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Monday, February 03, 2014

A classical music story

People keep writing articles about whether classical music is "alive" or "dead" (I recommend Anne Midgette's take). Of course, we rabid classical music fans want more people to share our interest, even if some of us can be a bit hipsterish/elitist/exclusive about our tastes at times. It occurs to me that rather than making ultimately pointless arguments against yet another silly harbinger of classical doom (who are we trying to convince?), it might be more helpful and/or therapeutic for us to simply relate how and why we're into classical music. Where do we come from? What are our origin stories? Maybe we'll shed some light on what might lead the next generation to engage with the genre.

When I was a very little girl, I was taken to music classes at a Yahama music school in Brisbane, Australia (first in Toowong, then Coorparoo). I enjoyed music, but I wasn't the kind of kid who obsessed over practicing; my mother had to threaten and bribe me constantly in those early years to make those lessons worth the ten dollars a week, in her eyes.

I didn't fall in love with classical music at first. What I really fell in love with was Mozart.

I don't know which came first: watching Amadeus on television (my parents were always very liberal about what I could watch on TV), or learning to play a simplified version of Mozart's Piano Sonata in C. Both these things must have occurred by the time I was seven, because at that age I already knew I was heart-flutteringly in love with a man who was 200 years dead—or at least, a fictionalized account of him. I overplayed that stupid sonata in my favorite key to death, and I gazed at Mozart's picture in the score and cried because he was dead, and I would never be his Constanze, who wasn't ever good enough for him anyway. I used to shut my eyes when I played because that way I felt more connected to him. God, I felt so connected to him.

That was the first step. The next came in my teens.

I suppose it's pretty well established that the adolescent brain is geared to obsess. By early high school, I had read so many Mozart biographies that I could rattle off dates and cities without thinking. I pored over a collection of Mozart's letters, memorizing his smutty doggerel poems; I even copied a few of them and kept them in my wallet, along with a laminated mini print-out of the Joseph Lange portrait. Looking back, it seems kind of crazy, but I suppose it's no more crazy than idolizing Justin Bieber (the hipster elitist in me thinks it's quite a bit less crazy, actually).

I saved up my allowance and begged for more money from my parents to attend Mozart concerts and operas, usually by myself. Here's where another obsession intersects and expands upon the first. I've mentioned before my teenaged devotion to Inspector Morse novels and television shows. Funny thing about Inspector Morse; it's one of those things that makes you want very badly to be clever and feel clever. It's full of literary and operatic and wordplay references that the average girl in her early teens doesn't understand, but it makes her desperately want to understand them. So she chases them all down, ravenously. She studies Latin. She researches Freemasons. She reads A.E. Housman. She learns how to do cryptic crosswords, steeping herself in all aspects of culture and drastically expanding her vocabulary in order to understand the clues. And of course, she listens to Wagner, and Puccini, and even more Mozart, and she takes herself to the opera, much to the bewilderment of her parents.

I think people underestimate how powerful something like, say, a book series or a movie can be when it comes to promoting an interest in related culture. This week, the Inspector Morse prequel series Endeavour appeared on Netflix, and after raptly devouring it, I remembered that I hadn't done a cryptic crossword in years. The Guardian has a great online crossword interface; the second one I attempted contained the clue: "What upset John—possibly." [Thaw] What a coincidence, I chuckled to myself. Then, a little further down the page, I came across this puzzle (by a different setter); I've filled in the relevant answers:

OK. Look, maybe I'm jumping to conclusions here, but I'm willing to bet that Inspector Morse, a book series written by a crossword setter, is a huge influence on the setters and solvers of these crosswords. Some of them, like me, might only be doing what they are doing because they once loved the books or the television show (or both) so much. I don't suppose you can really measure how responsible Inspector Morse is for the ongoing popularity of cryptic crosswords, but it's surely telling that the setters regularly lace their puzzles with tributes.

I think that's pretty remarkable. And I think that cryptic crossword puzzles, which appear in newspapers every single day and are enjoyed by millions of people, are just as much of a niche interest as classical music, except that nobody accuses crosswords of dying, do they?

Whoops, I'm slipping into the argument, which is not why I started writing this post. I'm trying to say that classical music can find life in all sorts of ways, and not all of them conventional. Classical music is not and does not have to be all about the notes on the page or sitting still and listening quietly in concert halls. It's also about personalities and culture (and cults of personality) and connections and intersections with other interests, and these are often the things that bring new fans into the fold. Fans like me, who eventually get so into it, they go far, far beyond the original source material and attempt to do crazy things like write their own operas and finish Ph.D.s on the subject.
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