Classical music matters

Bach and Stravinsky influenced early rock ‘n’ roll, but the classics are slowly disappearing

KEEP IT COVERED<br> Detail from cover of Anton Bruckner’s ‘Romantic’ Symphony No.4 in E Flat.

Detail from cover of Anton Bruckner’s ‘Romantic’ Symphony No.4 in E Flat.

I was watching PBS recently and they had a tribute to Leonard Bernstein, in which he spoke to children who otherwise would ignore the classics. He echoed many of my own sentiments. It was probably deemed of marginal interest, which only substantiates my premise that classical music is as dead as network news. Just talking about it seems uncool. PBS and The Arts Channel still acknowledge it, but they also showcase gaseous has-beens in polyester, makeup and toupees.

The genre has become another casualty in the dumbing down of America. Try selling a classical record to a second-hand store. In San Francisco, only two shops currently acquire them, restricting this trade to key labels (with narrow parameters for “vintage” and “titles"). A bookseller there had cheap, sealed box sets of Mahler (Bernstein’s idol) that no one bought. He felt this trend would turn around someday, so the display would stand. And I was stunned to find the mint-condition British import (they sound better) Brahms LPs (25 cents apiece) I’d left behind (after buying 18) at a local thrift store were still there one week later!

KCHO now limits its classical fare to mid-afternoon and Mike Fishkin’s superior evening show. During pledge breaks they own up that few want to listen to such programming, but they’re being noble at their own expense. It would help if they played less conservative “war horse” selections, but it’s the same in San Francisco and Los Angeles (we would all agree it’s the same in rock radio). S.F. has two classical stations, L.A. has three. KFAC was once the leading station (along with Top 40 stations, KHJ and KRLA). The Northwest (where it rains) and the East Coast (where everything’s old) probably have more interest per capita.

Leonard Bernstein

Some say music is the highest art, and the classics, the highest form ("The Rolling Stones are the greatest group and Rouvan the greatest singer."—KHJ, 1964). Bach has been used to soothe animals in shelters (rock agitates them). Murderers and stressed businessmen rely on it. And Edward G. Robinson listened to Vivaldi while he was being euthanized in Soylent Green.

When I was in grammar school (there were music programs then, and field trips), I spent my Saturdays seeing weighty operas at the Shrine auditorium (The Bartered Bride; The Magic Flute). I went with Jeffrey Salgo, whose parents were Viennese bakers. The timbre of a full orchestra and the dark cavernous surroundings transcended the music (like the Wilshire Temple’s stained glass and gilded Torah transcended Saturday school).

My interest had already been piqued by Disney’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, where Bach’s “Toccata” and “Fugue in D Minor” hit me like a sledgehammer. This music from the first half of the 18th century still holds up today. Bach’s melodies and harmonies (which radiate from an original motif) are still unsurpassed. He was the first to unite intellect and emotion, and combine the three major schools (his, German, the French and Italian) in a polyphonic, contrapuntal mode.

Bach’s “Baroque” period had moved beyond the earlier model church “Monody” of the “Renaissance” period (still popular with the hippies, with its recorders and tambourines). Today’s pop music still hinges on Baroque’s triad major and minor chords and “basso continuo” (a harmonic bass line), but is more linear and lacks “modulation” from the tonic key.

Igor Stravinsky

Bach’s son, Carl Philipp Emanuel, helped develop the sonata form of the subsequent “classical” period (along with the boring and radio-friendly Haydn), which is also echoed in pop music. The first movement is allegro (like the often lively “verse"); the second movement is a somber adagio (like the often minor key “bridge"), only the pop song returns to the verse instead of a rondo third section. The music of this period can sound the most dated (partially due to the orchestration, which is not always done by the composer), yet it’s the most pervasive today.

The major classical S.F. radio station is dominated by Mozart, whose often lively, form-oriented pieces appeal to yuppie office workers (though I like his sedentary piano and chamber works, and the “Requiem").

Beethoven was almost transitional to the 19th century “Romantic” period (again, beginning with the unadulterated piano and chamber works). The “Romantic” Brahms (a throwback to the classical) had two sides (I prefer the sad Nordic to the Viennese)—his magnificent “Double Concerto for Cello and Violin” was ahead of its time, though. German composer Richard Wagner’s operas are cinematic, and have a cumulative impact of haunting leitmotivs (melodies assigned to characters). I find Schubert and Mendelssohn stodgy (you’ll hear plenty of them on the radio).

During this period, the symphony form emerged, and the orchestra expanded: The conductor came into play as another aesthetic factor (along with the orchestra, orchestration and the recording itself). The most popular conductors (and compositions) are often the worst! Many considered Bernstein too flamboyant and emotional, and I have the opposite problem with Toscanini.

The 20th century “Modern” period is where I suggest young people begin. Brazil’s Villa Lobos for instance, has a link to the World Music tastes of Chico. He incorporates Latin folk elements with mystical dissonance. England’s Ralph Vaughn Williams and Gustav Holst are the musical equivalent of Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, and utilize folk idioms. The lilting dreamy minimalism of France’s Satie, Ravel and Debussy (the Impressionists) seem to enthrall modern listeners.

I’ll take Stravinsky. Frank Zappa incorporated his melodies (Holst, too) into pieces, while ‘60s British prog band Procol Harum lifted Bach. Tin Pan Alley songwriters stole lines from Grieg, Rachmaninoff and countless others. The Beatles and other sophisticated songwriters were certainly influenced by the classics their parents played at home. I shudder to think what tomorrow’s writers will proffer, after listening to *NSYNC, Black Eyed Peas, or even U2, should classical music (the collective term for all five historic periods) go the way of the Dodo.

Many of us appreciate a densely structured or multilayered art house film, or a novel that possesses nuance, thematic development, capitulation and other complexities. Why should we limit ourselves to the basic premise of a pop song, which is like a plot treatment, a synopsis, a sketch, devoid of exposition or architectural structure (a hovel). We can be taken to higher and more ethereal planes: Why drink beer, Chico, when there’s the fine cognac of what a volunteer thrift store geriatric termed “the good stuff?”