If you love something, won’t you want to share it?
Well, I guess that depends on what it is. If you have to lose or divide something in order to share it, maybe not.
But how about other things? For example, music?
When it comes to music, I always think that it goes the same with joy: you have it, you share it, and it doubles.
But today, after this brief exchange of comments (I was CW), I realize that not everyone thinks so. But I’ll talk about this later; although that post was what made me decide to write this long blog, I have been thinking about related topics for several months, and I think it would be useful to first talk a little bit about my classical music listening experience.
Unlike most of the people in this community, I’m not very musically educated. I learnt to play the guitar from 6-9, but I wasn’t particularly into it (I later realized that I just didn’t particularly care for instruments that can't produce “real” legato). I started to like classical music when I was about 14, and discovered my love for the cello. But knowing my clumsy nature, I didn’t dare to take cello lessons – until I finally couldn’t help myself when I was 18. It was not entirely a disaster: I got along very well with my teacher, heard some great stories about her experience and about string playing, got to know a nice luthier who allowed me to play with his violins and cellos. And my most important discovery: I’m clumsy as hell. And my fingernails always get in the way. So a year later, after coming to America for college, I gave up playing the cello. I still sing in choirs (mainly learn from ears), and I listen to a lot of music, but not being able to read music, I know that I’ll always be a mere listener. I’m fine with that.
My story with the violin music started almost as early as with classical music, but until several months ago, it was mainly about indifference and missed opportunities. I loved the cello for its dark, warm sound, and its extraordinary ability to sing lyrically. As for the violin, for a long time, I thought of it as a squeaky, melodramatic “sawed” instrument that gives blisters to my eardrums. And isn’t fate a wonderful thing: my ex-boyfriend used to play the violin. So despite my “hate at first listen” of the violin, I did want to try to enjoy violin music. I tried some famous violin concertos, some Schindler’s List, some Secret Garden, and some Bach Sonatas and Partitas. Among them, as it turned out, what I liked the most was the Bach – mainly because I like almost anything by Bach. So in the end, I was “ok” with the violin, but wasn’t interested enough to listen further.
Then I came across this singer, Josh Groban; I was blown away by his voice. There was a violin solo in one of the songs, Mi Mancherai. It was the first time that the sound of a violin really caught my ears. And I learnt the name of the violinist: Joshua Bell. However, having been living under a rock (i.e. not actively seeking out information), all of the violinists I had heard of were dead people. I had no idea who this Joshua Bell person was. My residual prejudice toward the violin didn’t help, either. Even though I was moved by his playing, I didn’t try to find more of his music. At that time I was snobbish and close-minded, with a lot of preconceptions about certain kinds of music and composers. Hell, I even looked down upon Tchaikovsky, so of course I couldn’t be bothered by a nameless(!) violinist who played half a track on a pop singer’s album. How foolish and ignorant I was.
For another few years, I kept expanding my knowledge in some parts of the classical world – early music, renaissance, more Bach, 20th century, a lot of choral music, and almost anything cello… But I didn’t listen to the Romantic repertoire or the violin music. Sure enough, I hear bits and pieces; it’s just that I didn’t pay enough attention to the violin to allow it to grow on me. Outside of the classical world, however, that nameless violinist kept reminding me of his existence – the “Angels and Demons” soundtrack, his second collaboration with Josh Groban, etc. The exposure was enough to make me aware of how good he sounded, but again, being my foolish self, I didn’t listen.
Everything changed, when I stumbled upon his infamous performance in the metro. That night, I was in the mood of a little Chaconne, so I took out Milstein’s DG recording (the only violin album I had in my dorm at that time, and shame on me, I bought it for Bach, not for Milstein). After repeating it twice, I suddenly had an urge to look for other people’s renditions. After some googling, I opened the Washington Post’s article (which I had somehow failed to hear of), and at the top of the page was a link to Bell’s metro performance. I listened to it while reading the interesting article. Then, a couple of minutes later, it hit me – music flowed out of my laptop speakers, at first like a rivulet, gently shimmering; then it gained momentum, growing, taking up more and more space, so powerful yet so light, as if a torrent was taking flight; it soars above the noise of the passer-bys, higher and higher … And the magic faded. The rivulet returned, along with the stomping footsteps. I had tears in my eyes.
I always knew that Chaconne was a great piece. But not like that. The playing was not perfect, with a few glitches, but it sounded so right. I bought the Milstein because I was told by many people that that was the “best” version. It was beautiful Bach, but I had never liked it as much as I treasured my various recordings of the Cello Suites. However, at that moment, I felt I finally understood why so many people hold the Chaconne at such high regard. And why so many people love the violin.
