Good Music, and the Other Kind

Considering the Role of Opera in the Classical Countdown

Monday, January 02, 2012 - 04:09 PM

One of my core beliefs was inspired by a comment by Duke Ellington (whom I love madly, right or wrong): “There are two kinds of music -- good music and the other kind.”

We all know what he meant, but I also realize that many people put up huge barriers to one form of music or another. That is a shame. I have space in my mental MP3 player for just about every kind of music except rap which, to me, is more a spoken word form with a tinny backbeat than real music. Otherwise, though, good music can be found everywhere from the concert halls to churches, opera houses to rock clubs, joints, boites and garages. And then there are all the wonders that come under the catchall phrase of “world music.”

On Monday, my colleague Brian Wise posted a story on the WQXR blog about the latest Classical Countdown in which listeners voted for their favorite compositions. Only three of the 75 works could be called operatic (Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde; Puccini’s Turandot and La Bohéme) while only one other work, Verdi’s Messa da Requiem, is by someone who is primarily an opera composer and yet this masterpiece is not an opera. Most of the composers who made the list have at least one or more outstanding operas to their credit, from Barber to Dvorak and Vivaldi. For many music lovers, the greatest works by Handel, Mozart and even Tchaikovsky are operas.

The list also includes music by composers whom we do not associate with opera: Bach; Brahms; Bruckner; Elgar; Mahler; Mendelssohn; Pachelbel; Schubert and Sibelius. The occasional anomaly on the list, such as the Bruckner Eighth Symphony, becomes worthy of speculation as to how it came from nowhere to land at number 35. (Was there a memorable performance that got a lot of coverage? Was there a recent recording? Did it wind up on a conspicuous broadcast on WQXR?) Without a doubt, the inexorable rise of the Mahler Second Symphony relates not only to its greatness but to its prominent role in the recent observance of the tenth anniversary of 9/11. 

The three composers I consider the most underrated of all -- Berlioz, Haydn and Rossini -- are nowhere to be found. Symphonie Fantastique fell off the list this year, while works hang on that do not compare (the Pachelbel Canon -- really? I mean really???).

Among composers whose works are essentially non-operatic, I am amazed that no place was found for Chopin, Schumann and Grieg. And was there no place for Richard Strauss, one of the titans of symphonic writing in addition to being one of the top opera composers? I am sure you could add many more names that deserve inclusion. Whom would they be, and what music would you select? 

The Power of Familiarity

We are not talking here about the top 75 composers, but the most favorite pieces of music among those listeners who responded to WQXR’s survey. I think it is notable that the survey was done online. This does exclude a cohort of listeners, in general older, who might not use the Internet (and therefore do not listen online either). These people are not the traditionalists one might expect, but have broader tastes in music than the old warhorses.

Just like the Zagat survey of restaurants, I think that famous pieces trigger a positive response based, in part, on recognition and familiarity. Restaurants such as Le Bernardin, Peter Luger and the Gramercy Tavern finish atop the New York City listings even if most people have not eaten in those places. In the same way, Beethoven has five pieces in the top ten and nine works out of the seventy-five. The runner-up is Mozart with eight works and then comes Tchaikovsky with seven. Everyone knows these guys. Works that are in heavy rotation on the playlist of a classical music station will tend to be the ones named. 

Beethoven was such a radical that it is interesting that he has become the one who now seems so mainstream. The woman who sits behind me at my New York Philharmonic subscription always refers to “my Beethoven,” as in “I am happy as so long as my Beethoven is on the program in enough concerts each season to make me want to renew.” A small group of composers (Mozart, Schubert and Brahms in particular) garner her approval.

I do not want to belittle this woman’s taste, because her favored composers are all among the best and I do not belittle anyone’s taste. She and I regularly converse as I try to nudge her toward opening her ears to contemporary music or rarities. Carl Nielsen, Frederick Delius and Bela Bartok are more than she wants to handle, and she still covers her ears before even a note written by a living composer is played.

A Classical Diet Without Opera?

I will leave it to listeners and readers to debate whether the top 75 pieces on the list reflect that best in classical music. I know my list would be quite different, even if I like almost every work that is on the current list. These results have set me to thinking about something else: Why is it that so many people who like classical music say they do not care for opera? I know that most opera lovers like symphonic and chamber music even if they prefer opera.

I know people who find opera emotionally messy and are embarrassed and shocked when they find their pulse racing, their skin atingle with goosebumps, and their eyes brimming with tears. They don’t know how to deal with that because they feel out of control. A late friend of mine, Peter Henschel, allowed himself to be moved by opera, by symphonic music, by art, by the wonders of nature, by the love of his wife and his friends. He did not live as long as we might have wished, but he lived more fully than most people can conceive of. Because Peter was alive to his feelings and his senses, he understood more than most people could and felt wonderful because of it.

