I can’t carry a tune, and no one would ever accuse me of having perfect pitch. But I love music—so many different kinds of music, preferably live. At some point in my life, I’m determined to see Bruce Springsteen in concert—even though I hate crowds.
But one type of music really transports me: the fully realized magnificence of a fine symphony orchestra. Fortunately, there is such an orchestra that performs fairly close to my home, and my husband and I have had a series subscription with friends for the past few years.
Thursday night was the season finale—and it was a whopper, appropriately titled the “Blockbuster All-Orchestral Season Finale.” For those of you who don’t love classical music, imagine attending a concert given by your very favorite band, and I think you’ll get the mood.
First of all, the conductor is a wonder: a tiny slip of a woman who exudes energy, power, and artistry with her every move and gesture—sort of a woods sprite with a baton.
This was the only time she’d appeared this season, as there were guest conductors, and when I told my husband I wished I could have seen her more often, he said, “Just put her in your pocket and take her home.” She’s really really tiny.
I’ve been told that the orchestra loves her, and it’s clear she returns the favor. So from the time she reaches center stage, everyone is happy and optimistic.
The program featured Mendelssohn, Selections from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Op. 21, which begins very softly and ends with The Wedding March, which you’d recognize immediately.
According to the program notes, the young Mendelssohn had been sitting with his family as they entertained an astronomer, their guest describing the contents of the sky far above. When Felix went out for a walk, he headed for the garden
“to gaze at the stars that had been the primary topic of conversation at the dinner table. His attention was diverted by the gossamer activity of the summer night.”
Four evening breezes were purportedly the inspiration for the four woodwind chords that open and close the overture. The delicate violin string segments were his “musical impression of fireflies flickering about the nocturnal atmosphere.”
Years later, Mendelssohn said, “That night I encountered Shakespeare in the garden!”
That lovely piece was followed by a Rachmaninoff symphony: No. 2 in E Minor, Op. 27. Absolutely breathtaking. Apparently, it took the composer years to complete, as he was filled with self-doubt.
The program notes state: “The music is lush and relaxed. This is an expansive symphony in the late Romantic vein: heartfelt, emotional and long.” (Not long enough for me!)
As is often the case with classical music, one of this symphony’s themes has made its way into popular music: it appears in the song “Never Gonna Fall in Love Again,” which was a hit in 1976.
I find that one of the delights of listening to a beautiful symphony, in addition to the aural pleasure, is being in such a civilized environment. As those of you who are familiar with my blog know by now, I’m always seeking common ground. Sitting in a large group of people enjoying a common experience—away from all politics and divisiveness—is a joy in itself.
But here’s the rub. Entering and leaving the concert, I see a vast number of people with canes, walkers, and wheelchairs. It’s inspiring to see folks who don’t let their infirmities stop them from participating in these events, but I wonder how viable this orchestra, and others, are when I’ve read that the average age of symphony orchestra attendees is 60. (I suspect in our locale, that average may well be considerably higher.)
I’m not the only one to express such concerns, of course, and it’s not a new one. I did find one optimistic note from a 2004 article titled: ”Probing Question: Is classical music still relevant in today’s world?” According to George Trudeau, Director of the Center for Performing Arts at Penn State,
“Classical music is alive and well. What has changed is there are more avenues than ever before for classical performance and public education, including public radio, the internet, and other digital technologies.”
Penn State’s Center was actively seeking to stimulate appreciation of classical music in students, faculty, and community members through a diverse program involving artists in residence and such efforts as “experiencing the music in alternative venues and informal settings such as our Classical Coffeehouses.”
Trudeau said then that attendance at the various classical music performances by Penn State students had risen from 26% of total sales to 40% in three years, and that students told him “exposure to classical music was enriching their lives.”
So perhaps there’s hope that coming generations will still find their way to the symphony. I have noticed that when a very young guest performer appears at the programs we attend, many very young people show up in the audience.
Similarly, several months ago, my husband and I attended a One Day University lecture on “How to Listen to (and Appreciate) Great Music,” given by Orin Grossman of Fairfield University and featuring several incredibly talented young musicians from a local arts public high school.
There the emphasis was on chamber music, and Grossman discussed melody, recurring themes, the dominance of the piano, the way the composer would get himself far out on a limb and then musically work his way back, and other elements.
He demonstrated his points by asking these gifted musicians to pick up the relevant pieces of the classics and play them—and they did, flawlessly. It was a joyous occasion—and wonderful to see these young symphony performers in the making.
Yesterday, I found that One Day University had a revised version of Grossman’s lecture available online. The title was the same, and the purpose was once again to encourage active listening “in order to ‘stretch our ears’ and get more pleasure from the musical experience.”
While I’d been worrying about the diminishing presence of symphony orchestras, Grossman was underscoring how much luckier we are than people long ago, who had little or no access to great music.
