The Thinking 

Classical Music for Students

January 11, 2017



Thank you for reposting my little essay about music and landscape among the English composers.

One of the things that saddens me most about the students who pass through my college classroom is their total unawareness of the Western tradition of concert music.  I seek to remedy that whenever possible, principally by building my “Western Heritage” course around a sequence of epic poems and their much later operatic adaptations.  The students are extremely squeamish about the prospect of having to sit through three class-sessions of Claudio Monteverdi’s Ritorno d’Ulisse in Patria, but I explain to them that, having read the Odyssey, they now know the story, and can simply relax and let Monteverdi draw them in, as I assure them he will.  He invariably does draw them in, and they admit that their original squeamishness was misplaced.  (By the way, I screen the film of the 1977 Zurich Opera production led by the late Nicholas Harnoncourt.)  When, after reading the Aeneid, we watch Berlioz’s opera Les Troyens, they are willing to participate in the unfolding musical-dramatic panoply.  Once when I was teaching a course called “Narratives of Identity” (teaching it in my own way – and my department has never asked me to teach that course again), I asked the students to spend a course-period listening carefully to Ralph Vaughan Williams’ “London” Symphony, with a running musicological commentary by me for the first two movements, after which I shut up.  The response during the discussion in the next class-meeting was surprisingly positive, even to the extent that they wanted to hear the First Movement again.

Except for me, however, no one exposes our young people to serious music.   Let us fondly recall that obnoxious leftist Leonard Bernstein who was still sufficiently civilized that he persuaded CBS to let him give Sunday-morning “Children’s Concerts” on television with the New York Philharmonic.  I remember those broadcasts, including the one called “Who was Gustav Mahler,” which included a performance of that composer’s beautiful Fourth Symphony.

When I was an undergraduate for the first time at UCLA in the early 1970s, I had to good fortune to be in a dating relationship with a young woman named Liz who was, among other things, a musically sensitive and well-educated pianist.  At UCLA in those days, there were musical performances almost every day, including, at least once a week, an important orchestral concert or instrumental recital in the Royce Hall auditorium.  It was always free to students.  I once took Liz to dinner at the Shanghai Garden in Westwood Village, next to the campus, and then we walked back to Royce Hall to hear Ruggiero Ricci play Niccolo Pagannini’s Capricci in a solo performance that stuns me by the memory of it to this day.  After the recital we made our way backstage to the “green room,” where a crowd of the haute bourgeoisie  had gathered.  I very much wanted to get Ricci’s autograph on the program for Liz, but I was having no little trouble getting close to the man.  Ricci, Italian by birth and always putting on a very Italian persona, was besieged by blue-haired ladies.  Suddenly a tall, distinguished man with white hair and an English accident asked me whether I would like to meet “Mr. Ricci.”  I answered, “Yes,” and said that I wanted to get my girlfriend’s program autographed.  The tall gentleman suddenly shouted across the room, “Roger! Oh, Roger! This young man would like you to sign the program for his lovely young woman.”  At which point we were escorted forward and enjoyed the privilege of conversing with “Roger” for five minutes or so.  The upshot was this: “Roger” was so taken with the fact that the twenty-year-old and his nineteen-year-old girlfriend has appreciatively attended to his recital that he invited us out to a fancy restaurant for a late-night snack.  It was Scandia’s, I believe, on Sunset Boulevard.

There is no necessary gap between high culture and popular culture.  High culture, as Liz and I learned that evening, is not snobbish or off-putting.  It is pleasantly human.

— Comments —

Dan R. writes:

Excellent post by Dr. Bertonneau, with the wonderful story at the end.

From my own observations and experience at my son’s Quiz Bowl tournaments, today’s attitude toward classical music is every bit as bad as Dr. Bertonneau maintains. At very competitive tournaments, which consist of some of the brightest students from the schools they represent, questions on classical music were asked during the competitions and the level of simple ignorance was startling. The questions were usually not difficult, but some very smart kids would just draw a blank on the answers. My son often gained points on these questions merely because he had listened to a few basic classical recordings and read the liner notes of the vinyl LPs. His knowledge was, as he would readily admit, no more than modest, but the others had virtually no knowledge whatsoever, though some were high-level Quiz Bowl players.

Mrs. T. writes:

Dr. Bertonneau can take heart in knowing there are many homeschooling families, including ours, who make it a priority to expose our children to classical music. In fact, composer study is part of our curriculum. Just yesterday I introduced our 7 and 9 year old to Antonin Dvorak and his ninth symphony, “New World”. We listened on the way to the grocery store and they genuinely enjoyed it.

However, fine music is not regulated to school hours. It is usually sprinkled throughout our week, playing in the background while I clean or cook. It’s not unusual for one of the children to start dancing since classical music has the ability to evoke emotion.

A. Kern writes:

With regard to Bernstein, it’s possible to buy a 9-DVD set of many of  his Young People’s Concerts. I’ve played some of these shows for my  granddaughter. Kultur D1503.

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