Saturday, June 25, 2005

CLASSICAL CULTURE: Saving Our Orchestras


My minor in college was Music. I played the cello for many years. I fell in love with it when I was a child. Why?

We went to Chicago to see "Fantasia". The only part of fantasia I really liked was the Beethoven Sixth. I was struck directly by a very powerful lightning bolt that hit the tree outside the open window of my bedroom at Yerkes Observatory. Since I loved the pictures of Pegasus in the observatory rotunda, I felt that Pegasus flew down to save me when I was hit. So I was amazed to see the flying horse families in that cartoon.

When the first one flew onto the screen, the music swelled with a beautiful, playful theme. "What are they playing," I whispered to my mother. "Cellos," she answered.

I never achieved cellohood, not being blessed with sufficient talent, but I love music a lot. From the NYT:
All over the Western world, the alarm is sounding that classical music is in trouble. Orchestra subscription sales are dropping widely, in some cases by as much as two percentage points a year. Ensembles are not balancing their budgets. Audiences are getting older; young people are turned off by classical music. The Chicago Symphony can no longer sell decently even at its own festival. So, at least, goes the refrain.
This is true. As pop music fills stadiums, the orchestras, which used to be loud and daring thanks to having a huge number of musicians, declines. This is due to many factors starting with amplification of noise. Orchestras started out really small 300 years ago and they played rather delicate music. Mozart is a fine filigree of sound. Then Hayden and Beethoven came along, two titans who, being boisterous Germans working with equally boisterous and uppity audiences, made loud, crashing music. It sounds delicate to our ears, plummeled by artificial boosters, but in its day, they were startlingly loud. The orchestra doubled in size during Beethoven's revolutionary life. Each symphony he wrote required a bigger and bigger machine until the great ninth which roars in the ears, a shocking sympathy.

Wagner took the Beethovian orchestra, put it in the pit and charged it up to the max. The final opera of the Ring der Niebelungen ends with Goetterdaemmerung's crashing, terrifying explosive ending. The arc of this development, most of which happened in Germany and tracked Germany's rise and fall, reached its apex as Germany flexed imperial muscle and started WWI. Gustav Mahler, the end product of this great arc, died as the first guns lined up for the German Goetterdaemmerung. He reversed Beethoven, his first symphonies loud and brash and then quieting down until the ninety which sighed and whispered into nothingness.

Arnold Schoenberg took over. His Guerrelieder is patterned after master Mahler's Symphony of a Thousand, a full, giant packed orchestra and huge chorus. Very beautiful, hairraising music. Sitting up in the rafters of Carnegie Hall, awash with the full bellow of the 50 man male chorus, I shivered with delight. But WWI shattered Schoenberg and he had a vision as awful as the one that possessed Hitler the same year: he decided to murder music.

Yes, kill it outright. So he reduced it to nearly nothing, smashing the symphony orchestra, reducing it in size. All the other composers like Stravinsky joined in this tragic demolition derby. Stravinsky relented in the end and tried to refind Mozart and rebuild it. Richard Strauss continued with the mass orchestra, harnessing it to Hitler's mad dream. He utterly destroyed it the the holocaust of Nazi Germany. When he was interrogated by my father and the group of American OSS/translators all of whom were music lovers and loved his music, they asked him about why he did his crimes. He cried. He knew about the concentration camps. His wife's mother died in one! He couldn't stop things.

He went into seclusion, wrote "Four Final Songs," a terribly sad ending, the music harkens back to his first Tone Poems, and then sighs and dies. As he did, in despair.

When I studied music, I wanted music to play. Forced to go into the past, I found in Germany, some neat cello duets written by an unknown German and we played those. New stuff! But asking for new music was to despair. What was written for us was hideous. When I was pregnant with my daughter, my professor gave a concert of music he wrote. It was a writhing, dissonant pseudo-Schoenberg mess. I warned him, I would not like his music. He ordered me to listen. My daughter woke up and began to bang against my stomach with her feet in protest. The more he played, the more she kicked. Groaning, I rose and left and he refused to talk to me again.

My daughter has excellent taste in music.

Across the planet, musicians and orchestras desperately tried to force us to listen to hideous stuff that set the mind in despair. Ouch! Losing audience rapidly, they did a u-turn and played tons of old stuff we have heard a thousand times. Everywhere, lassitude and despair set in as audiences were literally dying.

My other love: anime. I adore Japanese anime. Like any massive form of entertainment, it has a full spectrum of divine to stupid, crass to spiritual, bad art to breathtakingly beautiful, detailed art. Trolling through anime, one can find anything. Including very classical stuff like this season's "Emma". This week's episode in Japan, Emma's boss, the old lady she tends, dies such a beautiful death, quietly in bed of old age, I wept the entire last 15 minutes. All of Japanese anime uses music often very expertly. They use classical, modern, even Schoenbergian music to heighten the emotions, in one series, they will alternate jazz with classical with ancient Japanese to rock and rap all in rapid succession, seamlessly. I cock an ear to the music, marveling at the tour-de-force of the composers in Japan who make this all up! They don't clip music, they compose in multiple styles!


This music is so amusing, so fresh, so new, they have begun to not only sell it separately from the shows, they hire the Tokyo Symphony to play it in public! Yes, they have concerts....of video game/anime music. And these concerts are sold out. And get broadcast. And are enjoyed here in America as we pass the music around with each other either on line or buying it in stores or at conventions. Years ago, listening to Nadesico, a goofy space anime, I laughed at the composer cycle rapidly from Mozartian quartets to goofy kid's music to Stravinsky sarcasm to Wagnerian blasts and then a shocking small piece of sad music for solo cello and orchestra, the cello saying goodbye to a destroyed childhood, I was crying, I couldn't bear it, the beauty and the sorrow pierced my heart.

American orchestras found that if they play Star Wars music, they suddenly get an audience. Do they follow this trail further?

No. Instead of our media/amusement complex feeding each part as they morph over time, a great divide yawns ever greater. Obviously, eclectic music that is tied to popular entertainment is fun. So why aren't we doing this a lot more?

The mysteries of life.

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