The Redemptive Power of Classical Music

I’ve always found music to have healing powers. That’s probably why I play it and why anyone plays it, let alone listens to it. It’s what I think about when I hear classical music in particular. I think about it’s ability to heal, empower, lift people out from the darkness of their times or individual situations and believe in something enough to keep moving forward, embracing imperfection a little better than they did before, while simultaneously striving to improve.

Europe has a long history that embodies that very human struggle, as so much of it is well-documented for us to read about and learn from so that we can walk forward ourselves with a greater understanding of who we are. It’s no surprise then that classical music is so inextricably tied to European history and to a specific region in particular, whose own history proved no less volatile at the time classical music reached its creative height.

I’m talking about Central Europe; and when you consider the fact that Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Haydn, Handel, Strauss, Schubert, Chopin, and Liszt were all born in this region—either in Germany, Austria, Poland or Hungary, nearly all of them within the same hundred-year period, you cannot help but reflect on the state of the continent at that point in time, or at the very least, wonder whether there was something in the water. It was a time, after all, that witnessed the Age of Enlightenment, the French Revolution and the rise and fall of Napoleon, among other historical milestones.

Hapsburg Palace - Vienna - Austria - Ren Michael - Quinby & Co.
Outside the Hapsburg Palace; Vienna, Austria

Anyway, it was inevitable, as I walked down the streets of Vienna on a clear and beautiful morning, that I reflected on that history. I put on my headphones and listened to Mozart’s 41st “Jupiter” Symphony, as the cool morning breeze brushed against my face and I started into town.

For anyone arriving into Vienna for the first time, pick your favorite composer, make a playlist, put on some headphones and press play. Trust me. You owe it to yourself.

I’d just arrived from Budapest very late the previous evening, so I was only getting acquainted with Vienna for the first time that morning. From the way I was strutting, classical music might have seemed to be the last thing I was listening to in favor of Bruno Mars or maybe even, by the looks of me, Stayin’ Alive by the Beegees. But no, I was listening to Mozart.

I was on a music high. Just two nights ago, I’d gone to see my first orchestra play in Budapest at the State Opera House. I knew it then, just as I know it now, that the experience was life-changing. As a musician, it kicked open the door to a universe far greater than any I’d expected to find. The musicians, of course, played in perfect harmony, with illustrious style and profound feeling, and revealed to me in the span of an hour, a world of limitless creative possibility. And yet more than anything, I remembered just how deeply the music was rooted in history, in the collective human experience.

Ludwig Van Beethoven - Beethoven's Apartment - Vienna - Austria - Ren Michael - Quinby & Co.
Exterior of Beethoven’s apartment building; Vienna, Austria

It was in that spirit that I progressed onward to Vienna, this city that became the uncontested capital of the art form, the seat of the former Hapsburg Austro-Hungarian Empire. Nearly all of the musicians and composers I previously mentioned lived and worked here. In particular, two of my favorite composers who also, arguably, might be the most recognized: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Ludwig Van Beethoven.

Beethoven’s apartment, where he lived and worked for the better part of ten years and composed some of his most exceptional work, is in the middle of town. The floorboards still creak. The staircase is windy. The building is well-kept but still smells musty enough to make it easy imagining living there at the time, hearing the keys of a piano sounding throughout the stairwell, being played by a master, slowly losing his hearing and yet still earning his living, still finding the will to continue, as ever, perfecting his craft.

Beethoven's Piano - Ludwig Van Beethoven - Vienna - Austria - Ren Michael - Quinby & Co.
Beethoven’s Piano at his Vienna Apartment; Vienna, Austria

If you walk in, you’ll find the piano still remains, as well innumerable drafts and sketches of compositions, preserved in cases of glass for anyone to come in and read. For me, the experience was surreal.

I knew that Mozart’s former apartment was still in the city and available to see, but I never did get to it. In fact, I figured the more worthwhile experience might actually be in his hometown of Salzburg, stepping into the house where he was born and raised and instructed in music by his father, who himself was a musician.

Salzburg - Austria - Hohensalzburg Fortress - Ren Michael - Quinby & Co.
View of the south bank and Hohensalzburg Fortress at the top of the hill from the Salzach River; Salzburg, Austria

Salzburg is most definitely aware of its heritage and favorite son, as the several souvenir shops around town will show; along with its “Sound of Music” fame, but that’s for another kind of trip. When you walk inside the old apartment, you’ll find a few trinkets the young Mozart would have played with, not least of which include his own violin, as well as other household items and furniture used by the family in those early years. You’ll step into the room in which he was born. You can read letters exchanged between he and his family during those years where he played for kings, clerics, and noblemen, traveling around the continent before eventually moving to Vienna.

Salzburg at Dusk - Austria - Hohensalzburg Fortress - Ren Michael - Quinby & Co.
Evening in the city taken from Fortress Hohensalzburg; Salzburg, Austria

When you hear something like that, it might seem especially preposterous even to consider that Mozart and Beethoven, each recognized globally as a genius in their own right, could still have led lives that were in any way similar to our own. But for me, that was actually the greatest souvenir. When you step into a place where someone lived and worked, it has a funny way of bringing you closer to them, rather than farther away.

