Ultima Thule

In ancient times the northernmost region of the habitable world - hence, any distant, unknown or mysterious land.

Monday, April 17, 2006

A Sour Note on Modern Times

By Aussiegirl

In the Washington area there are two classical music stations, WGMS, a commercial station, and WBJC, a non-commercial station. WGMS has a top-40's approach to the classics, almost always playing Beethoven's Sixth -- and almost always only one movement -- and, of the 32 Beethoven piano sonatas, almost always it's the Moonlight. (As far as his piano sonatas go, the Hammerklavier, surely one of the most sublime, profound, transcendently beautiful pieces of piano music ever written -- well, WGMS played it a while back, sometime after 1 a.m. -- no chance someone with a short attention span might accidently hear it and dismiss classical music.)

On the other hand, WGMS is a consistently highly rated station, and one needs to be grateful for small favors. Many large cities have no classical stations left at all.

In much the same way, one can decry the "popularization" of classical music with such venues as "The Three Tenors", "The Three Sopranos", the "Three Irish Tenors", and even (gag) Andrea Bocelli and the cloying Charlotte Church. I'm of two minds about these things. On the one hand I hate to see fine classics sung by crooners like Bocelli, who bring little voice, even less training and even less interpretation and intelligence to great works. On the other hand, at this point, almost any way to bring classical music into the mainstream and expose a larger population to its beauties is a worthwhile endeavor. In many way, classical music in the 20th Century has suffered from an over-intellectualization, where any music that had a melody or was understandable or enjoyable by a wide audience was immediately distained by the snooty cognoscenti and self-appointed czars of taste, and modern classical music took its place alongside modern art -- an intellectual conceit based on an overintellectualized theory which masked a complete lack of talent or art.

What the self-appointed experts forgot is that in its time, classical music was wildly popular among the masses.

In Verdi's time it didn't take long for the popular tunes of famous arias to be heard on every street corner, sung by sidewalk vendors and shop merchants. Organ grinders regularly updated their instruments to churn out the latest hits by Verdi or Puccini.

As a matter of fact, there a charming story that goes with the premiere of Rigoletto. When the opera was in rehearsal, Verdi never allowed the tenor to sing the now-famous aria "La Donna e Mobile" out loud. He insisted that it never be rehearsed. He knew that it was the signature aria from the opera, and destined for popularity. He realized that if it were sung during rehearsal it would be picked up by stage hands and others and that even before the opera's premier it would already be being heard on the streets. He was right. The opera premiered to great success, and as Verdi predicted, "La Donna e Mobile" is hummed to this day by even non-opera lovers.

So perhaps I should be indulgent and quit complaining on hearing "The Bartered Bride" for the umpteenth time. But just once in a while, it would be nice to hear some of the string quartets, or some piece by Bach other than the Brandenberg Concerto. While we love the Pastoral Symphony, there were eight others too.

Wired News: A Sour Note on Modern Times

I tuned into my local classical music station the other day and was pleased to hear the andante from Beethoven's Sixth Symphony. I would like to have heard the movements that followed it, too, but the station chose to play Ludwig's scene by the brook as if it were written as a stand-alone piece of music.

Regardless of its length, the symphony -- or concerto, or chamber work -- was meant to be heard as a unified piece of music, not chopped into bits and served as finger food. Yet increasingly, classical stations everywhere are doing exactly that. There are some legitimate reasons, survival being foremost among them.

Bill Lueth, program director at KDFC in San Francisco, says that with classical stations dying all over the country, something had to be done to attract new listeners and keep the format alive. [...]

In other words, to take music that was written for the concert hall or salon, when the world turned more slowly, and somehow fit it into the peripatetic, pedal-to-the-metal world we now inhabit. That's a tall order. Lueth says the strategy is working, though, and we can only hope he's right. [...]

Life is a sprint these days. So maybe the right solution for the purveyors of the classics is to take a work of 40 minutes and cut it to 10, giving you time to catch a quick listen before moving on to the next big thing in your day.

Lovers of classical music may well worry for its future, at least on the public airwaves. But whether you love classical music or not, you should be worried, too. What's happening at KDFC and its sister stations only mirrors what's happening in society at large.

Speed kills. That used to refer to the dangers of driving too fast, and sometimes to the drug. Now it more ominously refers to the unhealthy pace at which we live our lives, coerced by rampaging technology into cramming as much as possible into our waking hours. This isn't good for an individual's well-being. But even if you're indifferent to everyone's need for a little wa, the bean counter in you should appreciate this: It's also counterproductive. [...]

One recent study, commissioned by a manufacturer of organizational products and reported by Reuters, concluded that technology has sped things up to the point where, paradoxically, everything is slowing down. [...]

Time for a little Beethoven.

Next time you feel the squeeze, stop. Put on that CD of Beethoven's Sixth languishing in your stacks. Listen to the entire symphony. Then go to work and tell your boss that your bus ran over somebody's BlackBerry and blew a tire.


At 12:04 PM, Anonymous pianogirl said...

What's even more frustrating is having a piece "end" before it's supposed to, and hearing an ad, or the weather or the traffic report take place "on time". Thanks for expressing my frustrations so well!


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