What’s Classical?

June 11, 2009

In Ingmar Bergman’s Tystnaden (”The Silence”), two sisters stop at an unknown country, home to a strange language that has little in common with Occidental schooling. In their hotel room, the older sister (who is a translator by profession) fails in all her attempts to strike up conversation with a staff member; her inability to communicate sparks off a bout of undignified charade.

But what else could surmount the barrier between them? Culture, language, food – they’re all cleaved neatly with no room to forge familiarity. Later, however, the same sister strains her ears when she catches a melody played by the Hotel. She knows; for the first time in this country, she’s spotted an oasis of comprehension.
Bach?”she asks.
Bach!!” pounces the bellhop, himself relieved to find something in common with the strange foreigner. “Johann Sebastian Bach”, he announces with decidedly festive overtones. She knows Bach, she can’t be that foreign.
Even Bergman couldn’t conceive of a state grotesque enough to admit  an ignorance of Bach.

But we’ve all heard him. What was once an aristocratic privilege seems to have seeped into most corners of our diurnal routines – the elevator, the phone operator, and, of course, the tinkle that serves to underline the air-hostess as she prepares us for take-off (The polyphonic ubiquity of classical sonatas in cell-phones and flash animations are still wounds that throb from the 90s.)As early as 1920, George Squier made a business proposal out of this idea – he called it Muzak. Elevator music was born; and the average employee had listened to all Beethoven’s symphonies in six business trips.

Isn’t that a reason to celebrate? Like the color purple, starched collars, and finishing schools, music is no longer the preserve of a pompous gentry. The next great pianist could be Syrian, and his piano Sri Lankan. Surely, there are worse side-effects to modernity.
Except that there probably aren’t. It is hard to ignore that Gauss, Fermat, De Moivré, and many other giants building up the foundation of modern mathematics were connoisseurs – they recognized and savored the rigor and pattern that the carefully trained musician unleashed in a burst of creative passion. The notes that carved a coda were meditations for these great men; that they were able to meditate in this fashion followed from the pursuit of hard reason they subjected their minds to.
If Bach is remembered today (and not hundreds of his contemporaries), it is because of the tiny number of like-minded people who have turned up century after century. They were hardly aristocratic – except in the quality of their thoughts. There was no doubt a musical equivalent of Steven Seagal loitering among his peers; who caused greater comfort to theatre managers. But he isn’t remembered today, and neither are his listeners.