“We have the opposite problem,” he said. “It’s so accessible we try to tune it out and become very passive.” It’s fine to use music as background and simply to relax, but he was stressing how much more gratification we get when we “stretch our ears.”
In contrast to the live lecture with Grossman that we’d attended, the selections of great music this time were more varied–and he was the sole performer. The focus was on melody and how the composer treats it. Yes, there was Bach, who’d either combine two melodies or, more commonly, create a “dialogue” of melodic fragments, as in the Concerto for Oboe and Violin.
Grossman easily segued from Bach to the Beatles, whom he considers the best musicians in decades and whose music he believes “holds up very well.”
Using John Lennon’s song “Girl,” he illustrated how Lennon pushed the boundaries by introducing second melodies, returning to the melody with a guitar backup.
Next, he spent time on Duke Ellington, saying he had been misunderstood as merely a bandleader when he was “one of our greatest composers. From the 20s to the 70s, he gave a name to the Swing Era: ‘It Don’t Mean a Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing.’” Grossman played and stopped a recording of the song several times so we could hear the call and response as the brass swings.
“The harder you listen to where it’s going—you’ll be tricked,” he said impishly.
For no reason I could discern, he returned to the classics and Beethoven at this point, which was fine with me once I got accustomed to the temporal whiplash. He pointed out that in the movie “The King’s Speech,” Colin Firth as King George VI must address the nation despite his stuttering. As he gets to the microphone, in the background we hear the chords from the second movement of Beethoven’s 7th Symphony in a repeating rhythm.
The intensity and power of Beethoven’s music are often built through fragmentation of the melodies, which finally explode into heroic sounds, as “metaphors of victory through struggle,” Grossman said. Perfect reinforcement for the King’s message to his people.
He ended with George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” which combined elements of life in New York–and by extension, America–the Blues, Latin rhythms, ragtime, and Broadway band ballads, to illustrate the “clashing and blending” of the various cultures.
“The imagery interlocking the piece is trying to show one version of the United States,” he said. “At heart, it’s a good mystery: you wouldn’t want everything explainable.”
No, we wouldn’t. And if you have an extra 17 minutes and would like to test your active listening skills for discerning the various elements Gershwin intertwined, go to YouTube’s video of Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic playing “Rhapsody in Blue.” (You can skip the ads.)
I return to the sense of civilization and common ground that I feel when I listen to the soaring music of a symphony in concert with fellow music lovers (a little pun here). Regardless of your taste in music, at any live venue, there’s always a sense of community, of sharing your enjoyment with others. And music is so often tied to memories that such a sharing can be a part of your pleasure even when you’re listening alone. I felt that way watching the video of “Rhapsody in Blue,” in which Bernstein both conducted and played the piano.
Do you like to “stretch your ears” with active listening to music? If this is a new idea to you, is it appealing? What type of music do you prefer, and what role does music play in your life? Do you/did you play an instrument? How often do you hear live music? Would you go more often if it were more convenient? Less financially burdensome?
I look forward to your comments. In fact, I’m all ears.
20 thoughts on “Music to “Stretch Our Ears”: Beethoven, Beatles, Blues…”
Love this! I too have really wide tastes in music and have a deep appreciation for the kind of thing a good symphony orchestra plays. I have gone through phases, and one of them was a big Rachmaninoff binge – I still love his stuff, and how different it is from the much earlier baroque compositions from people like Bach and Telemann. And a resounding “YES” to Rhapsody In Blue. I have quite a few different recordings of that one, each with its own unique flavor. A favorite is one done by Paul Whiteman in the 1930s on two twelve-inch 78 rpm records, and has a much more jazzy flavor than became common in later decades.
You remind me that I have not done a good orchestral deep dive in a long time. I did my best to expose my kids to it, and one really took to it. Last weekend we were at a church event where musicians were practicing a hymn, when my son looked at me and gave an excited whisper of “Jupiter! From Holst’s The Planets!” I felt vindicated, like some of my hard work had paid off. 🙂
My most recent forays into the obscure have been to go even earlier, into polyphony as done by composers like Palestrina. It is all vocal and is (to me) beauty distilled to almost its purest form.
Thanks for this piece that lit up several flames in my music-loving soul!
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Thank you, JP. What a delightful comment! I’m so pleased you enjoyed this post, which I very much enjoyed writing.
I had tried to insert a link in the piece to the YouTube video of Bernstein’s Rhapsody in Blue, but there was no way for the listener to stop it–and next thing I knew, we were into Ravel’s Bolero. Not a bad thing, but potentially annoying to others. After receiving your comment, I listened to the Paul Whiteman orchestra’s rendition, 1924, and I liked that jazzier version as well. So next I hunt for Palestrina.
Congratulations on raising a next-gen symphony supporter! May he encourage his peers…
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I don’t think symphony music will die out.
People’s tastes in music change when they get older.
Just as the older a person gets, hopefully they’ve achieved more wisdom, so does their taste in music change to appreciate classical.
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I hope you’re right. I do love to see these young performers—hope they’ll keep carrying the torch.
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Like you, I enjoy all types of music. Living out in the boondocks we don’t have the opportunity to hear live performances very often.
However, last fall my brother and I traveled to Poland. We stayed at a very nice hotel called the “Chopin Bed and Breakfast”. Every day in Warsaw a different pianist has a concert of Chopin and other classical music. After the concert, the pianist comes to the Chopin B&B and plays for a small group in the salon. When we were there the number in attendance was about 5-8 people. We had our own private one hour concerts, sitting just a few feet from the pianist.
While I don not know a lot about classical music, sitting and listening to truly wonderful artists was a thrill. We attended all three nights we were there, each night featuring a different pianist. And the pianists seem to enjoy playing for a very small audience as well. Much more intimate than a concert hall.
If you are ever in Warsaw, you MUST stay at this place!
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That sounds absolutely wonderful—makes me want to go to Warsaw. A few years back, in Lucca, Italy, we saw nightly seemingly impromptu operatic performances in front of a local church. The sounds were incredible, and it was a similarly thrilling experience.
I missed the link when I responded. Thanks; it certainly looks inviting.
Ravel’s Bolero is one I grew up with, my mother had an LP from the late 50s. I am spacing the orchestra right now. I have not listed to it in years, and need to rectify this.
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I always enjoy it, but somehow the thought of providing people with a musical link they couldn’t control seemed ill-mannered. Yet who knows? Maybe it would have continued all the way to Palestrina…
I had asked if anyone had experience with instruments. This response is another from my friend Anonymous (whose work prevents her from signing on, but whose multiplicity of talents never ceases to amaze me). Her comment would also be suitable for my “Freeze” post. It’s long, but I found it fascinating.
Classical music is interesting as a blog subject. I was a classically trained musician at one point. I started with piano lessons at 6 years old, even taking my weekly lessons in Lusaka, Zambia, on a concert grand Steinway.
After 4 years of lessons, music theory, and recitals, I stopped playing. My parents then decided I should play the viola (violin, flute, and clarinet—my choices—were apparently too pedestrian for them. I’d never get into an orchestra with THOSE instruments, they’d tell me). So viola it was, for a year. And I hated every minute of it. So I was done with that until my father “encouraged me” to take up the oboe—a notoriously difficult instrument to play.
But I excelled at the oboe. I was principal oboist in junior high and high school, played in district, regional, and state bands and wind ensembles, scored top marks in solo competitions, and was accepted into a highly competitive youth orchestra.
But I had a secret—one that nobody knew until after a particularly disastrous weekly 3-hour Saturday youth symphony rehearsal. My conductor asked: “You can’t read music, can you?” “Not really. I can a little bit, not much.”
We figured out that if I listened to a recording of an orchestral piece, I could play not only my part, but almost every other instrument’s part as well, and only after hearing it a couple of times.
He was able to discern this after observing me play along with the violins, much of the brass section, and random woodwinds because I had lost my place during the Hummel Trumpet Concerto (https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=MvBhZgpxCD8), which included a movement with precious little music specifically for the oboe and an insufferable number of measures of rest.
It was a nightmare. You had to pay close attention, count those measures of rest CAREFULLY, and know exactly when to come in. Not to mention, none of the notes on the page seemed to make sense. What the hell was the time again—3/4?! It feels kinda waltz-y. Waltz-y sounds like schmaltzy, ha ha! Now I’m really lost…I’m gonna get hollered at for sure…
My conductor reluctantly wrote down the names of the pieces we would be playing for the following season so that I could go to the library at my parents’ university, borrow the recordings, and learn them before I headed off to rehearsals each week.
That worked fine until chair tryouts for the following season. Chair tryouts are, essentially, auditions. Each season you audition to keep your spot (top or somewhere other than) in the orchestra. They are structured so you do a cold read of a random orchestral piece, designed for your instrument, in front of your section coach.
Well, I couldn’t have played worse during my audition—like I had just picked up an oboe for the first time. My mind went blank. The piece was very technical, and I was completely lost. I could barely even breathe. Hardly any sound was coming out of my oboe. I’m pretty sure I had a full-blown panic attack.
I finally looked at my section coach and said, “I can’t do this; it’s too hard, and none of this makes sense to me.” I was subsequently demoted to second chair after successfully auditioning into the top youth symphony and making first chair a year prior. I’m surprised I wasn’t kicked out entirely. I was a senior in high school, and it was my last year of eligibility in the symphony.
