Do we enhance our appreciation of music by listening to more of it?
The need for silence goes back in time. Man evolved in a world of natural sound and soundlessness. Big cities and machines brought the screech of the elevated train against metal tracks, the rumble from underground subways, and the shout required to be heard above both.
When the conductor Simon Rattle was new to the compositions of Gustav Mahler (1860-1911), Rattle’s mentor Berthold Goldschmidt said to him, “Will you please remember what the phrase “ohne hast” (without haste) means in a time when there were no automobiles.” Nor the sounds from such motor cars, he might have added.
Amplified sound became like floor-to-ceiling audio wallpaper over the course of the twentieth century. Civilization capitulated to its growth.
At first, Western society sought realistic prerecorded melodies. Who among us realized we would pay for this miracle, not just in money spent on phonographs, discs, and streaming services?
Convenience and ubiquity leached away some of the thrills of performances created in our presence. The novel sense of a special occasion diminished. The sonorities we loved became routine.
For music to produce its intended effect, the airborne notes must grow out of silence.
Carlo Maria Giulini, another maestro who mentored Simon Rattle, compared his musical conception to perspective in visual art. This artist wanted “air and space” around the sound to set it in relief from other sounds, just as a painter renders foreground against a background. The painter’s or musician’s hand can produce a third dimension’s magic.
Music now enters us through tired and overused ears. To create impact, performers are tempted to make it louder than in quieter times. More people brought bigger halls. The volume of sound enlarged.
One can speculate about a time-transported Beethoven’s reaction to the intrusion of machinery. Think of the brook he tried to evoke in the second movement of his “Pastoral Symphony.” Of course, we can still find streams in the countryside, but we can’t guarantee a chainsaw won’t intrude on the birdsong taking place nearby.
The listener of today is jaded. Television, movies, elevator music, and computers outflank him. Nor does he want to be free of them. Some of us remember the quality of everyday life before stereo recordings. Later, an electronic hum from residential gadgets joined us within moments of relative stillness. Home appliances “speak” to us now.
How often would a music lover 100 years ago have heard a Mozart Concerto in a modest-sized hall? Now we can listen to the same creation more in a week or two than was possible in a lifetime. One needn’t even leave the car or public transportation he takes to work.
I admit music has given me much joy. I’m a veteran concert-goer and recording collector. Yet, I also understand something has been lost.
International concerts in 2021 would have included the tail-end of a world-wide observance of the 250 anniversary of Beethoven’s birth in 1770. A wise and necessary idea?
Long before a pandemic aborted the plans to laud the birthday boy, the legendary conductor Otto Klemperer thought otherwise. Musical America published an interview with him in 1927 in commemoration of the composer’s death 100 years before:
If you ask me the best way to celebrate his centenary, I will tell you it is not to play him for a year. He is played too much. Everyone plays Beethoven and no one wishes to hear the (people) who write today. Beethoven has become a business for the box office.
Well, Klemperer got his wish and then some, albeit a little late. Oscar Wilde reminds us, “There are only two tragedies in life: one is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it.“
The first image includes a selection of silhouettes of Gustav Mahler created by Otto Bohler (1847-1913) in 1899. The photograph of Carlo Maria Giulini is from the cover of Thomas Saler’s superb biography of the conductor, Serving Genius. Finally, a photo of Otto Klemperer, part of the collection of The Library of Congress.