Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Classical Wednesday II: How to Like Classical Music

All right, you are all fired up from last week's harangue on why you should listen to classical music, and you are ready to plunge in. In this week's installment, I'm going to hit you with some advice on how to approach the stuff. Classical music stresses lots of people out, and I think people often bail before they've really given it a fair shot. That's not the end of the world, of course -- many such people still manage to live happy, productive lives -- but it's too bad that they miss out on some pretty nice noises.

Don't Feel Like You Have to Listen Really Intently

People often approach classical music with an attitude of "this is ~great~ music, and I shall now enrich myself by it." They try to just sit there and just listen to it. Or, some well-intended pedant says "listen to this!" and stares at them expectantly while they awkwardly sit there, listening.

This is of course the worst possible way to listen to new music. Thank of how you got to know your current favorite songs and records. Odds are, you heard them 5 or 10 times in the background before they really, truly grabbed you. Music has to insinuate itself in your brain and body. For every time someone loves a new piece of music instantly the first time they hear it, they are going to have a dozen times when they are indifferent or even hostile to a song, jam, symphony, whatever, before they really start to love it.

So, the best way to train yourself to like classical music is to select five or six pieces that you would like to like, and start playing them in the background while you go about your life. Don't focus on the music, just get on with the laundry, the drive to work, the dinner preparation, or whatever it is. Run through your target pieces eight or nine times this way, and see what happens. If you start humming along, that's a good sign. If you hush someone because "there's a really good part coming up," you have definitely arrived. If you are still completely indifferent after a dozen reps, on the other hand, give it a rest for a few weeks and then try again with a different set of pieces.

Don't Feel Like You Have to Be Knowledgeable

People who really know about classical music know a huge array of names, dates, terms, and cheesy anecdotes, none of which are especially necessary for enjoying the music. If you try to deal with this all up front, you are going to burn out and fast; it would be as if the only entry point into rock music was via one of those monomaniacs with an encyclopedic knowledge of all things Beatles, or all things Grateful Dead.

Whatever you do, don't read one of those books with titles like "The Beginner's Guide to Essential Classical Music." These books are written by experts who are unable to imagine what life would be like without their expertise. Their prose runs along the lines of

...the rustling theme then descends through a series of modular thirds into the bracingly unexpected key of F sharp minor; a witty run of arpeggiated triplets, much remarked upon by the composer's contemporaries Huuzit and Watsisfaiz, then escort in a glorious trio in the woodwinds....

Writing like this is good for cribbing your Intro to Music Theory papers or for treating insomnia, but it is not going to fire you up for a new listening experience. Here's the rule of thumb: never read anything about a piece of classical music until you have already become fond of it.

Don't Worry About Conductors and Musicians

Orchestras and record companies, in their quest to move product, have a vested interest in trying to create stars. Since the people who wrote nearly the entire repertory are dead, and their work is inconveniently in the public domain, these stars need to be current performers. They don't want to sell you Felix Mendellsohn, in other words; they want to sell you Yoyo Ma.

Let me be blunt: performers don't matter. Sure, there is a difference between world-class orchestras and your local regional band (except for those of you near Cleveland, Philly, and NYC, for whom your local band IS a world-class orchestra). But any professional symphony with a record contract is more than capable of sawing its way through the repertory with great competance. Is there a difference between ten violinists' performances of a given violin concerto? Well, sure, but these differences pale relative to the differences among different violin concerti. My advice to you, the beginner, is this: for any given piece, always buy the cheapest recording. It will be good.

(However, I emphatically recommend against buying compilation discs with titles like "Mozart's Greatest Hits" or "Orchestral Spectaculars!" or "World's Greatest Classical Music" or especially "Classical Music for Relaxation." Don't let them pander to you.)

It's Not All the Same

It's important to recognize that there is a great diversity within classical music, and that you are likely to enjoy some subgenres more than others. There are lots of ways you could break this down, but the two more important things to think about are genre and era. Era matters because musical tastes and styles, and the technology of musical instruments, evolves over time, and so the music of 1860 is as much different from the music of 1800 as what you might hear on the radio today is different from what you would have heard in 1950. The next four Classical Fridays will all focus on a specific musical era.

There are a gazillion classical genres, but we're going to narrow it down to three. Oh, and we are going to completely ignore vocal music for now, because most classical newbs consider it a bit of a stretch. Here's our three types:

Orchestral Music is music that requires a full symphony orchestra. Mind you, a "full symphony orchestra" can mean as few as a couple dozen players, or as many as a couple hundred. The symphony, the most familiar of all the specific classical forms, is an example of orchestral music.

[Mahler's Symphony #8 is called the "Symphony of a Thousand," but it actually takes somewhat more than 1000 singers and musicians to play as written. This picture shows the forces assembled for its 1913 debut. When you think of how difficult it is to get four people to agree on a place to eat lunch together, the sheer logistics of rehearsing and performing a piece of music on this scale begin to seem kind of miraculous.]

Concerti are pieces that feature one (or a small group) of soloists playing with the accompanyment of the full orchestra. Pretty straightforward. You will eventually notice, though, that very early pieces called "concerti grossi" are in fact not concerti, but orchestral music. This is because classical music jargon is appallingly ridiculous. This is not the last problem we will have with jargon.

Chamber Music is anything played by a small group of instruments that could fit in your chamber, were you an 18th Century aristocrat. String Quartets and similar groupings fit in this category, as does (for our purposes) solo piano music and popular crossword-puzzle groupings like septets, octets, and nonets.

Brace Yourself

OK, that's all the prep you need. Next week, we're going to start some actual listening. Be ready!


Rex Parker said...

Wow - thank you for the suggestion that I listen to classical music first as background music. I think I feel guilty that I don't LISTEN more often.

Some pieces of music are easier to hum than others. Pastoral Symph, yes. Bartok's string quartets ... a little harder. Takemitsu's "How Slow the Wind" ... nearly impossible.

Look at me, pretending like I know stuff!


DrSchnell said...

Overall, superb advice. Although I'll add one thing that is vitally necessary for a full appreciation when dealing with full-blown symphonic pieces. At some point, during the "getting-to-know-you" background phase, you've gotta crank the stereo to eleven. Listen to that fucker LOUD. Please, do continue about your household chores, but let the background music envelop you. 100 (or a thousand) musicians playing at full volume on a stage isn't quiet. You shouldn't be either. Classical music isn't all dainty doily-and-tea stuff.

McGuff said...

This series is developing nicely. Your take on the subject is spot on.

An additional suggestion. While any given recording is great as an entry point, listening to the same piece recorded by two different orchestras in two different eras with opposing interpretations of the same piece is quite interesting. Especially to a beginner who may think all renditions of a piece are essentially the same.

For example, Benjamin Zander's Philharmonia recording of Beethoven's 5th Symphony adopts a tempo for the piece dramatically different than the iconoclastic Bernstein recordings, which is the style most frequently performed.

Right or wrong, good or bad, quack or visionary, it's just awesome that people like Zander provide such a distinctly different view point.

Anonymous said...

Keep up the good work.