Classical music is all about upper class folks wearing red velvet cravats and tuxedos isn’t it? But say I were a little interested, where would I even start? My parents were country music and 60s pop fans. I knew Charley Pride and the Beatles but no Beethoven or Mozart. To me this music felt overwhelming and impenetrable.From picnic at a summer evening concert a few years ago to an encounter with a Liszt ‘pop song’ of its time, I came to realise that music doesn’t require that you know its technical language, just its audible one. It definitely doesn’t require that you dress a certain way to listen to it. All it really requires are your ears and an open heart.
The sun is a flaming ball on the horizon; the air like a breeze-less oven of humidity draping its wet flannel over me. Crisp brown stalks of grass spike their way through the blanket and into my hind regions however I arrange myself. On the tartan picnic rug crackers, cheese and dips are laid out and a slightly warm glass of something fizzy and yellow is held aloft in my hand. The atmosphere in the amphitheatre is celebratory as around me thousands of people make a patchwork quilt of similar scenes. An almost tangible sense of anticipation crackles between us all.
Everyone seems to be here. Small children run up and down the aisles, grey heads appear as dots on sea shells, beards are bushy, shorts high-waisted, shirts flannel, there’s singlets and even a couple of sari’s.
It’s February, and this festive scene was created by one of Melbourne Symphony Orchestras annual free concerts. The line up for the night I don’t remember. What I do remember is the feeling I got from sharing that musical experience with thousands of other people. Of being taken away by something fleeting. But also in its way timeless. I’ve had this feeling many times at rock gigs, but I hadn’t expected the same thing at a classical concert. Even one where you could bring your own wine.
A friend gave me a CD of classical pieces and encouraged me to have a listen.Somewhat sceptical, I started playing them as a background while I was having a nap, a bath, or when I was writing. Then it happened. That same thing that happens with my other music. I got hooked on a track. Liszt’s Etude No. 3 or La Campanella as it’s more commonly known is popular. But things are usually popular for a reason. It’s good. It’s also only 5mins long. Short for a classical piece; similar enough in length to the music I was used to listening to.
I played it again and again, I sang along in my head (it’s difficult to sing along to a piano out loud —although air piano is advisable and encouraged). It was light and playful and I liked the way it made me feel.
But so what. So I’d got one piece among thousands. I still felt overwhelmed and intimidated by classical music. I didn’t know the language, couldn’t tell my fugues from my sonatas, my adagios from my allegros. I didn’t know the difference between a symphony orchestra and a chamber orchestra, couldn’t tell a Beethoven from a Ravel.
Then Bowie’s Life on Mars came on my stereo and I realised that I didn’t know anything about the mechanics of this song either. When I listened I didn’t feel the need to know the song structure, the key, the instruments or even the composer. I just liked the way it made me feel. I liked the story, the images it brought to mind, the mood it could generate in me.
That’s when I saw that it was okay to be a novice. It was okay to just listen and feel whatever I wanted.
Classical music can seem like an impenetrable world. But it doesn’t have to be inaccessible.