So-called Classical Music and the Stolen Violin

After all the chatter about music, the loves and hates sorted by way of your dad’s record collection as well as your wireless earbuds, the moment has finally arrived to talk about “Classical Music”, in quotes or capitalized, we’re never sure. It’s something over to one side, the other side of “Pop”; that field of “difficult music”, with a distinctly different fan-base, a whole other way of doing things. That’s, like, 500 years of music, boiled down to a marketing category. Classical Music.

Seeing as this fixed category attempts to wrap its arms around Gregorian chant, choral music, opera, chamber music, orchestral and symphonic compositions, we can see how it is sometimes paired with its way distant cousin (from the same family?), that other (mostly) instrumental music, Jazz. Jazz, whose King Oliver sounds different from Oliver Nelson who sounds different from Oliver Lake, so we can also query the assumption of all that being placed under the same heading.

With such a wide range, it’s a matter of getting a handle on the thing. And if it stretches for 500 years, you already know that it’s easy enough to lose track of (for example) 40 years of Hip-Hop history. The inherent bias in its default tag, is that “Classical Music” really stands for Western classical music, while other regions of the world, say Africa or India, have musical traditions that stretch as far back as thousands of years. Therefore, should we re-name this genre “Western Pre-electric Music”, as that qualifier is key to its differences if compared to our era, which is dependent on electricity, the studio, and playback technologies?

You might deduce that I am speaking about this as a relative amateur, someone who has kept his ears open, who never shut off the occasional but random purchase of a Mozart or Beethoven record, but who perceives the daunting task of attaining even a middling level of comprehension. In this respect, I found Howard Goodall’s BBC series “The History of Music” very helpful, where the various eras and sonic evolutions of western (or strictly speaking: European) music became clear, as well as what constitutes “good music” across the board, and how preferred chord progressions (for example) got sorted out in everything from Joseph Haydn to W.C. Handy to Lady Gaga. Those standards also paradoxically established an “avant-garde”, experimenters, outsiders, or savants who pushed against “the rules”.

Another more recent source that aided my Classical Music adventures, was “Gone”, the memoirs of Korean-born Britain-based violin prodigy, Min Kym. Ostensively about the tragic theft of the violinist’s beloved, and massively expensive, Stradivarius and the toll that took on her mental health, the memoir also had me reflecting on the comparable passions anyone feels in relation to whatever kind of music gets under the skin and into the heart.

For example, this quote when she plays an Antonín Dvořák piece at a private party: “The Humoresque carries one of those melodies that appear to have existed for ever. As soon as it starts you recognize it. It bears that rare gift that certain refrains possess, a kind of harmony that has always lain out there in the ether, just waiting to be captured, written down, played.”

Even though Kym is a prodigy, which sees her accompanying the Berlin Symphony Orchestra at thirteen years of age, her most effective mentors weren’t the unrelenting task-masters that honed her inherent talent but those (usually prodigies themselves) who guided her towards “feeling”, towards establishing her own voice on the violin, despite the repertoire being set within the parameters of so-called Classical Music. That circumstance does parallel the ambitions of Jazz, in which Coleman Hawkins, Charlie Parker and John Coltrane all play the saxophone skillfully, but are distinct enough in feeling and sound to distinguish them from each other as well as the rest of the pack. It then seems that the manner in which one accomplishes “feeling” in music, rather than technique, goes far beyond any average definition of skill.

Seemingly, one of the ways Kym manifests a feeling for the music is by reflecting on when and how a particular composer created a specific piece of music. This was also helpful to a neophyte, such a myself, in order to penetrate the human circumstances that go beyond technical knowledge, landing squarely within the passions that move both the creator and the consumer. For example (from the book): “The Chaconne is the final part of Bach’s Partita №2. He composed it in 1720, after returning from a trip to find that his wife had died . . . In a letter to Clara Schumann, Brahms called it one of the most wonderful, incomprehensible pieces of music, and went on: ‘On one stave, for a small instrument, the man writes a whole world of the deepest thoughts and powerful feelings. If I imagined that I could have created, even conceived this piece, I am quite certain that the excess of excitement and earth-shattering experience would have driven me out of my mind.’ But Bach was not a romantic like Brahms, and if he was composing for anyone it was not for a person, or the memory of them, it was to the glory of God. This in part explains the single-mindedness of all Bach — God was his ultimate audience.”

What fundamentally distinguishes Kym’s approach to so-called Classical Music is her absolute fidelity to her Stradivarius violin, that hundreds-of-years-old instrument that she is so besotted with that she takes out a mortgage in order to purchase it. This is really the main theme of the book, as indeed the violin is spoken about as if it’s a lover, a best-best friend, and really, seeing as it is ultimately a thing, an object, these sentiments bestow upon it the status of fetish. This seems unique to the violin and violinist, as is noted in the book, a pianist can’t carry around his or her choice of instrument. Conversely, there is an abundance of stories in which a Jazz musician borrows someone’s trumpet or saxophone at the last minute and, regardless, gets on with the thing.

In this case, one must take into account the stresses on the prodigy Min Kym, who from a young age hardly had a “normal childhood”, which is well detailed in the book as well as the strict traditional hierarchies of her Korean family, all of which clearly has a bearing on her overly-invested relationship to the Stradivarius and the psychological devastation once it is stolen. Regarding the idiosyncrasies or personality of her beloved violin as well as the idea of “voice” or “feeling”, she states in another passage: “ . . . as I played the resolving note . . . the note wouldn’t come out, my violin suddenly stubborn, digging its heels in. So I gave it a little nudge and . . . BARK, out it came. We could have re-recorded the section, but I wanted to keep it in. I was bringing the recording close to live performance and, besides, it was my violin’s concerto too.”

As initially stated, the fan base or milieu is partly what distinguishes so-called Classical Music from other genres. Classical Music’s fandom (if there is such a thing) might be described, on one hand, as “rarified”, but on the other hand as “snobby”. For sure, Min Kym’s book provides an insight on that scene of old world, upper class patronage. But speaking for myself (and myself alone) I came to Bach in the same way I came to Coleman Hawkins: they require a closer kind of listening, and once listening closely, other listening experiences become richer, deeper, more concentrated. One hears something new after hearing something for the hundredth time. The ironic flipside of “snobby” being that on average your average used record/CD store can’t even give away Classical Music recordings. There is for sure a high-end supply-and-demand market for certain recordings of Classical Music, but if you want to jump into it, you will be paying far less (on average) for a prodigy’s violin concerto than you would for a rare groove touch-stone of Hip-Hop sampling. And at some other time, we can argue about which one constitutes “good music”.

Now read: Edith Piaf in Kenya