In the specialized knowledge of professional musicologists the term “classical music” has a very specific meaning. It refers to European music written between 1750-1830, usually in the form of symphony, concerto, or sonata. It could be solo piano, a small quartet, or a huge symphony orchestra with full choir. But for the rest of us, classical music means anything ranging from medieval Gregorian chant right on up to the latest John Williams score for whatever gory bombast is playing at the multiplex this weekend.
Either way, classical music has had a long and lasting hold on our collective imagination.
In the technical language of music scholarship Mozart is classical, Beethoven is not – he’s a Romantic. Haydn is classical, Debussy is not – he’s an Impressionist. Technical distinctions aside, the fact remains, instrumental symphonic music and its related iterations continue to lure us into its lush interior – a strange and wonderful landscape of icy mountains, dark forests, and idyllic glades where dreams and reveries interlace with passion and intellect so that you don’t know where one ends and the other begins.
By an accident of birth I was born into a classical music home. My mom and dad were Dutch immigrants. European music – Bach, Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, Chopin – threaded through my home like DNA strands weaving and forming my young consciousness, while connecting us all to the beauty and depth of European culture. As the youngest of three boys, I quickly realized that music is just what the Bollands do – especially classical music. We all took piano lessons and learned to play. When Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” comes through your own fingers, you are changed. But it wasn’t an easy apprenticeship. I remember being dragged to symphony concerts on Sunday afternoons at the local community college theater. I didn’t want to go, and of course I was bored to death. Yet by osmosis, this haunting, soulful music became part of me.
My oldest brother Eric switched to guitar, and I soon followed. It was the sixties after all, and folk music was bleeding over into the rock world. To not play guitar was just, well, un-American. But my middle brother John stuck with clarinet. We shared a room, and his daily practice schedule meant that the clear and mournful cry of the clarinet became the soundtrack of my young life.
While the jangly beat of rock and country grabbed most of my attention, I developed a permanent soft spot for classical music. I not only grew to love it – I grew to need it.
I made mix tapes of my favorite classical pieces. As a teenager, on a long cross-country trip with my parents to visit the Grand Tetons, Yellowstone, and Mt. Rushmore, somewhere in the Black Hills of South Dakota we pulled over to rest. My mom and dad took out folding chairs in the middle of a meadow surrounded by a ring of trees and distant mountains. The air was warm and the stillness was vibrant and alive. I opened the doors of our Ford Econoline camper and popped in one of my classical mix tapes. Transcendent music began drifting through the meadow, not intrusively, but soothingly, like the steady breathing of a loved one asleep. The music and the meadow became one thing. Many years later, at the end of his life, my dad told me that despite decades of travel and too many golden moments to count, that was one of his favorite travel memories of all, sitting in that meadow, his back turned to the road, that beautiful music coming out of the very air he breathed, lifting him like a wave.
When I went away to college at UC Santa Barbara in 1978 and set up an apartment in Isla Vista, the central feature was the stereo. A turntable, a tuner, an amp, big speakers, and a vast collection of vinyl formed the core of every college apartment, and mine was no different. The records that got played the most were Led Zepplin, Neil Young, Talking Heads, Emmylou Harris, and the Flying Burrito Brothers. But on those long, cold, melancholy afternoons after an arduous morning deciphering texts and writing papers, it was time for tea and Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons.” I wore that record out. It got me through a lot of sad and lonely afternoons. Something about its order, its clarity, its discipline, its bracing optimism, and its celebration of the cosmic cycle of generation, decay, and regeneration made a silent, wordless understanding take shape in my mind – that no matter how low and empty you get, there is always beauty in the heart of everything. You only have to slow down enough to hear it, to see it, and feel it. Even the darkness holds bright, heartening secrets.
Years later, on the night of our engagement, Lori and I went to hear a performance of Handel’s “Messiah.” We cut out at intermission. It was too much. We were brimming with joy at the prospect of our new life together, and half a Messiah is pretty much all you can take when you’re already about to burst.
So what is it about European classical music that makes it so alluring, so evocative, and so restorative? For one thing, it’s complicated. You don’t just learn three chords, sit down, and bang it out like folk music. Many years of arduous apprenticeship precede admission into even the most mediocre of orchestras. The top orchestras are made up of master musicians who have sacrificed their entire lives to this art form. Classical music isn’t a job, it’s a mission.
And its complexity extends to the audience as well. It takes time to learn to appreciate classical music. Like Shakespeare, existentialism, or the poetry of T. S. Eliot, one needs an introduction at least, or even better, a long, protracted course of study under the tutelage of a master interpreter. In this age of instant gratification, who’s got the time? But when you crack the code, learn the language, and penetrate the signs and symbols, a world of unimaginable beauty opens up before you and takes your breath away. You immediately want to run and tell everyone you know about this new joy you’ve found, but you can’t. There are no words.
Classical music is unapologetic in its embrace and celebration of mastery. High-level expertise is required to perform it, and its audience must be in on the secret. This leaves classical music open to the tired cry of “elitism!” So be it. Denigrating excellence is a favorite pastime of the herd which apparently hears as an indictment of its own mediocrity any example of disciplined, refined accomplishment.
Because it is primarily instrumental (opera and classical song is a topic for another day) classical music wields melody, harmony, style, structure, arrangement, and rhythm to craft worlds beyond the pale of language. Underneath much of European classical music there’s an unflinching willingness to evoke vast philosophical, theological, mystical, and transcendent themes – nothing less than the very mystery of existence itself. Its sheer audacity emboldens us.
Classical music is the most humane of art forms because it dares to grapple with the entire range of human experience and does so with a concerted application of all that is best in us – our intellect, our discipline, our passion, our skill, and our willingness to give ourselves over to something bigger than ourselves. We rightly celebrate the best of classical music because, even in the depths of our unconsciousness, we know that classical music celebrates the best in us.