Considering my classical history

I am sitting in a room listening to piano music. It is the music of Charles-Valentin Alkan, a man who – perhaps with a nod to musical history hyperbole – apparently died trapped beneath a bookcase. He was an older man, so I assume an bookcase hitting you would be a terrible thing. I wouldn’t like to be hit with a bookcase now, I guess, and I’m a lot younger than seventysomething.

It’s a musical death that has parallels with Jean-Baptiste Lully. I don’t mean that they died from the same thing – I mean more that their deaths are funny. I mean, who dies from gangrene resulting from a forceful beating of time? (So forceful that his staff pierced his shoe,and his foot, delivering an infection that would end him, because he decided he wouldn’t have an amputation because it would hinder his ability to dance. Being dead does too, guy.) It’s such a laughable death – laughable until it happens to you, I imagine – that when in Paris with my then-partner, we made an effort to snap a photo with his likeness in the Opéra Garnier.

Anyway, the man’s music is playing in the background as I type. It’s a collection of studies for the piano, a Naxos release. There’s a jaunty energy to it, and a certain tone I’ve come to associate with French works for piano. It’s a bit busier than Debussy, though it’s closer to him than it is, say, Satie. It’s at once playful and solemn, the perfect thing to accompany writing where you don’t know what you’re saying.

When discussing the music I speak as if I know what I’m talking about. I’ve a passing familiarity with the composers I mention, and any viewpoint I have is the result of years of listening rather than years of study – I am purely self-taught about the genre, though I have an unquenchable desire to know more.

I first came to classical music through repeated playing of the Amadeus soundtrack in the car on long family trips. I came to know most of the Requiem this way, as well as several other ‘hits’ of the composer, I suppose you’d call them. It was music that was obviously old and, it seemed to me, grown up. Now, as an actual grown-up I find it funny to consider the naivete of such a statement – it seems the older I get the more into idiosyncratic hilarity I stray, rather than Serious Music.

Anyway, I knew the Amadeus soundtrack, as well as snippets of opera from the incredible Looney Tunes cartoons featuring same. It’s impossible to hear Wagner without hearing Fudd’s demands for a dead rabbit, or to hear Rossini without imagining Bugs Bunny massaging a head with his toes. It’s very clever, and I suspect it’s how a lot of people had their start: high culture as the sidekick to visual slapstick.

My father (in particular) was and is a big fan of Gilbert and Sullivan’s operetta, and so I had a pretty good working knowledge of those guys, too. If you pick one of the works (well, most of them) I would be able to give you a fairly decent rendition of a patter song from it. They’re slightly more literate earworms, for all the topsy-turvy.

though you probably know this one better:

Add to the mix Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain from the demonic section in Fantasia, as well as his Pictures at an Exhibition from (amongst other places) The New Statesman‘s theme music. I recall being taught – in the scant music lessons I remember from primary school – a ditty about how to pronounce Camille Saint-Saëns’ name, and about how a mispronunciation would cause him to be wracked with pain. Then, I recall the way I heard his Danse Macabre and remembered being terrified and elated at the idea of Death the fiddler, knocking on people’s graves to get them up and about.

The thing I find about classical music is that you’re still led to believe it’s something apart, something serious, something special. And by not knowing about it, you’re a bit of an idiot. I certainly felt that way. I missed the opportunity for music lessons, really, or else I didn’t pursue them (which is more likely) so I never became someone conversant in the music even. It turned out that only by asking a friend of mine at school could I discover what I should listen to. I asked her to write me a list of pieces that I should know, so that I could explore them on the relatively new label Naxos, where I wouldn’t have to pay expensive prices for them. She wrote me a long list – she knew a lot about the stuff and I do hope I still have it somewhere – and gave running commentary on the recommendations. I remember Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana being called great old German drinking songs, which is certainly apt.

I began buying things on the list, listening, hearing more and more. Hearing things that were more structured than verse chorus verse, things that were new and were traditional. I got into Mahler because I’d heard it mentioned (perjoratively) in reference to Paul Keating, and I’d seen some Mahler at my uncle’s house, and heard a little on a documentary about colour Nazi film. I still don’t know what snippet the documentary used (possibly something from his first?) but hope to never find out as it may spoil it. I’d heard Vivaldi – thanks to Kennedy, hadn’t bloody everyone? – and was conversant with a bit of Beethoven. We had that part-works publication which covered a composer each week and came with a CD on the front – from here I learned about other big, but unfamiliar names.

