Thursday, March 28, 2013

I'm digging classical music and you're probably not

Over the last year or so, I've gotten heavily into classical music. To the point that it's almost the only music I listen to anymore.

This, you'll readily agree, puts me into a distinct minority. Classical music fans comprise a very small percentage of the general public, which is why your local classical music station has − at any given moment − a total of 17 listeners.

But that's part of the attraction of classical musical to some people, isn't it? The exclusivity. The elitism. The feeling that, "While you barbarians are out downloading Miley Cyrus songs, I'm soaking in the best that Western Civilization has to offer."

I would love to take that same snobbish attitude, but I'm not nearly sophisticated enough. I still cheer loudly when two guys start punching each other in the face at a hockey game. And I regularly scratch myself in ways that are, generally speaking, unacceptable in polite company.

Yet I love me some classical music. Or at least I love the stuff I've been able to absorb so far. I'm very much into the long symphonic works: Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Mendelssohn. Those are my Big Three these days.

But I still have a long way to go to fully appreciate the genre. Opera and I don't really get along much (yet). And the modern composers utterly baffle me (I have Berg's Violin Concerto on CD, and I'm not kidding when I tell you it literally frightens me. Either that man was crazy or I'm just a big wuss. Or both.)

Because that's the thing about classical music that turns a lot of people off, and I get it: It takes effort to understand it. This isn't a three-minute pop song with a catchy, repetitive hook that you can listen to once and memorize. It's dense stuff packed with emotion, with ideas, and with substance. You can listen to it again and again and still not catch everything the composer is trying to convey.

I think that's why I like it. One of my favorite pieces is Tchaikovsky's Symphony #6, also known as the "Pathétique." It's 46 minutes of music that will turn you inside out as it pulls you through the emotional wringer. Nine days after the work premiered in 1893, Tchaikovsky committed suicide. Whatever anguish he was feeling as he wrote the 6th symphony is apparent in the music.

Every time I listen to the Pathétique, it's like I'm hearing something brand new. It's so layered, so full of different elements, that I'm not sure I'll ever grasp the whole thing.

Do you know how I know I've grown up? And that I'm alive? Because I almost cry when I listen to the Pathétique. Really. I tear up in the middle of the first movement every time I hear it. And the fourth movement? The one described as "adagio lamentoso," or "played slowly in a mournful, grieving manner?" Well, if Tchaikovsky didn't know the end of his life was near when he wrote that movement, and if he wasn't trying to convey that feeling to the listener, then it's the biggest coincidence in the history of art.

I love when music (or anything else, for that matter) makes me feel that way. I love that it resonates with me. And I want other people to have the same experience. But there's a cultural bias against classical music that leaves most folks unable to commit the time and effort needed to "get" it. And that's a shame, because you have to believe me when I tell you you're missing something uplifting and even life-changing.

Not that I still don't like a good hockey fight every now and again. It's just that the next time I watch one, I'll be hearing a Wagner soundtrack in my head as one guy breaks another guy's nose. Beautiful.

1 comment:

  1. I took a music history class last semester. It was just some course I took to fill a requirement, but it totally opened my eyes and ears to a whole new quality of music. Later, it turned out I never needed to take the class at all. Although I spent unnecessary time and money, I'm kind of glad I got to experience something unfamiliar. This is my favorite song that we studied in class: