The trouble with Classical and Romantic music

Like the pianist Glenn Gould, I’ve always been somewhat annoyed with the classical through the Romantic (why do we capitalize that?) period of Western music. I start perking up again with the late-Romantics and Debussy. To be clear, my favorite periods are medieval through baroque, skipping over the classical composers, generally, and picking back up around Debussy, Webern, Schoenberg and the minimalists. Note: The general public often refers to this entire scope of music as “classical music.” I’m not doing that.

I’m trying to explore what it is that I enjoy in these periods and I have some new thoughts, but like awaking from a dream they are hard to nail down. I’m going to give it a try.

There are two elements that I look for in music. First, a feeling of “pop.” I might call it, “a high pleasure quotient.” And, yes, I’m talking about “pop” as a sensation in “serious” art music. This is usually transmitted through rhythmic vitality and repetition. It makes you bob your head or drives you to tap your foot, or even stomp. This “pleasure quotient” might also be achieved through the employment of tension and release, dissonance and resolution.

Let’s put a “*” on that and come back.

Second, a sense of folklore or folkiness. This could be because the song is literally an ancient folk tune and has that accompanying quality of timelessness.

Here’s where things get hard to convey. There’s something that’s tied up with this folky quality that I perceive as a subjugation of ego—an anonymous quality. The song or tune just comes across as if it always was. For me, a song that does this is “Greensleeves.” You may know it as “What Child is This?” It’s perfect in such a way that I can’t imagine anyone ever writing it. In this case, that tune really does happen to be anonymous.

All of this is complicated by the fact that music is not just a cold, clinical set of tones. Music is conveyed during a live performance, by individuals made of flesh and blood—even if this flesh and blood merely programmed the computers producing the sounds. Leaving that complication aside, let’s return to the foot tapping, pop quality from before.

What I’m starting to understand better is that there is an association with physical movement embodied by the music I most enjoy. In the case of baroque music, many of the structures or forms of the works are literally dance forms. If they were not intended to be literally danced, they certainly would have evoked a physical association or memory of a dance movement when heard in their day. This is music that is in the service of a higher aim, not an end in itself. The composer is getting out of the way of the music, the art. When referring to a performer, the highest praise I might give is, “He was willing to be a fool for the music..Everything was in service of conveying the music.”

We are fools for Christ’s sake, but you are wise in Christ. We are weak, but you are strong. You are held in honor, but we in disrepute. 1To the present hour we hunger and thirst, we are poorly dressed and buffeted and homeless, and we labor, working with our own hands. When reviled, we bless; when persecuted, we endure; when slandered, we entreat. We have become, and are still, like the scum of the world, the refuse of all things.

Corinthians 4:10-13

He (Christ Jesus) must increase, but I must decrease.

John 3:30

I’m not claiming that a musician is on the level of a biblical martyr, but I do believe that this is an archetype that we all respond to. We are drawn to people that emulate these qualities to any degree. See also “The Holy Fool.”

To be continued…

A friend replied on Facebook with this video. I add it for your edification:

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