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Corona’s 'Cadenza Fermata': Classical music in the time of quarantine

that's what she said

These past few months, my greatest fulfillment at home—aside from hopping onto the quarantine baking bandwagon and finally starting books I hadn’t had time to read—has been a heightened appreciation for classical music. 

You seem skeptical, perhaps amused. But hear me out. 

Classical music has been a part of my life for the better part of 14 years. I made my first friends through piano studio recitals, built confidence through winning competitions, and learned the values of tenacity and resilience from my equal share of not winning. Some of my friends make fun of me for my 8+ hour classical music playlist, which is filled with pieces that range from 90 seconds to over 40 minutes. 

You may be inclined to ask, “why listen to such antiquated stuff when you could watch an episode of Psych or bake and eat an entire tray of cookies?” I never knew where to begin when I was bombarded with these types of questions, and my attempts to justify myself always inevitably became an incoherent ramble. 

But then came coronavirus. The slowdown caused by quarantine has allowed me not only to reevaluate my relationship with classical music, but to redefine it. In light of this, I thought I’d take the time and try and formulate a better answer for those who are intrigued by my taste in music. 

With all our favorite stores closed around the nation, people aren’t able to consume at the same extent that they once took for granted. According to NPR, consumer spending dropped by more than 13 percent nationally this past April, the steepest drop since the government began keeping records of it more than 60 years ago. This unprecedented decline in ability and willingness to spend has caused some of us to confront the fact that many of our frivolous spending habits are based more so on impulse rather than genuine need. 

What’s worse, we’ve actually had blatant warning signs strewn across society for quite some time; one such example is the contrast between classical and contemporary music. A lot of today’s popular music seem to establish its emotional connection with audiences through lyrics; the singer’s voice is usually more prominent than the accompanying music, and even when the instrumentation does get a quick solo, it’s usually just a spruced up, perhaps modulated, version of a motif already featured earlier in the song. Listeners don’t have to dig deep to grasp the meaning behind a song: the singer is practically crying it out to you, with a thudding bass and nice electronically programmed motifs for support.

Classical music, on the other hand, requires a more settled and intentional focus on instrumentation. Every note matters, from the music’s first note, which signals the key — and thus tone — of the piece, to the leap from that note to the second: is it a small tip-toe upwards that conveys jocularity and playfulness, or a giant interval leap that represents a struggle and yearning? Everything, from the sheer size of an orchestra to the width of a piano keyboard, is a visual scream at the audience for them to listen carefully to the multitude of overlapping melodies, and the stories that each one tells. 

Composers take careful advantage of the attention their works demand from audiences; some even do so with a whimsical twist. For instance, the great German composer Johann Sebastian Bach created a four-note motif that spells out his name: B♭- A - C - B♮ (in German musical nomenclature, B-flat is named B, while B-natural is named H). This motif is featured in several of Bach’s own pieces, such as his The Art of Fugue collection, and has also been used by an abundance of later composers, including Schumann, Liszt, Brahms, and Schoenberg. 

But classical music offers more than just clever cryptograms. Even before coronavirus, our lives have already been radically transformed by a multitude of unprecedented events; many of us are now trying to enter the workforce amid the recession created by the pandemic. These setbacks compel our generation to care more about how corporations and governments are working to better our communities. With everything from our protests for racial equality to the general increase in ESG-focused company investing, we are redefining what it means to be successful and happy. 

Quarantine presents us the opportunity to make these same considerations for our personal lives. Many are choosing to take this time to explore hobbies and forgotten pastimes; some are doing soul searching through music. A recent New York Times article details the phenomenon of piano sales trends across the U.S. throughout the coronavirus pandemic; despite retailers’ initial concerns of a brutal financial winter, companies have actually seen quite the opposite. The Yamaha company saw a 60% rise in pianos sold this past April compared to the same time last year. Between 20-25% of its sales have been from first-time buyers.

Music offers a unique and personal sort of solace to all, regardless of how these difficult times have impacted us. Classical music should speak to us now more than ever—its works have stood the test of time, and the sentiments it evokes have resonated with generations of people—each of whom had a distinct set of hopes, dreams, struggles, and ambitions. Listening to Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony lets me experience the same spark of inspiration and optimism that the people of Leningrad felt when their city was under siege during World War II. Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Ballet theme conveys a sense of elegance and nonchalance that takes listeners out of our quarantine-styled oversized tees and pajama pants on Zoom calls to the refined grace of 19th-century ballrooms. 

Quarantine in particular has given our generation the singular opportunity to find these same primal connections for ourselves, something which the typical hectic lives we usually live does not afford us. For those of us who are able to, we should take advantage of this slowdown in life to appreciate these delicate details around us — the sidenotes to the story of life. Instead of frantically stressing about deadlines and places to be, I can now admire the sunset over my neighborhood, watch my challah bread rise in the oven, or fully appreciate that hour-long symphony in one sitting. While we stay at home contemplating what it means to be happy, free, or human, classical music touches the depths of our souls in a way that I believe no other art form or thing in the world can do. 

Angela Wu is a Trinity sophomore. Her column "that's what she said" runs on alternate Tuesdays.

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