Date with Immortals: Western Classical Music
European classical composers represent the stuff of legends. These immortal musicians traipsed through the centuries landing in the digital age. Would classical composers capture our imagination if movie makers had not recreated their lives? Would we have fallen in love with the classics if Mozart had not landed on the big screen played by quirky Tom Hulse or if Gary Oldman had not rendered our beloved Beethoven and unraveled the German composer’s mysterious romantic life?
We knew that the biographical pictures gazed mainly at the personalities behind the music, while tossing sound bites of the composers’ music at viewers. Lush eye-candy grabbed our attention while we learned little about the actual music. What is classical music? Why have we added it to healing modalities in the 20th century when we have a variety of musical genres at our disposal? Why do scholars wax on about the musical architecture of Mozart and Bach, calling it flawless? May I entice you to explore the art music of our ancestors?
For the Sake of Us Mortals
Classical music begs for our discovery. However, with its complexity and rich nuances, I advise exploring one composer and one piece of music at a time. For instance, I took a music appreciation class in college where the music professor had us listen to Bach’s Fugue in G Minor in each class for the entire quarter. At the time, I grew tired of the repetition, but now having listened to a fragment of Bach’s repertoire, I understand why we listened to that single piece of music in greater detail.
In fact, with Bach’s repertoire, you could spend a lifetime on one suite or composition and still find new interpretations. I imagine this is why composers such as Glenn Gould and Pablo Casals made careers of Bach pieces. For Casals, the Cello Suites sufficed and even though Gould explored Bach’s keyboard works, I’ll always connect the Goldberg Variations with the Canadian composer. After all, the Goldberg Variations launched Gould’s recording career and this famous work also appeared on Gould’s last recording, days before his death.
We can grow more intimate with these musical men and women in enjoyable ways. Make a dinner date with Chopin or listen to a nocturne before falling asleep. And then the following month, attend a baroque music concert, but if you are just starting out, save Bach for later. He’s a bit heavy for the first date. Spend an afternoon lying in bed listening to Debussy’s “Prelude to the Afternoon of the Faun” while sunlight dapples the sheets on your bed and walls. Listen to Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” on the night of a full moon. Set the mood with classical music in the same manner we set the mood with essential oils or scented candles. Music also fills our space, affects our moods, and even sets our intentions.
Get historic and listen to art songs composed by medieval troubadours on quests for unobtainable lovers (usually the wives of kings). Although we use the word “troubadour” often to describe modern folksingers who wax poetry (both socio-political and of a romantic nature), the original troubadours were poet-juggler-messengers and itinerant court musicians who composed and sang love songs on their lutes for unobtainable ladies. But not to sound sexist, women troubadours roamed the courts too. During medieval times, we would have encountered troubadours in Southern France, Spain, and Italy. In fact, when I researched Saint Francis of Assisi for a novel, I learned that this son of a cloth merchant dreamed about a life as a troubadour before life as a medieval friar inspired him to take up the cross.
During Elizabethan England when William Shakespeare staged his comedies and tragedies, lute player John Dowland composed songs of melancholy. Closer to our time, Maurice Ravel, Claude Debussy, Robert Schumann and Antonín Dvorák all composed art songs with a singer or singers accompanied by piano.
When we listen to classical music from any culture, we allow our minds to soar with angels and our imagination to crawl upon the earth, enjoying music’s sensual pleasures. If rock music represents primal screaming mortals, classical music represents immortals who whisper to our souls, and not always gently.
Musicians and audiences understand the places where music takes them. They understand the effort and time that it takes to truly hear the language music speaks--not linear, but obtuse, with meaning tucked in the silent spaces between the notes. In the Canadian movie Thirty-Two Short Films about Glenn Gould (François Girard and Don McKellar), a scene at the movie’s opening shows a young Glenn Gould listening intensely to a Wagner opera overture--tears streaming down his face.
Gould’s biographers describe the late pianist virtuoso as extremely sensitive and even reclusive. Gould lived during a time (he died of a stroke in 1982), when scientists and medical doctors, not to mention therapists, had not yet discovered super sensitive people. We have heard about artists’ sensitivity, but we were usually referring to emotional sensitivity and not extreme physical sensitivity, where a person can’t bear to feel another human physically touching him, as in the case with Gould. This explains the mystery that revolved around Gould dressing in gloves, coat, and scarf while walking on a Caribbean beach. While this iconic image made Gould famous as a quirky Canadian, he could have also posed as a poster child for physically-sensitive people.
