Monday, December 15, 2008

September 9, 2008 "Music For The Queen"

When Pau Casals was a child prodigy, he played the cello for Queen Victoria. When he was an old man, and considered by many to be the finest musical interpreter of the century, he played for Golda Meir. Now, he plays for me.


He plays the Bach Cello Suites that he rescued from oblivion and practiced for years before performing publicly. He plays the Bach Gamba Sonatas, where the long sustained notes are among the purest sounds ever heard in the universe.


When Bach was a young man he walked 25 miles to hear the great organist Buxtehude play. But with the touch of a finger—in the car, the kitchen, the shower even—I can hear the best music ever written, music that for centuries only a tiny minority of human beings had access to. I'm not Frederick the Great, but I can listen to Mozart any time I want.


Music is all around us, and we don't hesitate to hum along with it, or ignore it. Music has become universally available only recently, just as brightly-colored man-made objects have a relatively short history. For millenia people lived with only the muted colors produced by natural dyes. Now bright, eye-popping color is everywhere, and many of us have grown almost blind to it. The blindness may be a defensive gesture, as today color often assaults our senses—think of the plastic toys defacing people's backyards, or the expanses of gaudy merchandise in many stores.


We are assaulted by music as well, in elevators, from passing cars, from computers. Handel is supposed to have fainted from sheer emotion when he heard the voice of a famous castrato. What would happen to him if he walked into a typical American house and heard his own Hallelujah Chorus issuing from the kitchen radio, advertising jingles coming out of the TV, and hip hop from the kid's bedroom? He would surely faint again, as would Fra Angelico if he walked into Toys R Us.


Sometimes I feel that I might faint too, if I can't get away from all the music. There has to be silence at certain times in order to really hear at other times. It is ironic that humankind has spent so much energy and effort making music universal, and now people like me spend energy and effort trying to get away from it.


Still, on the whole, I'd rather have it this way: Casals playing Bach, Alicia de Larocha playing Mozart, and Winton Marsalis playing anything, all at my fingertips. Where music is concerned, technology has made me an absolute monarch, and I don't even have to worry about hungry peasants threatening revolt.


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