Our house had a lot of classical music because of the love for piano (and pianola) of my mother, inherited from my Nan and her sister. One of Mum’s favourite possessions is Klemperer-conducted LP of Mozart overtures I’ve yet to find on CD. But even though we had a lot of it around, I was never somehow schooled in it – I think we moved overseas at a crucial juncture and the momentum was lost. For Christ’s sake, my first-ever CD purchase was Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s Variations orchestrations – a gilding of a joke lily, especially when I discovered, you know, Paganini where all that stuff really came from.

Slowly, I gained knowledge. Classical is like folk music in that there’s a thousand streets to run down to get to your destination, all individual stops along the line, changing the message until it gets to something that fits with you. You like showtunes? Head off for some Gershwin. You’ve a yen for helicopters? Check out Stockhausen. Propellors and player-pianos? Antheil! Vietnam? Crumb.

There’s thousands of composers all trying to do the same thing – have their thoughts heard outside their heads, birthing notes in search of a listener. And there’s millions of listeners, trying to keep up, or to get the sort of working knowledge that allows them to engage with working writers of music who have a head start on the whole appreciation of form and musical history thing. At least, that’s me – I do tend to listen to music which probably makes the enjoyment thing a bit more difficult than it needs to be.

(For all that, though, one of my favourite composers is Arvo Pärt. I once mailed a letter to Universal Edition, his publishers, full of enthusiastic stream-of-fanboy stuff enthusing about the planetary shifts within his sound-world. (You know, as if he wasn’t aware of it.) I received back a very humble reply, downplaying his role as a creator, but thankful of having a listener with such attention, and wishing me the best for my endeavours. I like to think of this letter, decades later, and the attitude within. I try to apply it where I can.)

For a couple of years I was a regular concertgoer – I now go nowhere near as much, to my disappointment. I took advantage of youth prices for the ACO until my irritation with the orchestra’s promotion caused me to stop. But in those years I saw a lot of stuff, and a lot of favourite pieces. I saw classical wankerdom up close (An orchestra leader waving an irritated shushing hand at crowd at a public gig who dared clap at a pause in Barber’s Adagio for Strings, something understandable if you’d no idea about the thing – let’s bear in mind the other pieces included Herrmann’s music for Psycho, so it’s likely they weren’t concert hall regulars!) and saw people transported and bored out of their minds. I’ve seen famous performers suck and groups of students knock a crowd over with their skill. It’s something you only really get from live performance. It was a live performance of Faust that a younger me (still working in the mailroom) got to shush some blue-rinse gasbags more interested in croquet discussion than Marguerite’s arias – it’s a bit weak an example of speaking truth to power but it’s what I got.

I’d like to see more live stuff, but cost becomes a factor. The curmudgeon in me would rather spend $60 on a couple of CDs of something I’d like to hear again than one ephemeral evening. Though I suppose the transitory nature of the performance is kind of the point, and to forego it completely is to miss out on a lot. Certainly, the oomph of certain pieces is only conveyed by its live rendition. Case in point: pretty much every Xenakis recording does the work an injustice.

I’m now at the point where I can pick favourite renditions of pieces (Barbirolli’s unpopularly slow Mahler Six, thanks) and appreciate the difference between different takes on the same thing, even with the same performer – Glenn Gould, I’m looking at you, you humming fuck – but I still know next to nothing. I’ve some fluency, and a lot of desire (as well as a lot of CDs which I’m having to, embarrassingly, use a cataloging program to manage) to increase my knowledge. I want to write stuff. There’s a big future, but there’s an even bigger pool of music – just have a look at the free stuff you can find in the scores stakes online, and consider that that’s largely the out-of-print stuff that people have bothered to scan – so it’s easy to have the anxiety of choice. I know the directions I like (dreamy or machinelike) and the composers I enjoy (broadly split into older and newer) and so I guess that’s direction enough.

The thing about classical music which keeps me going despite the Sisyphean task of trying to deal with my own collection (let alone any other) is a conversation I had in Virgin Music in Pitt St Mall, years ago. I was in their classical department, hidden away from the rest of the store behind big doors. A long-haired, middle-aged man manned the counter, and when the rest of the patrons left – I was very aware of not wanting to appear some kind of dilettante in this world of opus numbers – I meekly asked how I should choose which version of Elgar’s Enigma Variations I should buy.

The man said it didn’t matter. He smiled as he explained that the point was understanding Elgar’s music, not who played it.

“You won’t get it. For the longest time, it will make no sense,” he said. And one day – usually a Tuesday – God will tap you on the shoulder and it will make absolute sense.”

That revelation, the moment where the music unlocks itself, when the puzzle-box opens and suddenly you get it. When something that didn’t make sense becomes a favourite. When there’s a joke and you’re in on it. When you feel as if the soloist performs just for you. When you feel the vibrations of the world in the space between your ears.

That’s what drives me.

(This thing grew from my daily 750words practice.)

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