These men were, ultimately, just people. It’s one very simple yet crucial fact I took away from my time in Central Europe.

Of course, greatness is a matter of perspective. But if we define it simply in finding joy and self-affirmation in doing what you love, while simultaneously creating some component of that feeling for anyone who happens to see or hear what you do, and be moved by it, inspired by it like I was hearing that orchestra play in Budapest, then maybe greatness isn’t quite as inaccessible as we tell ourselves. It takes practice and work, and when you remember that these men in creating their art likely experienced the same doubts we all experience in life, it’s something that brings you closer to both the artist and, if you listen just right, to humanity as well.

*Hey everybody, thanks for reading! Here’s one of our own personally curated playlists of classical music, made for your ultimate listening pleasure. Of course, feel free to reach out to us for any further recommendations. We’re happy to assist. Thanks again and enjoy!

 

 

a capella #1

I am not exactly a conventional musician, you know…
I couldn’t tell you anything about theory.
I can’t even read music. No,
I’m just like this wild man of the woods
born of the swamp, singing
if not screaming to the heavens
and sometimes to my people
and I’m gonna use whatever
I have on me to be able to do it.  

Though all I really need is my voice.

critic at the pulpit

by Cal Corso

Art belongs to the people. It always has and hopefully always will.

It’s an important relationship, essential to the human experience.  Still it’s most consistent threat comes in the form of the intellectual asserting their expertise and implicitly suggesting some greater understanding of the art than the average person, even though we all have eyes and ears.

It’s a role that really shouldn’t exist unless it celebrates the work and it’s potential value to society.  If the work itself is no good then why talk about it at all? Wouldn’t it just add more noise to something that isn’t worthwhile to begin with?

Conversation and debate, more so than criticism, should arise from the ideas suggested by the art, and not dwell on whether the work is any good.  Any real complaint or criticism, then, would still manage to stimulate further discussion instead of stifling it.

“Never use a long word where a short one will do.”
-George Orwell

I can’t help but notice how these critics are a lot like some religious leaders who take a universal experience, plainly accessible to everyone, and suggest that their perspective on it is somehow more credible than our own, that they are more aware of its complexities–even though these are typically complexities of their own creation.

Most of them have never made a film, written a novel, composed music, or contributed anything to the field in which they claim expertise.  What they have done is invent a vocabulary, spontaneously and without any great need for one, a lexicon uniquely tailored to the craft, to a collective experience, that only further reinforces the illusion that they understand it more deeply than we do.

Jargon complicates the experience for the layman, reserving it for the elites who invent the language, evidently to perpetuate their own sense of self-importance.

In the late 1940s, William Faulkner criticized Ernest Hemingway for his terse style of writing, his limited choice of words.

“He has no courage, has never crawled out on a limb,” Faulkner said. “He has never been known to use a word that might cause the reader to check with a dictionary to see if it is properly used.”

When Hemingway heard about the criticism, he had his own choice words for Faulkner.

“Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words? He thinks I don’t know the ten-dollar words. I know them all right. But there are older and simpler and better words, and those are the ones I use.”

Very often I’ve met people who find art overwhelming, even intimidating, just like they do poetry and certain types of music, like jazz or classical, because they feel it goes over their head.  They get discouraged by their seeming inability to figure out what the artist is trying to say, as if there’s some great big point to it they cannot grasp.

Ultimately it’s a product of our own making.  We’ve cultivated a whole industry that assumes the right to decide for everyone else what is good and what is bad, even though there has never been a science in determining something like that, and suggesting otherwise only reinforces the idea of there being some secret language to understanding it in the first place, a language reserved only for the esoteric few instead of the many.

There is no big secret, or code, or convoluted way.  The language is universal.  There is only the reaction, our own individual connections to the art, every bit as legitimate as the reactions of the self-proclaimed scholars.

I emphasize this because, in this magazine, we’ll be talking about music and films and painting and all kinds of art that we enjoy here at Quinby & Co. We’ll be talking about why we enjoy it too.

We will never be talking about something just so that we can give it a bad review and shoot it down.  If you hear any kind of criticism, it will more often address a specific point we feel the work in question is making, one that we feel has broader societal and philosophical implications.

If anything, it will try and stimulate debate not on the merit of the work but on the larger points that we have interpreted from it.  Most often, it will be a conversation over ideas.  We are not experts here, but we are passionate about telling good stories that resonate with people, about the tradition of telling stories and understanding why, since the dawn of man, we’ve even bothered to do it all.

To that point, we’d like to emphasize our belief that any work of art that stimulates such discussion is still, at the very least, something worthwhile.  Something worth experiencing.  In our humble opinion, it makes for a significant contribution to the times in which we live.

Issue #2 / Quinby & Co.