if it’s even considered a genre; that also seems too limiting) thrills me. It is art and history and emotion
and life and death and tells so much about the composer or the era or the nation or about everything. It is also, needless to say, enjoyable, and I say this in reference to symphonies that I absolutely love. The fourth movement of Haydn’s 88th symphony has to be one of the most joyous, simple pleasures in all of music (especially when you watch Bernstein conduct it with only his face, and I have to say you must see his face. The enjoyment and fulfillment and happiness and pride just oozes from him, and it’s perfect for the music), the richness of Tchaikovsky’s 4th (again with the Vienna Philharmonic), the journey of Mahler’s second (Bernstein again, although my favorite recording of this piece is with Yoel Levi and the ASO; also, can I just mention that he’s conducting one of the largest and longest symphonies in the repertoire without a score? amazing), the popularity and genius of Beethoven’s fifth (Karajan again; does this even need a link?), the sorrow and double entendre in Shostakovich’s fifth (Bernstein again), and I could go on and on. Listening to this music is not just hearing it, it’s getting to know these pieces like you get to know people, and you are: little pieces of the artist, glimpses into the composer’s life or emotions. It never ceases to amaze me.
It is also enjoyable, though, in another way, equally as fascinating, but on a more intellectual level (that sounds arrogant, I know, but it isn’t meant like that, just simply referring to learning, enjoying with the mind if not the heart), and that’s where the above article comes into play. Listening to classical music, especially new pieces in contrast with those you may know and love, is learning with the intent to have another emotional experience with music; it’s essentially a treasure hunt, and that in itself is exciting.
Read the article first, and then I’ll make a few additions below to each of the seven points.
- This, for me, is the desire to understand the whys and hows and whats about things. Part of it is enjoying trivia, and part of it is that I enjoy knowing the big picture. Even with a project (work or otherwise), I like to know the details from beginning to end, because I feel that affects how I will work toward the ultimate goal. In speaking of classical music, this knowledge takes the form of music theory, as mentioned: sonata form, rondo, theme and variation, as well as things like keys and modulations and tonality and the history of music and things that are NOT necessary to listen to classical music, but that enrich the experience exponentially.
- Classical music is classified music (there’s a very good pun there somewhere). As stated, opus numbers, year of composition, era of composition, orchestration, and all of that information also falls into the category of trivia that enrich the enjoyment of and knowledge about a piece. It can be frustrating, though, when pieces fall outside these classifications (unfinished pieces, posthumous publications, pieces without opus number or those of dubious origin, spurious symphonies, etc).
- I kinda touched on this above, but who doesn’t love music? It’s a new experience, and even though I have spent almost literally the past 18 months listening to nothing but classical music (except for when I’m at the gym or hear some pop song like second-hand smoke when I’m shopping), I still remember enjoying sharing music with friends and getting recommendations based on things or musicians they know I already like. It’s fun to discover new music, and even more fun to introduce a little-known or under-appreciated composer or composition to someone; I cannot help but say there’s something almost hipster about it, liking someone before they were ‘cool’ if they ever will be.
- This is a big part of the experience with modern music for me. I was really proud that I came to conquer Scriabin’s music, and the effort makes me appreciate his music even more, to ‘get it’ or understand what he is ‘saying’ was for some reason a goal of mine, and I got it and I love it. As the writer mentioned, having that ‘light bulb’ moment when a piece you had listened to multiple times finally clicks and you get it is extremely satisfying. In another way, it’s to follow (dissect) a piece that you may already enjoy from the beginning, take it apart and find out why it ticks, what makes it work.
- I don’t play video games, but there are some film scores that I love.
- I. Love. Debating. Or just talking shop and comparing opinions. Be it favorite conductors, comparing ‘definitive’ recordings, pianists’ techniques, and discussing with and learning from other people who share the same interest.
- IMSLP is amazing.
Part of the reason classical music is so fascinating is because there is a nearly bottomless depth of composers to read about, pieces to listen to, performers to hear, and things to learn. It gets even more complicated when, for example, you want to decide on your favorite recording of a piece. For a more complicated example, let’s talk about Mahler’s second symphony (quite possibly the best musical experience in the universe). What is there to consider? Well, we’ve already decided on the composer and the piece; what are the variables?
- Conductor- he (greatly) determines the interpretation, tempi, volumes, expression, style, etc.
- Orchestra- each orchestra has its own sound and personality, with focus perhaps on one section (Chicago symphony and its brass, for example)
- Performance hall- acoustics
- Recording company- each recording company has its own methods, equipment, post-production, etc. and these all affect the finished product, obviously
the soloist(s)- Mahler’s second symphony has two vocal soloists, and who they are and how they sing and phrase their lines, as well as the different voice qualities of each make for huge differences in performance style. The same would be true, perhaps to a lesser degree, of a concerto with a piano or violin soloist, their style of performance and the instrument they are performing on.
There’s a chorus here, and again, the makeup of the chorus, how it’s treated as a section, its interaction with the orchestra, etc. are significant considerations
- and in this case, since we have a few other things to consider,
Maybe that’s it. There’s more I’m sure, but not with this example of Mahler’s second. There are sometimes different published versions of a piece, depending on who published or edited it, or (Bruckner was notorious for this) publishing various copies after different changes were made, so sometimes you’ll see different publishing dates, so which version of the symphony being performed must also be considered.
That is to say, all the variables involved make the challenge of analyzing and dissecting a complicated but enjoyable one, and it’s a big part of the process for someone who’s ‘progressed’ to enjoying classical music to that level of detail. It’s not necessary, but it’s so damn satisfying.
Go. Start. Listen and learn.