Here’s something — in the spirit of finding meaning in classical music, and also in keeping sight of the reasons we love it — that classical music does, and non-classical music can’t.
It’s a wonderful moment in the last act of Wagner’s Siegfried. Siegfried has come through the fire, and emerged on the mountaintop where Brünnhilde lies sleeping. The music that shows him braving the fire — an interlude between the first and second scenes of the last act — is irrepressibly Wagnerian, huge, grand, and unmistakable. I once walked by a classroom where students were taking a final exam in a music appreciation course. They had to identify the composers of passages their teacher played for them on records. One was this interlude. The students laughed when they heard it; the composer couldn’t have been more obvious.
But when the curtain rises again, and Siegfried emerges on the mountaintop, everything changes. The music grows quiet, and at last there’s a long passage for the first violins alone, 23 measures in slow tempo (with the trombones playing softly in two of them, but that only emphasizes how quiet the violins are on their own). The violins rise high, soft and alone. Nothing could better evoke the bright light and stillness of the mountaintop, and nothing could be more economically written. No need for the lavish colors of the full orchestra; Wagner makes his point with just violins.
As a musical analyst, I might draw a moral here about Wagner. He’s famously lavish, but he also can be intimate. Along with this passage from Siegfried, I might cite the first scene of Die Walküre, where for an enormously long time the music is quiet and hesitant, written only for strings (and not even the entire string section, since much of the time the contrabasses don’t play) and two horns. And then there’s his mastery of detail. The Tristan prelude is of course a deep surge of passion, but it’s also a treasury of meticulous workmanship. I remember having a reaction like Ysaÿe’s (see my last post) when I first heard it as a teenager. Now I’m just as likely to be overcome by Wagner’s craft, the intricate but always clear weaving of the instrumental lines, when I look at the full score.
But if I want to explain what classical music can do, I might look at something else — the Siegfried moment in its context. I can imagine someone writing a pop song about a mountaintop, and arranging it for just his or her own singing voice, with no accompaniment, as a way of conveying more or less what Wagner does. It could work beautifully. But because classical music develops over time, the Wagner passage can be more surprising, and in a way more eloquent, because it contrasts so much with what came before it (and then, looking forward, with what will come next). It becomes part of what’s arguably a more complex experience, with the mountaintop all the more vivid because it emerges in world that has more than mountains.
I guess the pop song could do that, too, because it exists in a world of many pop songs, almost all of which have instruments along with the voice. It, too, could make a quiet statement about its context. But the Siegfried passage might do that more vividly, since the context is part of the same musical experience.
Classical music isn’t better than pop (or jazz, or world music). But it’s certainly different.