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Jumping Into the Deep End

Jack Butler, submissions editor for National Review Online, is a big fan of pop music but, is to use his own word, "embarrassingly" unacquainted with classical music. Deciding to fix that, he has taken an extremely odd measure:

I have set about remedying this deficiency in classic amateur fashion: i.e., haphazardly, guided by what little knowledge I do have. Which is why, not long into my [New Year's] resolution, I decided to jump into the deep end and listen to all of Richard Wagner’s opera cycle Der Ring des Nibelungen.

If you asked me how to approach classical music in the way most likely to result in disappointment and dislike, I might come up with this. Sure, listen to the entire Ring, in just a few days, on Spotify, with no libretto. That will surely work. Similarly, someone might introduce himself to the pleasures of bourbon by chugging a coffee mug full of 101 proof Wild Turkey.

At least it can be said of the Wagner cure that the subject would probably not require medical attention. But I can't imagine getting much out of it. Wagner's music is not exactly accessible--you can listen to him for a long time without encountering anything recognizable as a tune. The well-known popular bits, like the Ride of the Valkyries, are few and far between. And, most of all: these are operas which tell a long and complex story. So listening to them with the story unavailable bears some resemblance to listening to a novel read in a language you don't know. But Butler says he did enjoy it, though I think I detect a certain clenching of the jaw in his account

After this, he has recourse to Jay Nordlinger, also of National Review, and a music critic. You can read Nordlinger's recommendations here, and they're fine, but this is the important part:

I suggest that people listen to some things — an assortment of music. Just dip in. If you like something, seek out more from that composer — listen to him, read about him, etc. Feel your way along. Embark on discovery.

If someone asked me for similar advice, I think it would be even simpler: just listen. (I certainly wouldn't decide that my tastes should guide him, and neither does Nordlinger.) That's really all it takes. Sometimes I hear people say, hesitatingly, "I don't know anything about classical music," and seeming hesitant even to approach it without some kind of instruction. That's a mistake, and a bad one if it keeps someone away from the music. When I was a college freshman I took an introductory music course for non-music majors, and it was my first step into the classical music world. So it may sound as if I'm contradicting myself in saying "just listen," but that was precisely the opportunity that the course gave me: to hear a wide range of music and get some sort of sense of what I would like. If I remember correctly, at the end of the course there were two pieces that I especially liked: Smetana's The Moldau and Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire. If you know those you can see that my taste was already eclectic to say the least: the former is a very straightforward, pretty and melodic piece, the latter a crazed-sounding quasi-recitation of mysterious German poems and atonal music. And I just kept going from there.

Not to say that there is not a very great deal to know usefully about music, both technically and historically. I know next to nothing technically, and would like to know more. And my ear is not that sensitive. I know that I miss a lot because I usually don't grasp the formal structure of a piece. I most likely miss it when, for instance, a composer uses the inversion of a theme from the first movement of his symphony in the fourth movement. That  kind of thing may limit, but certainly doesn't prevent, my enjoyment and appreciation.

This made me want to revisit The Moldau. I haven't heard it for decades. It's still great. It's meant to paint a tonal picture of the course of a river from mountain brooks to the sea. 

And here's just a taste of Pierrot. Don't be alarmed, it's less than two minutes long. I still love it, too.


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My father listened to "classical music" (if I want to be pedantic I guess his tastes spanned from the Baroque through the Romantic :)). Beethoven and Bach are the two that stuck with me (how unusual!). I never really took to Wagner, though my father loved him.

In the 1950s, for some reason, Wagner wasn't performed very much. My father loved the Ring, so he decided to make a slide show of the whole thing. I grew up with the props (wooden swords and daggers, a club, a mace, some shields...) and pictures from the show hanging on the walls in the basement. He never finished the slide show The actor? model? who played Sigfried died saving a woman who fell overboard on a boat, and the whole thing fell apart. My father did have an hour long synopsis slide show, which he showed in a music appreciation class I took in high school.

I'm not sure I have a point, but I think it was and absurd and extremely cool undertaking.

The words "extremely cool" came into my mind somewhere around your second paragraph. Your father must have been one of those who *really* gets the Ring.

I'm always really impressed how much people on this blog know about classical music, beginning with you Mac. All I know is that some of the old masters I like more than others, but really I know nothing at all. I like Bach, Brahms, Haydn, Chopin and Tchaikovsky probably the most. Mozart and Beethoven not quite as much. Wagner even less. Any atonal sounding music I can strictly do without. But rock and roll is much more to my taste.

I love reading these posts though!

Glad you enjoy the posts. And I have to protest that I don't really know that much. But I'm enthusiastic. :-)

"Bach, Brahms, Haydn, Chopin and Tchaikovsky" is a pretty good lineup! I've confessed here before that I have kind of a reservation about Beethoven, as much as I love some of his music. Wagner is definitely not universally loved.

If you don't know The Moldau, give it a listen. It's one of those irresistible pieces. Classical musicians tend to snark at it a bit because they've played it too much. And there's a good reason why it's so popular.

