George Bernard Shaw, one of my inspirations as a music critic, once observed that music appreciation classes had it all backward. One has to love the music first, and the history, biography and musicology will follow out of a desire to know more about the object of affection. No one ever came to enjoy a Chopin etude because of its masterful enharmonic modulations.
Shaw was lucky enough to have grown up in a musical family. exposed to the classics at an early age, before the development of a recording industry. That still works today, in some instances, but how is an adult to find his or her way into that rewarding and sometimes ecstatic world? All the guides to listening that I have read have done little to enhance my enjoyment and would be virtually useless to anyone looking for that first spark.
I thought of this ancient problem a while ago when the DaPonte String Quartet played the String Quartet No. 8 of Australian composer Peter Sculthorpe. This is certainly a “modern” work (1969), but even traditionalists in the audience told me how much they enjoyed it..
The tragic opening, played by the cello, draws one in immediately. After all, who doesn’t love a cello song, even if it includes some surprising bumps. The musical imagery of the rice harvest continues the fascination, with its blurring of the line between sound effects and written music. The driving rhythm propels the listener from bar to bar.
Then there is the almost subliminal remembrance of ancient work songs, followed by the shock of recognition when the cello song reappears and is repeated by the other instruments.
The way the quartet is organized and the development of the theme are straightforward enough to satisfy even a casual listener, without banality. It left me wanting to hear more.
The first prerequisite to real enjoyment of music is performance. Find the best performance, of anything, that you can. Even the greatest masterpieces are dead on arrival without an equivalent realization. If one doesn’t work, keep looking. You will be surprised. Sometimes an unknown orchestra and conductor capture the essence, at least for me, better than Herbert von Karajan and the Vienna Philharmonic.
The second is repetition. The recording industry has a lot to answer for in its treatment of classical music, but it does offer the opportunity to hear a specific work again and again, which eventually, with luck, will lead to an “aha” moment; what psychologists call the relaxation response and others call shivers up and down the spine. The test of great music is the one Robert Graves suggested for poetry: it should make the hair stand up on the back of your neck.
Another way in is rhythm, which is built into our bodies, and which everyone enjoys in one way or another. I first started listening to Bartok because of his complex and powerful rhythms, and eventually developed a taste for his modal style. This is also a good path from popular to classical.
Imagery is derided by musical purists, but it has led multitudes toward more abstract music. Think of “Peter and the Wolf,” “The Swan of Tuonela,” “The Four Seasons,” or “La Mer,” all of which are great music in themselves.
Recognition, even the vaguest kind, can also lead to enjoyment, as in the work songs of the Sculthorpe quartet. We don’t know their specifics, but the style is universal. This also applies to hymns or marches, as in Charles Ives’ music, or references to popular tunes, as in Bach’s “Goldberg Variations.”
An historical approach sometimes works, but there may be a chasm between a composer’s approachable work and his later output that requires a leap of faith. A good example is Shoenberg’s “Verklarte Nacht” and his later 12-tone music. Another is the early Chopin-like preludes of Scriabin and his later, monstrous tone poems.
Seeing how the mechanism works, as described in the listener’s guides, can also be fun in an intellectual way, but all too often I can’ t hear, in a live performance, what the writers are talking about.
Finally, there are various unmusical ways to acquire a love of music. Many students have used Mozart to improve their grades and come to love him. The greatest motive of all is snobbery. After all, classical music is an aristocratic form that requires a refined sensibility to appreciate. I really don’t care. Anything that gets people to attend concerts or listen to recordings is good — and may transform a life or two.
Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal. He can be reached at email@example.com.