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Young Women and Olde Men

One small strand of commonality

This is Dark Cloud on Wednesday, February 04, 2009.

Music’s always been important to me, and more so as I biodegrade.

There is an article in Slate Magazine, the web based creation now in the hands of the Washington Post, about vicious music reviews in the past. It quotes critics going bananas over not only the predictable punching bags like Schoenburg and Stravinksky, but also of Brahms, Mozart, and Debussy, today considered musical Pablum.

The article considers the fun critics had savaging their targets because music actually mattered to them and the public. In the ages before recorded or broadcast music, when people could experience it only in live performance, in the years when the only entertainment was alcohol, sex, and the word, written or spoken, music was still a near divine gift, rarely encountered, and the moments spent in its presence was deeply personal and cherished. Violations of those moments drove people to violence, not excluding murder.

It is impossible to imagine that mental world. After all, these days music is so prevalent pop songs are broadcast into elevators and rest rooms. Emotional attachment isn’t due the music, but the lyrics, perhaps incited by the rhythm. It surely would be difficult to inform school children that fist fights and riots not rarely attended the premiere of events solely instrumental and orchestral; that operas, symphonies, ballets or simple recitals, performed in the most prestigious and aristocratic of performance venues, were scenes of violence and emotional breakdowns. People once cared enough about music to scream it down or physically assault those who attempted to scream it down. Music mattered. Music mattered a lot.

Also, music critics mattered. First, they themselves cared about music. Unexpected chord progressions by foreign composers or symphonies could be viewed as insulting to national honor. So could negative reviews be matters for diplomats and riot police. Remember national honor? So long ago.

When Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring was produced as a ballet in 1913, elements of the audience booed and laughed through it. Others, furious, walked over and slapped them. One young man was so enthused his fists on the head of an American seated in front, who didn’t notice for a long time, so entranced was he. The dancers could not hear the music above the noise in the audience – think about that, a full symphony – and the choreographer had to scream out the time from the wings while pounding the floor. It’s worth mentioning that those booing were not ignorant goobers, or necessarily strict social snobs and conservatives, but of the same backgrounds of those who loved it. They had different takes, and it mattered to them. Imagine. Music mattered.

Goobers have always been with us. Previously, another ballet had received similar response, and at its completion, because of the audience uproar, the manager announced it would be performed again after a break so that people could see it for what it was. Apparently, everyone stayed. Yes, partially it was to watch the dancer Nijinsky feign sexual consummation during his dance at the end of Debussy’s Afternoon of the Faun, but recall this was in Paris, France, not Des Moines, Iowa. People left the theater to argue all night in the cafes and restaurants, the aspect I admittedly find most attractive. Ching. Imagine that today?

When was the last time a play, movie, dance, concert engendered any conversation at all about the art, the music, and not just the outfits and what salacious lyric or more or less faked sexual act was reconstructed? The most impressive conceptual artistic innovations are often now in the staging or pop singers, who now lip synch and dance at their own performances. There were people talking about music, primarily jazz, at a table next to mine recently, and I realized how long it had been since I’d heard anyone talk about instrumental music at all, much less jazz. They sounded as if they were familiar with it and liked it. More surprisingly, both genders were present at the table and not obviously gay which, had you told this tale to me, I’d have assumed. It’s not manly to talk about pure music.

I wanted to join them, frankly, but primarily because the women were lovely. I was only stopped by the realization I must be forty years older than they were and would never be accepted as an opinion peer. That’s not tough or tragic, that’s life and the way it is.

Still, it may be that young women and old men have a small shred of something in common: the ability and fortitude to tear up when the very British and very blind pianist George Shearing – and only George Shearing - sang Send In the Clowns, or during Vaughn Williams’ Tallis Fantasia, and tell anyone who finds that silly to get bent.

Music’s always been important to me, and more so as I biodegrade. And it hurts to think that novels and intricately orchestrated instrumental music as well as rock and roll and the study of history, might be lost to the future generations who currently show little regard or remote interest in any of those things. And my world will be as incomprehensible to them as my great grandfather’s is to me.