By Peter Hall, Classical 94.5 WNED program host
This September marks the 20th anniversary of “Classical Music Month” designated by the Congress of the United States and so proclaimed and signed by our 42nd president, Bill Clinton.
Part of the proclamation reads as follows: “This month we exalt the many talented composers, conductors, and musicians who bring classical music to our ears. These artists carry on a great tradition of musical achievement, and we are proud of their outstanding accomplishments. Whether in new American works or in the masterpieces of the great composers of old, music is a unifying force in our world, bringing people together across vast cultural and geographical divisions. Classical music speaks both to the mind and to the heart, giving us something to think about as well as to experience.”
I like those thoughts: “a unifying force in our world, bringing people together” speaking “both to the mind and to the heart.” One of the ways that classical music brings people together is that you pretty quickly realize that there was a lot of music written before you arrived on this planet and that you are just one in a long line of listeners and other people know a lot more than you do. It helps keep you humble. And then there are so many, many different sounds to what we lump together as “classical” including Baroque music composed from 1600 to 1760, what we actually call “Classical” from 1730 to 1820, the big sweep of “Romantic” music from 1815 to 1910, that free-for-all called “20th Century” music from 1900 to 2000, and what we call Contemporary (from 1975 to the present). You can’t be interested in classical music for long without feeling compelled to read up on it and think about it. Finally, you have to pretty quickly admit that other countries, even countries that you were taught to distrust, for example the Soviet Union, produce some spectacular classical music and musicians. That teaches acceptance. Also, because classical music pieces develop as they proceed and often don’t finish the way that they began, that teaches patience, and tolerance, and trust in others, especially the composer.
I’ve heard that classical music fans have the widest tastes and the most tolerance of other musical genres. I’ll believe that. I myself also like a fair amount of rock, country, world music, jazz, and, to the puzzlement of many of my friends, rap. If the music, any music, is authentic and played well, then I can appreciate it.
I suppose one of the reasons that we have national observance days, weeks, or months is to call people’s attention to something that they might otherwise overlook. I’m probably one of the worst people to be writing about “Classical Music Month” because I’m not about to overlook it. Of course, you may say that’s because it’s my job (I’m the on-air host Monday-Friday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Classical 94.5 WNED). But I can recall other times in my life when classical music was hard to come by, and I would drive long distances to take a record out of a library or to hear a performance.
Certainly, classical music was important to everyone whom I loved growing up, and I knew that before I was born. I’ve been listening to classical music since the days of President Harry Truman, when my mother, who was carrying me, and father, working in Washington D.C., would attend the free Library of Congress concerts to hear the finest chamber musicians of the time. Classical music was always playing in the household, either on LP record, or else, once we were back in Western New York, courtesy of the CBC (one of the reasons that, growing up, I thought that Canadians were the “classiest” people in the world).
My maternal grandfather also listened and would buy a pair of season tickets to the Buffalo Philharmonic. Back in the fifties concerts started at 8:30pm and every once in a while it was my turn to go to Kleinhans with Grandpa. Mom would make a nice dinner and then I’d put on an itchy wool suit and off we’d go in his Lincoln. Classical music just seemed like the soundtrack of my happy childhood and has always spoken to my heart.
And, I associated “classical” with “classy.” Part of growing up was the realization that this music was something special. On the occasions when I’d go to Kleinhans we dressed up and when the music started we shut up. Years later when I went to my first outdoor rock concert (it was in Toronto), I was appalled that people continued to talk when the musicians were playing.
So, for myself, while I don’t think I personally need “Classical Music Month,” if it sparks curiosity in just one person, then it’s worth it. I can certainly see a teacher using it as a reason to play a classical work in a classroom, which might be some child’s first hearing of this music which has been with me all of my life, and if might open up a window for that child, so I proclaim it a good thing.
By the way, when asked to come up with a work to represent “20th Century Music” I chose the Piano Trio No. 2 by Soviet Composer Dmitri Shostakovich. I have heard that when asked for his favorite piece of classical music, Bill Clinton said that it was the Symphony No. 5 by Shostakovich. What can I say but “good choice!”