The only reason I know ANYTHING is that two of my sons and one of my daughters are classically trained ueber-classical musical geeks. They helped me learn a little about sonata-allegro form, for instance.

My mom had classical music LPs and 78s that I listened to some as a kid--between the Grass Roots and the Jackson Five. I especially liked the Scherzo from Beethoven's Ninth because NBC Nightly News with Huntley and Brinkley used it as their theme. 78s of Eine Kleine Nachtmusik.

I tend towards the more popular classical pieces. My tastes run in the direction of the melodic: e.g. Vivaldi over Bach, Mozart over Beethoven, Tchaikovsky over Brahms. I even like Boccherini, whom some people don't consider serious enough.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with Boccherini! Not everything has to be serious.

I think of that college course I mentioned as being my first acquaintance with classical music, but it wasn't quite. My mother had a recording of the Nutcracker Suite which I vaguely remember being directed, if not forced, to listen to. I liked it though it couldn't compete with pop music for me at that age (10 or 12 maybe? early teens?).

My parents didn't teach us anything about classical music, but my mother kept the radio tuned to a classical music station all the time (as a child, I didn't even realize there were any other stations!). I remember one day she rolled her eyes and said, "Why do they always have to play Vivaldi?" and I was amazed that she could tell it was Vivaldi without the announcer saying so.
The first time I heard a piece and had the thought, "Hmm, that sounds like Vivaldi," I felt like I should get a certificate for being Grown Up.

I'm definitely a fan of classical "greatest hits." I like the famous pieces from famous composers. There's so much more to listen to, but I don't get tired of listening to what I know.

I would say that the most fun piece (though not the greatest) is Rossini's William Tell Overture.

And this (Grieg's Peer Gynt Suite No 1) is something I've been listening to a lot recently. (I'm impressed by the Mannheimer Philharmoniker in general, but this piece stands out).

The William Tell is great. I think I'll listen to it tomorrow.

Anne-Marie, I remember being a little impressed with myself when I first began to be able to identify composers, or at least periods. I recall a remarkable feat I witnessed in something like the College Bowl, where college students compete in quizzes. One of them identified a Beethoven piano sonata from literally one chord. I think it was the Moonlight. It wasn't just that he did it but that his reaction was so nearly instantaneous.

Now in my old age I have trouble identifying pieces that I know fairly well. I recognize them but can't place them by name and sometimes composer.

I recall at maybe somewhere around 12 or 13, reading the comics in the newspaper, and one of the characters in one the soap-opera-style strips saying he was going to attend a Debussy concert. I knew the name belonged to a classical composer and remember vaguely wondering how one knew the difference between one composer and another.

My parents had a few classical records when I was little, and also children's records in those days commonly featured classical music, so I was broadly aware of what it was from a very young age. My knowledge was limited mostly to those recordings we had at home, but I knew certain of those pieces very well. This, for instance, was a favorite of the time:

It had the 1812 Overture on Side A and Bolero on side B. In hindsight a weird coupling, but pretty exciting to a young kid. My dad was a bit of an audiophile and I think he bought it primarily for the sound as opposed to the music itself.

I also had this record -- notice the number of short classical pieces mixed in with the folk songs and nursery rhymes:

I listened to a little classical music as I got older, but didn't really catch the bug again until I saw Amadeus, and took a real liking to the music in the movie. I followed up with some other composers, info about them gained from a book about great composers that I picked up along the way. In the 90's I was in a folk group, and as a result listened to some of the English composers' folk song settings -- Vaughan Williams became a mainstay -- and then moved on to those guys' other music. In the meantime I had become Orthodox, and had started listening to sacred choral music both East and West.

Finally, sometime around 2000 or so, I went to a Bruckner symphony on a whim. I did not know Bruckner's symphonic music at all, having listened only to his sacred choral music. The symphony blew me away, and I remember driving straight from Heinz Hall to my local Borders to buy a CD (the concert was likely over around 9:30 and Borders was open till 11:00 on the weekends). That was definitely the moment when I caught the classical bug "for real," as the kids say.

My problem is that I don't have any local friends to share the music with. I have some friends that are very much into music, and we're always sharing stuff, but it's all pop and rock -- none of them is into classical.

When my kids were growing up we used to play a game at the lunch table. We would put on some kind of Spotify, Pandora, or YouTube mix of classical music. When a new piece came on we'd try to guess the period, the composer, and the name of the piece. That is how I got to know about some of the more obscure pieces.

I got to know Borodin because two our kids played one of his quartets. That is another way I got to know pieces--my kids performing them.

Many of us got this dose of opera from Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd:

I remember someone telling me that movie music was basically classical music, which at the time was true. As was a lot of cartoon music.

I don't think my children would have participated (willingly) in that kind of name-the-tune game.

