Thursday, April 2, 2009

Anticipating Music

There are two schools of thought as far as musical appreciation goes, and I am completely conflicted about which I believe. When I was in high school, my choir teacher (and still one of my closest friends, Mrs. Meinecke) was more than just a director of our small, but very dedicated choir. She was an educator in the best sense of the word. She is single handedly responsible for some of the greatest loves of my life; opera, symphonies, ballets, theatre and even history, politics and literature (also Italian wines, and osso bucco). Amazing woman. One of the ways she did this was to expose us to music, in order that we took ownership of our feelings for this art, rather than be intimidated by it. This was especially true where opera was concerned. She took us to see Verdi’s “Aida”, but only after we had studied the libretto, and listened to the score. When we actually went and saw the amazing spectacle, and the live experience, it was something we were partly familiar with, and therefore at home with. History has shown that for complicated art forms this tends to be the case. The first performance of the Ballet Russe production of Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring”, famously premiered in 1913 in Paris, as not only one of the biggest scandals in ballet history, but one which actually caused riots in the theatre. Dancers supposedly could not even hear the orchestra over the boos and screams. Though this could have been written off as a bad work of art that audiences just hated, one year later the same piece was performed at the same theatre, by the same company, but this time to raves and applause. “Rite of Spring” is generally recognized to this day as the most important classical composition of the 20th century. How this came to be viewed so differently in one year is something that neuroscientist, popular writers and musicologists have been trying to understand. Jonah Lehrer has a chapter in his excellent book “Proust Was a Neuroscientist”, dedicated to this. The outcome confirms that knowledge brings comfort, and eventually appreciation, just as Mrs. Meinecke would have predicted. So, in general I try to listen to an opera before I go to see it.

All of this said, I am changing my mind about this. In truth, most people you ask would say they would have rather been at that first production of “Rite of Spring” and not the one the following year. To be the first to hear something shocking and revolutionary is a moment that we would all like to be a part of. There is also the moment to moment discovery, which unravels itself like a mystery. Why is it that we don’t want to know how a television show or movie ends, but we are happy to know how an opera ends? Jazz is a great passion of mine, because of its complete unpredictability. For me, the more improvisation in a jazz concert, that better the experience is, as I feel that I experienced something organic and original. In opera I have also had this experience. I saw John Adams “Doctor Atomic” at the Met, and had never heard the score before and was blown away by it. (no pun intended) That can likely be explained away, as I did know the story of the making of the atomic bomb in Los Alamos, and how the whole mess turned out.

Tonight Marine and I went to see Mascani’s “Cavaleria Rusticana” at the Met. Though there is a chance I had heard this music before, I had never read the libretto, and never studied the piece, having only heard some history of how the composer won a competition at the age of 25. But, I like this period of Italian Opera, (and it is the Met, which I try to go to whenever possible, with the exception of sitting through another production of Don Giovanni) so we went. I was again more moved by the piece than I could have possible expected, which made me wonder if I would have liked it better had I studied it, or as I saw it.

These questions are looming large for me, as I have a young daughter who I am trying to introduce to music. My feeling is that Mrs. Meinecke was essentially correct. My little girl tends to get even more excited about hearing music she already knows. Still, is there a time and place to throw yourself (or your little girl) into the chaos of the unknown, in the hopes of truly discovering something new.


  1. Interesting essay. I, too, am of two minds. I think partly depends on the attitude and mindset of the individual listener. Is the audience member "along for the ride," or not? It can be very easy for us to bring a fair amount of baggage with us into the theatre, hall, or opera house.

    If the listener is open to whatever experience the creators have intended, less information beforehand might enhance the experience. Along this line, I personally eschew reading reviews before I see a film -- they inevitably betray things in the movie that should be a surprise, and ruin the experience for me.

    But I think listeners attending a Sondheim musical tend to appreciate the piece as a whole more if they have listened to the score beforehand, and dipped their toes in the musical language of that particular score. Appreciation through familiarity.

  2. Thanks for the comment Brian. This reminds me. I did an interesting experirement with a friend, who claims to hate 12 tone music. I played a small Webern piece, and the friend hated it. I then played a small section of the TV show "Lost" score, which is equally 12 tone. He liked the "Lost" piece. My guess is that it is the familiarty issue.

  3. Slightly unrelated, but I used to play the same Mozart violin concerto CD over and over when I was pregnant with Lily. Right before her birth, I was too overwhelmed and busy to play any music, and we moved, and my Mozart CD got packed away, and not unpacked again for about 2 years later. Another year after that, I popped it in for the first time 3 years as Lily was sitting on the floor completely engaged with something. As it began, her head whipped around and she sat staring at me for an eternity (probably 45 seconds). She then got up and came over to me with the strangest look on her face, and climbed into my lap to listen. I'll never forget that.

    To your point, though, Cavalleria Rusticana is a lot easier on the ears for a first-timer than Rite. I do think familiarity breeds comfort (rather than contempt, when talking about music), which breeds greater appreciation, most of the time. You either discover more and more brilliance hidden in the music or you discover that there's not much more "there" there and abandon it after a few listens.

    I'm very sorry for your loss. A brilliant teacher and mentor is a treasure like no other.


Please feel free to comment. It helps me with ideas, and to start a discussion.