Monday, March 4, 2013

Orienting Musically in Time

It is possible to have a developed appreciation of music while remaining quite ignorant of it—to be a kind of musical primitive. By primitive here I mean a person who has experienced the phenomenon over a significant period of time but has no words to describe why he or she likes this or that. I am such a primitive. Written material about music completely baffles me—even after I’ve looked up scores of words. As others before me have pointed out, all dictionaries are circular. They define words using words, and in music the “answers” are in the same language as the “questions.” To illustrate:

The second half of the 16th century witnessed the beginnings of the tradition which many music lovers readily associate with the normal feel of ‘classical’ music. Gradually, composers moved away from the modal system of harmony which had predominated for over 300 years (and still sounds somewhat archaic to some modern ears), towards the organisation of their work into major and minor scales, thereby imparting the strong sensation of each piece having a definite tonal centre or ‘key’.

If now you begin your lookups with “modal,” you will get this for mode (from Wikipedia citing OED): “a type of scale, coupled with a set of characteristic melodic behaviours.” You look up scale and you get: “any set of musical notes ordered by fundamental frequency or pitch.” You look up pitch and you get: “Pitch is a perceptual property that allows the ordering of sounds on a frequency-related scale.”  The message for the musical primitive is: to know music from inside, you have to live it; listening is not enough. Spend some decades playing it…

The same source that produced my conceptual bafflement, however, Naxos.com, which calls itself The World’s Leading Classical Music Group (link), also provided for me the kind of information that I am adequate to grasp—adequate when I combine it with a life-time of now-and-again concert-going. It is a timeline of music from about 1150; the text then names the leading figures in each period into which Naxos divides the timeline.

In the Medieval period, I recognized none of the names—but I am very fond of that sort of music. In the Renaissance period, Palestrina, yes! My great favorites are from the Baroque era, among the Johann Sebastian Bach, the ultimate for me. In the Classical, there is Mozart, but as that era gropes its way toward modernity, I begin to approach neutrality, not perhaps for Schubert but certainly for Beethoven. The ill winds of the French Revolution are becoming tangible. In the Early Romantic Smetana is meaningful, but have I heard anything other than Die Moldau? I doubt it. In the Late Romantic fall such figures as Brahms, Bruckner, Verdi, and Wagner. Bruckner for me, and certain Verdi arias. As for the aftermath, there is one name there I rather value: Aaron Copeland. But, generally, my mind produces only shudders when I hear the words “modern music.” Or rather, to be more rational about it, here and there, rarely, a composer seems to suggest, in one or several of works, that the spirit of music is still alive but, mostly, buried.

Popular taste seems to resonate with mine—aside from the occasional lover of Wagner, one of my Mother’s favorites. Mostly when I look over a program, it is a mixture of Baroque and Classical—with a few dips into the early romantics. Orchestral modernity does not support its moderns aggressively at all (though it attempts to “educate” us)—because the audience would stay away.

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