At the local Goodwill store the other day, I scored a cd of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, Leonard Bernstein conducting the New York Philharmonic.
I’m listening to it right now as I sit here trying to think up words to describe it and falling short, fearful of sounding cliché; trite. The 1812 Overture is one of the most stirring pieces of music ever written. 15:20. I am in tears, moved beyond…well, obviously beyond those words I’m trying so hard to capture.
My husband said, “You know, it’s hard to hear this and not think of Hugo Weaving in ‘V for Vendetta.'” I have to admit he’s right. The image in that movie of the Old Bailey (and, later, Parliament) going up in flames did cross my mind. Likewise, those born before a certain time period can hardly hear the William Tell Overture without wanting to yell “Hi-Yo, Silver, away!”
Is it such a bad thing to connect a piece of classical music to a cinematic image? There are those who would say yes, those who feel the ‘purity’ of classical music should be experienced in and of itself, without the ‘crass’ trappings of Hollywood.
I disagree. Although my mother occasionally played classical albums at home (remember record albums, back when music was pressed on vinyl?), my love of classical music stems not from that but from Saturday mornings with Warner Brothers cartoons. It was Bugs Bunny (my hero!) who taught me to appreciate Rossini (“The Rabbit of Seville”), Strauss and Tchaikovsky (“A Corny Concerto”), and Wager (“Long-Haired Hare” and “What’s Opera, Doc?”). With that beginning, it was natural that from that early start I could experience (and appreciate) classical music in a whole other way than many of my classmates. In our weekly required school-house lessons, they found such music dull, stupid, and burdensome while I (thanks to Bugs and Elmer) felt the passion and humor, the turmoil and hilarity. (In fairness, there may have been those who enjoyed the music as much as I but, unwilling to swim against the tide of peer ridicule, they never spoke up.)
A great friend of mine, Jim Trinder, sent me an email today about a sociology experiment on perception. I copy it here for you. Although it is lengthy, I hope you’ll read to the end:
“Washington, D.C. Metro Station on a cold January morning in 2007. The man with the violin played six Bach pieces for about 45 minutes. During that time approx. 2 thousand people went through the station, most of them on their way to work. After 3 minutes a middle-aged man noticed there was a musician playing. He slowed his pace and stopped for a few seconds and then hurried to meet his schedule. Four minutes later, the violinist received his first dollar: a woman threw the money in the hat and, without stopping, continued to walk. Six minutes later, a young man leaned against the wall to listen to him, then looked at his watch and started to walk again. Ten minutes later, a 3-year old boy stopped but his mother tugged him along hurriedly. The kid stopped to look at the violinist again, but the mother pushed hard and the child continued to walk, turning his head all the time. This action was repeated by several other children. Every parent, without exception, forced their children to move on quickly. The musician played continuously. Only 6 people stopped and listened for a short while. About 20 gave money but continued to walk at their normal pace. The man collected a total of $32. After one hour, he finished playing and silence took over. No one noticed. No one applauded, nor was there any recognition.
“No one knew, but the violinist was Joshua Bell, one of the greatest musicians in the world. He played one of the most intricate pieces ever written, with a violin worth $3.5 million dollars. Two days before, he had sold out a theater in Boston where the seats averaged $100.
“This is a true story. Joshua Bell playing incognito in the metro station was organized by the Washington Post as part of a social experiment about perception, taste and people’s priorities . The questions raised: in a common place environment at an inappropriate hour, do we perceive beauty? Do we stop to appreciate it? Do we recognize talent in an unexpected context? One possible conclusion reached from this experiment could be this: If we do not have a moment to stop and listen to one of the best musicians in the world, playing some of the finest music ever written, with one of the most beautiful instruments ever made….. How many other things are we missing?”
When I was going to college in Buffalo, NY, “The King and I” came to town with Yul Brynner reprising his role as the King. I had a chance to go. I hemmed and hawed and decided against it. Brynner died the following year. When “Camelot” came to Schenectady, NY (or was it Albany?) a few years later with Richard Harris as Arthur, you can bet your sweet ass I didn’t make the same mistake. In fact, I went twice (and scored fifth row center seats the second night — yow!)
And when I was living in NYC, my roommate’s boss gave her tickets to the NY Philharmonic. We dressed up fine and went, not knowing what we would hear or who was conducting. And Lo, out walked Leonard Bernstein, 500 pounds of TNT is a 5’5″ frame. Seeing him was, well, a little like seeing God, and I’ve never forgotten it.
Appreciate, people. Take the time. MAKE the time. Whether it’s music or poetry, the ocean or stars, a baby’s cry or the last breath of a loved one, when an opportunity comes your way, hang the clock and feed your soul.