Here are four links, to some fabulous music. Even if you don't read further in this post, even if you just follow listen to what I'm linking here, I'll be happy.
Sarah Vaughan, stupendously singing "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes."
Ettore Bastianini, the mighty baritone, going all out in a 1957 performance of Verdi's Ernani.
Mario Del Monaco, the huge-voiced and hugely passionate tenor, just about jumping out of his skin, in the same performance. (Start at around 2:15 to skip the recitative the track starts with, and go right to Del Monaco's passion.)
Peter Pears and Benjamin Britten, in "Der Muller und der Bach," the next to last song from Schubert's Die schöne Müllerin. Hauntingly lovely. Pears, I've long thought, is underrated as a singer.
And Britten! For those who might not know, he was one of the most sensitive — and in every way compelling — performing musicians of his time (or of any time), along with being a great composer. You might think of him most as a conductor of his own work, but his Bach and Mozart recordings are something to hear. And his piano playing…!
So why these four links?
Last week, in my Juilliard course on the future of classical music, we talked about what classical music is, and what it means. Why it's valuable. Follow the link to the complete class schedule for the course, scroll down to February 3, and you'll see what I asked the students to read.
To get them thinking, I gave them a quote from Robert Palmer, a New York Times pop music critic, and scholarly expert on roots music and blues. He'd said:
My feeling is that if you want to listen to something primitve, you should listen to Mozart. Because if you hear Mozart, there's almost no rhythmic variation in it, it's 1–2–3–4 forever. No cross-rhythms or polyrhythms to speak of. The way that music's interpreted, all of the tonal quali)es of the instruments tend to be very clean and pristne. There's no kind of textural variety like you would get in the blues, in terms of roughening the texture out on certain words, playing around with the pitch on certain words. Nothing like that in Mozart.
Of course he was being provocative. To show what he meant, I played the Sarah Vaughan recording, just playfully, gorgeously full of roughened textures. And subtly altered pitches. Point made! Everyone got it.
After the class…
But after the class, I thought I might have gone too far. Maybe I was too facile, too simplistic, too quick to stereotype classical music as routinely clean, pristine at best. While jazz, rock, and the blues are finely textured, deeply expressive.
So this week I played the other three recordings. The Ernani recordings showed, I said, that classical music could really kick butt. Bastianini and Del Monaco are — understatement! — not exactly inhibited. They let loose. The high note in the baritone aria is an F sharp, and Bastianini doesn't work to sing it. He just lets it fly, lets it conquer the world. (The bass we briefly hear is Boris Christoff, also huge in sound and spirit.)
Pears and Britten are, if you like, at the other extreme. They don't unleash everything they've got, because that would have killed this soft and heartbreaking song. But they offer so much. What they show, in the Robert Palmer universe, is that classical music has its own resources, its own ways to be devastating, even within the pure sound that we're expecting to hear.
An obvious point, of course…
The one I've just made. But worth emphasizing, a thousand times, in an age when classical music can seem limited, when we're so aware of other genres that do things classical music doesn't. We have so much to give.
So what could this mean to the new audience we need to attract? I asked that question in class. One student I posed it to is in Juilliard's jazz program. Not a classical music person. What did he think of Britten and Pears singing Schubert?
He thought it was beautiful. And added that he makes a point of listening to music in genres he doesn't know very well, to open his mind and his ears. (Those are my words, since I don't precisely remember his. Hope I'm not too far from what he meant.)
I asked if others in the class did that. We had 11 students present, out of 14 enrolled. Four raised their hands. Which maybe isn't bad, since if I add the jazz musician, that's five out of 11 who range widely in their listening. A good thing.
Music of the past
So then I asked them to think about my choosing music from the past, to show what classical music can do. Turning to a composition student, I said I could just as well have picked Steve Reich's Music for 18 Musicians. But I'd picked things from the standard repertoire, because that's what so many of us think of — even me, apparently — when we think about classical music.
What, I asked, did it mean that classical music focused so much on music from the past? What would a new audience think of the music I'd played? The Verdi opera has a plot rooted in another era, all about a king, wild love rivalries, an outlaaw, and, above all, Spanish honor. The outlaw (for reasons too long to relate) even swears, on his sacred honor, to kill himself the moment an elderly nobleman asks him to. And, sure enough, in the final scene, the nobleman shows up at the outlaw's wedding, and…
The Schubert song is about a lovesick miller, who drowns himself in a brook. What do we make of these stories in 2016?
But the class ended with a thought I wish I'd had earlier. Maybe, I said, we don't need to ask these questions. Or at least not ask them insistently. (As I've had a habit of doing.)
Maybe we should just bring the old classical masterworks into the wider world of 2016, into the midst of 2016 culture. And then see what our new audience thinks. Let them decide. Let them tell us what's relevant.
I won't predict what the answer will be.
The Ernani recording is a 1957 ive performance, from Florence. Del Monaco, Bastianini, Christoff, and in the soprano role, Anita Cerqueti, who's no slouch. The conductor is Dmitri Mitropoilos, and he's ferocious. Propulsive. Feeds the singers' fire. One of the best Italian opera conductors ever, and a rare example of a top symphonic conductor (music director at one time of the New York Philharmonic) who conducts Italian opera like a native.
Original Content: Let the people decide