Sunday, June 22, 2014

The Thrill of the Classical

I was reading a thriller by one of my favorite authors, John D. MacDonald, the other day--one of the Travis McGee series, he of Slip F-18, Bahia Mar, Fort Lauderdale, Florida. This particular novel, The Quick Red Fox, was published in 1966 and the series as a whole spans the period from 1964 to 1985. I don't think I have ever read this particular book before, or not for many years at least, and I was floored when I ran across a brief passage where Travis is describing to us how he updated his sound system on his boat with new speakers, amplifier, etc. He has an artist friend over temporarily, working on a series of illustrations for a children's book, and is about to receive an important visitor. So what piece is he playing to test out his new system? The latest pop? Or, what I might have expected, some Antonio Carlos Jobim? No, au contraire, mes amis, Travis McGee, popular hero and tarnished knight, is playing, wait for it, Leonard Bernstein's recording of Dmitri Shostakovich's Symphony No. 5. And no-one, not the artist, nor the important visitor, takes the slightest umbrage at being forced to listen to Shostakovich which MacDonald describes as "one hell of a big bold heroic piece of music".

Well, it is, of course. And here it is:

Big, bold, heroic and a thousand other things, but above all, a great piece of music. So how is it that popular culture now is no longer able to appreciate great music the way it was able to fifty years ago? Classical music is not worse now, certainly Shostakovich 5 is as good as it ever was, and popular music is not better now than it was. Fifty years ago the Beatles were tearing up the charts and just releasing Rubber Soul and Revolver. So what happened? Is it just that simple that two things came to pass? There was great technological advancement in popular music with computerized drum tracks and synths and elaborate music videos combined with a general coarsening of the content of the music. We know what caused the former: a revolution in information technology. But what caused the latter?

You got me...

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