I’m obsessed with podcasts and besotted with Radio Lab. Their recent Speedy Beet episode really churned up my mind.
If you don’t have time to listen now, here’s the summary. Beethoven’s metronome markings (indicating the speed at which the composer indicated his music should be played) are freakishly fast. And as you might suspect, musicologists have many theories as to why. One of those theories is that he knew they couldn’t be played that quickly, but that he never wanted them to sound too comfortable.
I don’t know that it’s true, but I want to believe it is. There are a million reasons that “classical” music – as recently as a half-century ago still a part of our cultural identity – has been sidelined, and the retreat to comfort and safety is one of them. I have neither the expertise nor the time to tease out the complex cause-and-effect dance that landed us here, and I’m not sure that where we are is a completely a bad place to be. But I do reserve the right to rail against being too cautious and to fear what might happen if we don’t spend at least a little time outside our comfort zone.
Stravinsky famously said, in response to a musician who said that what he had written was too hard to play, “You don’t understand. What I want is the sound of someone trying to play this.” (Emphasis mine.) Is that what we crave? In opera, this largest and most audacious of musical forms, do we prefer the sound of someone hitting all of the marks or the sound of someone trying to achieve the impossible?