Raising a question: Do we still need classical music?
After 9/11 many orchestras gave some free performances to expose people to the beauty and harmony of classical music to help them deal with shock, anxiety and grief. As the Louisiana Philharmonic orchestra’s executive director Sharon Litwin remembers, in New Orleans, when people were leaving the opening night concert, “you could see they shed so much of weight”. The music did “what music is supposed to do: it touched your soul, it soothed, it calmed” (the New York Times, 2001).
However, having come recently to Handel’s Messiah performed at Dominion-Chalmers United Church, I was surrounded by the audience, the average age of which is approximately 55 years old. That is why I asked myself a question: do we still believe in the intrinsic power of classical music or is this genre outdated and attractive for a small cohort of the population? To find a reasonable answer to these inquiries, I conducted an interview with Saeideh Rajabzadeh – a third-year student of the uOttawa School of Music, specializing in vocal performance. She has collaborated as a chorister with National Arts Centre Orchestra and Ottawa Symphony Orchestra and has sung choral masterworks under the baton of renowned conductors such as Pinchas Zukerman, Alexander Shelley, Alain Trudel, Duain Wolfe, Jack Everly and many more.
Photo Credit: Kelly Hotte Photography
Classical music is not part of our culture anymore, is it?
It seems, one of the main explanations of why nowadays young generation considers classical music to be boring and identifies it with old generation is because many young people are not introduced to classical pieces. Saeideh reminds that a lot of postwar immigrants came to Canada from Europe, and many of them had piano lessons in their childhood, “music was in their life, it was part of their culture; and they exposed their children to it. But they are elder now, what will be further? New generation is not exposed to classical music as their grandparents were”. She herself, having grown up in Iran and being exposed to classical music due to ballet classes she took there, Saeideh faced many challenges to find classical music CDs and books on vocal repertoires in Iran. She says that some of her friends back in Iran would be glad to study classical music, but many universities do not offer the program on it or do not offer a good program. Other factors detaining her peers in homeland to study music are: how does their family think about a stage career and what are their chances to get jobs in this field?
So, today, settling down in Canada, Saeideh sees it as her mission to help her non-music buddies and friends, many of whom are international students, to know a bit about classical music. She either sends links to some pieces, or encourages friends to come to the performances she participates in, or she sings at friends’ meetings (this is how I firstly made acquaintance with Saeideh’s wonderful voice when she presented an excerpt from Beethoven’s 9th symphony’s chorale finale - Ode to Joy at our common friend’s birthday party).
What do you choose: Art or Entertainment? To Hear or to Listen to?
Some scholarly literature addresses the division of music into art and entertainment, which can be offensive towards fans of non-classical music. Nevertheless, although an American musicologist Lawrence Kramer has no intention to make popular music “the target of futile attack”, he insists that, in contrast to other genres, classical music requires “stricter attention, a little technical know-how, a little historical perspective” (2007, p. 32). Comparing with a popular song which is usually “centered on the emotion it explores” (p. 30), classical work is a “drama without stage or actors”: it goes “beyond emotion without losing or diluting it”, it presents both past and future, and it immerses the listener in the “figurative time that is mindful of mortal limits” (pp. 31-32). That is why classical music demands to be listened to, not to be heard as a part of other activity: “it wants to be explored” – “it “trains” the ear in the sense of pointing, seeking” (p. 11). Therefore, it is not surprising that for Saeideh, it is serious education and training background which explain profound richness of classical music. Although she thinks that pop, jazz, any other genres, if the music is good, with the help of effective moving lyrics, can move and change people, it is classical musicians who “are trained for years to master the technique which allows them to channel their emotions properly”. Similarly, “composers are to master skills about harmony. It is extremely hard and drastically significant to be able to write music which can express the intangible feelings”, says Saeideh.
Dialogue, interactivity and involvement
An awareness of what you are listening to and how you are supposed to listen to it is incredibly significant to enjoy this genre of music. Lawrence Kramer discusses the issue of classical-music illiteracy in contemporary western society. This is partly explained by that “music in general becomes something to get excited about but not to take too seriously” (2007, p. 3). That is why, from Saeideh’s point of view, the current trend to start a performance by talking with the listeners, introducing them to the piece of art is very important and useful: “it creates a bond between the stage performers and the audience”.
The School of Music at the University of Ottawa tends to hold a dialogue about music with students from different disciplines. Firstly, it offers many events, including opera and classical music concerts performed by students, at an affordable price or donation (link to the schedule: http://arts.uottawa.ca/music/concerts). Unfortunately, a lack of networking and advertisement of these concerts on campus entails a situation that even the students of the School of Music do not know about all organized events. Saeideh encourages the Student Associations, especially those which regularly send newsletters by email, to include an announcement of the concerts there. Secondly, there are some ensembles at the School of Music which non-music students can join. Also, for those, who like music and want to know more, the School of Music offers a few courses for students from other disciplines:
MUS1301, MUS1302, MUS1701, MUS1702: Topics in Music Appreciation, devoted to the “study of master-works in instrumental music with the aim of developing the listener's understanding and appreciation”;
MUS1303, MUS1703: Materials of Music – about “musical notation, rhythm, intervals, scales, the piano keyboard, and sight-singing” (for more information follow the link: http://www.uottawa.ca/academic/info/regist/calendars/courses/MUS.html).
Saeideh believes that “music courses or joining musical ensembles will bring students spiritual experience, give motivations, and, what is especially important for the international students, will help them make new friends which can be one of the most valuable qualities of music: the community it creates”.
Instead of conclusion
In the result of continuous and persistent belief that the function of music is a personal pleasure, classical music “has inevitably become one repertoire among many” (Johnson, 2002, p. 118). The illusion of market choice and transformation of classical music into a matter of personal choice entails indifference towards and incomprehension of classical music by many out of the young generation. But Saeideh sincerely believes in a “tremendous power of classical music to heal, to change, to move, and to inspire. It adds much value to the society”. She invites you to her concerts.
Johnson, J. (2002). Who needs classical music? : cultural choice and musical value. Oxford; New York : Oxford University Press.
Kinzer, S. (2001). As Tourism Halts in New Orleans, Musicians Play On. New York Times, September 25, 2001. Retrieved January 3, 2017, from: http://www.nytimes.com/2001/09/25/arts/arts-in-america-as-tourism-halts-in-new-orleans-musicians-play-on.html
Kramer, L. (2007). Why classical music still matters. Berkeley: University of California Press.