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What’s Opera Doc?

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Mike Kozlowski speculates about the problems of classical music, and decides that the lack of descriptive titles is responsible for classical music being “less popular than it ought to be.” I agree that it’s hard to keep classical pieces straight, but I would attribute it more to the general lack of lyrics. If a song’s got words, I can use those to provide a memory hook (even if the title isn’t actually in the song), but instrumental pieces are a little more slippery.

It’s also vastly more difficult to ask other people for the names of instrumental pieces. If a song has lyrics, you can refer to them without having to turn a title request into performance art: “What’s the name of that song, the up-tempo pop-punk one that goes into ‘Crimson and Clover’ at the end?” (Answer: “A Praise Chorus.”) With classical music, you’re forced to sing the tune, or, worse, try to translate it into ASCII, which is just hopeless.

Titles, descriptive or otherwise, are no real help. Mike lists the pieces excerpted for Fantasia:

The Nutcracker, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, The Rite of Spring, Night on Bald Mountain, Ave Maria, Dance of the Hours, Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, and Beethoven’s Symphony no. 6 (Pastoral)

and claims this as evidence of the innate superiority of descriptive titles. The problem is, while they do have titles rather than numbers, I still couldn’t begin to match title to music for most of those. I’ve heard all those pieces dozens of times, I’m sure, but to the extent that I could identify any of them, it’s because they were in Fantasia, and have become associated with the images. In much the same way that “Ride of the Valkyries” is inextricably bound up with either “Apocalypse Now” or “Kill the Wabbit”…

(There was a great SNL bit some years back with Jeremy Irons narrating a commercial for “Looney Tunes Classics,” a collection of great classical works associated with Warner Brothers cartoons. Sadly, the transcript isn’t available, but in Goggling to try to find it, I found a list of arts grants that included:

“Tunes and ‘Toons,” Harvard Pops Orchestra, Thomas Lue ’01: $300 OFA Grant for the performance of classical music made famous by cartoons. The first half of the program will feature performances of The Barber of Seville, Largo al Factotum, the Loony Tunes Overture, and other cartoon music. The second half will feature the orchestral accompaniment to the Bugs Bunny cartoon, What’s Opera Doc?

Once again, comedy is ahead of the curve…)

But then, I’m no great fan of classical music. I often regret this, as it removes a huge range of conversation topics with faculty colleagues– most of whom are only dimly aware of the last thirty-odd years of popular music. I try to get past this every now and again, but run into the same two problems every time: 1) I don’t really know where to start, given the huge range of music, and the vast number of duplicate recordings, and 2) Whenever I just flip on the classical channel on the radio or digital cable, I make it through about ten minutes before I decide I really want to be doing something else.

As a highly educated person, I feel vaguely guilty about this. There are hundreds of years worth of classical composition out there, on themes spanning the whole of human experience, while I have an obsessive knowledge of the last forty-odd years worth of songs about sex, drugs, cars, and people having sex in cars while on drugs. It doesn’t help that there’s a long tradition of linkage between science and math and classical music (Goedel, Escher Bach being the best-known example)– I feel sort of like I’m letting the side down by not enjoying Bach and Mozart more.

Then again, most classical music (that I’ve heard) just bores me to tears. I’ll probably make a few more attempts at it, but ultimately, life’s just too short to spend trying to learn to like something out of a vague sense of obligation.

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About Chad Orzel

  • As someone who’s loved both classical and pop music from early childhood, I can’t really empathize, but I’m glad to give you a few pointers if you really want to put minimal effort into learning to appreciate or like classical music. Watching “Fantasia” is great; showcasing classical music along with new animation techniques is what its purpose was. Going to live performances is even better. Listening to classical music on the radio or in any recorded form is for those who like it already. Live performances are more engaging, and perhaps your local orchestra does some fun performances aimed at introducing younger people to classical music. These performances are good for anyone because they mainly stick to well-known classics that we can all hum, but can’t quite name. Also, even though I think they’re kinda kitschy, but that’s probably just because I’m an elitist, try buying one of those “Best of Classical Music” compilations or “Best of Mozart” compilations. They’re usually not half-bad, and are good if you get confused by the number of different recordings of one piece. Finally, try watching some movies based on classical music, like 1984’s “Amadeus,” a great and dramatic (if not historically accurate) movie about Mozart’s life and music, or “Immortal Beloved,” which is about Beethoven, or even more recent movies like “Shine.” Hopefully this will help you in conversing with your pop-music-challenged colleagues.

  • In my opinion, those “best of” cds always leave out the “best” parts of the music. (I also feel that the “classics” like those in Fantasia are too played out to be of much inspiration anymore)

    My recommendation–try out Beethovens 9th. Dont do anything else while you give it a listen. If there is ever a peice of classical music that can rock your world, this is it. (Beethoven was like a punk rocker in the 70’s during his time. very shocking stuff) He employed pretty radical techniques and innovations in composition. If you like that, try his string quartetes as well–they are incredibly powerful. I also recommend shostakovichs string quartets and symphonies. Stravinsky is good too. These guys were all pretty intense. I would leave opera for later.

    personally, I cant imagine my life without classical. But I also love metal, classic rock, punk, industrial, jazz, opera, ambient etc etc just as much. I think its about maintaining an open mind..Oh–also, when you listen try to dig deep under the obvious melodies (the violins etc) and listen for the layers of sound created by the other “backbone” instruments. i think one of the qualities that makes classical so freakin great is the many, many layers of sound that only a symphony orchestra can provide –also it has an uncanny ability to lull you into a complacent state then BOOM! suddenly your swept away by a torent of sound–it envelopes and consumes you as you become a prisoner of its intensity.
    you might also wanna look into the different instruments and read about em a little. I know that one of the things that turned me onto classical when I was younger was studying the instruments and learning what they did in the orchestra. they are really amazing and if you have any interest in instruments at all, it wouldnt be so much like pulling teeth.

    oh well enough advice. it seems that I have gone on a tangent..

  • I agree! The problem with identifying classical music is you can’t Google the lyrics! So how do you identify those classical masterpieces that have pervaded our culture? Try http://www.kickassclassical.com. It’s a site I put together to help just such a problem.