CLASSICAL MUSIC: WHAT IT IS, WHY IT IS IMPORTANT, AND WHAT PRM* SHOULD DO ABOUT IT.

WHAT CLASSICAL MUSIC IS

Dictionaries contain several definitions of classical music. The most specific is music from the classical period, i.e. of Haydn and Mozart. The general usage of the term, however, is much broader than that; some have suggested 'art music' as a better term. For the purposes of this discussion, however, I will use 'classical music'. As editor of The Continuo (A Classical Music Journal) for the last 16 years, I had to decide what classical music events to include in the calendar, and which of those to review. For a while it seemed to me that there was no really suitable definition to guide my choices. Then I remembered what I had heard said about church music, that contemporary church music modelled exclusively on popular music would have a short life span, leaving church members - as they grew older - without any sense of music they could relate to, because popular music would continue to change, and contemporary church music would change with it. In contrast, traditional church music has always added new music from the secular world, retaining that which worked and discarding that which didn't, so that all members had at least some music they could relate to. I suggest that classical music resembles traditional church music, because it keeps the best of the old, and, in time, adds the best from the ever changing popular music world, usually after popular styles have moved on. It also adds from folk music. There are numerous examples of this process.

The first is ragtime. The best known ragtime composer, Scott Joplin, was an African-American, and ragtime is generally considered to be part of the African-American heritage. I remember hearing - on one of the PRM classical music shows - a university-based concert pianist play an entire recital of ragtime. More recently, at a Millsaps College program featuring women in music, there was a ragtime piece composed by one of the participants. Ragtime is seldom heard outside the classical music arena, and may be the best example of the 'preservation function' of classical music. Another example from the African-American heritage is the spiritual. One can hardly find a choral concert that does not include something from this repertoire. The pieces may be simple or complex. The Oxford University Press (probably the ultimate source of classical choral music) has recently published a collection of spirituals, edited by Moses Hogan, a noted African-American choral director and composer (recently deceased). Spirituals, however, unlike ragtime, are also heard in church music. Other examples from the African-American heritage are jazz and blues. Some jazz is incorporated directly, in other examples the jazz and blues styles have been used by traditional classical music composers. One has to think no further than George Gershwin and his 'Rhapsody in Blue'. Gospel, which has a mixed heritage, is slowly making its way into the classical music fold. The Mississippi Opera, for example, is including one opera - 'The Gospel at Colonus' (based on Sophocles' play 'Oedipus at Colonus') in gospel music style in its 2004-2005 season. So far as folk music is concerned, its use by classical composers has a long tradition. Think Liszt, Brahms, and Bartok. Then think Hungarian. Think Vaughn-Williams and English. Think Aaron Copland and Appalachia. One of the most riveting musical experiences I have had (I remember the exact location - I was driving on North Street near High Street) was hearing for the first time the Bulgarian State Radio Women's Chorus on PRM (William Fulton was announcing at that moment). I pulled over and stopped until the piece was finished. I even remember the vehicle I was driving. A final example is movie music. It is only rarely performed live - but is often heard on PRM.

WHY CLASSICAL MUSIC IS IMPORTANT

The next question is: Why is classical music - in this expanded sense - important? It is simply because it has become a living museum of our musical culture. The first phase of this role - before the development of musical notation - was human memory. Songs were learned by rote and repeated often. This process continued in some areas right through the twentieth century. Then, in the second phase when music could be notated, it became possible to recreate it long after the composer died. Notation was also used to record much folk music. In the twentieth century the invention of recording and radio meant that now many more people than before could hear the same music at the same time, and dead performers could also be heard. This new development did not diminish the importance of notation, but it did reduce our reliance on it. Elvis Presley's music could be notated, for example, but any valid recreation of it would require access to his recordings. By the mid 1950s, the quality of recordings and reproduction began to improve significantly, with the advent of what was called high fidelity ('hi-fi') and later, stereo. I remember attending a concert of the Nashville (TN) Symphony Orchestra in that time, when, on the page opposite the one listing the program for the concert, there was an advertisement from one of the hi-fi shops (I don't remember which one, but that is just as well). The ad included a statement in large type: 'Better than being there!' with an arrow pointing to the symphony program on the opposite page. There was some truth in the ad, because the symphony played in the Nashville War Memorial Auditorium, which had bad - if not wretched - acoustics. The ad, however, was not well received. At the present time, the variety of both classical and popular music available on CDs is immense, and with the availability of high quality headphones and speakers, and compact CD players and amplifiers, it is possible for an individual to have access to far more music than any one person can assimilate.

