Classical Music and a Discovery

It is melody that brings the ultimate magic to music. And what lies behind that magic? It is memorability. Memorability I define as a special string of notes on the music staff having an inherent capability of making that string memorable, easily recalled, for the purposes of the individual admirer in humming, whistling, or any other vocal or sub-vocal recounting the notes of that melody, wherever that person may be without any artist musician to play that string, at work, at play, drowsing before sleep, recalling an emotion attached to the meaning of that emotion, accompanied by knowing and hearing in some background all the harmonious instrumentation buttressing the melody and especially the beat.

I, personally, have hundreds of melodies stored in my memory for humming and whistling along, from opera, concertos, symphonies, art songs, marches, ballet suites, oratorios, sonatas, masses, tone poems, — you name it! And I know all the flourishes of orchestration that go with the melodies, imitating the carrying instrument. I know exactly where the melody is going and how it goes. That quality associated with that composer is an immortalizing quality, given to that composer for his eliciting strong emotions that accompany the melody. That music almost instantly becomes a classic, meaning, without doubt, long “staying power”. Emprasarios (Spanish for entrepreneur) seeking to mount an opera production, know what turns people on. The melodies in all sorts of music stick in memory. There are two kinds of composers, in my book, those who have it and those who wish they had it, the art (intuition) of the melody, the “master stroke”. Wagner’s opera, Die Meistersänger von Nürnberg, dramatizes the art of melody-making, one character who has it and one character who missed that boat. Some melodies please me to tears of enjoyment, such as the last scene in Der Rosenkavaklier by Richard Strauss, among many others. The heart is deeply involved and affected.

In classical music, for me, there is more complexity in the text of the classical orchestration. Opera provides words, making the context more specifically tied to the melody. I do not demote in any way the melodies in popular music. The current effect in popular music is the very, very, very strong BEAT, incessant, extreme, pounding the melodies to death. The beat is a slave-master whipping any melody within an inch of its life. The beat and its extremely loud perpetrators say it all, for this generation of youth. It hangs like a dose of cigarette smoke or a haze of hemp over the youth of our time.

I have a special appreciation for Miss (I kid you not) Winifred Wunderlich (a German word for strange, odd, singular, but I always took for WONDERFUL), my fifth grade teacher of music, who required a notebook of all the great composers with pictures.

I once saw on a television program a classroom of the very young sitting and auditing a small group of male and female opera singers singing famous operatic arias, quartets and choruses. Think of those great, strong, powerful, male and female voices belting out great melodies of opera in a small elementary classroom. Those children were enthralled. I must say, they may have been made opera fans for life with that life-forming experience. They never again will demean the art form of opera, an ultimate form of classical music.

I wish to define for you what I hear as “classical” music. Let me begin by saying that “Classical Music” is NOT a period-of-history thing. It had a historical beginning time, but it has flourished ever since, with phases.

I have fully appreciated classical music since I discovered it at about the age of five-eight. My brother and I were playing with a Victrola. That is a very, very old player of recordings. It was a cabinet that was as tall as I was at that time. Put a 78 RPM (rotations per minute) recording on the turntable, turn on the rotation lever, and set the needle down on the outer groove. There was some scratching noise and then whatever intended sound there was on the recording began to be heard through something like a megaphone. The needle may have been either metallic or reed. The former lasted the longest. They had to be changed often.

We were at a cottage on a lake in northern Indiana. Our lighting was by kerosene lamp, which had a distinct oily smell when burning. It gave a very rich light, not white, but sort of creamy, and it flickered when a small gust of air hit the flame, tho it was protected by a glass vase, ever darkening from cast off dark smoke from the flame.

Every last week in July and the first week in August was my father’s choice for a vacation by a lake, usually going north into Michigan. He loved to fish. We were taken along as his grunts to row to the spot which he believed was the spot for best luck. When he finally bought a motor, we were asked, no, told to lug that to the boat that went with the rental cottage.

