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Nov. 17 2011

Discovering Classical Music

By Reed Hessler | Posted in Host Blogs | 1 Comment

I got the bug for classical music in 1972 during my sophomore year of college. It was almost a sacred rite for my friends to gather in someone’s dormitory room and listen to each other’s rock albums. One day someone borrowed a copy of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony with Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic and the effect was life altering.

I had listened to some classical music in my teens, was even somewhat of a snob about rock ‘n roll, but in 1967 I heard Leonard Bernstein’s legendary television lecture about what was good in rock music, and it utterly transformed me. Two months later, the Beatles released Sergeant Pepper, and I was hooked. Ironically, it was rock that taught me how to listen to classical music. Transfixed by the music, my attention was focused for the first time on differentiating the lead guitar from the rhythm guitar from the bass guitar from the drums. And not only differentiating them, but feeling the separate intensity of each. It was this state of mind that I brought to the Beethoven. I was literally hearing classical music with new ears.

After several hearings, I began to become familiar with Beethoven’s Fifth, following the development of its motto theme like a journey through rocky terrain. What a joy to recognize the recapitulation for the first time! The idea occurred to me, what if I could become as familiar with the Beethoven nine symphonies as I was with my favorite rock albums. It happened faster than I expected. By that summer, I was on intimate terms with all nine of the symphonies. By the end of the year, I had heard all the Beethoven string quartets and piano sonatas. And I was expanding to other composers as well. Brahms, Schubert, even Mozart.

My wife tells me I should acknowledge people who introduced me to music I came to love. My college friend Dale Trusheim, who graduated a few years before me, was a staunch believer that Beethoven was the greatest composer in history. I recall him playing me Schubert’s Death and the Maiden String Quartet for the first time, a great introduction to Schubert for a Beethoven lover. But it was also Dale who introduced me to Mozart, playing me the Jupiter Symphony, No. 41. In later years, he reminded me that at the time I was only impressed by the opening and closing movements. Later, another friend, Phil I believe, but his last name escapes me, said that Mozart was an even greater composer than Beethoven. Listening to the final movement of the Symphony No. 40 in G minor, I found it hard to believe that it could ever thrill me as much as the final movement of Beethoven’s Fifth. And yet it would take me no more than a year before I came to agree with Phil. In the spring of 1973, my junior year at college, I paid tribute to my new found love of Mozart by listening to nothing but his music for an entire semester. That is, when I wasn’t in someone else’s room listening to a rock album.

The Washington College chorus was conducted by John Klaus, who bravely assembled concerts ranging from Charles Ives Psalm 90, containing dense tone clusters, to Josquin des Pres’ Missa de Beata Virgine, a circa 1500 four part a capella mass with very complex contrapuntal lines. This with a student chorus comprised predominantly of singers with very little musical background (a smattering of music majors), and a preponderance of a capella compositions that our conductor insisted on rehearsing unaccompanied. The poor rehearsal pianist would literally sit for most of the rehearsal, sounding pitches on the piano only when asked. Many years later, my close friend and former classmate, Larry Kliegerman recalled, “Wasn’t it amazing what John Klaus managed to do?”

Because of John Klaus, I acquired a passion for Renaissance and medieval music, which I had previously considered boring. John even gave me a copy of the great Josquin Missa Pange Lingua as a present. Soon I had discovered the strange and jarring yet beautiful medieval organum (13th century contrapuntal choral music) of Perotin, the pioneering four part 14th century Notre Dame Mass of Machaut, and countless other works.

My friend Larry Kliegerman was a big fan of Wagner, particularly the great Solti recordings. A year after I graduated, we got together one day with two other people and listened to the entire, 19 hour Wagner Ring Cycle in one exhausting day. I’ll tell you, Wagner is best in small doses.

And I cannot forget Garry Clarke, a personable and delightful man, loved by his students, who led me past my tentative introduction to opera with his wonderful opera course. One of my first loves from that event was Claudio Monteverdi, the first great opera composer, and his three surviving early to mid 17th century operas. Baroque music starts here!

I loved that opera course so much that in 1977, attending Towson University to study music, I took another opera course all over again, even though I didn’t need to. Cliff Alper (Dr. Clifford Alper) is one of those amazing teachers who can make you fall in love with the subject they’re teaching, greatly because they love it themselves. (Semiotics, bah humbug!) He inspired me to consummate my growing love for Giuseppe Verdi. Now when I was at Washington College, in a listening booth with several other opera students, listening to “La Traviata” our assignment that week, several of them (voice majors, mind you) made fun of Germont and Violetta’s duet from Act 2, singing “Piangi! Piangi!” in parody. About a year earlier, I had even walked out of a piano accompanied performance of “La Traviata” after that scene, thinking “Good music, but I just can’t wrap my mind around the story at this point in my life.” Cliff Alper made me thrill to Verdi as I had to Beethoven, admiring his concise plot structures (something always sets the plot in motion in the opening minutes), the incredible nobility of his characters, even the nominal villains (more often conflicted authority figures), and his uncanny knack for expressing drama through music, totally focused, without one wasted note. I agree with New York Times critic Anthony Tommasini that Verdi is one of the ten greatest composers of Western classical music in history.

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Reed Hessler

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Reed is WBJC's evening host. His full bio can be read here.

One Response to Discovering Classical Music

  • Diana Ross says:

    I often make the comparison between Tchaikovsky and the Beatles. Both have a pop-music quality, a sound geared towards the masses. They are ultimately hummable tunes that bore into your brain and won’t leave for days. I’ll sometimes catch myself at my desk humming along with a piece, and it’s usually Tchaikovsky.

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