Thursday, May 5, 2022

Adrift, but Rowing, in a Sea of Classical Music

Adapted from my erstwhile Acousticx blog.
Photo by Josep Molina Secall on Unsplash.
When I was a kid, I had an LP recording of Beethoven's Symphony No. 9. It was from the "Great Performances" series, with one of those yellow covers made to look like the headline-blaring front page of a newspaper. Eugene Ormandy conducted the Philadelphia Orchestra, and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir handled the choral section in the fourth movement. I remember it all very vividly. I played that record over and over, and I remember being fascinated by the German-speaking voices as I'd follow the choir with help from the English translation included in the liner notes.

I no longer recall for certain what that triggered my interest in classical music at such a young age. Chances are it had something to do with Schroeder from Peanuts. I was probably curious about why the kid hunched over his toy piano was so obsessed with Beethoven. Once I scored my own copy of the Ninth, I understood.

And while rock and pop would become my preferred style of music, my little excursion into classical had left its mark. The progressive rock I eventually gravitated toward was often symphonic in its structure and sophistication, and many of the genre's virtuoso musicians kept pointing me back toward their own classical influences. Keith Emerson, for instance, worked up rock versions of the intermezzo from Sibelius' Karelia Suite, the entirety of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition, Holst's "Mars, the Bringer of War," and Copland's "Hoedown" and "Fanfare for the Common Man." King Crimson's Robert Fripp, meanwhile, often referenced Bartok.

In the case of my favorite band of all time, Yes, the classical influences were abundant. Singer Jon Anderson has mentioned that Sibelius' Symphony No. 7 helped inspire him and guitarist Steve Howe -- himself an avowed fan of classical guitarists Andres Segovia and Julian Bream -- to create "Close to the Edge," arguably the band's magnum opus. Rick Wakeman contributed an all-keyboard arrangement from Brahms' Symphony No. 4 to Yes' Fragile album, and Chris Squire worked up bass renditions of both the spiritual hymn "Amazing Grace" and the theme from the second movement of Dvorak's New World Symphony. And keyboardist Geoff Downes quoted the toccata from Widor's Organ Symphony No. 5 on the 1980 song "Machine Messiah."

On top of all that, the band was notable for opening their live shows with a recording of the finale of Stravinsky's Firebird Suite. One gets a sense that the band had quite a soft spot for the Russian composer: On their 1973 triple live album Yessongs, Jon Anderson can be heard between songs humming the opening line from Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring.

Over the years, I put together a small collection of classical music, based largely on the composers and works that my prog-rock idols referenced. Along the way, I picked up an interest in the music of Ravel, Gershwin, and Debussy on my own. In recent years, I discovered the melancholy beauty of Gorecki's Symphony of Sorrowful Songs. And at some point in the distant past, I heard Bach's "Toccata and Fugue in D Minor," probably in some Halloween context that wanted to make the piece spooky. To me it wasn't the stuff of Dracula but an absolute musical revelation -- the most majestic, single most spine-tingling piece of music I'd ever encountered. Even today, stretching across the expanse of all genres of music, Bach's organ masterpiece remains my favorite piece of music by anyone, ever, and it's not even close.

My wife and I discovered Orff's Carmina Burana together, after hearing a recording of the dramatic "O Fortuna" section at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Those were in the days before Shazam, when you had to actually ask other human beings what that song was you'd just heard. When I met my wife, I found out that she was a fan of opera, especially Verdi's works, and an admirer of certain pieces by Pachelbel, Vivaldi, Mozart, and Beethoven. She's the one who got me on my current classical kick, by showing me a funny video with four guys managing to play Ravel's "Bolero" on a single cello.

So you'd think, given all that exposure to classical music over the years, that I'd know my way around the genre pretty well. The truth is, now that I've dug in and immersed myself in studying and listening over the past week, I realize I've barely scratched the surface. That's both intimidating and exhilarating. It's hard to know where to start when you have hundreds of years' worth of repertoire to sort through, but I can already see that the journey will be immensely rewarding. I've already found that I like most of the big Russian composers -- I already had Shostakovich's string quartets, and I haven't yet heard anything beyond those pieces that I dislike -- and that Sibelius' Seventh, the one that inspired Yes' "Close to the Edge," is an absolute marvel, a river of music that continuously flows from one theme to the next, working its way to a climax that's both sudden and utterly satisfying.

I also know that I'm not enamored with the light, frilly, dainty work that characterizes a good deal of music from the Baroque and early Classical periods (capital "C," as opposed to "classical" as a catch-all designation for European-based art music). I always equate that kind of music, rightly or wrongly, with the kind of sonic wallpaper you'd hear at a dinner party. Imagine a string quartet playing at a gathering of important people in dresses and tuxes, as they mingle, sip champagne, and nibble on their fancy hors d'oeuvres. That's what I'm talking about, and I get the sense that that's the stereotype of classical music a lot of people have today. I acknowledge the beauty and the artistic mastery of that style of classical, but it just doesn't ring my bell.

Instead, I tend toward pieces with dynamics, emotional expression, and a little bit of muscle. That could be a reason I'm attracted to the Russians, who seemed to develop their own unique style that encompasses all those qualities -- informed as their music is by European sensibilities yet flavored with their own ethnic traditions, the toughness of the Russian people and culture, and the reality of being situated between East and West, taking influence from both but not being wholly either one. First impressions, so far, have left me with an affinity for Prokofiev's second symphony, Tchaikovsky's sixth, Stravinsky's Symphony in Three Movements, and pretty much all 15 of Shostakovich's symphonies.

I think one reason I admire Shostakovich so much is that not only was he able to maintain his own unique voice while maintaining that appealing Russian-ness, but he also managed to do it while under extreme pressure from the Stalinist regime to please the Party or end up in the gulag. Most of us, I imagine, would collapse under that kind of pressure. Not Shostakovich, who persevered and went on to create some of the most remarkable music of the modern classical era -- at least of what I've heard so far.

My love of prog-rock has no doubt influenced my classical likes and dislikes. I know some people think of classical as relaxing, and ultimately inconsequential, background music, like the aforementioned dinner-party fare. But that's not what I'm interested in, and that's certainly not all there is to classical. Whether it's rock, classical, or anything else, I like intricate yet melodic music that forces me to pay attention and makes me think. Music to wash the dishes to has its place, but I like to sink my teeth into music that delivers more than just a good beat and a memorable chorus. I want something that draws me into its world, wows me with its beauty, and challenges me with its panoply of themes, meters, melodies, and ideas.

At the same time, I do appreciate tonality. I'm drawn to beauty in music. The atonality of modern composers is something I can take in only small doses. I'm quite fond of the same Rite of Spring that allegedly caused a riot upon its debut, for instance, but it's not the kind of thing I'd want to listen to all day. I don't think there's anything particularly inventive about rejecting tonality in music, and at some point the act of deconstructing musical forms becomes, I think, a self-indulgent exercise in hollow intellectual cleverness that doesn't serve the artform in any meaningful way. It's an approach that progressively unravels upon itself until you reach outright absurdities like John Cage's 4'33" -- you reject musicality until you end up rejecting music altogether. People can appreciate the beauty of a Mona Lisa or the abstraction of a Picasso, but there's no beauty in a blank canvas.

Anyway, that's where I am, and if anyone reads this entry, I'd love to hear any recommendations you have for future listening. Mahler is up next on my list, and after listening to his first symphony before writing this, I think I'm in for quite a treat.

More on that another time.

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