It’s quite shocking, isn’t it, that in studying for high-maintenance exams – like history-based courses, or ones that involve many scientific principles or mathematical equations – we students, our brains battered from such a huge influx of information in such a short period of time, will sometimes hit on really absorbing topics of discussion that aren’t traditionally emphasized by our teachers.
Take the Musicology 240 exam I crammed for on Tuesday night. The course surveys classical music from baroque to 20th century; just about any powdered-wigged and pantalooned dead composer of Western music that you can think of is discussed in this required course for most Music students. Musicology courses are notoriously difficult to give a crap about – for me, anyway – especially when you consider the fact that my instrument, the tuba, wasn’t even invented while so much groundbreaking and revolutionary activity was going on. What do I know about opera (pre-Wagner, that is)?
My study buddy and I (he’s a euphonium player, and if you have to ask, you’ll never know) flipped textbook pages and shuffled through our notes, disorganized, desperate and frustrated. In a comment that probably served just to momentarily wrench us from the mercifully short hell that is late-night cramming, he posed a query: What would Beethoven think of pop music today — say, Britney Spears’s music?
I suppose that such a question isn’t all that mind-blowing, but a short discussion on the topic led us to think about how we regard music and musicians from the past. The comparison — a historical bastion of art musicians who composed what have become some of the most recognizable and highly regarded musical works of all time versus a contemporary pop star whose sexual and commercial appeal has more to do with her wild success than any sound that’s ever appeared on one of her albums — prompted statements from me like, “There’s no context for that comparison.” Without something like a common ground, Ludwig Van probably wouldn’t even regard “Toxic” as music. He lived in a time during which music, or the artistic worth of it, was so much more rigidly defined than today, when regular people can slip between genres, styles and eras as easily as hitting the “Scan” button on a radio.
But here’s where our discussion grew more interesting: We’d never, ever question what Spears thinks of Beethoven because (A) all indications point to her being really, really dumb and (B) because Beethoven’s music — unlike so many other aspects of life 200 years ago, like social relations and clothing styles — is still here. We don’t think of it as something out of place, something it would be impossible to relate to, because this music is still so prevalent. The composers who created the artistic shifts that eventually produced our current musical climate are just as recognizable in name and in their works today as any 20th century composer. Their music and their history is still taught in schools; students such as myself learn just as much about these composers and their music as we do about playing our own instruments.
We’re taught to revere their music as sort of the beginning of it all, that the 18th and 19th century greats inhabit the part of the musical spectrum that’s somehow grander and more intense than so much of what’s happening now. Because of the way people consider this kind of music, we simultaneously bestow upon it a relevance to what’s happening in contemporary classical music and a historical reverence.
Most of us think of the music of the 1960s onward as still relevant; we regard early rock‘n’roll from the 1950s and jazz as closely-related forerunners of that movement in pop music. But just about anything before Elvis and Ellington that isn’t classical art music feels highly historical, representative of lifestyles and events that have been overwritten and forgotten. For the average listener, even for fans of music from these eras, blues and old gospel seem more ancient than Bach: because it hasn’t been preserved, promoted and studied, championed by arts organizations in the same way classical music has, hearing this music feels genuinely historical. Field recordings or music lifted from unearthed 78s supply us with the only vantage point by which we can hear and examine this music.
The classical world — everything from John Corigliano back to Palestrina — and the pop music world — jazz and Gershwin to electronica and alt-metal — seem to run parallel to each other in importance today; it’s as though any genre or style that hasn’t endured up to now will be completely buried in fifty years. These circumstances, however, can be positive: The more these overlooked genres seem like hidden treasure, the more dedicated listeners will struggle to study and preserve them. We might not be able to elevate the Carter Family or Sister O.M. Terrell to the still-influential pedestal that Beethoven inhabits or hear their music on the radio, but we can make sure they’re not forgotten.
Alex thinks she aced that musicology exam and would like to thank Beethoven for keeping her motivated. She can be reached at email@example.com.