Classical: Pretty Music or Something More?

The ignorance about the deeper dimensions of classical music leads to its use as a secondary decorative element, a conventional symbol of status or something to “highlight the occasion.” But what would happen if we really knew its transformative power? READ MORE


by Felipe Elgueta Frontier

17 January, 2018

One the most discouraging situations commonly faced by classical musicians today, is the need to justify their work. And what a difficult challenge because what is Mozart’s contribution to the GDP? Or why should resources be invested in creating orchestras and training musicians if engineers are more useful for ‘development’?

Underlying these questions are some extremely narrow concepts about what we mean by development and the insufficiently challenged notion that links this development to economic growth. But, since I’m not an economist, I’ll examine the issue from another shore and I’ll claim that such questions wouldn’t even exist if we really knew the transformative power of music. If we did, nobody would venture to say, as a certain prominent politician recently did, that “the first task is to grow [economically], and everything else is music.”

Let’s take Beethoven, for example. The conductor Alejandra Urrutia invited the audience and musicians to take part in a festival devoted entirely to this composer, which took place by the end of 2017 in Santiago, Chile. More than fifty, mostly young musicians, spent two days playing Beethoven´s piano and chamber works. This marathon culminated in the Choral Fantasy, with pianist, six vocal soloists, choir and orchestra receiving a standing ovation from the ecstatic audience that crowded the theater.

People often say that classical music “relaxes” them or that it’s “pretty” or even that it can be therapeutic or stimulate children’s intelligence. But that doesn’t amount to understanding the power of music. None of these reasons explains why the German Beethoven can evoke such devotion in the remote Latin America, or why his music has been played continuously over two centuries. There’s something deeper here.

Unfortunately, the ignorance about that deeper dimension leads to the use of classical music as a secondary decorative element, a conventional symbol of status or something to “highlight the occasion,” but without really including it as an important part of our lives. And so, for example, the recent massive celebration of the Bicentenary of Chile’s Declaration of Independence in the squares of downtown Concepción included a concert in three sections. The first was classical and started with a work by Beethoven. The orchestra played well, and the audience was respectful, patiently waiting for this “pretty music” to end and the real celebration to start with the sections devoted to rock and ‘cumbia.’ Nobody would have thought that Beethoven was related in any way with the events commemorated.

Now, let’s imagine the impact that some simple changes might have caused. Instead of challenging the patience of the massive audience by playing the juvenile and relatively little dramatic First Symphony in its entirety, they could have played the short and epic overture

for the drama ‘Egmont.’ The event’s presenter could have introduced the piece by mentioning the significant fact that Beethoven was a contemporary of the independence movements in Latin America, and that he reflected in his music those desires for freedom that were spreading throughout the world after the French Revolution. Additionally, the presenter could have mentioned some elements in Egmont’s story that are represented in the overture and allude, curiously, to a successful fight of resistance against Spain, the same world power from which Chile broke free.

In that way, choosing a suitable work and providing a short introduction, a possibility would have been opened to understand that Beethoven’s music did have an intimate connection with the Bicentenary, almost as a soundtrack of our own independence. For a moment, the multitudinous audience, eager to listen to rock and ‘cumbia’, could have made a piece of classical music its own and begun to experience that mysterious resonance which stretches over two centuries.

And just like Beethoven’s music reflects the conflicts of its society, it also reflects more personal and intimate issues which resonate with our own conflicts, uncertainties, pains, loves. Just as all great music, Beethoven’s is a mirror in which we can see our own humanness in all its aspects, from its frustrations to its desires for transcendence. So, music can accompany us in our sorrows and in our celebrations, not as a decorative background tapestry, but as an intimate friend, an antidote to loneliness; a bridge between our inner being and that of others, even from other cultures and times.

With Fanjul & Ward, we share the desire to unleash all this power of music to alleviate loneliness, connect hearts and inspire us to look for a fuller life. This implies not only to encourage musicians to reach their highest potential as artists and persons, but also to develop better strategies for presenting music to today’s diverse audiences. This is a fundamental challenge to address if we want to make clear the relevance of this art that we love so much.

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