Many people claim not to like opera (even if they have only attended one or two) because they feel they do not understand everything. Do we ever understand everything we experience? Did you understand the last kiss you received? Or the last sip of wine you had? You may have liked it, but you did not understand it. Folks who tell me they do not understand everything in opera often tell me they love classical music. Believe me, there are more things we can understand in opera, which has a fair amount of literalness, than in the total abstraction that is symphonic and chamber music.

You probably have noticed that there is almost no opera or vocal music on WQXR during work hours on weekdays. This is hardly unique among classical music stations. The good news is that, starting on January 7, there will be an all-opera "Operavore" stream on WQXR.org. It will contain new and historic recordings, vocal recitals, and other music to delight cultists of the voice.

I do not see the need to categorize music and like one kind and not another. Why should opera and classical music run on parallel rails when many musicians work in both forms? If it is good enough for them, why is not good enough for some audiences? Music is an amalgamation of all that came before it and draws from all of those sources, plus the genius and inspiration of those who compose and perform it. Listen to Ellington play Grieg. You may not understand it in the way you think understanding is supposed to happen, but you feel it. All music, and especially opera, is about emotional understanding.

Here is a resolution for the New Year: listen to all music as if for the first time (I will do a post soon about how I do that). If you have never heard a particular opera, classical work, show tune, rock song, country and western ballad or music from a country you have never visited, listen without prejudice or preconception, do not analyze and do not judge. But really listen, with all of your heart.

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Comments [12]

Catherine J Sidoti from Brooklyn, NY

Seems like it was just yesterday that we were counting down the greatest pieces of classical music. Has it all been done before by the great masters, Beethoven, Bach, Brahms, Mozart, Chopin and countless others...imagine how this music was conceived even before we had the great technology we have today? I am sure everyone's wondered about this....am so thankful that I can listen to and be inspired by great music and it makes me happy to be excited by the day...As a testament to this great music transcends time whereas other music does not seem to do so when people say that classical music is dead, think again....Happy New Year 2013 to all......

Dec. 31 2012 09:00 AM
Kenneth Bennett Lane, Lake Hiawatha, NJ from Richards Wagner Music Drama Institute, Boonton, NJ

In everyone there exists a knowing or merely absorbing judgment on people, places, food, ideas and tyhe panoply of objects that surround ius from birth on. Osmosis features strongly on our prejudices, loves and hates. I have sung in opera, 4 SOLO Isaac Stern Auditorium of Carnegie Hall concerts [on Valhalla Records CDs, night clubs, radio and TV, singing in every format classical and pop, folk, rock, spirituals, blues, lieder, oratorio, and operetta, but never entertained the notion of doing rap or country music or hip hop. Artur Rubinstein was asked why he did not play much modern music. He honestly repeated, "I don't feel it." That's my response to friendly requests for me to sing music that I do not relish performing. "Chacon a son goute" My cousin MICHAEL BLANKFORT wrote both the books and screenplays for the 1953 film THE JUGGLER Hollywood film made in Israel starring KIRK DOUGLAS and the 1950 Hollywood film BROKEN ARROW starring JAMES STEWART and JEFF CHANDLER [Cochise]. The music for THE JUGGLER was composed by opera composer GEORGE ANTHEIL, in whose opera VOLPONE I sang the tenor leading role [Mosca] in its professional world premiere in NEW YORK in 1953. ANTHEIL, famous for his opera TRANSATLANTIC and BALLET MECHANIQUE looked exactly like Peter Lorre. I am a romantischer heldentenor. I have sung four solo concerts in the Isaac Stern Auditorium of Carnegie Hall. As part of my Ten Language Solo Debut concert at the Isaac Stern Auditorium of Carnegie Hall, I opened my three hour concert with the Invocazione di Orfeo from Jacopo Peri's opera EURIDICE composed in 1600, the first opera, composed in the same year as Shakespeare wrote HAMLET. It, and from the same concert, can be heard my singing Florestan's "Gott, welch Dunkel hier ! from Beethoven's FIDELIO and "Sound an Alarm" from Handel's JUDAS MACXCABAEUS in the live performance on my three websites, www.WagnerOpera.com, , www.ShakespeareOpera.com, and
www.RichardWagnerMusicDramaInstitute.com. It received rave critical notices in newspapers and magazines. My voice teachers were the legendary MET OPERA singers Alexander Kipnis, Friedrich Schorr, Frieda Hempel, Martial Singher, John Brownlee, Karin Branzell and Margarete Matzenauer. As an opera composer myself ["Shakespeare" and "The Political Shakespeare"] I fully comprehend the assumed urgency of recognition of the still living. I am the director of the Richard Wagner Music Drama Institute in Boonton, NJ where I train actors in all the Shakespeare roles and big-voiced singers in all the Wagner opera roles. My singing of TRISTAN, GOTTERDAMMERUNG SIEGFRIED, SIEGFRIED, SIEGMUND, RIENZI, LOHENGRIN, WALTHER VON STOLZING PARSIFAL, ELEAZAR, FEDERICO, ORFEO and OTELLO can also be heard at RECORDED SELECTIONS on my three websites.

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Dec. 28 2012 07:37 AM
The Marschallin from New York, NY

Random thoughts from The Marschallin: My sentiments exactly, Fred. The List reflects "circular thinking": if you play it often, listeners will remember it (Pachelbel's Canon !) if the listeners remember it, they will request it, etc...
Obviously, The Marschallin loves Richard Strauss (and the other neglected three as a matter of fact) and she is an "older listener" luckily able to access the Web, but not fond of music on her computer (tinny).
Opera is not played often during office hours because it is deemed "distracting" (words) versus suitable for "background" (music) Yikes!
So where do we go from here? A choice of classical radio stations? My vote of course!

Jan. 31 2012 12:42 PM
RG from Boston

Thanks so much for your thoughtful response!

Jan. 05 2012 04:24 PM
Scott Rose from Manhattan

I felt such pleasant uplift, learning that WQXR is to have an all-vocal, all-the-time stream, that I can't focus on the rest of what is written in the post.

Jan. 04 2012 05:08 PM
Fred Plotkin

To RG in Boston: My apologies. I had indeed discussed hip-hop in the piece I submitted but, in rereading, it seems to have been excised in editing. Hip-hop as a category has a much broader range and definition than does rap, and I believe there is good music in hip-hop. Thanks, Fred

Jan. 03 2012 11:51 PM
Fred Plotkin

A note to RG from Boston: Thanks for your comment. I made a distinction in my article between rap (where I don't find music, though I was not discounting the importance of the words) and hip-hop which, to me, is not the same thing as rap. With rap, I listen to the words with an open mind and all of my heart, but if there is musicality, it eludes me.

Jan. 03 2012 11:43 PM

Excellent piece. Point well made. I hope the powers that be at WQXR take Fred's views into account in their programming. I have listened to WQXR for at least 60 years now and it has by far been my most listened to station but I have noted the relative absence of vocal music in regular daily programming, except for Saturday afternoons.

Jan. 03 2012 03:27 PM
RG from Boston

"I have space in my mental MP3 player for just about every kind of music except rap which, to me, is more a spoken word form with a tinny backbeat than real music."

Such a narrow categorization of rap (and I suppose you mean all of it since you don't specify a particular artist or style) isn't much different than those who dismiss classical music as boring, or opera as people bellowing in some foreign language.

As you conclude your essay, you advise your readers to discover new music and "listen without prejudice or preconception, do not analyze and do not judge. But really listen, with all of your heart."

Clearly, neither you nor your mental MP3 player are capable of such largess when it comes to hip-hop. And, as someone who loves both Bach and Beastie Boys, I think that's really too bad.

Jan. 03 2012 03:16 PM
Peter O'Malley from Oakland, New Jersey

While there are some, at least, who would dispute your statement that the "Manzoni Requiem" is not an opera, at least in the technical sense, it is clear that WQXR, despite carrying the Met broadcasts on Saturdays, does not otherwise promote vocal music, operatic or otherwise. Hence, it is perhaps not surprising that its audience (at least those who participate in the "classical countdown") chooses largely instrumental music, despite the hope offered by the fact of the perennial number 1 choice of Beethoven's very vocal Ninth Symphony, and the frequent high placement of Mahler's Second. But, true, they are not operas.

I am glad to hear that there will be an opera streaming site, but if its reliability is as poor as the recently concluded Christmas music channel, I won't get much out of it!

Jan. 03 2012 01:27 PM
Sally from Ossining

The point of the Classical Countdown, is I believe, to list listeners FAVORITE works; not necessarily a contest to name the 100 or 75 BEST classical works. Some of the listings always surprise me. The Ninth as THE best piece? No way in my opinion. Certainly not MY favorite Beethoven which for the record are the 7th Symphony and the Mass in C. Does it rate that status because of the ever popular and well-known "Ode to Joy"? That would be my guess. Some of the most exquisitely beautiful music in the world comes from opera, no question. John Williams also writes gorgeous music. The first classical work that I got to know intimately through countless hearings is Grofe's "Grand Canyon Suite". Is it great? Perhaps not but it paved the way for a love of classical music and a life of making music as a singer and flutist.

Jan. 03 2012 11:00 AM
meche from MIMA

Fred, widening my musical horizons will be my New Year's resolution. I am just so addicted to the passion of opera! I do confess to listening to "classic rock" while I work out.

Jan. 03 2012 02:40 AM

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