In the book, A Romance on Three Legs (Glenn Gould’s Obsessive Quest for the Perfect Piano) by Katie Hafner, the author described Gould’s condition. “He was inordinately sensitive as a small child. Not only did he have a tactile hypersensitivity both in touching and being touched, but he disliked bright colors. His favorite colors, he often said, were ‘battleship gray and midnight blue.’...When his parents took him to see Walt Disney’s Fantasia, the ‘awful riot of color’ gave him a headache and left him feeling nauseated.”
Gould, like many other physically sensitive people experienced transcendental moments while listening to and performing music. Classical music sent Gould into another world, and whatever he brought back from this other world, came back in the form of musical brilliance.
I wonder if Gould would still be alive today, had he known how to channel his sensitivities into a more positive direction rather than to escape into prescription drugs, germ phobia and hypochondria. If Gould knew about healing modalities would he have balanced his sensitivities through purposely healing himself with music? We’ll never know, but listening to Gould’s music acts as a healing balm for me, another physically-sensitive musician (though not as extreme as Gould).
However, what we do know comes from fans of Gould’s interpretations of immortals in the form of spiritual experiences that occur when they have listened to Gould’s albums. In the biography A Romance on Three Legs, Hafner included Gould’s fans experiences. “Bruno Monsaingeon, a French filmmaker and violinist, was in a record store in Moscow in the late 1960s when he chanced upon a couple of recordings that were playing by Gould...When the filmmaker listened to the records, he liked the experience to a religious epiphany, as if a voice were saying, ‘follow me.’”
Hafner also mentioned a surgeon who played Gould’s music before operating on patients and a truck driver who came upon Gould’s music while turning his radio dial. What he heard transformed the truck driver’s life and turned him into a Gould devotee. And Gould who enjoyed the company of everyday people, also appealed to everyday people, acting as an ambassador for Bach and the classics to the average music listener.
I get the impression that Gould shunned the elite crowd, having retired from his career as a soloist-performer in 1964 to concentrate on recording. At that time, Gould told the media that he retired because of the acoustic dynamics of a concert venue which didn’t offer an equal listening experience depending on where a concertgoer sat. In the pages of Hafner’s biography, we also learn that Gould struggled with finding the perfect piano for concert performances and recording sessions. Gould’s answer came when the Steinway “CD 318”showed up in his life.
I felt enamored with Gould’s Bach after watching Thirty-Two Short Films and listening to Gould’s interpretations. Watching this movie reignited my interest in classical music. I had no interest in Bach’s music until I heard Gould perform it and then I felt confident in listening to music that once seemed too complex for a non-academic.
Getting past the complexities, learning new musical languages, tones, and timbres, and then articulating classical music into everyday language, hasn’t been an easy task for me. Classical music likens to a longwinded hidden treasure. We don’t find this treasure without effort that involves opening our ears, minds, and hearts while allowing the spirit of the music to take us hostage.
While most pop music offers us an easily digestible (and overbearing) melody that often sounds like a commercial jingle, classical music actually stimulates our brains and raises our IQ levels. Pop tunes often turn into ear worms (neurologist/author Oliver Sacks’ term)--songs that go on the repeat mode in our minds driving us crazy, whereas, some types of classical music helps us to relax our minds. On a music consciousness scale classical music arrives at the top next to sacred and indigenous chants, but this description doesn’t apply to all art music. We still need to discern. For instance, 12-tonal or atonal art music leaves some people feeling anxious.
Music therapists can make the argument that all types of music become necessary when healing emotional and physical conditions, with which I’m in agreement. However, if raising a person’s consciousness has any importance in teaching a patient how to take responsibility for their lives, then classical music must play a key role. And with many genres of classical music available, I believe that a classical music prescription exists for every being on the planet (with the exception of humans who suffer from a condition called Amusia, in which music sounds like noise).
Often, experts tell us that the best music to use for teen angst is rock or pop music. However, Venezuelan humanitarian José Abreu, who founded youth orchestras in Venezuela to channel at-risk youth energy into creative pursuits, chose Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony for his orchestra to perform. When you think about it, Abreu chose the perfect vehicle to move young people past their angst and helplessness to a place of empowerment. This particular symphony starts out with fate knocking on the door and inviting its hero on a quest. Beethoven fueled the first movement with angst and powerlessness, and then each movement builds on strength of character until the final movement which ends on a triumphant note. The entire symphony lasts under thirty minutes and we can find this symphony online or at any library. Everyone knows this symphony, but does everyone know that the symphony provides powerful medicine?
Copyright Patricia Herlevi 2013, (from the book Whole Music, Chapter 8).
On a quest to find a traditional publisher and agent for this title, Whole Music.
Video of Glenn Gould: