The Listeners’ Art – Acquiring New Ears for New Music
I have always used the clean cut clear structure of the music of Haydn and Mozart as my guide to understanding the relationship between expression and form. Beauty is inherent in the structure of Sonata Allegro Form whose rules and guidelines are there to be appreciated, and whose structure never intrudes upon the melodic expressiveness and content of this sonata or that symphony. After years of enjoying and analyzing the music of Mozart and Haydn, I always had the feeling that working within the structure of form was as important as creating the melodic themes, the recognition of which is the listeners’ key to understanding form and expression in equal measure.
For over thirty years I have designed and taught classes in music history and appreciation, and though I’ve taught many of the iconic symphonies, concerti, and sonatas from Beethoven through Brahms and beyond, I was never as intimately engaged as I was by the works of the preceding century. That changed when I heard a live performance of the Schumann Piano Concerto
The basic form was still there but it seemed to exist more as an underpinning to an extravagant layout of themes, rich changes of harmony, and glittering virtuoso passagework. I was listening to texture and instrumental color and enjoying the freedom of expression so richly exemplified by the composers of the Romantic Era. Harmonies were translated in my mind to rich explosive vibrant colors, and I found myself being freed from the traditions and harmonies of an earlier age. Subsequently I gave classes on the piano concerto if Liszt and Brahms, and reveled in this new understanding. By this time, I as the teacher, had become my own most enthusiastic student! It was a good feeling.
My music class members, now friends who have been with me for ten to fifteen years, were reticent to follow me into the music of Stravinsky. “You have to develop a new pair of ears for each era if not for every composer,” I told them. It worked for me and has enhanced my enjoyment and understanding of music as a listener and as a teacher. If you listen to The Rite of Spring expecting to hear the lyricism of Mozart, you will be disappointed. If you can imagine yourself not at the first catastrophic performance of that work but at the concert performance some months later, the energy, beauty, and explosive but by now acceptable dissonances may strike you as being exciting rather than repelling. There is every chance you will succumb to its spell as did I.”