The performance was over. I was in a daze afterward of heightened aesthetic awareness. I remember the shabby blue and green carpet in the house where musicians mixed with the crowd accepting compliments and making plans for the evening. The evening was cool as Laura and I walked arm and arm out of the well-worn concert hall. The patterns of the architecture outside the venue were revealed to me for the first time. Windows, identical and repeating, pulled my gaze up the office building wall across the street. I was so enraptured, as I drove along the interstate, my speed slowed to a crawl. I only came back to speed, apologizing with a smile, after Laura asked me if everything was alright.
The after-concert party was held in a lousy chain restaurant. And yet, as we walked inside, I was aware of the interior design, the deliberate choices made by that anonymous design team. The open walls with plants hanging just-so seemed to frame my friends as we walked in. The food was forgettable, yet the company pleasant. I remember my choir friends, including my quirky, long-time friend Rachel, chattering around the table relieved and excited after the concert.
I was changed by the performance, and now the evening was over. After dinner and goodbyes, I drove Laura through the dark countryside separating Little Rock and Conway, our university town about half an hour away. By the back door of the girl’s dorm, we talked quickly and kissed a passionate kiss. I watched her walk up the stairwell of the dorm to her bed. How I wanted to follow!
I walked back to my room a changed man. Music matured me; performing affected a change that was permanent and profound. And a brief, intense love affair was the catalyst.
I was a boy of nineteen when I first sang in the chorus for Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. We performed in Little Rock, the capital of Arkansas, my home state. Each year select university choirs from around the state, including mine, joined forces with the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra and Chorus. Brahm’s Requiem was the showpiece the year before, and Verdi’s Requiem followed the next year. I was excited to sing again in this grand concert to the crowd sitting in darkness and hidden by the glare of the stage lights. The people who came to see me perform were my parents and my girlfriend Laura.
Laura was petite and very smart. She had sparkling honey colored eyes and wavy dark brown hair. I had met her in concert band; she played clarinet but she was studying chemistry. Many of the other boys were interested in her, but through luck and skill I was the only one who had managed to date her. The affair was new and precarious. The feelings I had for Laura that night were intensified by my experience singing beautiful, powerful music. And the performance was intensified by the affection.
For those of you unfamiliar with Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, it begins like all previous symphonies, but something wonderful happens during the final movement. Through snippets of melodies, that movement itself seems to ask many questions, comes to dead ends, and then settles on the main theme which bursts to greater life in song. We had studied the piece through bleary eyes in early morning music theory for the entire spring semester. Inside and out, I knew it better than any music at that point in my life. The symphony is masterful – Fugues! A Turkish March! Soloists! Full Choir! The intimate connection between learning and performing was the highlight of my undergraduate education.
But something happened that night that went beyond study and performance. When the house lights came up, I was changed. It was as pure an aesthetic experience as I have ever had. That performance changed my inner life.
Nicolas Slonimsky famously posits there is a forty year lag between a composer making an outlandish musical statement and acceptance of his crazy idea as a masterpiece. This number seems arbitrary and historically inaccurate to me. Looking at music history, one will see there is not a single “hidden gem” composer. Every composer considered great in our current times was a working, accepted musician during his or her lifetime (I’m looking at you, Mrs. Beach).
It’s ridiculous to assert that time alone brings about acceptance. Yes, the Eiffel Tower was first reviled and then became a beloved landmark, but Richard Serra’s Tilted Arc was hated and removed. Even in popular music, Van Halen was more popular than Patti Smith and remains so. I can think of no example of a dusty foot locker of music being found in a barn from whence was pulled a trove of near miraculous symphonies.
Time can and does change what the listeners hail a masterpiece. If you are in the know, Beethoven’s Wellington’s Victory is an insignificant trifle, barely worth the listen – low entertainment – unplayed by the modern orchestra. It was wildly popular in his day. Contemporary tastes toward Beethoven may change, however. We could find his C Minor Mass in every other action movie instead of his 9th Symphony. Let’s not forget to mention embarrassingly popular music from other well known composers such as Mozart’s Wind Serenades and Aaron Copland’s movie music.
Let’s take a trip forty years back to 1974. Where are the shocking, neglected, large-scale, or difficult works from that glittery era that are played by professional symphonies and chamber groups across the land? Sweeney Todd? Something by William Bolcolm? Shostakovich String Quartet #15? If the forty year prophecy is correct, then we should be happily hearing Berio with our Beethoven, smug and comfortable that the past audience (or our younger selves) were simply ignorant and wrong.