In The Day the Earth Stood Still, there are two moments we might think about, for the future of classical music. (And, by the way, I think it’s better than most of the critics thought, though maybe I’m just a sucker for sentiment, and it certainly has really dumb lapses in logic and common sense.)
(Spoilers follow, though if you know science fiction and watch the first 20 minutes or so of the film, I doubt you’ll be surprised by anything I reveal, especially if you’ve seen the original.)
The first moment comes when Keanu Reeves, as the alien Klaatu, visits a Nobel prizewinning scientist with a deeply humane view of life. (And who offers an elementary historical insight that somehow escaped the venerable galactic civilization that Reeves represents.) In the background, on the scientist’s stereo, we hear a recording of the Goldberg Variations. “What’s that?” asks Reeves. “Bach,” says Jennifer Connely. “It’s beautiful,” says Reeves, utterly detached, but also utterly rapt. (Here and elsewhere, he comes off as plausibly alien, and that’s one of the movie’s strengths.) But this is one of the film’s many small turning points. Reeves, as the story progresses, develops some sympathy for us poor humans, and Bach helps him do that. Score one for classical music.
The second moment comes earlier in the film. Reeves lands on earth in a huge glowing sphere, and when he comes out, surrounded by police and the military, somebody panics and shoots him. Who? We never find out. Everything we learn, in fact, is elliptical, contained in two quick sentences, unobtrusively thrown into the film as the armed presence gathers around the sphere. “Who has jurisdiction here?” asks a New York cop. “What are the rules of engagement?” asks a miltary guy, a few minutes later.
So evidently nobody knows who’s in charge, and nobody knows the rules. Not surprising, then, that somebody shoots. But note how this just gets slipped in, and left for us to figure out, which we easily do, drawing on everything we’ve seen in films before, and everything we’ve learned from real life. (Remember the command and commication problems between police and firefighters during 9/11?)
That’s typical of current movies — to move, for a moment, from the sweetly silly to something really serious, last night I watched “Four Months, Three Weeks and Two Days,” an intense, stark, and rigorous Romanian film that’s about Communist politics, but hardly mentions anything political, and centers on a dangerous illegal abortion, without ever telling us, until we see it happening, though by then we’ve figured out for ourselves what’s going on. A 1950s science fiction film would spell out everything that happens; now we’re smarter and more experienced, and both we and filmmakers comfortably make quick, elliptical leaps.
And what does this have to do with classical music? Because much of the classical repertoire comes from the age of spelling things out — or more generally the age when things were really obvious — and thus can seem quaint to people coming to it for the first time. And yes, I can come up with exceptions just as well as anyone who’ll post disagreeements with what I’m saying (we’re never told very much, for instance, about what landed Florestan in prison in Fidelio). But still you’ll see new operagoers coming out of Tosca (as someone I know once did), saying “That was dumb! I knew he was going to be shot for real.”
And yes, we can say — I hope not too smugly — that those people failed to grasp the power of the music, but on the other hand, they reacted (and I think quite reasonably) exactly as they’d react to an old movie on TV. I rewatched Laura a couple of weeks ago, and sure, I know the strengths (starting with Otto Preminger’s direction) that make it rewatchable, but I also smiled affectionately at much of it, and (spoiler alert) can’t imagine that many people seeing it for the first time wouldn’t quickly figure out out that Clifton Webb is the murderer.
Thus we respect old movies, but also see what makes them old. In classical music, we’re in effect told not to do this. Tosca has to be a masterpiece (unless you follow Joseph Kerman and think, in his words, that it’s nothing more than a “shabby little shocker”), as powerful now as it was when it was new. Life, however, has moved on, and if we keep saying such things, the audience we hope to attract will move on, too.
And now a footnote about aliens and Bach. Why is Keanu Reeves so impressed? Well, of course the Goldberg Variations are pretty wonderful, but Bach carries with him an air of greatness, and of universality. Or rather our reaction to him includes those things. As the friend I saw the movie with said (he’s a composer), Bach is both emotional and profoundly structured (he said it better than that; I wish I could remember his exact words), so he communicates directly to us, but also stands above everyday life. Thus he plausibly represents everything great about humanity.
Or, rather, he represents that inside the present-day version of western culture. Music, we should have learned by now, is anything but a universal language. Someone who grew up a couple of generations ago in India, immersed in Indian music, without exposure to western music, might find Bach unintelligible. The idea that an alien would respond to Bach the way we do is sweet, but not very plausible.
And, from a global earthly perspective, why Bach? Suppose the scientist had been playing Indian music, something profound but non-western. “Beautiful,” Keanu Reeves might just as plausibly (or implausibly) murmur, but an American audience might say, “No, that’s weird.” Or they could have used shakuhachi music from Japan, which even for many people in the west now sounds meditative, peaceful, Zen-like, profound. That’s even become a cliché. “Beautiful,” murmurs Reeves, recognizing the same otherwordly calm that his own race has attained.
Or what if the scientist was playing some blues? Robert Johnson, most likely. “Beautiful,” Reeves murmurs, now suffused with compassion for human suffering. “No!” silently scream some of the people watching the film. “The emotions in the blues aren’t universal! That’s music of a particular time and place, of a particular people.”
But then so is Bach. Play the Goldberg Variations around 1850 in Italy, and maybe even in Paris, and one common reaction would have been, “Yuck! German music!” Or read Hanslick’s review of a 19th century performance of the St. Matthew Passion. Of course he recognized that the piece is a masterwork, but he also — acutely responding to Bach’s very dour Lutheran theology — found it gloomy and dark.
We’ve promoted Bach to universality, but that’s only in our minds. And we’re taking a very partial view of Bach, of music, and of culture.