I wrote this essay for Artslandia, Portland's arts magazine, at the start of the fall season in 2015. It's a defense of "old repertoire" and what the great composers can still offer us.
I’m going to faint.
We are standing like cattle in a holding pen at the back of Vienna’s gilded concert hall, the Musikverein. As lowly students, too broke to buy seats, we crane our necks, shoulder to shoulder, breathing air that is hot and lifeless.
But from the stage, miracles float our way. We are following Schubert down long winding paths, transfixed by the pianist Alfred Brendel — jutting chin, black curls atoss — throwing light and shade over the composer’s last three monumental sonatas.
And then a woman actually faints. It’s a little hard to tell at first. We are standing so tightly, she remains upright for a while.
But we are definitely slumping while Schubert’s beauty runs over us.
Brendel’s thundering chords and death-still tone are devastating, humbling, exhilarating. Despite the heat and slumping, Schubert/Brendel show me possibilities of spectacularness the way Nabakov’s Vasili Ivanovich describes in the short story “Cloud, Castle, Lake”:
Without reasoning, without considering, only entirely surrendering
to an attraction the truth of which consisted in its own strength, a
strength which he had never experienced before, Vasili in one
radiant second realized that here in this room with that view,
beautiful to the verge of tears, life would at last be what he had
always wished it to be…
This is Schubert’s gift: Life as we wish it to be.
Old music gets a bad rap, these days. Symphony orchestras and opera houses perform the same old stuff. Superstars play a perpetual glamour game of greatest hits. Jet streams of Vivaldi circle the globe.
The music doesn’t wear out, but our capacity for awe does.
So here’s a radical thought: Let’s reclaim it.
Ah, but how?
The old-fashioned way. Not with YouTube or an Xbox or a touchscreen, but with our hearts and imaginations.
The trick to recapturing awe is to imagine you’re hearing something new. Get past the marketing buzz and the personalities and savor as if for the first time a melody, a rhythm, a harmony. A phrase, a crescendo, a repetition. Listen for a story, a narrative.
Yes, new music nourishes us, too. Oregon composer Robert Kyr’s haunting oratorio, "A Time for Life," is a profound plea to heal the earth. It is of the moment, yet it synthesizes modern and ancient modes with tender, rapturous lyricism.
John Luther Adams astonishes audiences with his lush, 40-minute seascape, “Become Ocean,” which won last year’s Pulitzer Prize.
Portland composer Kenji Bunch riffs on Americana rhythms and textures that hurtle us out of our seats with delight.
These works feel fresh, vital, mavericky.
Our culture prizes fresh, vital, mavericky. We covet the latest gadgets and devour new books, plays, films, art and dance. We train our gaze ever forward. But, while I, too, roll my eyes at yet another Beethoven Ninth Symphony, let’s blame marketing, not Beethoven. Six seconds of “Porgi amor” still stops me cold.
Why do we need Mozart? Because he expresses extremes of life — affirmation, despair, delight, emptiness — sometimes in a single phrase. The slow movement of Piano Concerto No. 21 (“Elvira Madigan”) lulls us into a trance. The finale of the “Jupiter” Symphony surges in triumph.
We still need lulling and surging.
What fills me with awe is when a pianist such as Mitsuko Uchida plays“the thoughts within the notes,” as Jeremy Denk says, “…shading a picture in sound so finely in color and intensity, it forms a landscape in the middle distance.”
Schubert invites us to slow down, to ponder a melody reflected by a dozen different harmonies that change our perception of a tune. He is the music you will hear when you die, Uchida says. A life in all its possibilities.
In our sharp, quick, Instagram lives, we still crave mystery and miracles and these guys give them to us. Embrace them. “We are broadened, not narrowed, by our fandom,” writes Adam Gopnik of The New Yorker.
What a composer is really saying in music, Leonard Bernstein wrote, is, “Has this ever happened to you? Haven’t you experienced this same tone, insight, shock, anxiety, release?”
And when we “like” a piece of music, we are simply saying to the composer, “Yes.”
Late Beethoven — stone-deaf Beethoven — takes us inside a secret. The rise and fall of single notes in the opening of the C-Sharp Minor String Quartet feel like he is revealing something new and hard won. “An unsuspected possibility of the mind, hardly connected to anything we’ve experienced before,” writes the renowned Beethoven writer J.W.N. Sullivan in his “Beethoven: His Spiritual Journey.”
At that Schubert marathon nearly 40 years ago, Schubert gave me the moon, with its wavering reflections of mystery and light and love, as well as fear and sorrow and grief. It helped set me on a life in music and taught me how to stay upright, even when life felt like I was standing in a crowded cattle pen.
Listen anew. Listen afresh. The music deserves that.
“The past is never dead,” William Faulkner said.
Let’s believe him.
David Stabler is a pianist, writer, dad and cyclist. He's working on a novel based on his childhood years living in Africa and rode across America with his brother in 2017.