Haven’t you heard? Classical music is dead. Again. Another time.
I just put on “Pictures at an Exhibition” (on vinyl, no less) — “Symphony for a New World” was still spinning, restless and soundless on the turntable from which Dvorak had emanated just minutes earlier. I may still be living on a couch but I’m at my aunt and uncle’s for the moment, and on Saturday my aunt and I — brutally hungover from red wine and laughter and serious conversation into the wee hours the previous evening — rummaged through bins and bins of records at an antiques warehouse, coming away with treasures for absurdly little money. The ease of digital music is certainly nice, but sound on vinyl is uncompressed and its richness is incomparable.
But I’m not here to proselytize about listening to records — there are enough hipsters and sanctimonious audiophiles already doing that lord’s work. No, my purpose here is to defend another sonic dinosaur, not the media but the music itself: classical.
My parents always listened to classical and perhaps it helps to be raised on such fustiness but my brother hasn’t retained much of an interest in it (although my sister-in-law keeps his musical exposures well-rounded). On Saturday night my cousin and her boyfriend came over for dinner and while we tested out our new records, sampling our bits of audio gold, they wearied quickly of Mussorgsky and Beethoven and Beverly Sills. And there are those who discover classical independently, as adults — childhood indoctrination is neither necessary nor sufficient to love this stuff.
That being said, even in my most ardent teenage rebellion I made time for classical, alongside alternative and classic rock and hip-hop of course. I frequently fell asleep to Vivaldi, or an old cassette of Andres Segovia (meanwhile I listened to the Beatles and Hendrix on my parents’ old records), and no matter how fraught the adolescent tension a parent/child truce could always be established with a trip to the Cleveland Orchestra (or more often, for financial reasons, the Cleveland Orchestra Youth Orchestra). In college I fell in for Mahler, and I’ve never looked back.
There are aesthetic considerations to loving classical, of course. I remember pulling into an Office Max parking lot in the Outer Richmond district of San Francisco shortly after arriving and sitting in the car for twenty minutes as Beethoven’s Ninth played, spellbound by the music and nothing more. There is nostalgia — “Pictures at an Exhibition” is one of my mother’s very favorite pieces, and to hear the melodic line makes her feel closer than the thousands of miles which typically separate us. There is pride, too, in being a Clevelander, in coming from a maligned city with one of the world’s greatest orchestras, in hearing the sounds of Severance Hall on radios around the world.
But there is something else, too, something bigger and more encompassing than nostalgia and pride, something that contemporary music points toward but has difficulty realizing, what with its emphasis on newness and rebellion, and that is continuity. I am far from politically conservative but I am a traditionalist in certain senses, I suppose, at least on the matter of community: not because communities are precious or inviolable or unchanging things but because the pace of modernity too often causes them to splinter or rupture rather than evolve, to fracture before the bonds have had time to set into durability. I met an elderly woman on the bus a year and a half ago and we struck up a conversation about my suitcase; I told her I was going to my cousin’s wedding in Cleveland and then we started chatting about the orchestra and I’ve now traded emails and gone to concerts with a retired old woman from Hong Kong, with whom I might never have cause to encounter in my “regular”, modernity-mediated life. It is not a failing that the audiences of classical tend to be older, except insofar as it is a failing of the contemporary American economy to give young people the financial resources to afford such indulgences (or “indulgences”) as pricey symphony seats. (I would go if I had the money, but I don’t, and so I can’t.)
But the greyness of the classical audience offers something to younger folks. In going to (free) concerts with Mildred, or visiting the UC Berkeley music library, I’ve learned quite a bit — about conductors, about European orchestras to whom I have less exposure, about great performances. Her knowledge is an incredible resource.
There is an idea that those cultural properties most popular amongst the elderly are somehow stuffy or simplistic or otherwise hidebound, but as the climax of “Pictures at an Exhibition” plays — just now, as I type this — the truth is that the best classical music, like all the best art, transcends such judgment. The drama of this music is fresh upon each listening, just as the drama of great contemporary music is too — but with decades or centuries to sort through the chaff, classical music fans don’t need to put up with Nickelback just to get to Nirvana. Beethoven and Mozart have earned their popularity, and even if you prefer someone a little more obscure (I’m a sucker for Bartok myself), well, that’s like preferring Leonard Cohen to The Beatles. There is no wrong answer.
Classical music is beautiful and powerful and complex, and you can even dance to it if you want to. Some of it is soothing and some of it is dramatic and compelling but contrary to some popular opinion it is never boring; whatever barriers we have built around it are cultural and artificial, products of class and not art, for like any art, all that classical music asks is that you engage with it, that you listen.
You will find sounds that have been rewarding for hundreds of years. They are not quieting anytime soon.