Saturday, December 08, 2007

Learning to Love Classical Music 1

Do you know nothing, or almost nothing, about classical music? Do you have an interest in exploring it? This post is for you.

By way of background, I grew up on 60s-70s rock. I knew virtually nothing else until well into adulthood. No music lessons, no instrument, no exposure to classical music. In my dotage, however, I got bored. Rock in the 80s seemed derivative and insipid. I was listening to less and less music, and I wasn't happy about it. In desperation I decided that I had to try other genres. I tried jazz, but with a few exceptions (early Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker) it just wasn't grabbing me. I then decided I had no choice but to try -- gulp! -- classical. My technique was largely hit and miss. The following thoughts are based on the lessons I learned.

One of the biggest roadblocks to learning to enjoy classical music is the intimidation factor. Classical music devotees seem to know so much about composers and conductors and performers and works that you've never even heard of that you're embarrassed to talk to them and display your ignorance. Entering the classical music department of a retail store (brick and mortar or virtual) is like entering a foreign bookstore. This leads to Rule No. 1:

Do Not Be Intimidated. Everyone's got to start somewhere. If you have a friend or acquaintance who knows something about classical music, or encounter a knowledgeable brick and mortar salesperson, don't be shy. My experience is that classical music fans are generally delighted to spread the word (and show off in the process). You'll probably wind up with too much information, and too many recommendations, rather than too few.

How, then, to start? Although I've said I knew nothing about classical music when I started, that isn't exactly true. Everyone knows at least one classical tune or two. Perhaps it's the duh-duh-duh-duh sequence from Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. Perhaps in high school you heard that frenzied buildup in Stravinsky's Rite of Spring when the naked virgin is sacrificed (at least I hoped she was naked). Whatever it is, it doesn't matter. If it's stuck in your head all these years, then you must have liked it on some level. If you own it, put it on. If you don't own it, go out (or go online) and buy it and then put it on.

Now listening to classical music is not supposed to be torture. I do recommend that you sit down and listen to your piece, whatever it is, at least once giving it your full attention, to get a feel for it. But after that, put it on as background music, while you're cooking or while your cleaning, or whatever. Do not treat it respectfully: it is something to be enjoyed, not worshiped. Do not play it so low it's inaudible -- this is not muzak we're talking about. Would you blast the Stones while you're surfing the web? Well, then blast Beethoven. In this way, you become familiar with the tunes. After a while, you'll find yourself involuntarily focusing on particular passages that you especially enjoy, anticipating the next theme or the climax of a movement, and disappointed when it's over. You may even stop what you're doing because you like a section so much it breaks through. Hey, this is pretty good!

I should add here that listening to classical is not an all-or-nothing thing. I routinely listen to classical, then rock, then something else, then perhaps some more classical. Classical is just another form of music -- albeit a particularly beautiful one at its best. But the point is that you're not in a straight jacket, and it shouldn't be a chore. Mix it up.

Let me assume that you've found one piece that you enjoy. How to branch out? The most obvious way is to try other works by the same composer. Do you like Beethoven's Ninth? Well, try his other symphonies. Are you enjoying Bach's Goldberg Variations? Well, try some of his other keyboard works. The basic progression is:

Other works by the same composer in the same genre (by "genre" I mean here basic groupings such as symphonies, solo piano, chamber music, etc.)

Other works by the same composer in different genres

Other works by "similar" composers, beginning in the genre you've enjoyed most (I'll get to how you locate "similar" composers shortly).

Rule No. 2: Follow what you like, and do not worry about what you don't like.

Let's say you have found one or two pieces of classical music you like, but your next venture is a bust. You're enjoying the Beethoven Symphonies, so you try a Violin Concerto and it leaves you cold. DO NOT WORRY ABOUT IT. The upside of the fact that classical music is intimidatingly vast is that you have choices. If you decide that the Violin Concertos are not for you, just move on (at least for now). I love classical music (to the point my friends think I'm nuts). But the fact of the matter is that there are numerous works and composers that bore me to tears, and I don't listen to them. So what? There are dozens of composers and hundreds of works that give me great joy -- pleasure I never would have experienced otherwise. That's all that counts.

In the next post, I'll discuss branching out some more, experimenting, and provide some practical tips.

The Glenn Gould video at the top, by the way, is simply unbelievable. I was laughing out loud.

1 comment:

  1. Duh, Duh, Duh, Duh is Beethoven's Fifth, but that's OK, mistakes are made.

    If you like the Ninth perhaps you will be interested in my documentary film Following The Ninth: In the Steps of Beethoven's Final Symphony.

    k candale
    venice, Ca


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