Saturday, July 30, 2005


Whenever the topic of music comes around, people almost invariably ask what I listen to; and when I say "classical" they invariably look at me and wonder out loud, "why?" To which I almost invariably respond, "why not?"

My conversion from pop culture (an oxymoron if ever there were one) to classical took place in the late 1970s. For those of you who are too young to remember the 70s or who were too stoned to remember them, this was the age of disco when all the tunes began to sound alike, when the beat was the same in almost every similar tune, and when sane people began to ask themselves: "Do we really want to be doing "The Hustle" when we're in our thirties and forties?"

In my case the answer was a resounding "NO!" I had already been familiarized with a certain amount of classical. First through the obligatory grade school production of "The Nutcracker," and then through the film score of "2002: A SPACE ODYSSEY." Later, in 1977, I would take the official and permanent dive when I both, discovered the orchestra soundtrack to "STAR WARS: A NEW HOPE," and came across a pair of Classical music stations in northern Illinois (WNIU-89.5 FM out of DeKalb/Rockford, and WFMT 98.7 out of Chicago).

I knew my life had changed the first time that I heard the Beethoven "SYMPHONY NUMBER 9 IN D MINOR, 'THE CHORAL' OPUS 125." Initially, I stuck to Beethoven, getting accustomed to the symphonies and concerti and then gradually fanning out to sample the sonatas, chamber works, choral works, FIDELIO, and finally the more obscure masterpieces. Once I seemed to understand what Beethoven was all about, I began to sample other composers. Bach, Brahms, and Chopin were next, followed by Schubert, Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff. I still wasn't into opera, but that changed when a friend introduced me to--of all things--a Sondheim musical, the infamous "SWEENEY TODD, THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET," which, for some odd reason led me into the operas of Mozart (think "DON GIOVANNI" and "THE MAGIC FLUTE," followed in turn by "THE MARRIAGE OF FIGARO," and "LA CLEMENZA DI TITO," etc). Mozart opera led me back into Franz Josef Haydn and Mozart in general: the symphonies, concerti, chamber works, ad infinitum. At the same time my interest in SWEENEY TODD led me (naturally) into Mahler, who put me on a path which led to Richard Strauss, Anton Bruckner, and--of course--Richard Wagner. As you can tell by now, I was gravitating towards the heavy Germans, but then a friend recommended Maurice Ravel and Claude Debussy. All right, it took a few years before I could appreciate French Impressionism in music. But the ironic thing about all of this is that when I finally learned to appreciate Ravel and Debussy, it did not come through the standard, "BOLERO," but through Ravel's ballet "DAPHNIS and CHLOE," the "G MAJOR PIANO CONCERTO," and the "D MAJOR PIANO CONCERTO FOR THE LEFT HAND." These were followed quickly by Debussy's "THREE NOCTURNES" and the haunting "PRELUDE TO THE AFTERNOON OF A FAUN." Of course I had no sooner developed an interest in the French "impressionists" but what I discovered one of Ravel's orchestration pupils, an English composer, named Ralph Vaughn Williams.

To make a long story short, it didn't take long before I wanted to collect the various pieces I had been listening to into a personal collection. Today, my shelves are crammed full of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of volumes which are in desperate need of filing and labeling. And yet, some reason, I still collect. From time to time I ask myself "why?" And the answer keeps going back to the 70s.

At a certain point pop music no longer presented a challenge. Nor was it especially attractive. Maybe it's me, but I tend to be attracted to music which requires a certain degree of patience. Maybe I outgrew the attention deficit disorder that all males go through in their late teens and early twenties. Or, perhaps the music itself had something to do with it.

When I listen to Beethoven--and you might as well know that Beethoven remains my absolute favorite to this very day--I find myself transported to another place and time. Indeed, there are moments when that time and place seems to beyond the natural confines of the natural universe. Classical music, Beethoven in particular, is about something. You can feel the emotional and psychological state of the composer. True, a little in in the way of musical education and some knowledge about the composers' lives didn't hurt, but for the most part the music tends to speak for itself. No, you can't tell that Beethoven was in a deep, nearly suicidal depression when he wrote his jubilant "SYMPHONY NUMBER 2 IN D, OPUS 36," but from the twists and turns that the SECOND takes at nearly every turn you understand that the man and his art were/are a lot more complicated than anything KC and the Sunshine Band might have to offer.

At any rate, my conversion began officially in 1977 and was completed by 1979. At that point I had more or less parted company with pop culture, although I did develop side interests in folk, jazz, and world music, none of which rivaled my affection for the great masters and their creations.

So, if you still need to ask I can only tell you this. Classical never fails to satisfy. It requires participation on the part of the listener. It asks you to become involved, unlike popular culture which does to you and turns you into a passive zombie. Moreover, when listening to Beethoven I get a feeling that each note is meant to follow the last; there is structure, not only in the music but in life, and perhaps in the universe itself.

I suppose that in some ways you might say that's the felling that someone might get from communing with a god.

July 30, 2005


Blogger **** said...

Very good! I've been wanting explain to my peers why listening to classical music is much more fulfilling than anything they could possibly present to me.

When people ask me "why?", I tend to reply wih my own questions: "Usher? 50-cent? Green Day? ...Are you serious, or are you you just messing with me?".

Perhaps from now on I will simply ask "Why not?".

9/30/2005 4:21 PM  

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