It has been observed that there are only two kinds of music, good and bad. Duke Ellington said that if it sounds good it probably is good. Peter Schickele, the well-known avatar of P. D. Q. Bach (1807-1742), dedicated his weekly radio programme, Schickele Mix, to the principle that all musics are created equal, so you might think that he doesn’t believe in the good and the bad. Each episode is a light-hearted, although somewhat heavy-humored, presentation of diverse musical excerpts loosely connected by a musical, historical or literary thread.
Articles by Keith Francis
Since one of my aims is to try to find out why, for some people, “classical” music is so much more potent than other kinds of music, and as a connected question, why these people form only a small proportion of the population, I’ll give some examples of the pitfalls that await the unwary “classical” missionary who speaks to high school students or innocent adults. Most of what follows is drawn from real life. The speaker, Juan Torescramiento, is introducing a performance of one of Beethoven’s Rasumovsky Quartets by the Pro Classico String Quartet. Mr. Torescramiento is not Spanish, but the fake-Spanish name I have given him is more appropriate to the character of his discourse than anything printable in English. He is actually a conflation of several musical missionaries (all of white European extraction) whose effusions I was unlucky enough to have to sit through during the thirty-two years of my tenure as a high school teacher in New York City. Some were faculty members. After giving a few details of Beethoven’s birth and early life he gets to the real stuff. First we get some of the old horse-feathers… Oops! I meant to say “conventional wisdom.”
The Major League of Composers may be the sterile, misshapen offspring of an uneasy union between critical approbation and public enthusiasm, but, like the mule, it is very obstinate and not entirely useless. If we first acknowledge that it is meaningless to anyone who is not in some way part of the “classical” music crowd, we can see that within that crowd it represents with fair accuracy a broad spectrum of responses. Performances of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion at Lincoln Center are usually sold out weeks ahead of time. Beethoven’s symphonies are still a greater draw than anyone else’s. People don’t go to these concerts because they have been told that the composers are “great” but because they find the music thrilling and uplifting.
I became a music teacher more or less by accident. After graduating from Cambridge University in 1956, I went to work as an engineer in the Guided Weapons Department at Bristol Aircraft—my sons still like to refer to me as a rocket scientist. Finding that the life of a rocket scientist is extremely dull, I went back to Cambridge, did my post-graduate work in education and took a job at the Crypt School, Gloucester, preparing students for university entrance and scholarship exams. I enjoyed my work at the Crypt, but after six years I was ready for something else, and I moved to the Rudolf Steiner School in New York City, supposedly as a teacher of mathematics and physics.
In the interests of full disclosure I should reveal that your reviewer is a very elderly Messiah junkie who heard his first performance at a time when the earliest stirrings of the period performance movement were perceptible only to those with unusually sensitive ears and the world was still trying to wrench its collective consciousness away from six years of cataclysmic warfare. The event in question took place in December 1945 at the Pavilion, Bournemouth, on the south coast of England, only a few miles from the devastated port of Southampton, and was given by the Bournemouth Municipal Chorus and Orchestra. The orchestra, which has since achieved great distinction as the Bournemouth Symphony, had been reduced to twenty-four players during the war and while that number might now be considered appropriate for a Messiah performance, in 1945 it must have been quite a task to produce an orchestra deemed fit for Handel’s masterpiece.