Classical Music, Proust, Finish Lines, and Me

Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Sir Simon Rattle

Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Sir Simon Rattle

I felt a twinge of finality on the Monday before last as a project of mine came to completion. My iTunes library has been a bit of an obsession since I started building it in 2005 — until about this time last year, I gave most of my disposable income to the iTunes store. Finally, in 2012, my collection felt reasonably complete. I still buy music, of course, just much less at a time. But it wasn’t until March 4 of this year (digital files always document themselves so thoroughly) that I declared an entire genre of my music collection complete: classical.

Exactly five thousand “songs” — varying in length from a nine-second solo in J.S. Bach’s Christmas Oratorio to the thirty-four-minute final movement of Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony — comprise my classical music collection, including versions of Beethoven’s third and ninth symphonies performed by two different orchestras. Using the traditional definition of “classical music,” the collection includes examples of “art music” or “serious music” composed by Europeans and Americans, from medieval monophonic chants to the present day mélange (the most recent piece, Philip Glass’ ninth symphony, was performed for the first time just last year). I own more than a day’s worth of music each by Beethoven, Mozart and Bach — the usual suspects. Two hundred composers in all (not counting the anonymous ones) are included.

Pipe organ at Notre Dame de Paris

Pipe organ at Notre Dame de Paris

Building this collection was a special joy. The breadth and variety of classical music is gargantuan, and it was a great deal of fun to try and get at least an example of everything. Nevertheless, I’m pretty sure I failed in that department, and, despite my most diligent efforts, there could well be pieces out there that I’ve heard before but don’t own. So why did I choose to stop at exactly five thousand? The idea came to me at some point in 2011, after I had reached four thousand “songs” by 150 composers. The monumental grandeur of the classical canon seemed to call for rounder numbers. By that point, I had spent a lot of money on classical music in a relatively short period of time, so it helped to have an end goal in mind. Now that goal has been reached. I can’t completely shut the door on buying more music years from now, but for the time being I’m more than satisfied. Having set the goal, building the collection became a lot like building a pyramid. I have now placed the crown atop the pyramid, so where else can I build? All that’s left is to explore inside. Since I’ve no more than sampled much of the classical music I own, there’s plenty to explore.

I have my mother to thank for what appreciation of classical music I do possess. She always incorporated the study of music into her homeschooling curriculum. As with all education, this pointed me in a certain direction, and since then it’s been up to me to decide how far down the path I wanted to go. So far, I’ve picked at it here and there, as I have with so many other subjects that I’ve found interesting. But with my collection complete, I hope to pour myself into a long study of the history of Western music at some point. This is a daunting project, and I’m nowhere near prepared to start it yet. The feeling of coming to the end of something inevitably underscores the march of time. That inexorable march has been on my mind anyway, as I continue to ponder the next step of my life. Will there to be time to do all that I hope to do? If so, will there be time to do it well?

Chopin Playing the Piano in Prince Radziwill's Salon, painting by Henryk Siemiradzki

Chopin Playing the Piano in Prince Radziwill’s Salon, painting by Henryk Siemiradzki

These thoughts happen to dovetail with others I’ve had recently about movies and art in general. It can be frustrating to approach a film commonly perceived as “difficult” for the first time when critics recommend seeing the film many times to understand it. There are so many movies I want to see, and the thought of seeing one and not immediately “getting it” makes me impatient. I’ve been immersed in the cinematic equivalent of pop music for so long that sometimes I feel like I’ve already wasted time. But lately I’ve felt more peace about these things; I may be coming around to the concept of letting a movie/book/piece of music stick in my memory so that its ideas can ferment as long as they need to.

Which leads us to Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. As you may recall from a previous post, Proust wrote of a fictional sonata that played a crucial role in the relationship between Charles Swann and Odette de Crécy. I was thrilled to see that particular piece of music resurface in the second volume, Within a Budding Grove. Now it is the narrator himself who hears the music as an adolescent visiting the Swann household, many years after the pertinent events in Swann’s Way. Recalling the incident years later, the narrator is able to understand why he failed to appreciate the sonata, particularly the “little phrase” that meant so much to Swann, on his first listen. What he has to say on the subject makes for one of the most spellbinding digressions in the novel so far and a fitting conclusion to this post.

But often one hears nothing when one listens for the first time to a piece of music that is at all complicated… And not only does one not grasp at once and remember works that are truly rare, but even within those works (as happened to me in the case of Vinteuil’s sonata) it is the least precious parts that one at first perceives… Hence the melancholy inseparable from one’s knowledge of such works, as of everything that takes place in time… Since I was able to enjoy everything that this sonata had to give me only in a succession of hearings, I never possessed it in its entirety: it was like life itself. But, less disappointing than life, great works of art do not begin by giving us the best of themselves… The reason why a work of genius is not easily admired from the first is that the man who has created it is extraordinary, that few other men resemble him. It is his work itself that, by fertilising the rare minds capable of understanding it, will make them increase and multiply. It was Beethoven’s quartets themselves (the Twelfth, Thirteenth, Fourteenth and Fifteenth) that devoted half a century to forming, fashioning and enlarging the audience for Beethoven’s quartets, thus marking, like every great work of art, an advance if not in the quality of artists at least in the community of minds… What is called posterity is the posterity of the work of art… And so it is essential that the artist (and this is what Vinteuil had done), if he wishes his work to be free to follow its own course, should launch it, there where there is sufficient depth, boldly into the distant future.

–Proust, Within a Budding Grove, translated by C.K. Scott Moncrieff, Terence Kilmartin, and D.J. Enright

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