Who knows why we do what we do? I woke up with a hankering to listen to Beethoven’s 3rd Symphony, a work I haven’t heard in quite a long time. When that inner voice suggests “Beethoven,” mine is not to question why. So I drove to school listening to this work and it was astounding on many levels.
First, I knew every note, every rhythm, every orchestral timbre, I could sing along with it all. And since I hadn’t listened to this piece in any kind of serious way for some 50 or 60 years, that made it all the more astounding. No one—and I mean no one—has the faintest idea of how our brains work and the mystery of how those tones can remain encoded in my grey matter after a half-century absence is simply not to be explained. But isn’t that extraordinary? And mind you, this was no simple melody from a folk song or catchy beat from 50’s Doo-Wop. This was full-blown sophistication—multiple layers of tones layered and counterpointed and constantly shifting orchestral textures and musical ideas expanded, developed, shifted in a complex, nuanced, story-like fashion. And it was all there, as familiar to me as an old friend, as fresh as today’s news.
Secondly, in the light of what I think most American kids experience nowadays, I find it quite remarkable that as young as 6 years old, I used to listen to my parent’s record collection. It was mostly classical music, a few musicals, some comedy like Bob Newhart and later Tom Lehrer and such. No rock and roll, no jazz. But on my own, with no urging from them, I used to choose to listen to classical music, first on their 78’s and then their 33’s, with a heavy preference for Beethoven. When I got older, I had a record player in my room and would listen to Beethoven while I read, kind of like a soundtrack for a book. Beethoven’s 3rd was for Hans Brinker and the Silver Skates and his Violin Concerto for Wind in the Willows. The story and the music are somewhat wedded in my mind and in delightful ways.
Thirdly, it was a good reminder that you can truly know a piece of music without knowing a single thing about music. That it is to say that at the time I listened to Beethoven’s 3rd, I couldn’t distinguish a I chord from a V chord, couldn’t identify the meter or scale, didn’t even know the name of some of the instruments playing. I had never heard the words Theme/ Development/ Recapitulation, but I certainly could follow the way the “story” of the music developed. I’m sure that this immersion in Beethoven’s thought—and Bach’s and Mozart’s and later Debussy’s and Ravel’s— laid the groundwork for future conscious musical understandings. I’m sure beyond a single doubt that it all helped me develop an analytic, mathematical and critical mind capable of genuine thought. And most importantly, it helped create an emotional palette far beyond mere sensation, brought me to moments that were sublime, stopped time and cultivated a sense of power and beauty that held true my whole life long.
Of course, when the Beatles came to Ed Sullivan, I was in 7th grade and ready and eager for the very different musical trip they and their many rock ancestors and descendants had to offer. I “met” Dave Brubeck the next year and though jazz didn’t really kick in until college and beyond, here was yet another world that Beethoven never knew. I’m grateful to know and part of the movement to get others to know that there is a rich, vast and transcendent musical world far beyond the music of European dead white guys. And here I mean not just rock and jazz and country and old-time, but Indonesian and Brazilian and Indian and Bulgarian and Ghanaian and…well, take your pick from a few hundred more distinct musical cultures. But never for a moment did I want Beethoven to roll over and be replaced. There’s room for all of them.
And now my old guy’s complaint. I’m sad that kids are not holed up in their room listening to Beethoven and Bach and Ravel and such. I suppose some may be, but I suspect most are entirely missing this rich, rich palette of emotion, thought and sound. And yes, hip-hop can be cool and pop occasionally can deliver something beyond a 15-minutes-of-fame caliber and Disney is what it is, but how happy would I be to walk in on my granddaughter reading a book while listening to Beethoven! From my vantage point, ain’t gonna happen.
Oh well. The world will spin on, but meanwhile, thanks Mom and Dad for that wonderful record collection. Dad, I know at the end of your life you had a strong hankering to hear Beethoven again and Mom, you were happy with Frank Sinatra and both are fine. Hope my children can figure out which CD’s to play for me (yeah, I know they’ll be obsolete) when my time comes.