In my most recent post in this series, I referred to the “staccato” opening statement of the fifth symphony. A reader corrected me: “The first movement’s theme is not marked staccato.” I thanked the reader and made a correction.
The error reflected a fact I don’t generally shout from the rooftops: I’m not classically trained. I can’t read music; the best I can do is strum chords on a guitar, banjo, or ukulele. My understanding of “staccato” was loose; I was aware that it was a musical term, but hadn’t given much thought to the fact that something that sounds, to my casual ear, generally along the lines of what I think of as “staccato” might not be precisely that.
My error — which I happily acknowledge was necessary and appropriate to correct, and am grateful to have been made aware of — caused me to start thinking about what it means to write about classical music as someone who’s not classically trained. What are the limitations inherent in doing so? How is the perspective of someone who can’t read music different than the perspective of someone who can?
(While we’re in brutal full-disclosure mode, let’s also acknowledge that I have poor pitch: music teachers asked me not to sing in school musicals beyond grade school, and when I was once cast in a lead role with a vocal solo, the director asked me to try rapping it.)
Music is a rich art form, and there are many different dimensions to approaching and appreciating it. Though my parents didn’t make me take piano lessons–and I absolutely did not want to — when I was a kid, I was introduced to classical music at home. In addition to my dad’s records — the very ones I’m listening to right now, in fact — there were TV and movies.
Like generations of kids, I remember Disney’s Fantasia as being one of my first introductions to classical music; John Williams’s Star Wars score — shamelessly cribbing from the playbooks of Wagner, Holst, and Stravinsky — showed me, as well as many of my fellow Gen-Xers, the power of the symphony orchestra. Alan Alda’s The Four Seasons (1981) was a family favorite, so my siblings and I learned to associate Vivaldi’s stirring strings with the dramatic passing of each Minnesota season.
Still, classical music wasn’t something I’d felt I had cultural permission to own. By “own,” I mean not just literally owning records, but owning it as something I actively listened to and felt invested in. In modern consumer culture, music isn’t just something we listen to for enjoyment, it’s something we use to represent our identities to others. Wearing an R.E.M. t-shirt was cool…but would it be okay for me to wear a Beethoven t-shirt?
I started slowly, buying budget CDs of The Four Seasons and The Planets when I was in college. I started subscribing to BBC Music Magazine, which includes a complete work on CD with every issue. I read books and guides, the best of all being Jan Swafford’s Vintage Guide to Classical Music, still one of the best-written books — on any subject — I’ve ever read.
(Swafford actually lived down the street from me when I was at Harvard for grad school, and though we never met, sometimes when my roommate and I were walking home late after having a few drinks at the bar, we’d bellow, “Schoenberg! SCHOENBERG!” Sorry, Jan.)
When I finished grad school and became an arts journalist, I’d amassed enough experience with classical music that I felt confident enough to occasionally write about it: occasional reviews, news articles, and think-pieces that drew on my sociological study of cultural fields — where classical music looms large in any discussion of “high,” “low,” “middlebrow,” “nobrow,” or what have you.
I was excited, last fall, to be hired at Minnesota Public Radio, where I split my time between Classical MPR and the Current. Though my new colleagues have been very generous and enthusiastic in their offers of support if I ever were to feel lost in the musical weeds, I was still a little nervous. I love classical music, and I know a fair bit about it — but could I ever really know classical music without technical training? Would I forever be, in some sense, an outsider?
As it happened, shortly after I started at MPR, I met the stage director Peter Sellars — well-known in the classical music world for his collaborations with composers and performers including, most notably, John Adams. Adams has praised Sellars for the musical sensitivity that makes him a superb collaborator despite the fact that Sellars isn’t classically trained, and I asked Peter if he had any advice for me as a classical-music latecomer going to work at a classical music station.
Peter smiled. “When something is happening in the music,” he said, “you know. Don’t you? Your toes curl. You just know.”
The symphony I’m listening to right now, Beethoven’s Pastoral, is one that my dad describes listening to in Naples when he lived there during his U.S. Navy service. Dad and his friends would sit out on Dad’s balcony, drink a little wine, and blast the sixth. Dad doesn’t have much more musical training than I do, but over 40 years later, he still remembers how on those Italian summer evenings, there was nothing like Beethoven.
When something is happening, you know. You just know.
Previously in Blogging the Beethoven Bicentennial Collection:
• Symphonies 4 & 5
• Symphonies 3 & 4
• Symphonies 2 & 3
• Symphonies 1 & 2