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Learning to Like Classical Music

by Edward Ellsworth Hipsher

(Reprinted from Etude Magazine, March 1921)

     Classical music: Throughout all modern musical history there has been an endless striving to elevate the public taste to where the works of the serious minded musician would be appreciated. So long as composers remain true to their inspirations and tell us in their language the great stories of the human heart, that long will they find followers thirsty for the best they can produce and eager to interpret their gospel of good music to those who have enjoyed lesser advantages. And in the fore-ranks of these musical missionaries is that great army of earnest, conscientious teachers who are once and all the time devoting their energies to the improvement of the musical taste of their respective communities.

To these teachers most often comes, in some form, the question, "Can all learn to enjoy or appreciate classical music"? Interpreted, this is equivalent to, "Can everybody learn to appreciate good music"? For, to the untutored mind, whatever rises above the popular "slush" with which the market is flooded, is tagged as "classical music", regardless of the nice distinctions of the initiated as to the classic, romantic and futuristic schools of music.

And now to answer this persistent question, "Can I learn to appreciate classical music (good music)"?

Most certainly it can be done, and to the same extent and with the same success that any set of earnest students will learn to enjoy good literature. In almost every educational institution, a class, varying in general tastes, in preparation and in capacity, is organized for the purpose of studying literature and acquiring a taste for the most artistic forms of expression through the medium of letters. Just as to a greater or less degree, each one who makes a serious effort will acquire that intangible something which causes his mind to demand a higher type of literature to satisfy his sense of the beautiful and true; just so, if he will follow some similar method of procedure, can anyone with a normal mind learn to discern and enjoy the beautiful in the higher forms of classical music.

By way of caution, do not try to scale Parnassus at a bound. Seek beauty first in the simpler things. Many selections from Schumann's Album for the Young, Op. 68, from Heller, Op. 47, Op. 45, or Op. 46, from Mendelssohn's Songs Without Words, the easier and simpler movements from the old masters, as well as much classical music by modern composers, will serve as materials for study. In teaching a class in Musical Appreciation the wide awake person need not ask, "What can I use"? There is such a wealth of material that it becomes a problem of elimination, because there is so much more of value than one could possibly present in any ordinary course on this subject.

Of course, anyone undertaking to study these works of classical music alone or to present them to a class, must be able to execute them in a finished style, with due regard to phrasing, dynamic effects and the meaning of the composition. If the blind lead the blind, all will land in a musical mire.

First, select a classical music composition of real merit, possessing an attractive melody, good harmony and a pleasing rhythm. And there are plenty of such. Study its general structure, its phrasing and the relation of one phrase to another. The first phrase of a period almost always leaves something of the impression of having asked a question; the second partially answers this, but leaves one somewhat is suspense by ending with a half or imperfect cadence; the third phrase repeats the first question, which it may emphasize by variations of melody, harmony or rhythm, to which there is not limit; the fourth phrase usually brings with it a sense of completeness, as if a final answer were given to the question. Sometimes the last two phrases will be repeated in a somewhat altered from, so that the period is made to consist of six phrases. Occasionally the third or fourth phrase only is repeated for emphasis, which produces a period of five phrases. This is called, of course, musical form.

This language of the phrases, or development of alternate questions and answers, is one of the most potent means of stimulating interest in classical music among students. They soon will be listening, eager to tell you when a phrase has been finished. It is valuable practice to have them call "phrase" at the end of each one. It will destroy the aesthetic atmosphere for the moment, but you are now teaching them the mechanical outline that will make possible the aesthetic quality in their future playing. If they are slow to catch the phrase groups, study with them a few familiar standard hymn tunes, so they may get the divisions of music as they are fitted to the lines of poetry. Then apply this knowledge to instrumental themes in classical music.

When the students have begun to grasp the idea that there is a real language in music that is able to express an idea conceivable to the mind, then begin the study of selections in which the imagery or mood is clearly portrayed. Take, for instance, the Reiterstuck from Schumann's Op. 48. Here not only the clickety-clack of the galloping horses' hooves is plainly heard, but also the approach, the passing and the departure in the distance of the hunting party are conveyed almost more plainly than even words could do. And all this is done in two pages - a genuine "short story" in classical music.

Bachmann's Pastorale is another composition of great value for awakening imagination. Here we have the quiet theme of the shepherd, the bell of the neighboring chapel ringing clearly through this melody, falling on the second beat of the left hand. Then comes the tinkling of the small bells of the flock interspersed with the deeper tones of a larger bell; and a little later the rippling runs of the shepherd's flute. And all these are woven together in an attractive composition which, if not truly great, is yet fine material for awakening the student's faculties so they will be able to grasp the more subtle significance of classical music works of a higher order.

MacDowell's Scottish Tone Picture has two strongly contrasted moods graphically portrayed. First, we have the onward sweep and gathering fury of the waves as they approach and then break upon the rock bound coast. Then comes the middle section - a plaint of pitiful loneliness.

As the studies proceed selections will be used in which the imagery is less apparent and in which greater demands are made on the imagination and sympathies. Gradually the point will be approached where the pure classical music will be enjoyed for their beauty of form, their chaste sentiments and their more elusive significance.

The Etude Magazine March 1921

Appreciating Classical Music


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