by Libby Sternberg
A long time ago in a galaxy far away, I was a student at a music conservatory. I stayed long enough for the administration to give me two degrees. But don’t worry–that doesn’t make me particularly musically informed. I was a singer.
One of my favorite professors was a young composer who attempted to demystify music for us. I vividly recall how he gently mocked those who walked the halls, clasping their Mozart, Beethoven, Bach scores to their bosoms as if these were sacred texts. What he was saying, and attempted to illustrate through rigorous analysis of musical scores, was that great composers are great craftsmen first. And you should learn that craft in order to appreciate it, not taking your cues from what musical “elders” tell you is worthy of your time and appreciation. His point electrified me, a girl from the ‘burbs with little formal training in music outside of piano and vocal lessons through childhood and beyond.
So much of the classical music world seemed like an exclusive club to me at that time. He seemed to be saying that folks like me could get into that club. We just needed to study and study and perform and learn. I still have the marked-up editions of Chopin’s Ballades that we went through during one semester. It was like doing a difficult puzzle. Oh, my skill level still falls far short of most instrumentalists, and certainly of that teacher — he could sit at a piano transcribing to the keyboard an orchestral version of The Rite of Spring…while lecturing.
The deeper lesson he imparted, however, was this one: if you merely clasp great art to your breast with whispered sighs of adoration and no understanding, you are not sophisticated. You’re just…a snob.
Understanding comes on different levels, though, and I’m not about to cast stones at those who aren’t musically trained but can still appreciate art of any kind. I have friends and family who don’t know much about the mechanics of music but genuinely love and appreciate works by various classical composers, favoring some over others, just as they like certain popular artists more than others. I’ve not asked them about their preferences, but I suspect their appreciation and affection for certain works is due to these elements within the pieces: familiarity and surprise.
We like music that offers just the right combination of familiar sound patterns and surprising twists on them. Much Asian music literally “falls on deaf ears” for Westerners, for example, as we are not familiar with those sound patterns much at all. But familiarity can breed boredom, if not outright contempt, so composers who manage to stretch listeners’ expectations with pleasant surprises appeal, while those who go too far astray, from our own personal familiarity, don’t. The neuroscientist Daniel J. Levitin explains this and more in his excellent book This Is your Brain on Music.
So, even someone not schooled in music can still explain that Vivaldi bores them because it’s too repetitive, Puccini moves them because his works are so lush — even if they think La Boheme too sentimental — and Schoenberg is as dry and uninteresting to them as a desert. They have some understanding of their preferences, even if they aren’t telling you Vivaldi’s repetitive melodic patterns border on the minimalist while his harmonies are no more complicated than the latest pop song’s, and Puccini’s operas delight and move when they are complex and clever but sappy when the great composer uses his skill to exploit your emotions. As to Schoenberg, he wrote twelve-tone music. Nuff said.
As for me, I’m a sap for songs by the French composer Gabriel Fauré. This one is among my favorites, with its delicacy and subtle communication of the text (printed below the video — my French is rusty, so feel free to let me know if I’ve erred). Don’t be fooled. It’s not a simple piece. The syncopation in the left-hand part makes it difficult for some singers (cough:cough, me) to hear the downbeat, and there are clever musical “asides” where the composer winks at you (shifting to major chords under the words “sur le mode mineur“). I love that sort of thing:
Claire de Lune, poem by Paul Verlaine
Votre âme est un paysage choisi (Your soul is a chosen landscape)
Que vont charmant masques et bergamasques (Where go charming masked people)
Jouant du luth et dansant et quasi (Playing the lute and dancing, and somewhat…)
Tristes sous leurs déguisements fantasques. (…sad under their fantastic disguises.)
Tout en chantant sur le mode mineur (They all sing in the minor key)
L’amour vainqueur et la vie opportune (of vanquished love and the opportune life)
Ils n’ont pas l’air de croire à leur bonheur (They have an air that doesn’t believe in their happiness)
Et leur chanson se mêle au clair de lune, (And their song rises in the moonlight.)
Au calme clair de lune triste et beau, (In the calm moonlight, sad and beautiful)
Qui fait rêver les oiseaux dans les arbres (That makes dream the birds in the trees)
Et sangloter d’extase les jets d’eau, (And to sob with ecstasy, the fountains of water)
Les grands jets d’eau sveltes parmi les marbres. (The great svelte fountains among the marble.)
Now, that song does make me sigh. And this version of it. Not Debussy’s so much, where I can imagine some jaded French fellow smoking a cigarette while reciting the words to the woman he’s trying to woo (or managed to seduce).
By the way, speaking of musical asides, I get a big kick out of the fact that Leonard Bernstein begins the song “Maria,” whose first line is “Maria, the most beautiful sound I’ve ever heard,” with the vocalist singing the ugliest sound in music — the raised fourth. It’s considered so abominable that it’s referred to as the diabolus in musica — the devil in music — and if you want to hear it, just imagine in your mind’s ear the klaxon calls of police cars in Europe. Yup. That’s it.
And I smile whenever I sing Handel choruses because he was such a showman, writing just enough of a fugue pattern to make listeners think he’s going down Bach’s road, but then marching off in a different direction, abandoning that theme, until he brings it back later to wrap up his deception. I think of Handel as the Andrew LLoyd Weber of his time, composing works of complexity and even nuance, but always with his eye on the public.
The point of my long ramble today is that I began my music education feeling inferior and unsophisticated, but I learned, especially with the help of that music theory professor, that sophistication is understanding — whether it’s understanding of a classical piece or a popular one, knowing why you like it and being able to articulate it. Merely saying something’s great because a) it’s not popular music; and b) lots of other experts say it’s great isn’t sophistication. It’s snobbery.
To round things out, here’s another favorite of mine. It speaks to me, especially the line, “Tell me, are you a Christian child. Ma’am, I am tonight.” That’s how I feel when I find music that moves me: converted to the composer’s point of view.
Libby Sternberg is a novelist. Please buy her books so she can buy more music.