I love podcasts, which (in case I haven’t mentioned it in the last five minutes) is why I started my own, but a recent favorite discovery has been The Classical Top 5 Podcast. There’s actually been some cross-pollination, in that Richard Bratby, a Birmingham-based musician, critic, and writer, has come on the Gabfest twice now (and I hope continues coming back!)
But of course, the thing about listening to other people’s podcasts is you can’t interject in the conversation with what you want to say*, and that’s very frustrating, because I always have very much to say when I’m listening to the Classical Top 5, but thankfully I have this blog, so here we go.
The last episode was “Top 5 Most Shocking Moments in Music,” and it made for a great discussion, because each participant interpreted the brief in their own unique way. There were discussions of actual shocking moments within a piece of music (an unexpected bass drum hit, for example), shocking moments of discovery (the guest talked about rewinding the lead-up to the recap of the first movement of Mahler’s 2nd ten times after hearing it for the first time) and broader societal shocks (a lengthy discussion of why it’s so shocking that nothing had been done about the heinous acts that became #metoo revelations in the world of classical music, when it’s supremely obvious that people in high places had known about them for so long.)
Our friend Richard Bratby was a bit jaded about this whole topic â€” he noted that we’re constantly being told why certain pieces or moments are supposed to shock us, but but this point, audiences have heard it all. What might once have shocked is now routine, and what now attempts to shock is greeted with boredom.
But it’s that very paradigm that led me to being genuinely shocked by a piece of music, and it will come as a shock to no one who knows me that it involves the music of Alfred Schnittke.
I was in college when I learned about Schnittke from David M. Gordon, my theory TA and private composition teacher. Having been a classical music freak for all of high school, I was already well-versed in the broad narrative that supposedly encapsulated classical music history: music had been heading in a single direction for half a millennium, from simplicity to complexity, from consonance to dissonance. In the post-tonal world, music had reached apotheotic complexity with Boulez and the total serialists, whose music reflected the chaos and malaise of the modern world. Now (c. 2005) those trends were beginning to “reverse” and certain mild consonances could be tolerated in the way that certain mild dissonances were tolerated in the music of Josquin, as long as they followed a proscribed set of rules.
Then I heard Alfred Schnittke’s first concerto grosso.
The moment that shocked me more than any other â€” as I know it has done for countless listeners â€” is the end of the cadenza (18:30 in the above video). The two violin soloists have been abusing their instruments several minutes, instructed in the score to improvise the most complicated, dissonant jangle they can come up with. Then a rip in the fabric, a baroque cadence, and finally: the harpsichord.
An arpeggiated c-minor chord like black ink spilling from a jar, the likes of which you might hear in a scena from Don Giovanni or perhaps the entrance of Lestat in Interview with the Vampire. That was truly a shocking moment.
What came next didn’t shock any less. Here was music that COMPLETELY upended the narrative I had been told was true, music that actually did what the yawn-inducing music of Schoenberg and Stockhausen was supposed to do â€” it was bracingly dissonant, full of bitterness, rage, and turmoil, but it accomplished this using triads and tonality.
At that moment, it was plain as day: hundreds of composers had wasted decades of their lives, the entire output of their artistry and careers, studiously avoiding thirds and fifths only to produce screaming bores that intended to unsettle, but only nonplussed.
That was a musical shock that changed my life, and I’ve never looked back.
*Clubhouse is trying to solve for this problem, but I have yet to come across a conversation I’d want to participate in. The classical music “thought leaders” on that app have just scheduled their 3rd session about why classical music desperately needs to get on board with NFTs. Let me know if you need an invitation.