So started my obsession with the violin. In a few months’ time, I have accumulated more violin recordings than all the cello recordings I have ever bought (thanks to cello’s small repertoire), went to a few concerts that featured violin soloists, and loved the violin more and more. And I really embraced Romantic music.
I guess now you can see why I got all protective towards Joshua Bell. I don't think he's the "best" (whatever that means) violinist out there, but I know I love his sound. And he was the one who opened the door to this whole new world for me.
Exploring this new world is a great joy, but not all discoveries are pleasant.
I have to admit that I was taken aback when I first saw certain comments about certain violinists. The kind of dismissive comments directed at some violinists was quite an eye-opener. Needless to say, being the crossover matinee idol, Bell got his share of all sorts of criticism, from his intonation to his hairstyle. That was unexpected when I started to love the violin music. My listening experience with the cellists was simple – they play, and I listen. I have my favorites, but I would never say things like “Starker is better than Rostropovich” or “Fournier is the best”. In my heart they are all great cellists, and the difference in my liking has nothing to do with their level of artistry. It never occurred to me that Yo-Yo Ma’s venture out of the classical realm can be a problem; I have never heard criticisms of his repertoire from the cellists I know, either. I felt confused, even pained; surely a musician is good enough if he can touch people’s hearts? And why do people have to compare one violinist to another, anyway?
Later I realized that this difference probably has a lot to do with the competitive environment that violinists are in. And sfter I read some comments about singers, I have a feeling that there’s perhaps more to it than competition.
From some of the remarks, I get the impression that the commenters take issue with some musicians’ attempts to popularize classical music. They consider that a selling out. I never quite understand that. Of course a professional musician is going to play music in exchange for money; it’s not as if they can eat sheet music for dinner. And of course they want to sell more records and have a bigger audience; no musician would want to play in an empty concert hall.
Another impression I get from those listeners is that somehow the appeal to the masses automatically lowers the quality of a piece of music. Or rather, the quality of a piece is determined by its listeners. What they seem to dislike about “crossover” is not the music itself, but the audience it attracts.
And I wonder why. I had a vague idea, but it was today’s comment that put all the pieces together.
A few weeks ago, I went to a Philly Orchestra’s concert with my friend. The wonderful Orchestra has an incredible student program: for $25 a year, a college student can get access to almost every subscription concert. The seats are not too shabby either: that week, we sat in the back of the orchestra floor, on one end of the middle section. Sitting next to us was an old lady. We didn’t do anything inappropriate, but for some reason, she kept glaring at us disapprovingly. In the end of the concert, when we all stood up to give the orchestra a standing ovation, the lady wanted to leave. I moved back as much as I could, but she kept saying “excuse me, I need to get out”, so I told her that I couldn’t move. There was enough space for her to get out, but she looked really offended, scolded me, and muttered something about college students before she squeezed past me.
Looking back, I do think that I could have done better – I could have walked out of the section to give her more space. What I do take exception, however, was her attitude towards us. Yes, it’s true that we can’t afford the tickets if the Orchestra didn’t offer us the student subscription, and yes, we might not have a lot of knowledge about classical music. But that doesn’t mean we don’t deserve to come to these concerts, or we can’t enjoy the music. If I manage to live to her old age, I'd only be too delighted to see youthful faces filling the concert hall. That would mean that the orchestra I love would be doing fine after my generation is gone.
Coincidentally, dear Joshua recently chose to appear on Dancing with the Stars, which caused quite some discussion on this page and this page. So came my little conversation with Mr./Ms. Ariel. After seeing his/her second reply, I decided not to respond. I simply can’t win. When one is convinced that he/she has the best taste and knows best, there is no way to make him/her see it otherwise. When one genuinely believes in the existence of the “yahoos”, you can either agree with him/her, or become one of the “yahoos”.
I would rather be the latter. I don’t think I have the right to judge other people’s taste, nor am I an “elitist” (elite) player of any sort.
Compared to the vicious attacks that some listeners throw at certain musicians or a group of audience, sports hate looks like such an innocent thing. The sports hate is completely emotional and utterly irrational – one can hate a player or a team for the most childish, ridiculous reasons. But reasonable sports fans all know that. They bash their rival teams and their supporters, but they wouldn’t seriously believe that they are superior to other fans.
