By Jennifer Boyd
Ask a classical musician to name some of her favorite composers and you may hear such names as Beethoven, Chopin, and Mozart. Even those largely unfamiliar with the realm of classical music have likely heard these names. It’s no coincidence that these composers and the entire genre they represent are esteemed so highly centuries after their living careers concluded.
The musical landscape has evolved unfathomably since the birth of the classical genre. Long before the age of Beyoncé was the age of Bach. So, why is it that even in today’s world of engineered sound and synthesized beats that we still revere the genius of classical music?
Classical pieces are cultural relics, optics for clarity and the renaissance of times we never experienced firsthand. The human spirit is never satisfied with only that which lies directly in front of us. Feeling a kinship with our predecessors, we seek to understand our past.
Culture never comes without context. Music, like art and literature, creates a connection to our human past, our history. Through classical music, we understand and experience the zeitgeist of past eras. The studied carelessness, punctuated by syncopations and glissandos, of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue captures the cosmopolitan spirit of the 1920’s. Listening to the brilliant ornamentations and modulations in a Bach toccata, one can envision the swirling gowns and sky-high wigs that filled ballrooms in 1700’s Germany. To quote Jay Gatsby, “Can’t repeat the past? Why, of course you can!” These scenes, created by the cultural artifacts otherwise known as classical pieces, add sentiment and value to our lives that we cannot procure elsewhere.
We look to the music of Bob Dylan and Pete Seeger to better comprehend the revolutionary spirit of the 1960’s. The golden age of classical music spans incalculable centuries, social and intellectual movements, wars, and dynasties. A rich source of knowledge, classical music adds layers to our understanding of the fabric of our cultural DNA. The genre is integral to our social narrative, and it will forever contribute to the long arc of history.
But, the role that classical music plays in uniting us with our past in no way invalidates its modern relevance. These works – Beethoven’s concerti, Bach’s chorales, Liszt’s rhapsodies – they still engross us. These kernels for captivating ruminations resonate with us on a visceral level for the narratives they embody. One feels the rapture and excitement of Ravel’s “Ondine” in its melodic development. One experiences the cathartic release when the piece cascades into post-climax chaos. The solace when the piece returns to shimmering, mellow harmonies is palpable. Classical pieces tell stories that are galvanic and rich in their vividness. The use of language is unnecessary because the themes conveyed are done so by lyrical melodies, haunting harmonies, and intricate phrasings – all which coalesce to construct a unique musical “tone.” This is why we go to operas performed in languages we don’t speak!
Classical music will always speak to us, so we’ll continue playing it in our conservatories. We’ll always attend operas and symphonies. Beautifully complex, the emotional character of the classical genre is hard to replicate. Its sheer genius will enthrall us as long as we continue to look to music for emotional intimacy.
Contrary to the adage “Out with the old and in with the new,” classical music is here to stay. Sociocultural revolutions will occur time and time again, and the musical landscape will follow. But, we’ll always treasure the gems produced by maestros of centuries past, securing their longevity. For the indelible impact and value it provides, classical music will survive.