Several members, including a cellist, had been accepted into Juilliard and the prestigious Eastman School of Music. One got into Yale. I knew I had zero future as a musician because I couldn’t read music and I struggled with any technical orchestral pieces. My brain doesn’t process things very quickly—I’m a step too slow. Having to learn how to double and triple tongue to play blindingly fast just wasn’t something I could physically do.
It wasn’t until years later (well, now) that I’m coming to the realization that I likely have some learning disabilities, which explains why I struggled not only with reading comprehension in school, but also with music.
I will always love and appreciate classical music. Those musicians are like athletes—dedicating their lives to mastering a craft. I have many fond memories of my playing years and get a thrill when I happen to catch one of the old pieces I learned if it’s playing in a restaurant or a store. But the pressure of competing isn’t something I miss—or struggling to make sense of the jumble of notes on pages of music or learning the technical aspects of playing—from vibrato to holding the correct embouchure.
From the photo, if the Beatles were able to levitate several miles upward, they’d be able to see the Fool On The Hill.
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If they’re “still holding up after all these years,” perhaps they’ll be able to straighten out Brexit and then levitate across the pond, translate the Mueller Report into song, and awaken Americans to the havoc this president is wreaking at home and abroad.
Okay, so here’s a confession. I grew up with the expectation that I would pursue music, at least as a hobby. It was a part of my culture, so of course, my mother insisted, I would play. She also dictated what I would play: first piano, as everyone needs to start with the basics, she said, and then a string instrument, and as we had already several violins in the family, she steered me to the cello. Her goal was a quartet among her offspring and our close cousins. Several of my cousins went on to professional careers. I also picked up voice at some point — soprano.
I played the cello the longest and for years, excelled, eventually occupied the first chair of our local student symphony and won scholarships to music camp. What I never told anyone, however, is that I can’t read music. Never could and still can’t. The stress of that was overwhelming, but it never occurred to me until college that I could quit. Decades later, I sold my cello. I cried that day not for the loss of the instrument but for the ties cut to family, so to speak.
Then years passed when I really didn’t listen to music except what came blaring from my husband’s speakers. After the IPod came on the scene, he disappeared under headphones, which put an end to that. And so I wandered the desert, turned to podcasts as I dearly love to learn, and never looked back . . . until just a few months ago, when I received a gift to Spotify, which has changed everything. I now absorb music, all kinds of music except classical which stirs up freighted memories. I listen the way I might consume chocolate: with abandon and joy.
You’ve touched on a deep subject for me, but I’ll leave more comment aside except for this: you do realize, don’t you, that your very own words hold beautiful music, perfect pitch, elegance and grace? I look at your sentences and see a superb command of craft, economy in thought and execution, and poetic flourishes that bring your message home. (Put her in your pocket? Perfect.) Clarity, honesty, kindness, modulation . . . . So thank you for your music. It’s a joy.
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Did you read the comment from Anonymous? Astonishing to me that right here on my blog I have reports from two women who performed wonderfully due to their extraordinary talent—overcoming the biggest hurdle a musician ever faces (to my untutored sense)—until the effort became too great.
And how can I possibly respond to your lovely words—except with humility and gratitude?
Funny…Having studied classical ballet for many years I learned to appreciate classical music from an early age. I enjoy most types of music but if you were to ask me what my favorite classical piece is, I would easily respond Rhapsody in Blue”, though it is probably more of a combination of classical and jazz. Maybe my continued love for this amazing work is a memory I have from when I was 16 and my best friend played it for me so beautifully on her piano. I particularly recall being overwhelmed with excitement by how the pace changed without any warning. These days, 54 years later, I love to ask Alexa to play it while I try to complete 10,000 steps around the house to the pace of the music. It’s quite a good workout…it gets my heart rate going like interval training would!
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That’s a wonderful comment! Yes, Rhapsody in Blue, like the Beatles, “still holds up after all these years.”
Did you see the reference to Paul Whiteman’s jazzier version? It’s worth a YouTube visit, as is Bernstein with the New York Philharmonic.
I’m so pleased to read everyone’s comments here and see the extent to which music reaches people’s souls.
I’m not exactly a devote of classical music (unless you include classic rock in that genre), but when I used to live in the Boston area, my wife and I enjoyed going to Symphony Hall and listening to Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops concerts.
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They were great!
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It’s funny, I am just completing a series of posts where I go through “pieces of art” which influenced me. I deliberately set the theme as wide as possible, but it turns out that something like 80-90% of my influence has been in music. Maybe 10% was classical. I must sit down and work this out when I am finished the series. None of it has been planned.
It seems to be a given that we learn about ourselves from what we write.
Music really does have a huge impact on so many of us.
I look forward to visiting your blog when you finish the series!
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