Music Maker

The benefits of keeping the beats

Measuring the Day Through the Classical Era

A primer on finding balance and safety through music.

It’s been a trying time by any measure. School shootings on news feeds, road rage, and widespread unemployment threaten our sense collective balance. Some look to street drugs, or benzos, or alcohol to take the sting out of the uncertain. Others throw buckets of paint at canvases, or suspend crosses in glasses of urine for some reason, as apparently was Andres Serrano’s wont back in the late 80s. This is nothing new. Duchamp was hanging urinals on gallery walls long before we had a word for Pop Psych.

When faced with uncertainty, especially when there’s little we can do to effect outcomes, people often turn to the arts, and in this spirit, I would posit that music from the classical era can be a salve. It reminds us of the value of order, the contentment of discipline, and the threads that hold us together.

Classical composers from the 18th century (as opposed to “classical” music which is a catch-all term for concert music played on orchestral instruments) valued order even as they played with assumptions. Haydn wrote in wonderful regular phrases until, of course when he didn’t. He set up expectations, dashed those expectations, and massaged their outcome. What bliss. Bliss is his symphonies, of which there are 104 (or 107, depending on who’s counting). Bliss, is that they remain elegant, emotionally restrained, and draw on our need to regulate and retreat into order.

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The classical era sits around 1750-1820, and whereas these boundaries get blurred on both ends, we use these dates to describe a movement, an expectation, and an esthetic that looked for valued boundaries and restraint.

In a world of disciplined regularity, the classicists use terms like Sonata Allegro Form to describe a compositional devise whereby sections of a composition, in the case the sonata, symphony or concerto, are predetermined and follow a set of rules. The rules aren’t important for our purposes, but the feelings they invoke are.

Art forms that are instantly adored rarely carry the gravity to see the listener through a lifetime of listenings. There are exceptions of course, however no matter what one thinks of Ravel’s Bolero,  I would argue that overexposure can lead to aural fatigue, and in some instances resentment (think Pachelbel’s Canon).

The youthful ebullience of Mozart’s overture to The Magic Flute, creates a feeling of freedom, whereas his Symphony #29 digs deeper and feels expansive. Mozart’s piano sonatas, his concerti, and his chamber music for all sorts charm us and give us hope. Though Mozart explores so many emotions, his music is also governed by order, something we can fine solace in during trying times. 

There are other ways of bringing order into one’s life of course, but I can’t think of a richer way to palliate a particularly ragged day than by a Mozart opera, or his exquisite clarinet concerto.

Through twists and turns, Mozart holds fast to familiar forms as if, were these forms  taken away, the whole might crumble. The initiated knows the landscape and hears the development and revels in its ingenuity.  S/hetakes comfort in the return of principal material known as the recapitulation and eagerly anticipates the closing or coda material.

Back to Mozart’s operas; Don Giovanni, Magic Flute, Cosi von Tutti speak to our humanness. Tensions are allowed to develop and characters can be three dimensional. And yet, there is order.  Stories are sewn up, heroes are celebrated, and while there is conniving, intrigue,  and duplicity, there is also order.

Classicists put their energy in forms. Following the trends in the visual arts, and in most notably in architecture, Boccherini and Scarlatti worked within a framework. There seemed to be an understood and shared language, in much the same way pop culture references of today are often understood and don’t require defining.

Whatever you believe about the so called “Mozart effect” that not long ago had expecting mothers squishing headphones into their bellies in the misguided assumption that there was a corollary between in vitro exposure to Mozart’s music and elevated IQ, there’s no denying that we resonate (no pun…) with order in music, just as we look to the color wheel for suggestions of complimentary colors. Classical music stands up to 20th century music, as the latter is often the exploration of  breakdown of order, and the questioning of forms. While we can find much to admire, and much to love in the 20th century, there’s a reason classical music remains a concert hall main course.

And so, listen to music of the 18th century for its beauty. Listen to it for its ability to keep the hems of our day neatly serged, and to bring us closer to order. That is, if you, like I, crave that sort of thing.

Violinist Rictor Noren teaches at the Boston Conservatory of Music and MIT.

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