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Classical Music From Scratch: Last Night a Pianist Saved This Blog

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'Sometimes it's hard to be a dedicated student of classical music, giving all your thought to just one piece...' Tammy Wynette (sort of)

This morning I sat down to listen to Radio 3's Discovering Music on Beethoven's Emperor Concerto. If you haven't heard it, it examines a piece of music in depth. Fantastically enlightening unless you have a 14-month-old baby or an escaped lunatic living in your house, in which case...

Radio: "And now you'll hear the theme from the beginning repeated and all becomes crystal clear" You: "Theme? What theme? Oh my god, how long have you been putting peas up your nose?'

I'm pretty sure this is why classical music isn't a larger part of more peoples' lives. A three-minute pop song is an instant sugar rush. Even the baby bops when reggae comes on. It seems rhythm is intuitive while classical music requires far more of you. And few of us feel we have much more to give once we've dealt with the business of just, you know, getting on with life.

You probably can't tell by the inscrutably professional tone of this blog, but I'm feeling pretty frustrated. This week the baby got sick and blamed me, a man came to 'fix' the hall floor and took it away for five days (ever tried to leave the house without a floor in front of the door? How I wish that was an existential question... ) and the mice decided to launch stage three of their invasion (stage two, it now seems, having been a particularly cruel tactical retreat).

The point of getting into classical was that it would elevate me above all this literal and metaphorical shit. Right now, while my home looks like uncannily this, my trampoline moment feels an exhausting uphill struggle away:

One thing I did manage this week was a great article by Anthony Thomassini. (http://www.nytimes.com/2007/12/30/arts/music/30tomm.html?pagewanted=all). To claim a listener's prolonged attention, he writes, "a substantial classical piece must entice the dimension of human perception that responds to large structures and long metaphorical narrative."

Reading this, I had a eureka moment. Listening to classical music is not supposed to be easy, in the 'easy listening' sense. If it is, it has failed. On some level I already knew this - it's what makes us want to hurl when Classical FM advertises 'classical chill out' CDs.

Its value lies in its complexity. We have a human need for complex stories. But complex isn't the same as inaccessible. See James Rhodes - a classical pianist who looks like Edward Scissorhands and acts like a classical shaman, introducing pieces like an intermediary between the spirit world of music and his earth-bound audience. He wears jeans, smokes like a trooper, talks in real words. But he refuses to play anything but the real deal - the challenging classical canon.

The only example I can find on YouTube is from BBC's Breakfast. The studio smiles kind of kill the magic, but imagine him on stage, next to a piano, talking about Beethoven like this (start at 2.50).

Poverty, syphilis, beatings... There's enough material for Hollywood blockbuster. And in giving it to us, James gives us a key to the piece. If classical music needs to convey complex stories to work on us, maybe we sometimes need their imagery to access it.

"I provide the soundtrack, you write the story", Rhodes tells me when I mention my worries that my imaginative flights during the Elgar last week took me in the wrong direction. "It can mean whatever you want it to mean."

I'm still worried, I tell him. I think I'm writing an overly simplistic story because when I listen alone I don't know about Beethoven's relevant STDs or, well, anything.

"That's like someone saying you need to understand light and brush strokes to go to an art gallery. It might add a certain depth. But doesn't take away from great art if you don't know anything about it."

Thinking about it later, I realise James' own story of addiction, suicide attempts and redemption through classical music muddle together in his audience's minds with his tales of composers' peccadilloes and their own experiences or fantasies... Add the inherent abstraction of telling those stories through music not words and you've got material for an infinity of different 'metaphorical narratives' (to nick Thomassini's phrase).

There is no 'right' story to hear. I unplug my laptop, turn off the phone, wait till the baby's asleep and I try to listen to Beethoven's Emperor Concerto again. I have to listen to it a few times to come close to listening properly but... It feels good. Like boot camp for the brain, yet at the same time like letting your mind take all its clothes off and run naked around a field. The closest I've yet come to a trampolene moment.

"Everybody talks about the merits of meditation," James told me, "yet no one can be fucked to sit still for 20 minutes anymore. Classical music has never been more relevant to us - where else can you escape to for a couple of hours from emails and your phone?"

Nowhere in my life. So I'm persevering. But I've realised that I'm going to need more structure to succeed in this yearlong experiment. Should I work my way alphabetically through my local library's collection? A for Albinoni, B for Bach... Or work my way through genres? Or by date?

My next post will come to you from the other side of this new frontier... In the meantime, here are James Rhodes' top five classical pieces to redeem a classical delinquent like me:

Glenn Gould: Bach Keyboard Concertos
Beethoven: 3rd Symphony (Eroica)
Mozart: Symphony No. 41 'Jupiter"
Chopin: Nocturnes
Rachmaninov Piano Concertos 2 and 3.

(Apologies to readers of the last post who were expecting a meeting with my late grandfather in this one. He's coming, I promise...)

Around the Web

Ludwig van Beethoven - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Biography: Beethoven's life - Ludwig van Beethoven's website ...

Beethoven (1992) - IMDb

Beethoven: The Immortal

Beethoven, 5th Symphony - YouTube