We usually got up at break of dawn around five a.m., ate a breakfast of eggs and toast, and then geared up the boat and headed for the spot where we had put an X on the boat to mark the best spot; no, actually using the shoreline markers cross-referenced. If they weren’t biting, his sure-fire cure was to take out the Bull Durham tobacco pouch and start to roll a cigarette. In the middle of that he once or twice had a bite and the tobacco went flying, so that was his physical mantra for catching one.

Other than fishing and swimming, I enjoyed playing the old Victrola, listening to whatever the owners had on hand. There was a recording of arias from operas, performed by Mme Schuman-Heink, whose discography ranges from 1906 to 1930. That was my first experience of what was called “classical” music, quite different from popular music. The latter could be heard everywhere. The former was rare. But what did I know!

Classical music is “art” music, as opposed to “popular” music. The two general classifications, in my mind, are separated by simplicity and complexity in lyric or message, melody, rhythm, instrumental ensemble, orchestration of the piece, length, structure, harmony, and more. (I am not a musician. I sang in choirs, but I do not read music.) You can read more distinctions by going to Wikipedia under “classical music”.

Listening to Schuman-Heink on that recording took me to a life-long affair with that kind of music so different in many ways. Somehow it separated me somewhat from the crowd of popular music lovers. I was not aware of popular music of that time, the thirties. I was basically “music-less”, except for church hymns and childhood rhymes and jingles. I liked popular music a bit, but I had found a new dimension of delight in music that seemed more important somehow. I once, probably in about the fourth grade, Battell School (K-6), Mishawaka, IN, won second prize in an amateur contest imitating the orchestral instruments playing Tchaikovsky’s “Waltz of the Flowers”. (Prize: A blue Kodak box camera. But I couldn’t afford the film at Went’s Drug Store.)

Most of the melodious classical music I can hum along with. I might be able to lead, not follow, a symphony orchestra, in several pieces, all the great works I have heard over many years. I have a large repetoire of orchestrations in memory. Well, okay, not lead, but follow very closely, almost like leading in many places.

But just today, as old as I am, I discovered a new distinction for classical music. I had my favorites in the classical part of my music experience, and then there were those classical compositions I did not care for very much. Listening to the local classical music broadcasts of the Public Broadcasting Station, I began to distinguish two bins of what I liked and what I did not like. So, just today, I was able to find word-labels for my distinction: “emotional” versus “technical” classical music. The emotional type is music I can more closely identify with by humming the melody, detecting the rhythm, and the instrumentation. I find little melody and rhythm that is memorable in the technical stuff. The radio station plays the emotional type, but then it becomes a matter of playing music round the clock 24/7/365. Those stations have to fill a lot of air-time. The filler tends to be the technical type, small ensemble and specialized instrument pieces played overnight and early a.m., for which there is also a large audience, but not me. That’s when I turn to my recordings, where I can find all the emotionally satisfying music adorned with classical melodies, rhythms, orchestrations, and “emotional coloring” in volume and rhythm variety.

I do have a large collection of popular music, but with a distinct taste for the classic popular music of Broadway and film classics and the popular music of the Forties, classic popular which had “great”, for me, lyrics and melodies. The definitive tune for me was, and is, Cole Porter’s “So in Love”. I memorized that and once sang it to my wife at dinner. (I still sing it to all I have left of her, pictures and a portrait.)

I am having a hard time picking out the elements that appeal to me. I am not a musician. I do not know the “lingo”.

The technically classical music is probably found interesting only by musicologists and the players who have a variety of technical skills to showcase. At certain times of the day’s broadcasts, the classical music is a dull heap of ups and downs, fast and slow, dots and dashes, dittys and dottys, virtuosic jumbles adding up to, “well, okay, but have I been improved in mood, exhilaration, recognition and reinforcement?”

