Canon Fodder

I don't really know classical music.

This statement might strike you as a trifle odd. After all, I've been playing the bassoon for going on ten years, I majored in composition in college, and this blog is nominally dedicated to the genre. How can I possibly claim that I don't know classical music?

Look again more closely: The bulk of my bassoon playing has been in wind ensembles and musical pits — I chose to play contra with my college orchestra specifically so that I would pretty much only be needed on the post-1900 works they programmed. I passed the requisite history sequence with flying colors, but I was much more interested in all the stuff around the music — the evolution of notation, the change from patronage to publishing, the rise of musical nationalism and the interplay of that with marginalized identities — than I was in the actual musical content itself. With the exception of JS Bach, almost nothing on this blog references works written before the twentieth century.

The truth is that most of what would commonly be considered the core of the classical repertoire — the works of Franz Haydn, Wolfgang Mozart, Ludwig van Beethoven, Franz Schubert, Robert Schumann, Johannes Brahms, etc — the Germanic core around which the Classical Music Canon was consciously and deliberately constructed — feels like an alien landscape to me. Sheer overwhelming repetition has beaten a few of the most major landmarks into me — most of Beethoven's symphonies, anything Mozart wrote featuring the bassoon, Schubert's "Erlkönig", that sort of thing — but the valleys between them are lost in fog. Have I even heard anything Beethoven wrote for string quartet other than the "Heiliger Dankgesang"? Brahms wrote things for solo piano, right? Can I hum more than one theme by Schumann? (Answer: No, I can't. "Ich grolle nicht" is it, and even then really only the opening phrase.) I can tell you a lot about this music — the contexts in which it was written, the ways it meant things to its initial audiences, the fundamental formal and harmonic procedures at play (give me a score, and I have the tools to pull it apart and explain what's happening in great detail) — but my knowledge of the music, of what the pieces themselves actually sound like, is flimsy at best.

Normally, I don't think about this very much. I curl up with my Higdon or my Barber and happily drift along in my modernist/contemporary life. But recently I read thru the backlog of the Don't Shoot the Pianist webcomic, and that, combined with my slow but certain progress thru Hepokoski and Darcy's monumental Elements of Sonata Theory, has made me feel very keenly how far removed my listening habits are from those of so many people I'd normally think of as having similar taste. I'm perfectly willing to trust Hepokoski and Darcy that Haydn does such-and-such with the famous second theme in this one string quartet, but I don't even have a vague memory of an impression to actually verify it. When Don't Shoot the Pianist throws up an excerpt, I can often go "huh, that's probably something by Chopin?", but if the specific piece is pertinent to the joke, the punchline goes right over my head. These shared reference points, the things that make a community out of a bunch of listeners, aren't part of my vocabulary. (Occasionally, my inner ear will connect the notation with something from deep in my musical past — I wasn't born humming Britten, after all — but there's no web of association for it to connect with; the passage in question snaps into focus, but there's no branching out to fill in the rest of the piece and others like it, the excerpt floats in my head disconnected from everything, a de-contextualized island suspended in a neutral, anonymous void.)

Even with people who also love more recent repertoire, there isn't necessarily an equivalent deep pool of shared references. In part, this is because there simply hasn't been enough time for the pieces to grow in fame and accumulate anecdotes, but part of it also has to do with the increased diversity in compositional styles — Philip Glass sounds much less like Pierre Boulez than Mozart sounds like Haydn. I have very little time for the integral serialists and the pioneers of electronic music, and, conversely, I have never met anyone who is as deeply moved by Olivier Messiaen as I am. Even things that I think of as sure-fire touchstones can miss — I've met graduate students in composition who barely know Bartók's Concerto for Orchestra, a work that I think of as absolutely foundational to the mid-century repertoire. In general I think this glorious diversity is a good thing — it really would be frightfully boring to live in a world where everyone had identical musical tastes — but at times it can get a little lonely. 

(There are also, of course, points of overlap with the more conservative crowd — Debussy and Ravel are rather popular, after all! — but where I tend to see these pieces as beginnings, tentative steps into an exciting new post-tonal world, many approach them from the other end, late works, on the cusp of stepping into an atonal void.)

I'm not building to a grand point here, other than this: As much as I love getting to share my favorite music with people who've never heard it before, there is something irreplaceable about the comfort of shared recognition, of saying "Ugh, the final chord of Dieu parmi nous, tho" and having someone else go "I knooooooooow!". I treasure the friendships I already have where this is the case, and I hope that I build more of them as I go on in life.