I love music.

I write about the music I like and have purchased for the benefit of better understanding it and sharing my preferences with others.

Essay on Old Music

Schott Music Store Speaking on matters of taste and preference, without any pedigree in such academic subjects, might be a risky proposition for someone such as myself. I have plenty of preferences and many people I know would vouch for my having some taste. But what I specifically want to address is a serious topic (to me), and that's one that centers around how "classical" music aims to survive. I take this very seriously, as I'm in the minority, I feel, in my generation, being a person who loves old music. I'll basically make a quick definition. While my real passion lies with baroque music from 1600-1750, I'll define for the sake of this essay on any music before 1900 as "old." We could also probably include more modern pieces, too, but it's just easier if we say 19th century or earlier. I don't think the likes of Beethoven or Bach will just disappear, but there have to be reasons why this music continues to thrive, and it has to go beyond the joy of playing it. I know there's a strictly academic reason why classical music continues to survive. It's part of musical history, of the so-called "canon" of art music, and people will be studying this literature for as long as they're studying old (written) literature and books. Or paintings and sculpture. David by Michelangelo here, Mozart's piano concerto #20, there. (Of all his concertos, the G minor is my favorite.) The second reason is less "academic," but is somewhat related. I'll call it the performer's reason. Some musician plays a piece of old music and their continued study of growing into a musician requires the study of more art music, some of it historic. There are scores of kids who learn to play instruments like the violin or piano and through this study, encounter these "classics." They themselves will perhaps develop an appreciation for old music, but so will their relatives, friends, and fans. By extension again (smell a Venn diagram?), there's the economic reason for old music being perpetuated further and further into the future. And that's because there's money to be made by knowing something about this music, or chiefly, being able to perform it. This is the one that concerns folks the most, I feel, because it's likely the reason we have today so many orchestras, baroque bands, and choirs. Some of this has been interesting, as in the recordings of Vivaldi "Recent Discoveries" that I have reviewed recently. This isn't necessarily music "in the canon," for which there is an automatic giant audience. Instead, this music is being performed in part for economic (and likely academic, too) reasons because there's a niche audience who is interested in the novelty of newly discovered works by a fairly well-known, but still niche, composer. So, that's three reasons why old music continues to be made (live or recorded) today, leading to appreciation. There's an academic theory that there's something inherently valuable in the artform that deserves study, that the text itself is interesting to those who perform it, and that there's a market for bringing it to life by society at large. Is that enough to keep it viable? So many of the people I interact with do love music, but do not like old music. To some, it's a complete turn-off aesthetically; others will tolerate certain styles, sometimes for "surface qualities" the music possesses, in comparison to mainstream, modern music. Typically friends who say they like "classical" will point to it's "soothing" qualities, enabling them to "relax." So in the department of taste, old music has to compete with modern music. And I understand this well. I like a lot of modern music too. Some of it is more intense, loud, and frankly, it evokes emotional and mental extremes that other (old) music does not. I confess to not knowing much at all about the current popular artists that top charts such as Grammy or Billboard. But "modern" music, to be fair, is about 120 years worth of music, and what I don't know from 2012, I may well make-up from 1970s, 80s, and some of the 1990s. The question I come back to, personally, is this: Do the three reasons I give for old music surviving today, apply to me? Do they describe my interest in this music? Collectively, each has a role to play. (1) I did study old music academically, and so I'm familiar with the canon of literature and I have a deep understanding of it. This understanding has led to a profound appreciation for this old music (and likewise, a lot of newer music too). But my interest peaked before I went to college. (2) I did play music, from a young age. I not only enjoy listening, but I also enjoy playing music. My ability to play music has taught me that through performance, we can have some of the richest experiences with music, and therefore, gain the most from it. So, I'm willing to accept that my experience of playing instruments (and to a lesser extent, singing) has led to my desire to support the performance of old music. I also find attending performances a fun leisure-time activity (3). Going to a concert isn't too different than going to a movie, a play, or any other type of entertainment. And I understand that for the music to continue, we have to support the artists. We do that too, through the purchase of recordings. But my connection with old music happened by myself, with a pair of headphones and a CD player. Bum, bum, bum! The strains of that D-major harpsichord concerto by Bach are very familiar today; at the time, it was new and arresting. I didn't want to take the headphones off. I can't explain why it affected me, in particular, but it did. Maybe I possess a certain musical aptitude that not everyone does. Who knows. But there's a fourth reason that old music will continue to thrive. And to survive, it must still be supported by the first three reasons, so that it may continue to be discovered like young people like me (my Bach epiphany came at the age of 13). The fourth reason is because the music has risen to the level of high art. My interest in Baroque music has revealed a style I enjoy, but all baroque music that's been recorded and left of us isn't gold. The CDs I spin most often are of the class of pieces we'd call masterpieces. Beethoven's ninth symphony, or Mozart's Jupiter symphony, or Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D-minor. They're so good, they stand the test of time. And as a human society, we love re-visiting this. Today, you might hear one of Vivaldi's Four Seasons concertos every year, and not even own the recording. It could appear in a commercial, a shopping mall, or in a movie. This was on display several years ago in a YouTube video I viewed from a BachFest in Leipzig, featuring the Jacques Loussier Trio performing. He famously plays Bach pieces re-arranged as jazz trio pieces. It works well, in most every case. Here's a festival dedicate to the music of Bach, where scholars attend with scores in their laps during the concerts. And yet, here they were, too, outside, enjoying the open air and a jazz concert. Bach's music took on a universal quality for all of us, it was strong enough to outlive its time, but also its instrumentation and original function. So, despite the fact that I feel an outcast in my small circle of acquaintances in the Commonwealth of Virginia, with my taste for old music, I think older music will continue to survive for four reasons, that are also interconnected, when we really look at things in detail. 1. Academic study spawns new ideas about old music and reveals why this music is considered high-art. "What makes it great?" 2. The art sells itself to those who venture to perform it. The medium of music is in, of itself, a pleasurable activity, and while all music has the potential for this phenomenon, people who experience the pleasure from performing old music will likely continue to do so. 3. There's practical reason to keep performing old music, too, and that's because there's a potential audience for it. And why? 4. Because the music itself has stood the test of time, even against modern counterparts markedly different in style, to a class we might call "high art." It's the "best of the best." Even though old music doesn't play as vital a role in modern society as contemporary music does, that's okay. It's probably the way it should be. But it doesn't mean that it will go away. Thanks, as always, for reading.

Rameau: Pièces de clavecin en concerts

Jiro Dreams of Sushi