What year is it?


Maurice Chevalier stars in a movie called The Smiling Lieutenant. His costars are Miriam Hopkins, who plays his wife, and Claudette Colbert, a much more worldly woman, with whom he has a fling. Colbert knows that her affair can’t last, so she teaches Hopkins how to hold her man, with advice on clothing, hair, and music. Hopkins plays the piano, old-fashioned pieces like “The Maiden’s Prayer.” Colbert teaches her to play some jazz, demonstrating in a lively song, which she both plays on the piano and sings. Hopkins tries to sing along, but her voice is stuffy, old, and classical. “Not like that!” says Colbert. “That was good in 1850!”


American Express runs a radio commercial for a gift certificate. Various kinds of music play, classical and pop. Then the announcer explains why you should buy someone a gift certificate, instead of a CD. “You know he likes music. But you don’t know from which century.”

So classical music sounds today like music of the past — and it sounded the same way in 1931. The perception of it hasn’t changed in 70 years. How can we make it sound like music of the present?

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