Musings on music and criticism

“After playing Chopin, I feel as if I had been weeping over sins that I had never committed, and mourning over tragedies that were not my own. Music always seems to me to produce that effect. It creates for one a past of which one has been ignorant, and fills one with a sense of sorrows that had been hidden from one’s tears. I can fancy a man who had led a perfectly commonplace life, hearing by chance some curious piece of music, and suddenly discovering that his soul, without his being conscious of it, had passed through terrible experiences, and known fearful joys, or wild romantic loves, or great renunciations.”

I love this quote from Oscar Wilde’s “The Critic As Artist,” which I confess I’ve never read in full. It captures so perfectly why I have always loved making music. I don’t live life on the edge, but for a few brief hours every week, I feel as if I’ve lived out the melodramas that unfold on my sheet music.

Alex Ross, the music critic at The New Yorker and the author of “The Rest is Noise,” posted this quote on his blog and expressed his surprise that Wilde never actually played Chopin–or any piece of music, for that matter. I, too, think it’s truly amazing that Wilde was able to articulate music-making’s emotional effects so well despite never actually making music himself.

Little does Ross know, his loyal readers respect him so much because he regularly does the same thing Wilde has done in this passage. While most can’t find the words to describe an impressive or emotionally moving piece of music after they’ve heard it, Ross seems to conjure up the perfect phrases effortlessly.

Not only that, but Ross seems to find emotions others don’t immediately understand in lots of contemporary music. Despite the fact that audiences find modern classical music increasingly unrelatable, Ross and other critics of his caliber can still appreciate ground-breaking musical compositions years before the rest of us “get it.”

Like a lot of  my fellow vocal musicians, I don’t often find myself emotionally moved by pieces I haven’t sung or played myself, especially if the pieces are contemporary and lack traditional Western aesthetic appeal. Part of the fondness I develop toward particular pieces of music is borne from the sometimes emotionally draining process of learning and finessing the notes. Without the hard work and resulting appreciation for a piece of music’s complexity, I might easily disregard it. Among the several pieces I probably wouldn’t have warmed to if I’d just listened to them are the “Christe Eleison” soprano duet from Bach’s B Minor Mass, Veljo Tormis’ “Autumn Landscapes” set and a slew of Imant Raminsh pieces.

In the same vein, I can develop a fondness for pieces I learn about, while pieces for which I have no basis of knowledge don’t resonate with me. I often warm to music that has a compelling history behind it, and I can more easily appreciate a piece I’ve analyzed in a theory class. I now love several Bach, Handel and Beethoven pieces I once considered boring or stodgy thanks to a series of college music classes.

But unlike Ross, I don’t seem to pick up on or appreciate genius contemporary work immediately. Even after years of listening to it, Arnold Schoenberg’s work doesn’t leave an impression on me as it does on Ross.

Someday, I’d like to reach out to Ross and learn how he develops appreciation for a wide spectrum of composers from all over the world without performing the music and often before analyzing it. Is it a matter of tuning out the rest of the world and focusing solely on the sounds you’re hearing? Or is it more about setting aside all preconceptions and forgetting one’s “personal taste” to treat each piece as a separate entity unrelated to everything else?

Maybe if I keep Schoenberg in heavy rotation on my iPod, the answers will come to me.

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