How to label your music like an ass

Dear Hannah,

You begin to get the impression, upon entering the world of classical music, that nobody wants you there.  And the truth is that few people actually do.  Certainly not the composers, not their wealthy fruitbasket fan clubs, not the symphonies.  That might be a reason why the symphony, which has exactly half the sensory experience of a movie, costs $60 a ticket and a movie costs 12*, and why Rachmaninoff named Prelude Op. 3 No. 2 in C# minor Prelude Op. 3 No. 2 in C# minor.  Imagine all the horsepower beneath that skull of his and all the other musicians', the sheer brilliance combusting in a single passion of manly and soul-transforming acoustics, and then, almost in defiance of art itself, slapping a jumble of letters and numbers on it.

How was the common man supposed to distinguish it from his Prelude op. 23 no. 5 in G minor?  And how are we supposed to remember the difference between Beethoven's "Piano Concerto no. 2 in B Major" and his "Piano Concerto no. 5 in E Major"?  It's giving the bird, I think, to the masses.  The Moonlight Sonata was named by an art critic, comparing it, more artfully than the artist, to the moonlight reflecting off Lake Lucerne.  Fur Elise, discovered long after Beethoven's death, is actually named Bagatelle No. 25 in A minor -- one of the most beautiful tunes on the planet, announced to the infants of every generation with a title half bagel, half stitching on a prison uniform, completely unintelligible.  

Those of us who tried to penetrate this veil of mystery know how difficult it is to find even the masterpieces you heard on Looney Tunes as a child.   It requires an almost heroic effort of first finding the names of the masters, then digging around their "greatest hits;" and if you can get through the immense tedium of listening to their runner-ups, which are always mixed among the best stuff, or make it through the first movement of Beethoven's 9th to get to the second, then you have to remember what the name of the movement is and when it gets good, and you're unlikely to remember the name of the movement because the goodness is most often sandwiched in crap.

All technically masterful crap -- bursting with emotions, perhaps, and carrying its own personal vibe; but tuneless, oftentimes directionless noise -- instruments colliding with one another in unison but not triumph.  A tune you don't want to whistle.  This in turn leads to the frustration of expecting great things and having to endure loads of lesser things; the immense time wasted in pursuit of some beauty when you could simply snap your fingers and go back to The Sound of Silence or even Behind the Wheel -- things made for people to enjoy and adore and remember.  Maybe not the stuff of the "great men" but the stuff that belongs to all men.  Which is why Depeche Mode got right to the point and gave the point a great name.  The poor man in a blue collar job and a family to father doesn't have the time or the money for bullshit.  Popular music, uber alles.  Not claret and Chopin but cheap beer and White Rabbit.

Besides this we know that so-called "classical" music is a late arrival anyway, and that the most classical music there is isn't Tchaikovsky but the anonymously written Greensleeves, or Lillibulero, or Martin Luther's A Mighty Fortress is Our God, or St. Francis of Assisi's tune to All Creatures of Our God and King.  The pop/folk music of the 1540's or God-knows-when that was so good that many of us are still singing it, many times in church, but most often in the nursery.

In light of Freddy Mercury's Bohemian Rhapsody alone, the labeling of symphonies as "classical" was almost as premature a blunder as labeling the Hollywood of the 40's its "Golden Era."**  As a civilization we did great.  In both fields we would go on to do better.  The soundtrack to Harry Potter is as magical as Beethoven's 6th.  Is Hans Zimmer classical?  Who cares?  He and John Williams have done more for cinema than Pachelbel and Wagner ever did for weddings, and more than Sir Edward Alger ever did for graduations.  I don't mean to disparage any of these geniuses or the good things they've done for all of us.  I just wish they'd named their sonatas like they'd named their children -- so we could identify them, and if we like them, to call them over for supper.  At least that's what the composers would've done if they'd liked us.

Your father,

*It's true that you have to pay way more people to run a symphony than you have to pay to run a movie, but who's been trying to reach the masses anyway?  Half of the appeal of classical music lies in the people who go see it.   To enjoy a symphony or an opera isn't only to enjoy a symphony or an opera; it's to be the kind of person who enjoys a symphony or an opera.  And to be the kind of person who enjoys it, you have to be the kind of person who affords it.  Only a lunatic would work in a grocery store and pay $120 to take his wife out to "see" Mozart.  Like the garbage million dollar paintings by Matisse or Basquiat or Jackson Pollock, they buy it not because it's better than what you have, but because they know you can't have it.   

**The sad thing about a Golden Era is that you only know it's golden when it's gone.  But aside from the way the actors and actresses looked, who really misses the films of the 40's?  Our grandparents called it the Golden Era not because it was our best era, but because it was the first film era they fell in love with -- the same way we feel about our first loves.  Our films thus far get better and better but they cease to fill us with the same wonder.   

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  1. Not your best......there is a profound and lasting beauty to a select few classical compositions. They please the intellect AND emotion rather than just emotion. Most of the 20th century pop greats will be dust in a century.


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