Music: Are You Listening?

Several years ago, an upset Crisis subscriber confronted me at a dinner and scolded, “I bought some of your recommendations and played them at the office. They were terrible.” “Why?” I asked. “Because I couldn’t work,” he said. “Did it ever occur to you,” I responded, “that you were supposed to listen?” As far as I could discern, because my interlocutor’s recollections were not entirely clear, he had been playing a symphony by Einojuhani Rautavaara, gorgeously full music that can sweep you away if you pay it any heed. “Yeah,” he said, “I think that’s the guy.”

My erstwhile friend had been taking the Jimmy Carter approach to classical music. President Carter had classical music pumped into the Oval Office throughout the workday—highclass White House Muzak. Actually, this is one of the few things I admired President Carter for and, if it prevented him from working, all the better.

However, this general approach to music has come in for some opprobrium. As long ago as 1933, Constant Lambert complained in his book Music Ho! that the easy accessibility to classical music provided by the radio was dulling the senses with its constant flow of riches. This is counter to the often-heard complaint that lack of appreciation is due to lack of exposure. What might Lambert have said of the age of instant accessibility in which we live today? Now, we can even download classical music on our computers via the Internet. Has accessibility produced appreciation?

Yes and no. Despite the constant predictions that the classical music world is about to collapse commercially, more music is available today on CD than has ever been obtainable in history. No Medici prince or Austrian archbishop ever had the chance to listen to what we can hear at the push of a button. Yet how many people avail themselves of these riches? The statistics tell the tale: A runaway best-seller in the classical music world tops the charts at 10,000 worldwide. Why is this?

Exposure may be part of the problem. Reluctant listeners often sheepishly say, “I don’t know anything about classical music,” as if daunted by the demand of listening without qualifications. Yet my young children, having been exposed to classical music since birth, almost invariably and spontaneously prefer it to any other form of music—especially rock and pop. This is because classical music is inherently more interesting. Organizationally, it more fully engages the mind. This statement is not an expression of taste. It is objectively true, just as is the statement that higher mathematics is more interesting than addition and subtraction. However, I have no idea if my children will maintain their predilection when they grow up—other forces are at play.

Once exposed, will you explore? Will you go beyond the Muzak approach to classical music and be seized by it in such a way that you cannot live without it? I think that depends on how you listen, which invites the question: How should you listen?

First of all, drop all the nonsense about how little you know. You do not need permission to listen to classical music. Everyone starts knowing nothing. If you needed to know something, no one would have ever listened. Without preparation, this music can hit you viscerally and motivate you to learn so that you will love it. Knowledge is a prerequisite to love but—as in the attraction that precedes marriage—one first becomes acquainted. The acquaintance fascinates and moves you to pursue. Pursuit requires time and attention.

But pursuit does not require technique; otherwise few of us would be married. You do not have to read music or listen with a score or know how to decipher the often incomprehensible notes that come with a recording. In fact, few of the technical analyses of music reveal what the music is really saying. They only contribute an appreciation of the mechanics. It’s like reading the stage manager’s notes for a play: “Change the lighting gels to magenta in the strangling scene.” The change in lighting can be very effective, but the audience does not have to be aware of it to be affected. Likewise, I do not write about music in the technical sense, nor am I qualified to do so. I write about the experience of listening to music. In other words, what did the strangling scene mean in the overall sense of the play? Only within that larger context is it worth pointing out that the magenta gels enhanced our appreciation of the interior condition of the strangler as he dispatched his victim.

Let me give an example. Several years ago, I was in the atelier of Swiss composer Carl Rutti, and he wanted to play a short piano piece for me. I listened intently. He asked what I thought. I said, “You began the piece and then something enters it from outside of it—something you did not prepare for musically—that lifts it up outside of itself.” Somewhat startled, he looked at me and said, “But that is exactly what I meant.” He went on to tell me that the piece was about the Holy Spirit entering and inspiring.

I do not mean to relate this incident in the spirit of self-congratulation, but to make the point that I did not have to speak about Rutti’s harmonic modulations to make a stab at the core of what he was trying to express. I only needed to be completely open to it. Rutti asked me how I went about approaching the music I write about. I thought for a moment and answered, “I meditate on it.” And there is the rub: How do you do that?

When I first started to listen to music more than three-and-a-half decades ago, I knew nothing. It all began when an uncle gave my parents a reel-to-reel recording of Sibelius’s Fifth Symphony, played by the New York Philharmonic under Leonard Bernstein, as a Christmas present. For some reason, I put it on and was transported to another realm. I was so overwhelmed that, physically, I did not know what to do with myself. So I began leaping about the house. As Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy had opened the world to me in literature, Sibelius did so through music. I was flabbergasted. I didn’t know that man was capable of this and wanted to know more. I wanted to tell everyone about it. Thus was inflamed a missionary zeal that led me, as soon as I could find the words, to begin writing on the subject some years later.

As I immersed myself in music, I gradually became aware of its distinct elements: melody, rhythm, harmony, orchestration, and counterpoint. Melody is what you sing; it is most immediately engaging and easy to follow. Rhythm is what you dance to; it moves you physically. And harmony is what you make when you blend your voice in a Christmas carol or folk song. Orchestration has to do with which instrument is, or instruments are, speaking at a particular moment. Counterpoint (or polyphony) concerns itself with two or more lines of melody speaking simultaneously.

Instruments or sections of the orchestra will speak to each other as if they were voices in a conversation. They call out and answer each other. A statement is made by one group, and another comments upon it, sometimes in agreement, sometimes quite contentiously. Will they resolve their differences, and how? And so the argument proceeds. Following this conversation is what listening is all about.

As elementary as this may sound as a guide to discernment, it is not always easy to apply, especially as one begins to listen to more complex compositions. It requires the hard discipline of concentration. And here is where I lost my friend who played the Rautavaara symphony in his office. And this is where we lose the multitudes who are exposed to classical music but who do not learn to appreciate it. It takes every bit as much effort to listen to great music as it does to read and appreciate Shakespeare, Dostoyevsky, or T. S. Eliot. In fact, I would say that, at its most profound level, as much effort is required as in deep spiritual prayer—something from which most people, like myself, flee. In my case, writing about music is the discipline that forces me to do this. Unless I apply the powers of meditation in listening to music, it most likely will not speak to me—or, consequently, I of it. However, the effort is commensurate with the rewards. The experience can change and enrich your life in incomparable ways. You will not be the same if you listen to the music of the spheres.

I offer a personal, highly eclectic list of suggested recordings as gates through which you may find passage into this wonderful world, the first being the one through which I traveled so many years ago. Do not play them at work.


  • Robert R. Reilly

    Robert R. Reilly is the author of America on Trial: A Defense of the Founding, forthcoming from Ignatius Press.

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