WHAT PRM SHOULD DO ABOUT CLASSICAL MUSIC - PART 1.

The final question, the role of PRM in all this, enters at this point. Some have suggested that listeners who depend on PRM for classical music should just use CDs. There are, however, two very important reasons that private listening is not sufficient. First, I should explain what is known in liturgical (and some non-liturgical) churches as the 'Lectionary'. This is a three year schedule of scripture readings for each Sunday. It was developed as a way to ensure that the full message of scripture - i.e. all the important passages in both the Old Testament and New Testament - should be covered in a three-year cycle. In classical music, the analogy is that all styles of music (omitting the current popular styles) should be covered. Individuals typically have favorite styles, and, left to their own devices may never hear other styles which they might enjoy greatly. I, for example, would never have known about the Bulgarian Radio Women's Chorus if William Fulton had not chosen to broadcast it - I certainly would not have purchased a tape or CD. Yet the first time I heard it I was deeply moved. The variety of music available on PRM is impressive. Some styles deserve their own shows - Celtic music is an example, with the program Thistle and Shamrock. Others can be mixed in with more traditional forms. But overall PRM does a great job in covering all these different kinds of classical music. The comments made by the announcers are a vital part of the presentation. They are very informative, engage the mind, and tend to promote what has been called 'attentive listening', which is more rewarding than simply having music going in the background. Providing for this function requires professional and experienced announcers who have a passion for classical music - in this area PRM may well be one of the strongest stations in all of public radio.

WHAT PRM SHOULD DO ABOUT CLASSICAL MUSIC - PART 2.

The second reason has to do with the social function of music. There is a significant scientific literature on this point. While many of us do some private listening, we do like to talk about the music with others; and anyone who has attended a live performance with a large and enthusiastic audience can testify to the added pleasure that that provides. The PRM classical music audience relates to the individual announcers, and that provides the social component of listening pleasure. We can telephone the announcers; and many of us do, often on Friday, the day when listener's suggestions are played. It may be illusory, but the illusion is effective; we feel as if the announcer is speaking directly to us. This relationship is also strengthened during drive time.

WHAT PRM SHOULD DO ABOUT CLASSICAL MUSIC - PART 3.

I suggest that PRM, having invested a considerable effort at building this museum function over more than a decade, has a responsibility to continue it. If no one were listening, then it might be abandoned. But that is not the case. There is a substantial audience that does listen. What PRM really needs to do is to expand this audience to include people who have not listened to classical music before. I believe that given this challenge, the classical music staff can rise to the occasion, within the time currently allotted to classical music. Besides, the question is not so much the total time for classical music as it is when that time occurs. The largest audiences for PRM are during the morning and evening week-day commutes, and none of those times feature classical music. I am not, however, in any way suggesting replacing such programs as Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Fresh Air (an excellent show and, in my view, the best of the new programs). Keeping the public informed is also part of PRM's responsibility.

SUMMARY

In summary, classical music is a living museum of the musical heritage of all of our people. PRM has the resources and experience that make it the single most important agent we have for presenting and popularizing this museum. It thus can do for our music what the Old Capitol Museum does for other aspects of our society, and I hope it continues to build on its already impressive accomplishments in this area. Why? I firmly believe that the society that abandons classical music will ultimately commit cultural suicide.

                                                                                                                       - Glenn A. Gentry

*By PRM I mean the radio side of Mississippi Public Broadcasting, MPB. I do not use the latter term here; it is ambiguous because it includes television, which is outside the scope of these remarks.