The 1812 was a big favorite for a while with record companies showing off their engineering, especially in the early stereo days. I see that Morton Gould recording is an RCA Red Seal, which was really the gold standard. A lot of those recordings are still valued. The 1812 is not one of the warhorses that I greatly enjoy--I didn't hear it until I was old enough to be somewhat unimpressed by the gimmick.

I remember seeing Miss Frances and Ding-Dong School on tv. It really is pretty remarkable, the amount of high culture that was sprinkled in to entertainment until, I guess, 1970 or so. Does anybody under 50 get the Rocky and Bulwinkle humor anymore? Though I have to confess that I was at least 40 before I got the Boris Badenough/Gudonov pun.

Robert, your family sounds like the musical version of the Clifton Fadiman's. His daughter describes them watching quiz shows competitively, whacking the arms of their chairs in lieu of buzzing.

I did listen to the William Tell overture. It is a great piece. No, it's not profound, but it's great in its way. Pandora happened to have a Fritz Reiner recording, another RCA Red Seal. This is probably the original though it's been repackaged since then:

Anyway, a fittingly slam-bang performance.

Four short pieces I loved as a little kid and still enjoy. These were on LP's that either me or my parents had:

Saint-Saens: The Swan
Kabalevsky: Comedians' Gallop
Sousa: El Capitan
MacDowell: To a Wild Rose

I never heard of the Comedians' Gallop.

Oh wait--not surprisingly, I recognized it when I heard it. As would most people, probably. Talk about cartoon music!

My pastor tends to repeat his sermons year after year (I go to the TLM, so the readinfs are the same every year). I don't remember which Sunday it is, but he has recalled a teacher in his seminary (or pre-seminary) saying that the mark of a cultured person is that he can hear the William Tell Overture without thinking of the Lone Ranger. It was a good line in its time, but I doubt anyone much younger than I am (53) knows anything about the Lone Ranger. I know my son doesn't (though I hope he appreciates Rossini).

That's funny, I ran across that same remark earlier today. Can't remember where but I think it was attributed to some intellectual of an older generation. Anyway, yeah, I'm pretty sure the Lone Ranger association is rapidly fading away. Unfortunately so is classical music among younger people.

Up to the mid to late 60's there were a lot of releases of music specifically aimed at children, and they often included classical and folk pieces. But kids' music was eventually colonized by pop and absorbed into it, so that it came to resemble the same pop music their parents were listening to. Anyone born after 1968 or so would most likely not have had the same sort of informal musical education that those of us born earlier would have had, as "children's music" pretty much just disappeared. Two of the three prominent children's record labels, Golden and Cricket, stopped most of their production by the late 60's, and the third, Peter Pan Records, survived into the 70's by moving into the TV cartoon market -- their records having TV and cartoon themes.

The same has happened with music for adults. Like the change in film music. I was watching the opening of Nightmare Alley (ca. 1950) the other day and was struck by the classic-ality, so to speak, of the music. It turned out to be by one of those European composers who came to the U.S. and did film music, I can't remember which one now. This is kind of a sub-element of the whole eclipse of the Western cultural tradition.

I only watched the opening, btw, because I realized I'd seen it before. And didn't really want to see it again. It's a carnival story which includes a geek. If you don't know what that word originally meant...well, it's pretty sickening, though they don't actually show it in the movie.

I've never seen the movie but the book that it was based on was written by William Gresham, who was Joy Davidman's husband before she married C.S. Lewis.

As much as I like a lot of rock music, there was definitely something lost in the 60's when the new music won the radio wars.


I didn't know that about Nightmare Alley. The movie is good btw but pretty depressing, though I think there's a bit of upturn at the end.

There's a new movie version of Nightmare Alley - I'm almost interested, but not quite enough to watch a whole movie. I really like the old movie, and I don't really see the need for a new one.

I noticed when I looked it up on Wikipedia that there's a new film by the same name. Didn't even bother to see if it's a remake. I'll definitely pass. I hate to think what contemporary filmmakers would do with some of the stuff that's only suggested in the original.

Interesting -- hadn't heard of that. It's got a good cast, but it's directed by Guillermo Del Toro, a filmmaker whose work I haven't particularly liked. For me seeing it would depend on how graphic the whole thing is -- I'll have to read some reviews. Surprisingly it's still running at three theatres in the area, and two of them are fairly close to me.

I didn't like Pan's Labyrinth so I'm doubly not-interested. Synopses of the book and the older movie on Wikpedia indicate that the movie has a happier or at least less unhappy ending. Wikipedia also describes the newer movie as based on the book, not as a remake of the first film. That reinforces my expectation that Del Toro would emphasize, at least, rather than look away from the horror. It does as you say have an impressive cast though.

I just don't care about new movies (except maybe Dune if I ever get around to it), so I didn't pay too much attention, but Amy Welborn wrote about Nightmare Alley (the book and the movies) if anyone is interested.

Three posts apparently. I haven't read any of them yet.

They're interesting. Definitely worth reading if the book and/or movies interest you, but somewhat spoiler-ish.

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