Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Classical Music in Ten Easy Pieces

Here is a worthy initiative: the BBC is going to help out music education in the UK through an educational program that, by means of a film, performances, workshops and other curriculum materials, will use a selection of ten pieces to introduce school children to classical music. Here is the story. Here are the ten pieces:
  1. John Adams: Short Ride in a Fast Machine
  2. Beethoven: Symphony No. 5 (1st movement)
  3. Britten: "Storm" Interlude from Peter Grimes
  4. Grieg: In the Hall of the Mountain King (from Peer Gynt)
  5. Handel: Zadok the Priest
  6. Holst: Mars (from The Planets)
  7. Mozart: Horn Concerto No. 4 (3rd movement)
  8. Mussorgsky: A Night on the Bare Mountain
  9. Stravinsky: The Firebird ­ suite (1911) (Finale)
  10. Anna Meredith: Connect It
The tenth is a new body percussion piece by young composer Anna Meredith and has been specially commissioned for the project.
This seems a lovely project, perhaps akin to Disney's Fantasia. Perhaps too akin. Were you introduced to classical music via that film? I wasn't, but perhaps I'm the exception. The problem with Fantasia, if there is a problem at all, is that the music was perfectly chosen to accompany cartoon animations. I'm unclear as to the real education value of this. It looks great, but does it actually teach anything? Perhaps the goal is just exposure--better that the kids hear a bit of classical music than not.
But looking at the list, what I see is a lot of innocuous, colorful, but mostly undistinguished music. The John Adams is fun, but it is like a trivialized version of Copland's Fanfare for the Common Man without the drama and harmony. Beethoven, yes, of course, pretty much an unavoidable choice. Britten, ok, but the Grieg is just another colorful orchestral bon-bon. Handel, but no Bach? Who are you kidding? Holst, sure, if you want yet another British oriented colorful orchestral showpiece. Mozart, ok, but a Haydn finale would have been better. And then, yet another sample of orchestral fireworks from Mussorgsky followed by much the same from Stravinsky.
Honestly, this is what Taruskin means when he says we have to save classical music from its supporters and advocates! There is nothing here, apart from the Beethoven, that is going to make the kids take classical music seriously. It is all ear candy. If you want to actually educate children instead of just amuse them, then you need a different list of pieces. This one is patronizing and shallow.
Try a list like this, and I'm just going to post the clips:

Etc. You think this is too heavy? C'mon, these kids are listening to Jay-Z, Eminem, Metallica, Katy Perry and god knows what else on a daily basis. You play them a bunch of pretty bon-bons and you are just giving them a reason to have contempt for classical music. If you play them the kind of stuff I posted above then they may love it or they may hate it, but at least they will take classical music seriously.

As I said, the lord preserve us from those who supposedly support and advocate for classical music, but in reality just trivialize it.


Rickard said...

Hmm, good point. The list they give is too cliche. Your list is pretty nice. Here's my attempt for a list (pretty big range of time but classical music is ofc over 1000 years old, so):





https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y1-Apl0Zi2Q (or any other Brandenburg Concerto)


https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ngbz507Ppso (or any other suiting symphony by Haydn or Mozart)








https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gCkd46hcRag (or something shorter by Steve Reich or Phillip Glass)

I know it's 15 but it's hard to choose just 10.

Bryan Townsend said...

You did spend some time on this! What you are doing is more like a listening list for a first year university survey course in music history. Yay! But TWO Bruckner symphonies and NO renaissance music apart from Palestrina?

Rickard said...

Oh sorry, I managed to post the same Bruckner symphony movement twice so it's a mistake. Well, I could add some Josquin Des Prez: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vlB1HR4BgUg

I also thought of replacing the "high" music Machaut with some "low" music Machaut to show both sides of the coin:


Nathan Shirley said...

Well it's not exactly the list I would have chosen, but I wouldn't say they are all "shallow." It's all in the way the music is presented.

As a middle class American kid, Fantasia really was like an introduction to classical music for me. I never went to the symphony or heard any classical on the radio. We did have Peter and the Wolf on record, but that was about it.

The thing about Fantasia is that it promotes active listening. The cartoons match the musical highlights and in many cases even the musical structure. Teaching kids active listening is really key to early music education.

Now in the UK I find it hard to believe that most kids won't have heard any classical. Here in the US however this is definitely the case. Kids have to first get their feet wet with the timbres of classical instruments. The BBC's list should serve that purpose well. Of course I bet most of these kids already know Peter and the Wolf which is the best such introduction. But for kids that have only heard drum sets and electric guitars, this step is crucial. Just as it takes many mainstream classical fans a little time to break through the sonic barriers of Pipe Organ, Wagnerian singing and harpsichord.

Bryan Townsend said...

No, not all shallow, but I found the cuteness factor might be a turnoff for people used to pop music. But those are some very good observations that I hadn't thought of.