For most people, their first exposure to classical music is in school, where there’s limited time for explanation, and we are, let’s face it, young and impatient.
“Here, listen to this, it’s Beethoven.” Da-da-da-dummmmmm.
If you listen to music without knowing what it’s about or what to listen for, it might just sound like a bunch of notes. It’s like listening to a lecture on the most interesting topic you can think of, given in a language you don’t understand. Sure, you might catch a thing or two, but it’s bound to be snooze-inducing. Music no less so. Especially if you’re used to the three-minute song. Especially if you’re listening in a dark concert hall (oops—no, no, I was just listening to the music with my eyes closed, really). Here is Peter Schickele’s humorous answer to this problem.
But the same could be said for rap or any other genre of music. If you don’t know where it’s coming from, you don’t know where it’s going. If you can’t follow it, if no one gives you directions or landmarks, you get lost, and frustrated. No fun at all. Boring.
So how do you know what to listen for? If you have a cd, look at the liner notes. There are a number of books, especially those on building a music library, that discuss individual works. There’s our not-so-old friend, the Internet, with podcasts and lectures and reviews. Reading a little about the composer’s life can be enlightening too, and sometimes a little sordid (I’ll be writing about Gesualdo soon, but look him up if you want a preview). Warning, some of these folks are Not Safe For Work! So, not boring.
But back to my headline. My Heart Swims in Blood is actually the title of a Bach cantata (Mein Herze schwimmt im Blut, BWV 199). Bach was not one to shy away from powerful language and imagery or the theme of death. There are times when you can hear raw emotion, pain, regret, despair in the music. It is far from boring. The translation below is mine:
Mein Herze schwimmt im Blut;
Weil mich die Sünden Brut
In Gottes heil’gen Augen
Zum Ungeheuer macht.
Und mein Gewissen fuhlet Pein,
Weil mir die Sünden nichts
Als Höllenhenker sein.
My heart swims in blood,
For my spawning sins
Make me a monster
In God’s holy eyes.
And my conscience is in agony,
For my sins are nothing but
Ready to listen now? Don’t run away; if you listen long enough, you come to a sublime point of reconciliation, acceptance, and joy. And Bach could write joy like no one else, before or since. Here is the full cantata BWV 199. Here are the words.