You listen to it occasionally when you study. You’ve probably been subjected to it in a too-warm concert hall full of the “elderly” (the 45-plus population). Sometimes it gets appropriated into the sports world as a dramatic background for NFL commercials-in fact, it frequently rings through our own Alumni Stadium when the team is on defense. It is classical music.
I’m being melodramatic, I know. But the fact remains that most young adults-unless they have elected to study it or have nurtured a relationship with it-fall somewhere on the spectrum of indifference to contempt when they hear it. The “why”s abound, and I’m willing to admit that some are quite legitimate. At a certain point, classical music becomes inaccessible without training. Your ears need to know for what to listen in order to pick out structural and harmonic elements that amount to meaning. Meaning, too, is a slippery concept here. Music is ineffable. With a few exceptions of obvious tropes or notes from composers, the meaning of music is rarely exempt from debate, if a meaning exists at all. Both of these factors contribute to its high art status-classical music is frequently portrayed as an exclusive club protected by a pretentious and prickly “keep out” attitude. One belief to which I take particular exception is that all classical music belongs on CDs entitled, “10,000 Hours of the Most Relaxing Classical Music.” Find a recording of Krzysztof Penderecki’s “Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima” and see how relaxed you feel. Granted, it’s not something I frequently elect to work out to-but all classical music worth its salt has an argument and a narrative, even if the argument is only structural or antithetical to the idea that music must have an argument.
There have been both victories and failures when it comes to exposing unwitting audiences to the staple works in the Western classical canon (keeping in mind that small-c “classical” encompasses everything between the medieval and the modern day). Disney did what I consider an admirable job in marketing music to kids through the Fantasia movie. The cartoon Tom and Jerry features beastly solo piano lines. After a certain point, though, we have to acknowledge that we are just hiding the vegetables in the mashed potatoes.
So, below is Tori’s Classical Starter Pack (just pay shipping and handling). Arbitrary? No. Comprehensive? No way! I’ve left off the Renaissance entirely. The initial list was much longer, but space has forced me to select four. The task I’ve taken up is hopelessly quixotic, but I hope that these works will pique your interest. You just may realize that the past 500 years have produced pieces of such sublimity-divinity-that are as worthy of your attention as the same four minutes of insipid aural wallpaper to which you party.
The selections ascend chronologically and all can be found on YouTube.
One: “When I Am Laid in Earth,” aria from Dido and Aeneas by Henry Purcell (1689). This mid-Baroque aria for soprano, also know as “Dido’s Lament,” is not only powerfully poignant, but is also a fine excerpt from the nascent English opera of the 17th century. Ever notice that pop songs have very repetitive bass lines? Give a listen to the lower register here.
Two: “Fugue No. 4 in C-sharp minor” and “Fugue No. 11 in E-major,” from the Well-Tempered Clavier, Books I and II, respectively, by Johann Sebastian Bach (1722). A fugue is a means of composition in which three or more voices (or lines, in instrumental music) state the same melody and then twist around each other in imitation. They might strike you as academic and dry at first, but be patient with them and with your ears. They are essentially essays that have several distinct, but related, arguments-each line is entirely independent but fits with the others. Oh yeah, and they sound godly, too. Just try to write something that logical and beautiful in words.
Three: [And this is where a Romantic Era or Ultra-chromatic piece would have gone, but I want to plug the 20th century. Musicologists and composers are rolling in their graves right now.]
Four: “The Rite of Spring” by Igor Stravinsky (1913). It caused a riot at its premiere in Paris. Everyone loves a good controversy, so why not find out what all the fuss was about? Frankly, this piece gets over-emphasized as the turning point of modern Western music, but there is truth in the legend. By the way, it doesn’t exactly embrace you as a listener.
Five: “Movement III,” from Sinfonia by Luciano Berio (1968-9). This movement is an auditory trip. The Italian composer Berio lifted the third movement from Gustav Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony and then layered other musical and vocal quotations over it, mostly drawn from preceding works in the 20th century. Depending on your disposition, or the light, or the time of day, this can either be insidiously frightening or very divertente, or simultaneously both. Absolutely watch this on YouTube. Oh, and mind the first chord if your volume is up-it will hurt.
Editor’s Note: The views presented in this column are those of the author alone and do not represent the views of The Heights.