April 2009

Classical Music is not Entertainment

April 30, 2009 15:08

2009 is not proving to be the banner year I’d hoped it would be. There’s double-digit unemployment in California (count my husband in here still), the worst drought in years, a crushing state budget deficit that puts my part-time library job at risk, and we won’t even talk about the free-falling odds of a debut novelist breaking into the ever-shrinking fiction market. Our household will get by; we always do. Financially, it’s a matter of spending only what is absolutely necessary. No better time, then, to read Boston Conservatory’s music director Karl Paulnack’s speech to the parents of the 2004 incoming freshman class. Fellow v.commer David Wilson forwarded a copy to me and it’s one of those uplifting messages that you want to spread around to everyone you know.  www.bostonconservatory.edu/s/940/Bio.aspx

In it, Mr. Paulnack mentioned the way our society puts music merely in the Arts and Entertainment section of the newspaper. “Serious music,” he went on to say, “the kind your kids are about to engage in, has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with entertainment, in fact it's the opposite of entertainment.”

He talked about how the ancient Greeks considered music and astronomy to be two sides of the same coin.Astronomy was seen as the study of relationships between observable, permanent, external objects, and music was seen as the study of relationships between invisible, internal, hidden objects. Music has a way of finding the big, invisible moving pieces inside our hearts and souls and helping us figure out the position of things inside us.”

Then he told the story of 20th century composer Olivier Messiaen and his Quartet for the End of Time, composed in a Nazi prison camp. A French soldier, Messiaen was captured by the Germans in June of 1940 and sent to Stalag VIIIA prisoner-of-war camp, in Görlitz, Germany. Miraculously, a guard there, a music lover named Karl-Albert Brüll, gave Messiaen the space and materials he needed to continue his composing, and in January 1941 the work was performed by Messiaen (on piano) and three other prisoners—a cellist, violinist and clarinetist, to an audience of prisoners and guards alike.

Intrigued, I researched this composition further, then found a performance of the soulful, almost unbearably stirring 8th movement, “Louange à l’éternité de Jésus” movement. www.youtube.com/watch  After reading and listening, I stumbled through the next hour in a daze, finally leaving the computer to go sit in a quiet room and let my emotions settle.

I thought of something else Mr. Paulnack had said, of his impressions following the events of September 11, 2001, the way the emotional recovery that week began for him and for so many New Yorkers, with music. He told his audience how “music is not a luxury, a lavish thing that we fund from leftovers of our budgets, not a plaything or an amusement or a pass time. Music is a basic need of human survival. Music is one of the ways we make sense of our lives, one of the ways in which we express feelings when we have no words, a way for us to understand things with our hearts when we can’t with our minds.”

His speech, combined with listening to and reading about Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time, certainly realigned something in me, making my priorities shift back into the right order. Tight budget? Fine. We’ll have more peanut butter sandwich meals, keep the heat at 55 degrees, not run the dryer, and who needs salon haircuts and new clothes anyway? Not when I can take that money and renew my subscription to the San Francisco Symphony for next season. Because, as Mr. Paulnack stated so eloquently, classical music is not a luxury. It’s a necessity.

Other pieces that remind me that classical music is a necessity in life:

As always, I welcome others’ contribution to this “can’t live without” music list. What’s at the top of your list?


© 2009 Terez Rose



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