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Terez Mertes

Classical Music is not Entertainment

April 30, 2009 at 10:08 PM

2009 is not proving to be the banner year I’d hoped it would be. There’s double-digit unemployment in California (count my husband in here still), the worst drought in years, a crushing state budget deficit that puts my part-time library job at risk, and we won’t even talk about the free-falling odds of a debut novelist breaking into the ever-shrinking fiction market. Our household will get by; we always do. Financially, it’s a matter of spending only what is absolutely necessary. No better time, then, to read Boston Conservatory’s music director Karl Paulnack’s speech to the parents of the 2004 incoming freshman class. Fellow v.commer David Wilson forwarded a copy to me and it’s one of those uplifting messages that you want to spread around to everyone you know.

In it, Mr. Paulnack mentioned the way our society puts music merely in the Arts and Entertainment section of the newspaper. “Serious music,” he went on to say, “the kind your kids are about to engage in, has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with entertainment, in fact it's the opposite of entertainment.”

He talked about how the ancient Greeks considered music and astronomy to be two sides of the same coin.Astronomy was seen as the study of relationships between observable, permanent, external objects, and music was seen as the study of relationships between invisible, internal, hidden objects. Music has a way of finding the big, invisible moving pieces inside our hearts and souls and helping us figure out the position of things inside us.”

Then he told the story of 20th century composer Olivier Messiaen and his Quartet for the End of Time, composed in a Nazi prison camp. A French soldier, Messiaen was captured by the Germans in June of 1940 and sent to Stalag VIIIA prisoner-of-war camp, in Görlitz, Germany. Miraculously, a guard there, a music lover named Karl-Albert Brüll, gave Messiaen the space and materials he needed to continue his composing, and in January 1941 the work was performed by Messiaen (on piano) and three other prisoners—a cellist, violinist and clarinetist, to an audience of prisoners and guards alike.

Intrigued, I researched this composition further, then found a performance of the soulful, almost unbearably stirring 8th movement, “Louange à l’éternité de Jésus” movement.  After reading and listening, I stumbled through the next hour in a daze, finally leaving the computer to go sit in a quiet room and let my emotions settle.

I thought of something else Mr. Paulnack had said, of his impressions following the events of September 11, 2001, the way the emotional recovery that week began for him and for so many New Yorkers, with music. He told his audience how “music is not a luxury, a lavish thing that we fund from leftovers of our budgets, not a plaything or an amusement or a pass time. Music is a basic need of human survival. Music is one of the ways we make sense of our lives, one of the ways in which we express feelings when we have no words, a way for us to understand things with our hearts when we can’t with our minds.”

His speech, combined with listening to and reading about Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time, certainly realigned something in me, making my priorities shift back into the right order. Tight budget? Fine. We’ll have more peanut butter sandwich meals, keep the heat at 55 degrees, not run the dryer, and who needs salon haircuts and new clothes anyway? Not when I can take that money and renew my subscription to the San Francisco Symphony for next season. Because, as Mr. Paulnack stated so eloquently, classical music is not a luxury. It’s a necessity.

Other pieces that remind me that classical music is a necessity in life:

As always, I welcome others’ contribution to this “can’t live without” music list. What’s at the top of your list?


© 2009 Terez Rose



From Jose Correia
Posted on April 30, 2009 at 11:14 PM
Before I starte playing the violin I though music was a simple entertainment but I was so wrong music as you said is an essential part of life and anyone who says the opposite should think when was the last time they didn't listen music in their cars radio.
From Terez Mertes
Posted on May 1, 2009 at 12:14 AM

 >anyone who says the opposite should think when was the last time they didn't listen music in their cars radio.

Ha ha, great point! Especially on a long road trip. I'd go nuts without my music.

From Terez Mertes
Posted on May 1, 2009 at 12:56 AM

Here's a great article to read, written by Alex Ross for the New Yorker, about Messiaen's composition. Tried to squeeze this into my blog, but too many links looked clunky. (A tech question - with this newer feature of links being set in live, how do we insert the name of the article instead of just the URL?

From Samuel Thompson
Posted on May 1, 2009 at 3:44 AM

On the top of my list:  

Elgar:   Concerto for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 61


This is a most beautiful entry, Terez - thank you for posting.

From Terez Mertes
Posted on May 1, 2009 at 4:11 AM

>Elgar:   Concerto for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 61

I've got Hilary's recording of that. I like, I like! And thanks for the nice comment, Sam. : ) 

From Drew Lecher
Posted on May 1, 2009 at 4:05 AM

Beautiful, as always, Terez. Sorry to hear of the continued hardships for you and your family and I pray that things are resolved and improved shortly—that is a blog we will all thrill to read.

I remember when freelancing dried up in the early '80's. Vicky and I thought it a huge date to get a 25 cent ice cream cone at McDonald's—we later worked there for the breakfast to lunch shift as it gave us 2 meals a day and enough to cover the rent and a few essentials. Vicky landed a job singing with the Lyric Opera of Chicago, so we moved and started climbing back up out of the hole with the help of the Lord—a lot of hard work and a lot of faith. Later, I play a number of McDonald jingles—they felt particularly good.

