Everything you've been "taught" tells you to hate it. No one tells you to listen to it, but you do anyway, because you think "I can learn something from anything, be it what to do or what not to do."
So, you listen. The opening line is kitschy, tonal, simple. The orchestral tutti later is trite. The section that follow is done as block chords a la a hymn. Everything you've been "taught" tells you that you shouldn't like. There's even a fugue, a simply created fugue, not a double mensuration canon, just a straight forward fugue, constructed well enough. Not as impressive as Bach. The orchestration is the standard Romantic fair, almost formulaic in its accumulation. A trumpet hits the melody just before the next tutti. You want to groan. Everything you've been taught says you shouldn't like this piece.
And, maybe, most other days you wouldn't like it. But today, you're listening because other people told you how new music is dead, how it's not complex enough while citing Beethoven as the example. You tuned in after reading blogs and articles all morning discussing what's wrong with symphonies, what is the American symphony, criticism of every style possible, the symphonic music, in general, is a complete waste of time and money. You pulled up this piece because you knew exactly what it was--the title said it all. You knew the composer, and could guess exactly what would happen.
Even as the first movement ends with block chords, timpani rolls, bells chiming, you're wondering why you haven't shut it off. The second movement kicks in--a jig. Less Irish and more American barn dance. You don't even bother looking at the title: knowing the composer it's probably titled after the tempo. The violins are fiddlin' away. Now you're really thinking "I should really hate this right now." Then brass blaring repeated chords, chimes, and a forlorn English horn melody. It's a late enough piece you wonder how much film music played into the creation of the piece--less Korngold and more John Williams. Another trumpet solo with undulating strings. Your stomach is what should be undulating...but still, you listen. Are you waiting for the train wreck? Like the piece from a few days ago which was so horrific you forwarded it to all your friends with the title "BEST.PIECE.EVER!" much like you pranked them with Tough Guys Don't Dance? Meanwhile a piccolo starts a duet with the English horn. This is the first moment you shudder, mainly from the thought of "Oh God, no, not a piccolo" but it doesn't destroy your ears as you thought. It's almost...pleasant? As the brass come in blaring the melody you start to wonder about the construction: so much direct repetition of a single melody is offense 1 in any composition course. Development, development, development! We're even told the minimalists developed ideas, just a single idea.
The strings break your wandering thoughts, cascading lines--another barn dance. Canonic. The bass drum, timpani, and chimes spell out the underlying pulse. Your foot is tapping. Why in the name of...Seriously, why is your foot tapping! This should have you on the floor gasping for breath, wishing someone would turn off the racket. But, you don't reach to turn it off. You're listening as the whole group spirals out of control till the brass enter, predictably. The tuba player shines, somehow becoming your focus. Who focuses on the tuba at a time like this? They release the chord and you're starting to wonder if your sanity is gone...
Harp, oboe, strings. No one writes for harp these days. You used to think there was good reason, but now you're wondering why not? And you're trying to remember the pedalings and realize you don't write for harp because it terrifies you...and you're afraid no harpist would play what you wrote. Strings in canon again. That's at least three times the composer has used canons as a transition--there were probably a few more but they slipped by you. The harp and oboe come back, simple melody, repetitive accompaniment. You should be reaching to turn it off because you just know the fourth movement will start off with...
A chorale. Yes, the chorale has returned. You knew it even before the first notes were played. There was no excitement in realizing you were right--the musical guessing game ending before this piece even began. Canon, again with the canons. You're finally starting to dislike the piece, but only a little. You're starting to wonder "If I was an orchestra conductor, would I program this? I think I would." As the basses and cellos move their stepwise bassline you're wondering how much flak you'd take for programming this piece, and if you'd even care. The audience might like it, as it's more Mendelssohn than Lachenmann. Then you wonder if you could program it with a Lachenmann piece...All the while the chorale is still going in the background, orchestrational pairings are just as you'd expect then horns holding a chord. Then pizzicato strings...then...oboe? What is the oboe playing? What mode is that? The line is being passed through the woodwinds. This passage you really shouldn't like. It's reached the point of buffoonery--there's not one ounce of development, just theme to theme to theme, repetition, canon, orchestrational change. Everything you've learned says this is a lesser piece. You know it's a lesser piece. It's backwards thinking. This piece came out around the same time as Christopher Rouse's Gorgon, and it's about as far an antithesis as can exist.
Another theme. Related? Back at the dance. A canonic entrance of voices, the first few notes repeated. The closest thing to development that's happened the whole piece. Even the second half of the melody is just a transposition of the first phrase. The brass enter with their chorale one more time because "Why not?". There's a sudden harmonic shift. It's jarring...At this point you must be sitting there because you've made it the first 30 minutes so what's another three at this point? That has to be the reason. Orchestral tutti of the chorale. The final chords...was that I-V7-I? Crescendo and release...
You sit for a minute, stunned. You just listened to a 33 minute piece that all your schooling said "dislike this." It was kitschy--oh golly was it kitschy. You hate kitsch. It was trite...or was it? Something didn't feel trite about it. Folk style themes for an orchestra in an unadulterated manner usually equals trite...right?
You're still thinking about it. You're not reaching for Berio, Ligeti, or Ferneyhough. Not even going for Shostacovich. Just the fan is your accompaniment.
Why don't you hate this piece? If you listen tomorrow, you probably will. Your gut says that two listenings may be too many. There's not enough substance there. Heck, even a Lost Prophets song takes more than one listening just to get all the words...But, right now, you don't hate it. You kind of liked it. May the contemporary composition gods forgive you, you kind of liked it. This was Mendelssohn with a large orchestra. This.is.not.the.music.of.1985. It is not the music of now. It's a music of yesteryear.
And you're ok with it. You click back over to Naxos and start looking for more American symphonies written after 1980. That's your listening for today. But it sticks with you...
This piece that, by all accounts, by all learning, by your own goddamn taste, you should hate.
And you're happy you listened to the whole thing, gave the music a real chance. It seems like many
The piece, some might be wondering? Alan Hovhaness' Symphony No. 60 "To the Appalachian Mountains." Couldn't find a video, but it's on Naxos.
And I know I'll hate it tomorrow. But, for today, I'm alright with myself.
That is the essence of an open mind.