What a difference a year makes! This time last spring, the existential dread was starting to sink in as we hunkered down for the initial surge of the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, several vaccines are being administered by the hundreds of thousands each day, businesses and schools are beginning to reopen, and there’s a general tone of optimism in the air. Of course, we still have a long way to go to reach normalcy (the multiple COVID variants are slightly worrisome…), but for the time being, hope is on the horizon.
Speaking of hope, another Holy Week is upon us. In April 2020, I created a Holy Week playlist on Spotify (which you can check out here) and enjoyed the process so much that I decided to make an entirely different one this year. This time, though, I had some input from my good friend Geoff Nelson, Director of Liturgy and Worship at New City Presbyterian Church. After some discussion, Geoff and I assembled a 3-hour playlist that brims with some amazing sacred music. Like last year’s version, this one presents an aural “journey” through the days of Holy Week and encompasses a spectrum of classical sounds along the way, from Renaissance polyphony to modern Passion settings. (You can view the lineup below; the Spotify playlist itself can be found at the bottom of this post.)
No matter your creed or belief system, we hope that this music will provide you with peace, hope, and encouragement for this time of year, as we look forward to brighter days in the future.
This is the fourth and final installment of my multiple-part series. You can read the previous parts here, here, and here.
On December 20, 1973, Aaron Copland made a guest appearance on the public television series Day at Night. Within this wide-ranging and lively discussion, one particularly fascinating exchange occurs when the interviewer, James Day, inquires about Copland’s contemporary musical language:
James Day: Why can’t you write in the language of the past?
Aaron Copland: It wouldn’t be natural! Why should we limit ourselves? We have rhythms that Chopin never thought of…. We have a more complex language in one way, a more dissonant language which can express harsh feelings in a more effective way, I think. The language of music is really, you know, advanced with the times and our listeners have to lend their ears in that way.
Day at Night – James Day and Aaron Copland, 1973 (4:57)
While this sentiment sounds great on paper, getting listeners to successfully “lend their ears” to a new piece of music is often easier said than done. As the classical canon began to take hold of Western thinking in the mid-to-late 19th century, a large swath of listeners, critics, and performers grew to prefer music that they already knew and loved—that is, older music instead of newer music. Of course, new pieces continued to be written and performed, but audiences by and large clamored for the familiar, not the new. Plus, anything new had to either fit in with the canonic “mold” or risk derision for being too “out there.”
This fixation on the past continued to dominate concert hall programming throughout the 20th century and persists even to this day. Why is that? On the one hand, we need to keep in mind that, for better or for worse, orchestras, opera houses, and chamber groups are businesses. They have to program works that will spur interest and demand (i.e., draw a sizable audience) and help recoup production and labor costs. What do you think would sell more tickets: a program of big names like Schubert, Mendelssohn, and Rachmaninoff, or a program entirely of works by Kaija Saariaho? If you guessed the former, you’re probably correct. Simply put, Beethoven sells tickets. Anything outside this, not as much.
But it’s not just musical organizations and their business acumen that are driving this almost obsessive reliance on “masterworks” and “classics” of the past. Many classical audiences tend to be apprehensive, or even scared, of anything that’s new or unfamiliar. Some claim to have had terrible experiences with “contemporary” music in the past and make sweeping generalizations that anything written within the last 100 years is garbage. (OK, that’s a really dumb hyperbole, but you get the picture.) Other listeners are willing to “suffer” through a concert that features a new work, so long as they get their Brahms on the other side. (More on this in a sec.) These attitudes can also crop up with pieces composed in the 20th century. Several years ago, I heard some concert attendees speak disparagingly about Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra, which is pretty strange considering the work was composed in 1943 and is neither “new” nor “difficult.”