Friday, June 26, 2009

The Single Best Thing I Was Ever Told About Classical and Early Music

Wednesday, Marianne and I went to hear a performance of Dietrich Buxtehude's sacred cantatas and chamber works by the Buxtehude Consort.

You have to be pretty well-versed musically to know anything at all about Dietrich Buxtehude. But he was one of the great Baroque composers. Bach and Handel revered him.

Me, I went in not knowing what to expect. High-level second-rate music, perhaps -- a musician who was to Bach what Solieri was to Mozart. But I was wrong, wrong, completely wrong. It was beautiful stuff, not quite like anything I'd ever heard before. Imagine hearing Back for the first time. Or Handel. It was like that.

And the performance? I am put in mind of the single most useful thing anybody ever told me about classical and music. It was Tom Purdom, local music critic and a working science fiction writer for over fifty years, who told it to me of course. He observed that there are so many highly skilled, wonderfully trained, inherently good musicians performing such music today, and so few opportunities for them to play in public that you simply never hear a bad performance.

Really cleared up my insecurities about my musical ignorance, I can tell you. Nowadays, I simply listen to the stuff. It sounds good. I enjoy it.



John said...

That's a great observation about classical music. The famous (possibly apocryphal) Buxtehude story I was told by my grade school piano teacher was that Bach was so into the man's organ stylings that he left his church job and walked several hundred miles to study with him. The (possibly more apocryphal) part this story that I didn't know until I read Christoph Wolff's excellent Bach biography was that the precondition to becoming Buxtehude's apprentice was that Bach had to marry Buxtehude's daughter. Bach demurred. Interestingly, though, Buxtehude seemed to have gotten his job as organist by marrying the daughter of his predecessor. Maybe it was a custom? A strange (though convenient) sort of package deal, that.

Chad Hull said...

Nowadays, I simply listen to the stuff. It sounds good. I enjoy it.

Good for you. I think that is the spirit in which a lot of classical music should be taken. It's great if you can follow things more closely and understand all the compositional techniques being used, but too often that understanding is forced or presented to the listener upfront.

A lot of folks miss out on basic enjoyment because they were too busy searching for deeper subtleties.

Michael Swanwick said...

The Philadelphia Inquirer has a critic who consistently gives violinist Hillary Hahn poor reviews because her playing is "not emotional." I asked Tom how anybody who heard her play could possibly think that, and he said, "What he means is that she doesn't make faces as she plays."

Chad Hull said...

The comment about not making faces is hilarious. I don't know how many times I've had losing arguments about music being a aural art and not a visual one. That said, I'm kinda indifferent to Hahn's playing.

However, her accompanist Valentina Lisitsa, is phenomenal. She is one of the more accomplished musical minds performing today on any instrument.