Last night I attended the UK Symphony Orchestra’s concert featuring world famous cellist Lynn Harrell. As they opened with the dramatic and resonant sounds of Beethoven’s Egmont Overture, I suddenly remembered why I loved music in the first place. I am drawn to the powerful, the emotional, the personal. The Elgar Cello Concerto was all too fitting, a work written just after the composer underwent a possibly life-threatening surgery. I wonder if Elgar was making a statement that life is precious, that it is worth living, even that music is life.
As I was leaving campus after the concert I ran into a fellow classmate and one of her adult students who had just picked up playing the cello about a year ago. We had a great conversation about his love for music and how he came to love the cello as well. I mentioned to him in passing that I had been steeped in music since 1968, so it was refreshing for me to hear Beethoven and Elgar again (not to say 20th and 21st music is not as good, but only to say it was nice to be reacquainted with those guys). His humorous response: “You poor thing. Just stick to the romantic period.” Funny as it may be to hear someone say this, it’s actually not an uncommon response even among many musicians. To be fair, we do live in a pluralistic age of musical creation, and it’s hard to find our bearings with so much going on. On the other hand, upon hearing some modern piece of music that is difficult to understand, the easy response for listeners is: “I just don’t like that modern stuff. I’ll stick to ___________ (fill in the blank). But there is much more out there, and it would probably take a lifetime to even come close to finding it all – especially with the constantly changing currents of contemporary music. So the question for me is (laying aside my sophisticated grad student mentality): What do I look for in a piece of music? To put it another way: What kind of listener am I? These questions help give me a certain clarity as I try to find my bearings in modern music.
Well, to go back to my opening statement: I think I can find the answers in Beethoven. Yes, that music is very different from today’s – but it has power, it has heart, and it is personal. So as I wade through the masses of modern compositions, that’s what I’m looking for. And I don’t mean I’m looking for the simplicity and unity with which Beethoven wrote – I am simply searching for that spirit of Beethoven which has a deep love for music, regardless of how the music is packaged. George Rochberg wrote at one time: “Why do you want to write music nobody can love? Do you hate yourself? Or do you hate them?...Why do you want to write music nobody can remember? Do you hate music?” As the Beethoven and all the other pieces were being played so beautifully last night, I felt a sense of naivety – that delightful pleasure and excitement in hearing music that I experienced long before I ever put on my smart music major cap. My intentions are to always pursue musical knowledge and insight, so I don’t wish to leave behind all the good things being a music major has taught me – I just hope I can continue on, always having that naïve perspective, always delighting in music.