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How Classical Music Saved My Life

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How Classical Music Saved My Life

I'm slowly working my way through the Oxford History of Western Music by Richard Taruskin and just read a passage in which he discusses, in connection with 17th century England, the connections between music and politics. In so doing he walks a fine line between doing justice to the music itself and taking notice of recent political issues and discussions. He says:

 "Classical music," like all "high art," has always been, and remains, primarily a possession of social and cultural elites... This is so even in a society like ours, where social mobility is greater than in most societies, and where entry into elites can come about for reasons (like education, for example) that may be unrelated to birth or wealth. To maintain that "classical music" is by nature (or by definition) apolitical is therefore a complacent position to assume, and a rather parlous one. [op. cit. Volume 2, p 112]

Well, we try not to assume complacently here and if we do, commentators are quick to offer correction. But in saying this, Taruskin is, in order not to be too out of touch with current opinion, perhaps underrating some potential values of the music. In this passage, at least! Because elsewhere the virtues of the music, when present, are fully acknowledged.

So in that context, I want to relate how classical music made a difference in my life. I come from a lower middle class (barely!) family who were prairie farmers for many generations in Canada. My mother was a talented old-time fiddler, but I didn't follow her path. In fact, until I stumbled across classical music in my late teens, I was pretty much going nowhere. After high school, when I wasn't working at menial labour jobs, I just lay around the house sleeping in until noon. No plans, no future. I had taken up the guitar and played in a few bands, but there seemed no future there. As I said, I stumbled across classical music and started listening to a lot of it. Then I started reading books on it from the local library. I had written a few songs so I got the idea of using orchestral accompaniment so I taught myself how to write music. Yes, I didn't read music, so I first learned how to write it down. One thing led to another and a year or so later I found myself enrolling in first year university in the music education department--quickly moving over to the music department proper. And for the first time in my life I really felt that I was in the right place.

What I want to underline here is that even though I was from a lower social strata, no-one in the classical music world ever treated me poorly as a result. I was treated as an individual with real musical potential. The overall result was that I became a concert soloist with about as successful a career as one could have in Canada at the time. The only actual bias or prejudice I encountered was not against myself, but against my instrument. I was unable to obtain a tenure-track university appointment simply because I played the wrong instrument, classical guitar. But that is a whole other issue.

The simple truth is that classical music was what inspired me to work hard and educate myself and move into a whole other social strata: from tree-planter to sessional lecturer at university. This was an enormous change. Ultimately I moved on to something else, but the simple fact of my social mobility was enabled by my pursuit of classical music. Yes, if I had had no talent and no ability to work and learn it would not have happened but there is nothing so common as wasted ability. What I learned from the classical music world was a framework of discipline and aesthetic values to which over time were added intellectual values such as the ability to analyze music and research the history.






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