Sweet Music

Some random reflections on listening to classical music driving to work:

Some pieces of music you greet like an old friend.  In this category are pieces like Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos (any of them), the first movement of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6 and Respighi’s Ancient Airs and Dances.  Choral and vocal music is best for exalted feeling, though rarely heard: it is an enigma why Radio Two programmers think the style is so unpopular. Think of Handel’s “My heart is indicting” from The Coronation Anthems or his “I know that my Redeemer liveth”  from Messiah or even Elgar’s arrangememt of “Jerusalem.”  (I know, I know.) The same might be said for the “Contessa, perdono” sequence at the end of Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro

Some pieces, alas, are ruined and tired, either from being overplayed on the radio or from unfortunate associations.  Pachelbel’s Canon (properly Canon and Gigue in D major)  probably heads this list, closely followed by Handel’s Entrance of the Queen of Sheba from Solomon.  The waltz from Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique is constantly played and  presented as “classical lite,”  bizarre given the macabre theme of the work as a whole.  All three pieces need to be banished from the playlists.  Mozart, beloved Mozart, is abused by the near-daily playing of the overture from Figaro.  If only they would skip a track and play the two opening numbers, the duets “Cinque, dieci” and “Se a caso madama”: two chocolate truffles in musical box of bons-bons.  Every CD of Ravel’s Bolero I woud gladly toss into the nearest ocean, because it is a insidiously stupid, repetitive piece of music — 340 bars of two themes! — and also because I associate it strongly with Bo Derek.  (Bolero’s repetition may not have been Ravel’s fault: he was suffering from the early stages of a form of dementia. Edward Blake’s10 came out in 1979, at the beginning of my misspent adolescence.  Being a young gay male, I was complete mystified [and admittedly a little disgusted] by my male classmates besotted fascination with her. It had something to do with her breasts, I believe.  Ms Derek, incidentally, was appointed by George Bush to the Board of Trustees of the Kennedy Center for the Peforming Arts, for talents yet to be disclosed. But I digress.) 

Another piece with similar bad movie karma is Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, used in The Bad News Bears (1976) — I hear the piece and all I see is Walter Matthau. It’s ugly. Very ugly.  Oddly, Richard Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra escapes the same fate, despite it’s close association with Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.  Maybe it’s because all we ever hear are the triumphant opening bars.  But Johann Strauss’s Blue Danube Waltz will forever be associated with spinning space stations, besides being classically kitschy.

Sometimes music redeems itself.  There was a fashion in the ’70 and ’80s, if one wanted to add “tone” to a film’s soundtrack, to insert something by Mozart, usually Serenade No. 13 for strings in G major, K. 525, a.k.a. Eine kleine Nachtmusik. Invariably performed in some leaden, icky, full-orchestra version, I disliked the piece intensely.  Until the other day, at least, when the allegro movement was played on Radio Two in a rendition by a small chamber ensemble, vigourously and sensitively.  It was like taking the mold and tarnish of a Michelangelo and seeing the real art underneath.  It was sweet. To say it was a fresh interpretation would be an understatement.  Unfortunately I didn’t catch the name of the orchestra.  I would be grateful for any enlightenment.



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