Hang in there and keep the faith!

Add Dvorak Concerto and Romance, not to mention the Beethoven and his Romances, Chausson's Poeme and and and………

Thank God for music!

From Anne Horvath
Posted on May 1, 2009 at 4:10 AM

A lot of Beethoven comes to mind, not trashy Beethoven (Wellington's Victory) but the quartets, trios, concertos, symphonies, sonatas, really too much to list.  Beethoven takes abstract "humanity" and makes it real.  For me, anyway. 

And solo Bach always is on the list. 

I appreciate your post.  I don't have a lot of optimism about how culture is valued right now.  

Since the "Twilight" series has sold so well, and there is now "Pride and Prejudice and Zombies:  The Classic Regency Romance - Now With Ultraviolent Zombie Mayhem!", maybe it is time to cash in your writing endeavors to something a little more commericial.  Maybe "Tender Is The Night, Especially With Bigfoot" would get you out of the balcony and into the box seats...

Just a thought...

Hang in there.  Peanut butter is good.

From Stephen Brivati
Posted on May 1, 2009 at 6:26 AM


Anne I am glad you have realized the whole Austen ouvre need sredoing.  What we want -now- is:

Sense,  sensibility and sexuality.

Masochist Park.

Violent persuasion.

Coathanger Abbey.

Emma the Biohazard.

Hopefully sdomeone will fill this gap in the literature.



From Pauline Lerner
Posted on May 1, 2009 at 12:58 AM

Music is everything you said it is and more, but I might still call it "entertainment," depending on how you define music.  Listening to a live concert is fun for me, so I might call it entertsinment.

My list of essential music would include

From Samuel Thompson
Posted on May 1, 2009 at 10:33 AM

Drew - thank you for sharing.   I admire your candor...

Terez - you're more than welcome, and I too share my deepest wishes for you and your family.   These are tremulous times indeed.  I heard Hilary Hahn's recording of the Elgar and it is magnificent, but there is an early Ida Haendel recording on the Testament label (I think Adrian Boult is conducting):   the first movement is filled with a deep, smoldering intensity, and the second is both intimate and heroic.

From Anne-Marie Proulx
Posted on May 1, 2009 at 11:19 AM

Yes it's true but especially for amateurs like me, we are seen as doing a "fun" and romantic entertainment by people!   My relatives and friends told me these which us violinists can see is as a total nonsense (but it's not their fault. They don't know how it is to have a violin in their hands)

(After my big days of school) "Ah, at least you will be able to go practice and relax"  In fact I have not ennough times, everything goes wrong because I'm tired and I go to bed so late.

"How lucky are you to play violin, we would all like to do it!"  Do you know how much scratching, buzzing and ... vibrato practice I endure! It's ear torture! I gave many years for not much "pay back" after all,  When people enjoy themselves in their freetime, I practice or do homework.

"And some people really get pay for this?"  Yes, do you think it works alone!

"anyway music is the first thing governement will cut if the country needs money" Yes but people will all get out their old recordings to listen to music in any crises period!

"Don't worry if you can't practice because of school, you'll be able to play music on weekends" Do you ever heard of a good musician or athlete who just train on weekends?

"It doesn't matter if you don't have time to de gigs, you will do somore one day"  Hey gigs is the carrot to make the horse walk...  Why do we play music?  For our bedroom walls? What is the sense of music? Stage experiences must be something we learn and it can easily be unlearned too if too long without gigs!  It's by doing many thet you become less nervous!"

Just because I found these sentences funny and very representative of how people see classical music...

Have a nice day,


From Terez Mertes
Posted on May 1, 2009 at 1:24 PM

 Oh, how great to come here at the work day's start and see all these wonderful replies. Thank you so much, each and every one of you - what great thoughtful/humorous/entertaining/informative replies. 

I sure do like this group of people here. : )  So nice that everyone Gets It.

From Terez Mertes
Posted on May 1, 2009 at 1:29 PM

 >Maybe "Tender Is The Night, Especially With Bigfoot" would get you out of the balcony and into the box seats...

I'm on it. And with Buri's continued suggestions, how could I go wrong?

Er... why don't I think about it for a while, first?  ; )


From Anne Horvath
Posted on May 1, 2009 at 3:35 PM

An F. Scott Fitzgerald/Bigfoot romance novel would get you on Oprah.  If would sell millions of copies.  And think of the movie version...they could use the guy that played Chewbacca in all the Star Wars movies...and maybe Joshua Bell could play on the John Williams soundtrack...


(Also, Buri, I didn't make up the Jane Austin-Zombie book up.  Someone else did.  You can buy it on  Really, it is true.)

From Tom Holzman
Posted on May 1, 2009 at 4:52 PM

Without Beethoven's Archduke Trio, life would not be worth it to me.  Sorry to hear things are hard for you and yours.  Hope it improves soon.  Thanks for continuing to blog and reach out to us.  I, for one, always enjoy your blog entries.  You deserve better than you are getting at the moment.

From Terez Mertes
Posted on May 2, 2009 at 1:39 AM

 Anne - am I seeing a 20K commission again, if I make it big and go on Oprah? Or was it 10K? What the heck, I'll be in the position to be generous.