It is ironic that, in that comment, classical music was compared to sports to prove the validity of elitism, while sports are widely enjoyed by the masses. And it is sad that something so personal as classical music can be reduced to this unidimensional thing in some listeners’ minds. Classical music is beautiful because of the rich possibilities it offers, and because one can enjoy it in so many different ways.
I wonder how a piece is like in those people’s ears.
And I wonder whether these “elitist” people also think that by listening to elite music, they become the elite.
So I guess it is not about the music itself, after all. It is about those listeners – they want to keep the music to themselves, so they can maintain their status, their sense of superiority. What they don’t seem to think about, is what happens to the music, when they do keep it to themselves.
I remember when I first read an article about those famous violins, I was a little surprised to see that they all have names. Not that I don’t pay attention to a soloist’s instrument, but the brief notes in CD booklets often read like this: X plays on a violin/cello made by Antonio Stradivari in 17XX. After reading it, one can know of, but not know the instrument. A name somehow seems to give an instrument enough personalities to make it memorable, alive.
And what eventful lives these extraordinary instruments are living.
During his concert, when Joshua Bell turned around to conduct the orchestra, I had the chance to look at the back side of his 1713 Gibson ex-Huberman. It was a poignant sight – close to the lower edge, behind his shoulder rest, the beautiful red varnish wears thinner and thinner, and finally fades into the muddy brown of the ancient maple wood. 300 years ago, when a Cremonese luthier painted his newest creation with the red varnish that he rarely used, would he imagine that the violin would be treasured and played by many masters, travel with them, outlive them, and still have the power to bring people to tears 300 years later?
I remember reading a discussion post about the varnishes. In the post, someone mentioned that the varnish on the well-preserved Messiah or Lady Blunt look different from that on a Stradivarius that has been played heavily by players, and that those heavily used violins are all “messed with”. But I think those violins are beautiful precisely because of that. A violin ages, but it is constantly given new life. Every day it goes to work, it faces a new audience; every note it sings is different from last. It travels over continents with its master, being used and sweat upon day and night, its parts repaired and replaced over the years. I have seen a few precious violins in the concert halls, and they all sound and look beautiful, but I think I will always remember the worn face of the Gibson ex-Huberman. The bare wood is the scar of a soldier, a veteran’s badge of honor, a reminder of the great journey it has gone through, of the beautiful music it has produced, and of the joy it has brought to people. To me, a “messed with” violin like that is the perfection of imperfection.
Someone very wise once told me, ‘I don’t worry about my old age, because there is only one way to avoid aging.’ That is to die. These words come to mind whenever I hear that a great instrument is sold to a private collector, or look at the pictures of those instruments in museums. True, the Messiah is beautifully preserved, and it makes a great exhibit. But I can’t help but feel sad for it – if you were a musical instrument, how would you feel when so many people come to see you, but your only listener is the curator? For instruments like the Messiah, the museum cabinet is their coffin. Once entering it, they become museum pieces, perfectly embalmed, but lifeless as 18th century naturalists’ specimens. A Stradivarius or a del Gesu is deemed valuable because of its beautiful sound. And if it no longer makes a sound, is it still a great violin, or merely a silent ghost of its real self?
A great violin is a great piece of art, but it is first and foremost a musical instrument, a tool for the musicians. In this sense, the Gibson ex-Huberman is a fortunate violin – it would have been a German collector’s museum piece if Bell didn’t buy it. After all the turmoil, it is now in good hands, its voice heard and admired by people all over the world. And I can imagine myself going to those concerts year after year, seeing the violin cradled in those hands, hands that are now strong and masterful, but will one day be weakened and wizened by age. And maybe someday, I will see the violin in a new pair of hands, singing in a youthful voice, living life anew.
And I’m reminded of those great violins handed from one great violinist to another. When these masters are gone, their precious instruments, their singing companions, live on.
Like the pieces by those great composers in the past – centuries after their death, their creations live on.
Not on paper, but in people’s ears.
Whatever the intentions, the attempts to keep classical music from a wider audience are to the detriment of classical music itself.
I do understand the urge to possess certain things. When you love it so much, you are afraid that it would be messed up, if someone plays with it. Interpreting a piece, or playing an antique violin is like that; you are taking risks. In fact, it shouldn’t even be called risk, because the damage is a given. For a violin, any playing adds to the wear and tear; for a piece, any kind of interpretation has imperfections.
Ken, a classical music lover who also works in a record store once said, a perfect piece is the piece that’s written on paper. How true. It’s just like the violins in museums, perfect, and perfectly silent.
That is the silence that classical music cannot bear.
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