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Illustration by Krieg Barrie

Forward motion

Music | No music is more relevant to our future than classical greats from the past

Issue: "Ready or not, here we go," March 28, 2009

"It is a good rule," C.S. Lewis once wrote, "after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between."

Since the summer of 2007, I have applied Lewis' advice to my coverage of music in these pages, reviewing contemporary-music CDs in one issue and classical-music CDs in the next. To my surprise, I have gotten some complaints from WORLD readers for this shift in gears. Perhaps an explanation is in order.

After 17 years as WORLD's "music correspondent," I had begun to find the task of looking for significance in the latest pop-music bestsellers less and less enjoyable. The reason, I think, is that by the mid-1990s, pop music, which had for decades undergone periodic stylistic transformations in response to the demands of a fashion-hungry market, was repeating itself. One could often find, with the arguable exceptions of rappers and Nirvana, that what was being done by a new band had already been done, and sometimes better, by a band from the '60s, '70s, or '80s. Recording-industry economic woes became regular headline fodder. MTV no longer showed videos. Venerable record-store chains closed. Pop-music careers vanished almost as soon as they'd begun.

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Conventional wisdom blamed the peer-to-peer file-sharing made possible by the internet. But "peers" had been "sharing" music ever since the advent of home taping over 20 years before. The larger reason, I suspect, was a growing listener ennui that neither the diminishing return of rap's quest for shock value nor the fading echoes of Kurt Cobain's ultimate publicity stunt could relieve.

It was while thus stranded that I found escape via the classical music I'd collected pell-mell over the years. Whether it was Nicanor Zabaleta's performance of 17th-century Spanish harp music or Bach's Mass in B-minor, the intricacies of the music-intricacies that I had long admired but that I had never considered myself up to describing-began to make sense. To put it another way, after having spent years inhabiting the musical equivalent of pre-fab buildings that no one thought twice about abandoning once they'd outlived their function, I could now understand what was special about cathedrals.

An interviewer once asked Wynton Marsalis why he "went back to Duke Ellington" for inspiration. Marsalis responded, "No, I went forward to Duke Ellington." His point was that, Ellington's chronological position notwithstanding, his ideas remain so far ahead of their time that to dismiss them as belonging to "the past" is to risk missing out on the future.

The works of art that speak most eloquently about the eternal tend to have this effect on those of us who take the time to learn their language. Homer enthusiasts don't love his Odyssey because they're stuck in the eighth century b.c.; they love it because it grows continuously more relevant to their understanding of contemporary life. A similar epiphany awaits those who learn the languages of the several centuries' worth of Western serious music that continue to be performed by some of the most talented but under-recognized musicians of our time.

As part of an experiment conducted two years ago by The Washington Post, the virtuoso violinist Joshua Bell, who regularly packs concert halls, performed incognito just outside a D.C. subway station. Although, according to the story, "the sound was nearly symphonic, carrying to all parts of the homely arcade as the pedestrian traffic filed past," Bell's 43-minute recital never attracted a crowd, so oblivious were the passersby in their rush to work.

My classical writings represent one belatedly wise critic's attempt to get more of us to stop.

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