Sunday, February 8, 2009

Why bother with Classical Music?

Does classical music mean anything at all? Does it matter?

Of course, you may say, it matters. It matters that Beethoven wrote his last string quartets, it matters that Mozart wrote his ‘Requiem’, it matters that Bach wrote his ‘Art of Fugue’.

But let me rephrase – Does classical music matter in the larger scheme of things?

“What scheme?” you ask.

So let me elaborate.

Does it matter to a parent who loses his child to drugs that Schubert’s ‘Unfinished Symphony’ is a ‘complete’ masterpiece in itself? Does it matter to a community grieving over a senseless act of terrorism, that Shostakovich penned his brilliant ‘Festive Overture’ in a matter of minutes while chatting to a friend and smoking? Does it matter to a war-ravaged village that Handel composed his ‘Messiah’ when he was blind and broke? Does it matter to a terminally-ill patient that Mahler left unnumbered his actual ninth symphony because no composer since Beethoven had successfully completed more than nine symphonies before dying? Does it matter to a country plundered by its ruthless dictator that Stravinsky’s ballet music ‘The Rite of Spring’ provoked a riot at its first performance because it was so far ahead of its time? Does it matter to investors, who see their life savings wiped out in a stock market crash, that that the fourteen-year-old Mozart first heard the ‘Miserere’ by Allegri on a visit to Rome, and wrote it down entirely from memory soon after hearing it (which the church at that time forbade anybody to transcribe)?

The larger scheme of things! The big picture! In that context, is music a ‘must-have’ or a ‘good-to-have’? When the most basic needs are in peril or unmet, what good is music?


  1. Interesting points. Strange question. Strange in a positive way. For me, the music of the great masters has always meant more; much more than just an artistic experience. In fact the deepest expressions of this experience are silent expressions...where words fails, where the 'depth' and 'height' of the music leave me stunned, in a trance, filled with wonder or overwhelmed by the power of beauty.

    Yes it does. It matters, not just in the sense that these works have a place in human achievement or that these masters have shown us places we thought beyond human reach, but because by themselves these experiences reveal something eternal, some cosmic, something divine.

    My deepest experience of the divine has been through music. My deepest consolation has come from music. In the darkest moments of life or when a crisis threatens to overwhelm me - these masterworks stood like angels next to me, telling me it's all ok. In such moments the music runs in my head and I say to myself - if this piece is (its being itself) I can face this crisis, this fear, this pain. It is the fact that we know God is that helps us cope with what seems unbearable and likewise I have often told myself that I can walk through anything as the music rang in my head - Bach's Santus from the B minor, Mozart's Jupiter Symphony Finale, Beethoven's Ninth, Missa Solemnis, last quartets and last sonatas, Brahms' fourth Symphony, Schubert's Unfinished, Mahler's 9th name some.

    I have found that in the most desperate state of mind suddenly everything feels light, manageable, hopeful, when I hear this music in my head. If this music is, I'm ok and I am sure again that God is fully in charge and I have no need to fear.

  2. Thanks Konrad. Obviously, there is much conviction in your words.

    Interestingly, you affirm that in the "darkest moments", the masterworks helped carry you through. Which in effect meets our initial poser head-on by saying that yes, classical music matters even (and maybe, more so) in a crisis.

  3. Nice! Do you think you could have a section where we talk about favourite pieces, composers or for that matter favourite recordings of a particular piece. I've often heard of heated but good-hearted discussions about recordings and they often bring out what is most intimate to this or that listener. Reflected somehow in the way they find this or that recording more appealing.

  4. Thanks R. Yes, favourite pieces, composers and recordings are in the pipeline. So please stay tuned.