Arts and EntertainmentClassical music slaps: You guys are just mean

It’s a Saturday night in November, the middle of the concert season for symphony orchestras around the United States. The concert hall is full of expert musicians ready to performance perfection, but there is no audience. No music rings around the room. No applause greets the players as they finish. The concert hall is dark and empty.
Savannah WahlgrenNovember 15, 2019703 min
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Illustration by Andrea Nebhut

It’s no secret that symphony concerts are becoming less and less popular. For years, symphony orchestras around the country and the world have struggled to continue to keep their doors open while still paying the musicians responsible for putting on these wonderful performances. Though the classical musician in me finds this mind-boggling, it makes sense. Classical music has a bad rap. When faced with the decision between pop songs that keep your attention with lyrics or the classical music you find on study playlists, the choice seems pretty easy. Modern music can rely on lyrics to keep your attention and to tell a story, while classical music must trust the listener to come up with the story themselves. It also doesn’t help that when you put a Spotify classical playlist on shuffle, it doesn’t give a backstory on the piece, which can tremendously change how you listen to a piece.

Honestly, if I hadn’t started band in middle school, I would probably feel the same way about the genre. However, I had the luxury of being introduced to classical music and found the magic of it — if you listen to the right music. Put on your AirPods so I can show you how what you think about classical music is wrong.

Let’s start with Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5, which is probably the most famous piece of classical music. Everyone has heard the first movement, but each subsequent movement is equally as amazing, if not better. If you don’t want to sit through a thirty-five-minute piece, I recommend listening to the third movement. Apart from this being such a famous piece, it is extremely intricate and a true piece of art. The four-note motif at the beginning of the piece occurs throughout each movement and is thought to symbolize fate knocking on your door.

You’ve also probably heard of Pyotr Tchaikovsky and are thinking about that time you saw the Nutcracker when you were seven. Besides the fact that one of his overtures uses actual cannons, Tchaikovsky’s music always manages to hold my attention. His best piece, in my humble opinion, is Symphony No. 6 in B Minor or Symphony Pathetique. This piece has four movements each with a unique theme but all connected through a shared feeling of subtle melancholy with underlying. This was the last piece Tchaikovsky every wrote with his death occurring only nine days after its premiere. The second movement, a lopsided waltz, is my personal favorite because of the personality it has, but each movement easy amazing in its own way.

Now someone you probably haven’t heard of is my favorite composer, Dmitri Shostakovich. He composed in the Soviet Union under Stalin and actually used his music to speak against the political environment in the country at the time. While I could talk about him for hours but if I had to pick the one piece you have to listen to it would be String Quartet No. 8. Shostakovich wrote this piece following two particularly traumatic events in his life: his diagnosis with a muscular disease that would eventually prevent him from playing the piano and his reluctant joining of the Communist Party. The piece is dedicated “to the victims of fascism and war” and the sadness that permeated Shostakovich’s life is evident throughout the piece.

All of these pieces hold such emotion and tell complex stories unique to the genre. The means through which classical music conveys its messages can not be recreated in other genres of music. People say that classical music is boring or just ‘not for them,’ but I am a firm believer that there is a piece out there for everyone — you just have to be willing to look. There is a magic that classical music carries with it, a magic that I know first hand can truly change lives. This is why the somewhat recent trend of closing symphony orchestras scares me. There is so much that modern music just can’t convey. This is through no fault of its own; it is simply the nature of the genre. Classical music and symphony orchestras are an integral part of our culture and allows us to communicate when words fail us. I cannot stress enough the importance of this art form, but I know that it will be able to speak for itself if you give it the chance.

Savannah Wahlgren

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