ESSENTIALS of Classical Music

Don’t let that word “history” put you off—for too many people, it has connotations of captivity in a stuffy classroom and the forced memorization and regurgitation of endless lists of names and dates. But exploring music history shouldn’t be an oppressive chore; it should be a pleasant process of discovery, like casually wandering through a magnificent palace or art gallery, stopping to enjoy those rooms or exhibits that intrigue you and passing by those that hold no interest for you. Just as in a well-organized museum, you can follow the “exhibits” in chronological order, or you can browse about in random fashion.

A word of warning: Because of discernable influences of one composer on a subsequent composer, it is easy to think of music history as a long continuum along which music has “evolved.” Yet we must avoid the mistake of thinking of music as “progressing” or “improving” over time. It is extremely unlikely that any composer ever wrote a work because he felt it would lead to something more significant by a later composer. A composition may well be the culmination of what came before it, but only in hindsight can it be thought of as a precursor of what came after it.

The course music has taken was not inevitable, but rather the result of the appearance and work of unique individuals. For the most part, it is the exceptions that attract our attention when we glance backward over music’s history, and the vast mass of music against which they stand out tends to become forgotten. This can lead to distorted notions of music history, which places most of its emphasis on the unusual, the revolutionary, or simply what musicologists today consider the most interesting. That tendency may be inevitable, but we should keep in mind that the music modern judgment has declared to be the greatest or that has become most popular on concert programs today was not necessarily viewed that way in its own time.

While it isn’t necessary to know historical background to enjoy a work of art, having a context in which to view or hear something can enhance your understanding of why it is the way it is, and that will increase your enjoyment of the music (as well as comprehension of the program notes). But remember, sports lovers don’t enjoy watching sporting events because they read the sports pages of the newspaper; it’s the other way around—they read about the events because they enjoy watching them. Nothing can ever take the place of experiencing music itself, of taking the time to allow a composer to lead you through the fabulous vistas of sound he or she has created.