Classical Rant

Ben at the office

[Following on from his previous Sunday Rant, Matthew’s brother Ben returns with his musings on this so-called ‘classical’ music we’ve been hearing so much about.]

So a while back Toad mentioned in on of his posts that he did not like classical music.  Now it was clearly partial joke, partial exaggeration and partial truth.  Now, there are a few absurdities here.  Firstly, classical is used as a blanket term for all music that involves an orchestra, including but not limited to all music played in Europe before about 1900 not played with sticks on an upturned tree stump.  This is of course totally absurd.  Classical music is in fact a term that describes a style that was typified by the music or the classical era which fell roughly between Baroque and Romantic.  Obviously to assume Matthew  was making a specific criticism of this one period would also be absurd.  Although given that the classical period began with Hayden, sauntered through Mozart and died around the same time Beethoven did, it’s not a huge stretch say that half of all the music we think of as classical music actually is Classical music.  Anyway, that was not what Matthew was talking about so I will defend “all music written for an orchestra, including but not limited to all music written before 1900 not played on cows bladder stretched across a barrel” because Matthews assertion that he doesn’t like it is, of course, absurd.

If you wish to defend classical nowadays you really have to start with film, as an example of the scope .  This is probably where most people hear the most classical music.  It also provides the best look as to why it is so moving.  Films can tackles big stuff.  War, star-crossed lovers, cancer and the romantic life of Sandra Bullock.   And frankly when you are dealing with emotions that powerful it really is hard to imagine the indie song that really cuts it.  If Humphrey Bogart had walked away to the tune of Walk Away Renee people would have felt cathartically cheated.  This is one of the reasons that Classical and film have made such wonderful bedfellows.  Probably (let’s face it, unquestionably) the most famous classical composer around right now is John Williams.  The reason for this is that he can put a score that describes  ‘oh bugger, my Father is an intergalactic genocidal warlord, who just gave up everything, killed his mentor and sacrificed his life to save to free the galaxy of tyranny’ and it is absolutely appropriate.  There is no sound on earth, not a single one, besides the swell of an orchestra that can achieve that.

Now Mr. Toad once implied that classical music is, in these circumstances, little more than decoration or a side dish.  This of course is not true, however, because most people are only exposed to classical music through film I can certainly see why he would think that.  Let us cast our mind back however to the Deathcast.  Mozart’s Requiem expresses a grandeur that I have never found matched in any form of music other than classical.  Without the ability to add and subtract sounds and build layers there just doesn’t to me seem to be a  way to really establish the depth and range of feelings that a man goes through as he approaches his own end.  The fear, the desire to leave a legacy, the anger and the confusion.  Nick Cave, in the Mercy Seat can express one small facet, in one specific circumstance.  If you go back and search the Deathcast Toad put together you will see that each of these song has a a very narrow scope.  Not so Mozart’s Requiem.  This is a piece of music that Mozart wrote specifically because he felt no one could express how he felt as he approached death, and because he is Mozart he is able to write a piece that without ever getting bogged down in telling a story is able to directly address the emotion of a man in the last days of life.

Even music which falls broadly into the already broadly accepted definition of classical does this.  If you YouTube the ballet ‘In The Upper Room’, you will find a ballet scored by Phillip Glass that is about the joy of dancing.  When asked what the ballet is about the choreographer, Twyla Tharp refuses to be more specific that.  And the music complements that beautifully.  It is just joyful  Nothing more, nothing less.  Movement 9 of this ballet is the culmination of a 45 minute build to a massive crescendo that in the twenty odd times I’ve done this ballet has never failed to draw a standing ovation.  It really is a lot of fun.  I’m fairly sure Phillip Glass would flip his lid if he found it on YouTube but I do strongly recommend finding this music somewhere and listening to it.

So, the question then remains why do people not listen to more classical music.  I can only speculate, but here are some thoughts.

First, classical has a huge dynamic range.  The loud bits are really loud and the quite bits really subtle.  This is wonderful for tugging the heart strings but less good for the office, or other background music venues.

Secondly a pop song lasts three minutes; the average symphony is about ten times that. So we are left listening to our classical while watching Jeff Goldblum gets chased by a tyrannosaurus rex, which at least ties into the the whole Mozart fear of death thing.  However, I really defy anyone to sit and listen to any of the great symphonies in a room for 45 minutes and not be bowled over.  I know most people reading this blog make time to sit and listen.  Listen to film stuff, be it Star Wars, or the Star Trek music (surprisingly good.  The Theme for the Common Man which starts Deep Space 9 is amazing when you sit a listen to the whole thing), or a something everyone knows like Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet, Mozart’s Requiem or Beethoven’s anything.  But listen to a whole work rather than those best of CDs from Woolworths.