Once upon a time, a generation ago or so, classical music was far closer to everyday life than it is now. We all know this, I’m sure. But it’s good to be reminded. So here are four quick appearances of classical music in the popular culture of the past.
The Birds (the classic Hitchcock film, released in 1963): Tippi Hedren, the star, playing a woman in her 20s, visits a normal middle-class family, husband, wife, 11 year-old daughter. The family has a piano. Hedren sits down and plays Debussy’s First Arabesque, which isn’t identified, any more than her playing is remarked on in any way. Nobody says, “Oh, you play classical music.” It’s just taken or granted that she might.
Laura (the classic noir — or, more accurately, semi-noir — thriller, released in 1944): Vincent Price, playing a high-society type who appears to be in his early thirties (Price himself was 33 when the film was released), is a suspect in a murder case. Where was he, the detective asks, on the night of the murder? At a concert, he says. What music was played? Brahms’s First and Beethoven’s Ninth, he replies. And whether a concert program like that makes sense, or would have been heard back then, the fact that he’s at a classical concert is simply taken for granted. There’s nothing special about it. Of course he might have been there.
House Dick (a hard-boiled mystery thriller by E. Howard Hunt — yes, the Watergate burglar, though that doesn’t matter for my purposes here, and he turns out to be quite a sharp writer): The world-weary hotel detective, banged around by life, attracted to the wrong kind of women, has had a hard day. He goes home, and listens to Brahms on the radio. This is just a throwaway reference, nothing special about it, no need to explain why a tough ex-cop would listen to classical music. He just did it. The book was published in 1961.
And now my favorite, an extravagant interlude from Skylark Three, the second (despite the “three”) in a trilogy of science fiction novels by E. E. “Doc” Smith, the greatest name in the great old tradition of “space opera,” stories in which evil aliens plot destruction, planets explode, and the laws of physics are pretty much ignored. This book was serialized in Amazing Stories magazine in 1930.
For our purposes here, it doesn’t matter why two married couples in their twenties are traveling through space, many times faster than the speed of light, saving the galaxy from a ghastly threat. Or why one of them plays a Strad. But here they are, entertaining themselves in a rare quiet moment:
“What say [says the hero, Richard Seaton] you girls get your fiddle and guitar and we’ll sing us a little song? I feel good…it’s the first time I’ve felt like singing since we cut that warship up.”
Dorothy brought out her “fiddle” — the magnificent Stradivarius, formerly Crane’s, which he had given her, and they sang one rollicking number after another. Though by no means a Metropolitan Opera quartette, their voices were all better than mediocre, and they had sung together so much that they harmonized readily.
“Why don’t you play us some real music, Dottie?” asked Margaret, after a time. “You haven’t practiced for ages.”
“Right. This quartette of ours ain’t so hot,” agreed Seaton. “If we had any audience except Shiro [their Japanese servant, an ethnic stereotype from a thankfully bygone age], they’d probably be throwing eggs by this time.”
“I haven’t felt like playing lately, but I do now,” and Dorothy stood up and swept the bow over the strings. Doctor of Music in violin, an accomplished musician, playing upon one of the finest instruments the world has ever known, she was lifted out of herself by relief from the dread of the Fenachrone invasion and the splendid violin expressed every subtle nuance of her thought.
She played rhapsodies and paeans, and solos by the great masters. She played vivacious dances, then “Traumerei” and “Liebestraum.” At last she swept into the immortal “Meditation” [this would be by Massenet, the "Meditation" from Thais], and as the last note died away Seaton held out his arms.
“You’re a blinding flash and a deafening report, Dottie Dimple, and I love you,” he declared — and his eyes and his arms spoke volumes that his light utterance had left unsaid.”
It’s sweet that she plays light classics, which Doc Smith reveres as if they were the greatest masterworks. But note that these aren’t culturally fancy people. Great scientists the men might be, and galaxy-spanning warriors, but as the dialogue shows, these are colloquial people (well, three of them are — Seaton’s buddy Crane is adorably stiff), in their behavior perfectly normal twentysomethings from their time. But classical music (which, if my memory is accurate, shows up just twice in the Skylark trilogy, is an easy part of their lives.