April 11, 2006

Gratuitous Musickal Posting (TM)

A new-to-me blog: Classical Music You Should Know About. It appears to be a genuinely good-hearted effort on the part of Tobin Truog to demystify classical music for novices, the better to encourage them to explore it more.

I appreciate Mr. Truog's description of his own introduction to such music:

I started discovering classical music for myself simply because I kept running across this stuff that blew me away...Schubert's Trout Quintet...Beethoven's 9th Symphony...Dvorak's New World Symphony...there are so many more pieces that you should listen to.

These are the starting points...the building blocks. Those pieces are where I started, and now I am discovering music that nobody plays on the radio and nobody writes about.

I like this because it sounds very much like my own first steps when I was a boy. My parents started me off with a handful of records that I played over and over again. (If memory serves, these included the Bach Double Violin Concerto in D minor, the Vivaldi Double Trumpet Concerto in C, a Mozart Divertimento, the number of which now escapes me, Haydn's Symphony No. 96 (the "Surprise") and Schumann's 4th Symphony in D minor.) As I became familiar with these pieces, I began to stretch out, exploring more music by these composers and learning about others as well.

However, I would respectfully disagree with the next part of Mr. Truog's approach:

I am not interested in the performances so much...although you will become attuned to differences of interpretation as you go along. I am interested in the story of the composer and the piece of music and the history and the influences...you see where I am going?

Well, no, but it seems to me your cart is going to get there before your horse. To me, this is the wrong way to go about learning music and leads to all sorts of potential problems. The music is, after all, the thing. (How on earth could performances not matter?) All these other considerations are at best distractions and at worst sources of exactly the kind of pretense that poisons so much of the classical music culture and scares off potential new listeners.

Beginning listeners in particular should simply be listening to the music and not worrying at all about who wrote it or why or where. After all, we listen to, say, Beethoven's Emperor Concerto not because Beethoven wrote it, but because it's worth listening to. And what makes a given piece of music worth listening to? Well, as Peter Schickele quotes Duke Ellington, "If it sounds good, it is good." This seems simple, almost flippant, but it's the truth. By focusing on the music itself, instead of its composer or its context, one will be in far better shape to begin developing genuine taste.

(I know my anti-Romanticist bias is showing through here, but that's my way of thinking.)

Yips! to Jessica Duchen.

Posted by Robert at April 11, 2006 04:08 PM | TrackBack

It seems to me that when he says he's "not interested in the performances" it's in the sense that he's not going to go on and on about Georg Szell vs. Seiji Ozawa . . . not that the performance doesn't matter, but perhaps you should focus on learning to wrap around and appreciate the piece itself before you start dickering over interpretations and dynamics and metronome speeds and whatnot.

Posted by: Teri at April 11, 2006 04:30 PM

That's fair enough, although the way he goes right into talking about the composer and so on was what got me concerned.

Let me just say, by the way, that I don't want anybody to take this criticism the wrong way: I like the fact that he's doing this. We simply seem to have a difference of opinion about how to approach it.

Posted by: Robbo the LB at April 11, 2006 04:40 PM

The "composer, history, and influences" thing helps answer the "Okay, who do I listen to next?" question. (If you liked Vivaldi, you'll probably like Telemann, too.)

But having said that, I agree that REAL beginners probably should start by listening almost at random, just to get their bearings. Then they can note who they like, listen to more of that composer's stuff, and listen to music by others of the same period. (This works okay except when the starting point is some one-of-a-kind-er like Carmina Burana.)

Performances DO matter to the extent that a dud performance can really spoil your appreciation of the work. (Duds can be awful-- there's one Karajan recording of Finlandia that's so wrong-headed it would put any new listener off Sibelius for life-- or just dull and uninspired-- which is probably more insidious, because with nothing obviously wrong, you're just left wondering what all the excitement was about.) Fortunately most recordings are at least "good, standard performances," but it's still overwhelming for the neophyte to face ten (in a store, or 50, online) different recordings of the Emperor, with prices ranging from $4 to $21. Which to buy, and which to avoid? Panic!

Posted by: Old Grouch at April 11, 2006 10:24 PM

One rule of thumb I tell folks when I'm working the music department at B&N is, avoid any CD that has the words "festival orchestra" on the cover.

After that it's still a freakin' crap shoot, but it doesn't matter since that's usually the point when the customers tell me that they're actually just there to get the new Il Divo CD, anyway, because they heard those guys on Oprah and aren't they just fantastic?

The heart just breaks at hearing those words, doesn't it?

Posted by: Cameron Wood at April 12, 2006 05:03 AM

Pandora (http://www.pandora.com) takes an approach somewhere in between (granted, it only deals with contemporary, popular music). It analyzes musical structure, instrumentation, and a bunch of other musical "genes" to determine what you might like next. It is about the elements of the music, but it also takes the performers into account -- if you "ban" enough songs from an artist, it will never play that artist again. There is rumor of a classical version of Pandora being developed; though they say on their FAQ that it would be several orders of magnitude more difficult to do the "genetic" analysis of classical music. I'd love to see it; consider bring able to listen to any work of Beethoven but having the security of knowing you'll never hear Bernstein conducting. That would be a wonderful thing.

Posted by: The Colossus at April 12, 2006 07:29 AM

Great work!
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Posted by: Frank at May 9, 2006 12:15 PM