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Rethinking “Classical Music”: A Broad Perspective

In the mid-1950s, rock ‘n’ roll “suddenly” swept the United States, seeming to emerge as a heretofore unknown and mysterious force seducing the nation’s youth. Chuck Berry told Beethoven to roll over, “and tell Tchaikovsky the news.” The point was well taken by the aforementioned youth, tired of hearing empty platitudes about the “greatness” of classical music. Alex Ross relates this trend in an evocative outtake from his book The Rest Is Noise. (It really should have been left in, as this period was critical in the overall musical history of the twentieth century.) During the 1950s and 1960s, rock ‘n’ roll emerged as a vital musical force. Certain rock ‘n’ roll musicians, most notably The Beatles, received praise from a number of musicians associated with the “classical” world, especially those who had grown weary of the posturing of avant garde composers from that time.

Roughly 30 years later, rock ‘n’ roll had become well-established as a cultural phenomenon in the United States and beyond. If you remember 1987, think about the music surrounding you. Not just in your personal life, but in the lives of others. At that time, I was a young adolescent, trying to find my “place” among my schoolmates. That was the year I got back into classical music, making discoveries as I browsed through my mother’s phonograph albums, and starting my path towards developing my own classical tastes. Needless to say, on top of my pre-existing difficulties fitting in, my initial musical tastes (which gravitated towards various Russians) made me seem a bit more strange, as “everyone else” was listening to stuff like Walk Like and Egyptian, No Sleep Til Brooklyn, Girls, Girls, Girls, and various “hair bands.” Needless to say, my nostalgic sense is a bit skewed. While some of my contemporaries now lament feeling old upon realizing the age of then-new popular music from our youth, I have developed a more recent fondness for some of that same music. Perhaps it is due to a rose-tinted view of a bygone time, or my broadening sense of what constitutes good music (which, of course, ties in with my research into cross-genre similarities).

So now, another quarter century has passed. For most of us, the “dangerous” music of our youth has now become a source of familiar comfort. Parents, even grandparents, who loved AC/DC in their youth can now buy onesies, pacifiers, and bibs with the band’s logo. There’s even a recording of AC/DC lullaby music. Also, not unlike classical music, rock ‘n’ roll has its own canon of creators. Make some guesses, then compare them with inductees listed on the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame website.

But what of classical music? Once again, I ask you to do a thought exercise, especially if you know very little about it. What comes to mind? Dead white European guys? Some white-haired guy conducting a bunch of middle-aged guys in tuxedos (and maybe a few women in little black dresses)? Chunky people singing in a language other than English? Tuxedoed audiences sitting all prim and proper, waiting to clap politely and shout the occasional “bravo” when the music’s over? Or, the polar opposite stereotype, with lush orchestral and operatic music portraying intimate, passionate evenings? If so, that’s only scratching the surface of what classical music (and, by extension, opera) is, and I likely would have drifted away from it long ago. For me, it’s all about the music itself, whether the performers are old or young, skinny or chunky. Opera plots stretch credibility, distending on many occasions into ridiculousness. But I don’t care, as long as I love the music.

During my adolescence, I was convinced that, to all intents and purposes, I was the only person my age listening to classical music; that I was in on some special secret, and that I would be among the last to carry on the fine tradition, somehow. (Put another way, my “discovery” of Richard Strauss at 15 was probably similar to another 15-year-old’s “discovery” of Led Zeppelin.) But then, growing up in a small rural town was my frame of reference. At university, I met others who listened to classical and opera, along with other genres. Strange as it seemed then, I have come to some understanding of how that was possible. Now, it has gotten to a point where I accept that classical and opera performers are starting to get younger than me: conductors like Yannick Nézet-Séguin, Daniel Harding, and Gustavo Dudamel, as well as opera singers such as Elīna Garanča and Measha Brueggergosman.

Of course, these performers are perhaps best-known for bringing to life the music of composers from the past. For instance, Dudamel has developed a reputation as an excellent interpreter of his near-namesake Mahler, and Garanča’s portrayal of Carmen in the eponymous opera is aptly seductive. But what of living composers? The notion may seem odd to people unfamiliar with classical music, but the same is true for many people who listen to it. I am guilty of this as well, possibly for the same reasons why some classical musicians 50 years ago found popular music more vital than newer “classical” compositions. But there are a number of composers creating music for instruments associated with the genre, not all of it inaccessible or difficult. As Ross states in an essay that includes a pointed critique of the term “classical music” (“a masterpiece of negative publicity, a tour de force of anti-hype”), it remains a “tenaciously living art.” This may refer to various resuscitations of past composers, but I suspect that he also refers to the emergence of new works.

About a year ago, Olivia Giovetti praised up-and-coming composer Polina Nazaykinskaya. Born in 1987, the year when hair bands and synth pop were all the rage among my contemporaries, Nazaykinskaya’s works evoke a number of relatively tonal 20th century composers. Giovetti is reminded of Dmitri Shostakovich, Alexander Glazunov, and Erich Korngold, while Nazaykinskaya herself lists Shosty, Sergei Prokofiev, Georgy Sviridov, and Henryk Górecki as influences. Even if you don’t know the names, they signify musical languages that are relatively accessible, at least compared to more diligently avant garde stuff. Giovetti has links to two compositions by Nazaykinskaya on her posting (“Winter Bells” and “Ophelia’s Song”), while the composer herself has a YouTube page with more performances of her works. There is an aspect of melancholy and apprehensive hope to many of them, so give them a listen if you’re in such a mood.

Over 50 years ago, it seemed necessary for “classical music” (epitomized by Beethoven and Tchaikovsky) to move aside for a new musical form, associated with vitality and youth. But it never really went away and, as Alex Ross points out, it can remain a vital form of expression as well. Living composers like Nazaykinskaya, along with numerous others whom many of us have yet to encounter, demonstrate that this is the case. Long live… all music because, as Leonard Bernstein said upon winning the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, all [good] music “is one.”

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