If I am to believe certain lists, there are over forty different genres of music in the world today. The more common ones come to mind quickly: “Rock”, “Pop”, “Hip-Hop”. But now we have “Industrial” and “Tex-Mex” as well. Indeed, definitions of music are becoming as diverse as the cultures from which they took flight.
Among music genres – the list of which inflates to hundreds if you include sub-categories – “Classical” looks a little lost. Classical music’s definition is broad and complicated, but most of us would acknowledge its “golden age” as the time frame between the lives of Bach and Beethoven (effectively, the 18th century). The volume of symphonies and concertos and sonatas created in that period is so vast, even those with no interest cannot deny a familiarity with the genre’s most famous compositions.
The absence of orchestras (or music programs altogether) in today’s schools and universities is a tragedy. Attendance at classical music concerts is down. Even classical radio stations lack the advertising revenue to survive, depending instead on the generosity of their donors. But here’s the good news: the genre still finds its outlets.
Consider the movies. Year after year Hollywood produces fairly forgettable films, yet certain scenes are worth the watch if only to hear the accompanying classical music. Some examples:
1) Ocean’s Eleven (2001). Danny Ocean’s gang of thieves finally completes the heist at the Bellagio Hotel, and gathers outside at the fountains for a moment of reflection. The enchantment of that scene is as much about the fountains as it is in the soaring strings of Claude Debussy’s mesmerizing “Clair De Lune”. Watch and listen here.
2) If I Stay (2014). Chloe Moretz’s character Mia performs “The Swan” (from Camille Saint-Saens’ “Carnival of the Animals”) on solo cello at a community concert, and the music continues through several more scenes. “The Swan” is elegant and lullaby-soft. Listen here (performance by Yo-Yo Ma).
3) Somewhere in Time (1980). Christopher Reeves’ character’s obsession with the lovely Jane Seymour leads to a desperate time-travel effort to find her in her youth. When the couple is finally reunited (in his dreams, of course), we are treated to Sergei Rachmaninov’s powerful “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini”. This scene would be nothing without Rachmaninov. Listen here.
Hollywood once created an entire movie about classical music. The Competition (1980) – an early film in the careers of Richard Dreyfuss and Amy Irving – explored the rigors of the real-life Van Cliburn International Piano Competition. Watch the movie and you’ll hear excerpts of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5 and Sergey Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3. Listen to the glorious Prokfiev piece from start to furious finish and you’ll wonder how anyone can play the piano with that kind of speed and dexterity.
Even a child’s story can be uplifted by classical music. In the stage production of “You’re A Good Man, Charlie Brown” Schroeder plays Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” on his toy piano while Lucy accompanies him in song. The lyrics are creative and work surprisingly well for a sonata created over 200 years ago. Watch and listen here.
This post would not be complete without a begrudging nod to the album “Hooked on Classics”, created and performed in the 1980’s by Louis Clark and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. “Hooked” is a mash-up of familiar classical pieces, attached to an annoyingly robotic drum track. It’s a ten-minute audio nightmare for anyone who truly respects the genre. Remarkably, the title track made it to #10 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1982 (alongside Joan Jett’s “I Love Rock ‘n Roll” and Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin'”). If you must listen, go here.
My campaign for the survival of classical music stems from years of childhood piano lessons, including a teacher who demanded strict adherence to the genre. Thus I didn’t practice “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” or “Frere Jacques”, but rather Bach’s “Solfeggietto”, Beethoven’s “Ecossaises”, and Albert Ellmenreich’s “The Spinning Song”.
Listen carefully the next time you’re at the movies. Lend an ear to the classical strains of an orchestra or philharmonic. Flip the radio dial to something instrumental every now and then. Classical music lives, and still deserves a prominent place among the music genres.