A Matter of Perspective


We tend to think of classical music as “old.”. After all, much of the orchestral repertoire was written  100, 200, or even 300 years ago.  This was my assumption as our troupe, the Utah Philharmonia Chamber Orchestra, arrived in Britain last week.  Certainly, we were playing some “old” music on the tour, works by Handel and Geminiani being the oldest pieces.  Piazolla, Gershwin, and Joplin were the more recent selections. Grieg fell right in the middle.

Any concept I had of old was immediately dashed as we entered the churches for our concerts.  Great St. Mary’s in Cambridge was 15th century.  St. Nicholas Church, Potterspury, 13th century. St. Mary’s, Chalgrove,  11th century. By comparison, the music written in the 1730s was positively modern!  Even the “old”  Baroque music was closer to our own century when compared to the era of two of the churches.  It didn’t stop there.  We drove down remnants of Roman Roads, and saw Roman ruins.  A trip to the British Museum put time into even deeper perspective as we gazed upon artifacts from ancient Greece, and  Egypt.

This journey back in time became a reminder of the great responsibility we have as musicians.  We are stewards of the past, charged with keeping the sounds of bygone eras alive (even relatively recent ones).  We must study, reflect and ultimately present the great music of the past.  In this way, the musician becomes a conduit much like an ancient edifice, only presented aurally for modern observers to reflect and find meaning.

Copyright, 2012. Robert Baldwin


5 thoughts on “A Matter of Perspective

  1. The work of Shakespeare is another form of art that lasted hundreds of years. Maybe because plays are easier to adapt to contemporary times. Unlike buildings, classical music is much easier to avoid or ignore, unfortunately. I think that the mental effort on listeners of classical music to continue and enjoy it, is much bigger than on any other art audience. Maybe that explains the low popularity of classical music?

    • True, ltg. Plus, the fact that since the music happens in time and not space, we have more trouble relating one element to the next. We can stop and look at a building or work of art and ponder it, relate it to other parts, and remember certain aspects by shape. Music is more elusive. When we stop to ponder a performance, more of the performance passes by, making it easy to lose our point of reference.

  2. You know I always get confused as a musician, specifically a composer, how to have a dialogue with history. And is writing and performing music with a dialogue enough? Sometimes audiences don’t know what’s happening. They often don’t know what to listen to because they do not “study, reflect … the great music of the past.” Unfortunately for us Western Classical Art Music has a linear and teleological history, until we get to the 20th century and then we get a kaleidoscope effect…

    I don’t know… I guess I’m wondering what your thoughts are on how we should inform the “modern observer” about the awesome dialogue happening in of a 21st century fugue?

  3. Alex; interestingly, this is the topic of another post in the near future! I tend to think part of the problem is how we are taught history in general–as a linear subject. I am reminded of the oft-quoted phrase: “History is written by the victors.” Naturally, we write what supports our views and justifies our conclusions. I feel that in some ways, music history suffers from the same thing. Think for a moment how many pieces from the classical repertoire have been “forgotten.” I’ve no doubt that this is justified in many cases. Not everyone is the craftsman of a Brahms or the visionary of a Beethoven. They have earned their places. But I’ve also found that some good repertoire is left unplayed for a variety of assumed reasons. I think the 20th/21st century is quite the same. The difference, though, is that audiences were told that the music was good for them in the same way that bitter medicine should be ingested. Never “why.” It was left to the scholars to interpret, and the audiences to decipher, should they be one of the lucky ones. As to your question (a very good one) I feel it comes down to a matter of presentation. Contemporary music has a place in the “museum’s” contemporary art room. It has a place in it’s own “museum of art.” It also has a place displayed alongside the Da Vinci’s and Rembrandts of the musical world.” This legitamacy is important. The possibilities are endless. Keep composing. The excitement you instill into your music will translate, perhaps only to a few. But it keeps something that is very important alive and vibrant.

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