Back in the analogue days, music almost always meant records or radio. (Remember records?) One of the first LPs I recall owning was Tchaikovsky's Romeo and Juliet overture. After becoming enthralled with it on the radio during a car ride with my father, he surprised me after school one day the following week with a new recording.
The piece is a natural for capturing the enthusiasm a young classical listener. With a bold, romantic theme and accessible emotional hooks, Tchaikovsky’s familiar stand-by goes down easily. The quieter passages imply decorous European chambers and salons; the full power of the orchestra implies all the many characterizations of adolescent passion. It’s a smart gateway drug to other, more challenging classical pieces.
Classical music regularly filled my house when I was growing up. I developed a deep appreciation for it, not least of which was because it was one of the many defining features of time spent with with my dad. In fact, shortly after college when I brought my girlfriend home for Thanksgiving, my father spirited her off to share an aria from Madame Butterfly. His eyesight was failing at that stage—he never really saw what my date looked like—but I knew that he wanted to find a shortcut into some sort of meaningful transaction with her. With limited time, and a soon-to-be full house of relatives, he shared one of his great joys with her. It was practically a Turing Test to see if she had a soul that could be moved, and thus be suitable for his son. That turned out to be the only weekend they would ever meet, and she turned out to be my future bride.
Unlike the stereotype held by wider popular culture, classical music was never stuffy in my home. It could be joyful, beautiful, sorrowful, thoughtful, exuberant: it was whatever its composers and performers wanted it to be. It was full of personalities, too, with colorful, compelling auteurs behind the scores, and larger than life performers breathing air into inert notes. The music helped weave a human tapestry, establishing thematic backdrops for conversations about literature or history or science—a genuine soundtrack to ideas.
Today, driving alone in the car, I realized that I haven’t been listening to classical music as much as I did growing up. I still listen, but now only occasionally, sometimes while doing other things, often without awareness about the particular performer, or even composer. My once surprisingly rich knowledge base has begun to flicker like a worn out fluorescent light, and my patience has thinned like over-trafficked wooden floors beneath it. My laments about this are many and varied, even as I’m keenly aware that some of my reasons are sophomoric and narrow.
Eurocentric intelligencia used to be the north star of the thinking, developed world. In the twenty-first century, that’s no longer the case. In so many ways that’s a good thing, as countless other cultural ideas and ideals suddenly have voices that had long been suppressed at worst, or simply without adequate agency to overcome white European hegemony. But I cannot help but wonder if dilution of the richness borne in sophisticated European musical traditions is an unrealized loss to many around the world who might not otherwise be exposed to its sounds.
It’s not a surprise, but that global dilution is principally a function of more input sources than most of us can handle. It’s not (I hope) ethnocentric hauteur that categorizes classical into superior hierarchies; it would be the height of coarse, short-sighted elitism to measure quality in such a way. Instead, it’s important to consider that not all things are equivalent. A bag of potato chips will address a person’s hunger, but that doesn’t make it equivalent to fine cooking. Classical music requires a little more time and attention to consume than click-bait digital clips and hyper fast videos. Drowning in a sea of information, it’s hard to sip thoughtfully.
A corollary to this challenge has to do with style. A pre-internet era, even during the computerized end of the twentieth century, facilitated a pace of information consumption that shaped the style of that information. Form follows function. With ubiquitous information, stylistic trends in music demand that subject and tone emerge for listeners in the first beat, the first word, the first moment of existence. Classical music requires more patience. Beethoven’s epic ninth symphony opens with bravura drama—and it does so quickly by classical standards. But compared to today’s modern hooks, it’s positively laborious as it holds its punch for the whole orchestra to enter. (Take the time and listen closely if you haven’t before. And hold on to your socks.)
Classical music also continues to fade because we have relegated it to undefended future experience. Like the endless shelf of books that we intend to read someday, we tell ourselves that we’d like to listen…when we have the time to pay attention. Just not right now. The fact that everything is now searchable means we no longer have to take the time to absorb something complex. “I could if I wanted to— but right now I’m busy.” By refusing to sink the time to experience something complex, we endlessly trade our present for an unattainable future. We marginalize our origins for a hypothetical apotheosis that will never arrive. This results in the abandonment of our cultural legacies, and not just Eurocentric ones. The process of cultural forgetting has become a process of eternal discarding. We convince ourselves that we’re “upgrading”, that we’re moving into the future, but in fact we are forgetting our own hometowns.
To be clear, I’m not one who believes that nostalgia is adequate reason for preservation. I love contemporary media for so many reasons, just as I lament the fading light and color of older styles. I’m also aware (sometimes painfully) that there’s only so much time in a day. In an era with seemingly endless, ubiquitous invention and creation, how could we ever have time for all of the books we told ourselves we ought to read, all of the old black and white movies we thought might enjoy late at night on the couch, all nine of Gustav Mahler’s superb, challenging symphonies?
The answer is, we can’t. There isn’t enough time for it all, and every day the great churning engine of human invention manages to add new material, some of it extraordinary. Modern culture comes from somewhere, even if modern culture tries hard to marginalize those origins to the point of obscurity. I do not want to live in the past, just as I do not want to surround myself singularly with its artifacts, but I would rather be able to slide along a long tether that extends backwards through time as much as it reaches forward.
I miss being conversant about classical music like I was as a kid. I miss the intensity of focus to sit and just listen, to actually concentrate on a composer’s singular intention for the entirety of it’s composition. I fight against my impatience, even as I’m aware of the irony it describes.
As I age, I’m aware that the desire to experience the world sometimes matters more than opportunity. I will always sit up straight and pay attention when I catch a wisp of Mendelssohn’s Octet. I always hear poetry and romance in the diamond clarity of Chopin’s polonaises. Even if my modern existence conspires against being able to really listen (as it usually does) I find that force of decades-old habit has me quietly check to see what’s scheduled to play at the Met on Saturday afternoons.
To live a creative life is to be able to focus, at least for short periods of time. The trick is not to abandon all previous points of focus for indistinct, unresolved inventions of the present or future. Remember: we all got to this moment because of the path behind us, not the path in front.