Tom - aww, what touching comments, it made me eyes sting. Here's hoping the world hears your words and that 2010 is a knockout year for my family and I. (I've written off 2009 already...)

From Terez Mertes
Posted on May 2, 2009 at 1:43 AM

I need to add this comment, upon rereading my first few lines. It's raining today here. Rain in May = unheard of. Well, rarely heard of.

As silly as it sounds, this little thing, rain on a parched land, feels like such a balm. It's pleasing to smell, see and hear. One might even call the pattering sound on the roof, well, musical.

Small graces. I'll take 'em.

From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on May 2, 2009 at 11:28 AM

Laurie posted a link to this speech in a discussion item a little while ago.  I appreciate both treatments of it.  Terez, I'm sorry this continues to be such a tough time for you and your family.

There were many parts of this speech I loved and found moving, but even though I agree with his (and your) main point, that music itself is not a luxury, there was something about his analogy to surgery and medicine, especially in the context of a speech delivered at a school, that still bugged me, as I also wrote in the discussion thread.  Medical training can be abusive.  So can military training.  The long hours, the sleep deprivation, the intolerance for mistakes.  But in medicine and in the military, there is a vital reason for at least some of that.  Mistakes in those situations can be deadly:  your life, or someone else's, depends on your not making a mistake.  In spite of some of the relatively recent regulations on medical resident hours, for example, which do make the process somewhat more humane, that abusive aspect of medical training is never going to go away entirely.  It can't.

Whereas music isn't, or in my opinion, shouldn't be, like that.  Music schools should not aspire to be like medical schools or military schools.  Music is about forgiveness, about humanity and healing. 

From Terez Mertes
Posted on May 2, 2009 at 2:12 PM

Karen - omigosh, now I feel silly, having blathered on about something that had already been posted. Except that, okay, then I focused in on the Messiaen story and how I reacted to that. So, all right, I'll forgive myself maybe.

Good points you bring up about the medical school. Yes, he sort of stretches his point a wee bit too much with analogies like that. I imagine anyone who's studied both medicine and music is going to argue that medicine is infinitely harder, more serious (due to the life-threatening risks the student/doctor will find themselves in, in the future) and the stress level not something to be emulated, that's for sure. Devoting your work life to art is very hard work - I myself have certainly worked much harder in my writing than when I was drawing a nice paycheck in sales. But hey, it's work I love, love, love. But when it comes time to pay the bills, you can bet it's my husband's less charismatic work that produces the $$. Oh, wait. He doesn't have that job anymore. : / Good thing for humble part-time library jobs. Oh, wait. That job of mine is at risk, too. : /  Good thing for, um, well, um, for! Where people have been so wonderfully supportive and hey, they like my writing! : )  

Time to stop while I'm ahead.

From Anne Horvath
Posted on May 2, 2009 at 2:20 PM

Terez, 10K, 20K, I am not greedy.

Also, it is not a silly thing to appreciate rain.  My area is just out of a nasty multi-year drought, and finally this year there has been a lovely green, rainy spring. Been there, done that. 

From Terez Mertes
Posted on May 2, 2009 at 3:07 PM

>Also, it is not a silly thing to appreciate rain.

I was just thinking of the Pacific Northwest v.commies or others from rainy climates who probably don't realize that when you live in CA, you get sick of endless sunshine (and a lot of Southern CA people don't realize that some of us get sick of endless sunshine. I know ppl who are serious when they say, "I'd be happy if it was sunny and cloudless 365 days a year. You mean you wouldn't be?"). Surely some reader out there is thinking I'm crazy for grumbling about too much sun and not enough rain. Then again, at least this season, it is very un-PC in California to grumble about rain, because the state so desperately needs more of it. 

I'm glad YOU understood, though, Anne. : )  Just for that, okay, it's 20K to you on the Oprah biz.

From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on May 2, 2009 at 3:37 PM

No, don't feel silly!  The speech is definitely worth another look, and you always have something great to add! 

From Oliver Bedford
Posted on May 3, 2009 at 7:21 AM

The 3 Bach violin concerti.

The Mozart violin concerti.

The big Mendelssohn viollin concerto.

From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on May 3, 2009 at 11:49 AM

Terez, to make the links the way you asked, type the Title of the Article, highlight it with your cursor, and then click the little button above with the globe and the chain link.  A box will come up to give you a place to put the www link address. 

I'm with Anne and Tom and others about Beethoven.  The Moonlight Sonata got me through some difficult times in high school.  So much so that even though I don't play the piano, I taught myself to play the first movement.  To me, the act of playing (or singing) a piece, not just listening to it, brings on these feelings most intensely. 

From Terez Mertes
Posted on May 4, 2009 at 3:45 AM

 >Terez, to make the links the way you asked, type the Title of the Article, highlight it with your cursor, and then click the little button above with the globe and the chain link.  A box will come up to give you a place to put the www link address. 

Many thanks for the tip, Karen. I've been wondering how to do it...

Oliver, good to hear your list. I'm embarrassed to say I'm not familiar with the Bach violin concerti. Ah well, good ones for my list, then!

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