July 11, 2015 12 Comments
I wonder whether I would have gotten through high school without having had classical music as a refuge. Why did I need consolation back then? Oh, I was always falling in love with some pretty face or other and usually made hash of it. The real knockout girls were all taken by the boys on the basketball and football teams. For the most part, they ignored us puny mesomorphs.
The Hippie girls wore army fatigues and smoked which was a turn off. The average girls whom I’d known since second grade were friendly, but they were almost like sisters and you couldn’t date them because of that. (They’d seen me throw up in seventh grade during math class!) That left the smart pretty girls, who seemed mature beyond their years and therefore tended to act aloof.
The smart girls, I imagine, were probably at war with their own raging hormones. Numerous studies have shown that girls in all-girls schools do better academically than those in mixed-sex schools. When they’re in co-ed schools, peer pressure and competition with boys (who are often rewarded by teachers-consciously or unconsciously-for being aggressive) they tend to dumb themselves down. The two times I tried dating smart girls in high school, I took one to a symphony concert and the other to an “intellectual” movie. Both dates went well, I thought, but I botched it on the goodnight kiss, and the girls ignored me after that.
What an inefficient way to continue a species!
We were all just fumbling around, and when you’re being jerked around by peer pressure and hormones, it’s so easy to get hurt or hurt the very person who, ten years later, probably would turn out to the be the perfect match for you, after you’d both matured a bit.
One day in high school, for example, on a visit to the local public library to get a refill of classical music, I bumped into a classmate of mine, Jeff E**. Jeff had a perfect grade point average and was in the top ten per cent of the class academically (he’s now a doctor). I think his brother had been the valedictorian the year before. At the library that day, his kid sister was with him. I didn’t know her that well, but she seemed pleasant enough. I noticed that she carried a few classical albums under her arm.
Wow, I thought, we both like classical music. I bet we’d have a lot to talk about. So for the first time, and one of the last times in my life, I used a line on a girl.
“Hey,” I said, “Do you like classical music, too?” I asked.
She fixed me with a cold eye and said: “I like serious music, classical time period. Then she turned on her heel and walked away. I imagine she still bemoans her cutting me to the quick twenty-five years ago. Not.
One album I used to console myself with after such rejections was Alan Hovhaness’ Mysterious Mountain. The library had a copy, which I used to check out quite often. Though composed in 1955, it sounds wonderfully unlike the “dissonant” atonal and anti-tonal music that was created during the middle part of the 20th century by mainstream “serious” composers. It is wonderfully orchestrated and though sounding somewhat oriental and using interesting chordal structures; it is very accessible indeed.
It is in three movements, the first of which always galvanized me when I heard it. It has a floating, airy feel to it, sounding a bit like a climb up a mountain. The strings accompany a solo horn then oboe which plays a kind of ethereal melody. To add to the mystery, a glockenspiel tinkles away at various points. The second movement starts out with a nice fugue which rolls along under its own steam as fugues do. Suddenly the orchestra resolves the feeling of that section and then launches into an incredibly fast, driving outpouring of notes lead by the strings. A rainstorm on the mountain, perhaps. The last movement starts out slowly with an eastern sounding melody played by the strings with a kind of Wagnerian chordal drone played by the horns in underneath. That drone is also heard in the first and second movements as well and that must symbolize the massiveness and solidity of the mountain. The piece ends up with a beautiful, spiritual sounding hymn, and then brings back the tinkling and solo horn from the first movement.
Oddly enough, though it has an oriental feel to it–which I think might be a result of Hovhaness’ Scotch-Armenian background or his love of 15th and 16th century polyphony–I do not find this piece sad. Maybe it’s the spiritual dimension. Hovhaness said, commenting on the piece, that “mountains are symbolic meeting places between the mundane and the spiritual worlds.” Some people are soothed by things spiritual, some galvanized, but all are energized. And that is why I think it qualifies for today’s piece.