Giving Context to Classical Music

Question: Walk us through your idea for declassifying \r\nclassics. 

Leon Botstein: The idea of "Classics \r\nDeclassified," this series we have at Symphony Space, which we’ve been \r\ndoing for a long time in New York. We did Miller Theater and Cooper \r\nUnion in years past. Basically the idea is to try to give the audience \r\nan idea of the context and the character of the piece in a way which \r\nwould inform their listening without guiding it. There’s a whole \r\ngeneration of music education videos or programs, Leonard Bernstein \r\npioneered them with the young people’s concerts. Michael Tilson Thomas’ \r\nseries with the San Francisco. A lot of those programs tried to explain \r\nthe piece—take a Beethoven’s symphony, Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony—and \r\nto... which everybody knows, and try to explain how it’s put together. \r\nSo it’s as if you had a video on audio mechanics and someone took the \r\ncar apart. They showed you here is the, here are the pistons and here is\r\n the wheel and here is the tire and here’s the starter and here are the \r\nelectronics. This is the transmission. And this is how it works, and \r\nteach you some basic physics on why the car moves so that you can learn \r\nsomething about why the car actually moves and works and how it works. \r\nSo that’s one way of doing it.

We don’t do that. What we do is \r\nsomething different. We don’t try to simplify a complex subject like \r\nmusic theory and music form, which... a lot of technical vocabulary, \r\nwhich most people don’t know. Once upon a time everybody went to, you \r\nknow, piano lessons in a middle class audience and they knew a little \r\nbit about, could read music sort of and they could play the piano so \r\nthey knew the difference between major and minor and you could use some \r\ntechnical vocabulary. 

That’s gone. Most people who grew up with \r\npop music and rock music, they play, they do it by ear, they improvise. \r\nThey don’t know any theory, they don’t know any lingo. So what do you \r\nwant to talk to them about? They’re educated people. You want to talk \r\nabout the things that they are interested in that connect to music. So \r\nwe talk about the politics of the period in which the period the piece \r\nwas written. We’ll talk about the relationship to literature; to art; to\r\n the problems in the composition; what the piece did for the composer \r\nbiographically; where it comes from in the composer’s lifetime; what \r\ntheir relationship between music and other issues—they can be \r\nphilosophical, they can be political, they can be poetic. 

Also \r\nwhat’s innovative; so in a case of a very well-known piece, like the 5th\r\n symphony, you want to show a little bit how the piece is put together \r\nin order to show why Beethoven is special, what has made this piece so \r\nfamous, and what’s the key to his popularity. Why do people think the \r\npiece represents victory? Why do they think the piece represents \r\nsomething that’s military? Why did Peter Schickele the composer who was a\r\n humorist, narrate a football game using the first movement of the \r\nBeethoven’s Fifth as a soundtrack? Why did the allies use the opening \r\nbars as a symbol of victory? Why did this piece become an icon? So you \r\ndo explain a little bit about how the piece is put together.

But\r\n you talk more about thinking about ways of thinking about the piece, \r\nbecause you don’t want to tell the audience how to listen. I’m always \r\noffended by program explanations or notes that sort of say, well, here \r\ncomes a trumpet tune and then it changes key and then there’s a \r\nvariation, so the poor listeners are looking for what someone has taught\r\n her or him to look at. So it’s as if take a boat around Manhattan, \r\ninstead of leaving me to look around to see. I might look at the sky; I \r\nmight look at the water. But they've told me there’s the Empire State \r\nBuilding so I’m waiting for the Empire State Building to arrive. Then \r\nthey go around the bend and they tell me, well, there’s the United \r\nNations. I’m waiting for the United Nations to arrive. Well, I might as \r\nwell stay at home, you know? I haven’t seen anything on my own.

You\r\n don’t want to turn music listening to tourism. Tourism is a fraud. You \r\nbuy a little guidebook and it tells you to go see the Eiffel Tower in \r\nParis and that’s all they see. The best thing to do is throw the \r\nguidebook away and just go for a walk. You’ll discover the place for \r\nyourself. So what we try to do is help the person discover stuff and \r\nthink about stuff without giving them answers.

Recorded on May 10, 2010
Jessica Liebman

Leon Botstein explains why his "Classics Declassified" is akin to discovering a new city by wandering around.

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