There are elements of music that are punched up to capture that youth demographic, a lucrative market. What must music have to please youth? The beat. The loud, incessant percussive beat. Music for youth is now actually stereotyping youth having a common denominator musical imbecility in the sexual power of the beat associated with youth. How many younger adults also have that adolescent character? Some of that character there is in and about technical, classical music. It is a complex composition of classical music to use mechanically composed tricks of instrument and rhythm for the practice of instrumental virtuosity. I hear more woodwind and percussion instruments in the kind of classical music I call technical classical music, without much blend with string and brass instruments.

Nah! It’s just a technical rant. Much ado about nothing. The sure sign of a technical composer with few ideas for melody, or should I say little talent or genius for melody, except shaking peppercorns on a sheet of paper and where they stick on a staff, play that!

(O my! That’s cruel! Sorry, guys. Grind away. I will listen. But it just makes the non-technical stuff stand out more. Sometimes in the middle of the night I wake up and hit the radio “on” button to hear what’s playing. Technical stuff, mostly. Off button. Back to sleep. Now, today, it’s Mahler, “Das Lied von der Erde”. Ah, the romance of melody and orchestration. That’s classical. I’ll hum the rest because it’s memorable, easily memorable, no arbitrary, technical ups and downs. The mood is romance.)

I actually feel sincerely sad for everyone who does not have the beauties of the more complex music echoing in their everyday memories of the magnificence of the splendid and grand and ennobling, exalting joy I feel in listening to the richest, emotional sort. It is a superior carrier of emotional variety, and I am a glutton for it.

In sum, The heart of truly “classical” music being the melody, what melody is so important in giving the listener, is in these outcomes, besides the ones I have already noted: popularity where orchestras love to play and soloists love to sing because they take a free ride on the popularity of the piece; instant recognition, in hearing the audience stir with excited anticipation; natural, but of course; instinctive in hitting a resonance in the mind; suspension in time, please do not ever stop; living in the moment, the highlight of my day; timelessness, always there especially in these days of recordings with time, place, artist favorites. Haunting, like a ghost in the room always there. Moody, uplifting beauty.

Do not hate it. Try it. At first you may hit the wrong ones. Find one piece as an entry, and go from there, exploring. The melody is the treasure buried and always looked for. If a composer cannot invent a melody, he can always fall back on technical static in the background. Melody separates the virtuoso from the artist. I guess if you are the virtuoso, you do not want to compete with the composer, so you bypass the works known for melody and take up those works known for something else like the technical skill required to play them. (I feel a whole bunch of hate mail headed my way.)

May I take a moment to excoriate the background music found in most movies for screen or television. The producers have gone insane by asking composers and orchestras to produce organized noise for dramatic enhancement. What they have done is to obliterate the dialog in favor of giving their dramas more “heft”. They know not what they do. They are driving away understanding to get “heft”? Poor slobs.

BOTTOM LINE: It is melody that brings the ultimate magic of attraction to certain works of musical composition. It brings memorability of that special string of notes one can whistle, hum, even hear in the mind’s capacity to hear without any sound. Only a list of special composers have that ability. You can name them, easily. All composers are looking for that string. I believe that, when Brahms sat to compose his Requiem, he intuited those strings of melody from the artfulness implanted at some time and in some special way in his brain’s mind. And the same for Mozart in his Ave Verum Corpus; he had it. Every composer wants IT. Not every composer gets it, that magical intuition. I’ll bet it is the greatest feeling on Earth to click with IT, that magic, and know you have done it. And the assurance that you can do it again. And again.

Am I getting too snooty for you? Perhaps, yes. Ah cain’t hep it.

If you ever intentionally seek to teach the young to gain, for life, an appreciation for classical music, I hope you start the instruction by exposing them to those compositions that have the greatest melodic lines and that have been used in the popular media, such as cartoons, Christmas stories, patriotic programs, and so forth. It works best if there is a sixth grade teacher who asks pupils to make a small scrap book of composers, pictures, and programs of classical music.

To review: What was my discovery? “Technical” classical music. Technically speaking, it is music classified as “Classical Music”, technically speaking. Filler stuff, if you broadcast 24-7-365. And for those who have a special appreciation for the technical virtuosity of the performers.