On Seagulls and Purcell

Sterna_albifronsRecently, I was at the dentist’s for my biannual checkup.  As I was sitting in the waiting room and then having my teeth cleaned in the chair, I noticed that the office was piping in classical music over the radio as “relaxing” background music.  Since I am not a big fan of hearing hard rock in the doctor’s office (which happens quite often), I was thrilled to hear healthy — albeit unpopular, by today’s standards — music played in a public venue.  Indeed, as the office intended, it promoted a much less stressful ambiance for me and the other patients.  Still, as I listened to the strains of Handel, Bach, and other Baroque masters flowing out of the speakers on the ceiling, I noticed that the music was highly stimulating my brain, causing it to become very active and evoking emotional responses in me.  Why is this so, if this music was designated to relax as others claim?

In reality, the Baroque masters did not intend their music to be treated as relaxing, suitable for dinner or office usage.  In fact, according to Judy Tarling in The Weapons of Rhetoric:  A Guide for Musicians and Audiences, “The ubiquitous use of music written in the rhetorical style (Brandenburg Concertos, Vivaldi’s ‘Four Seasons’) as ‘easy listening’ background music in the shopping mall, lift or supermarket is disturbing and devalues its rhetorical worth.” (Page iv)  Tarling continues on by noting that even though some music of the period was used as background music, it was nonetheless appropriately tailored such that it would not be too taxing on the audience’s emotions.  In other words, composers wrote music specifically intended for this purpose.  Take Telemann’s Tafelmusik, for example; the title literally means “dinner music”, and other composers of the period wrote collections under the same title for the same purpose.  Listening to Telemann’s piece described above, I find it somewhat bland compared to other Baroque masterpieces that I have heard.  And no wonder, since it was deliberately written to be bland!

Recently, I have noticed an ongoing trend to mass-market Baroque and classical music in general.  While I do advocate its usage to aid special needs children and its usage in public places (MUCH better than hard rock!), the “easy listening Baroque” trend does not gel with me well.  In particular, “Relaxing Pachelbel” CDs at Target and entire CD series of Baroque with nature sounds do not rub me right, since the music is becoming too commercial not unlike a McDonald’s Cheeseburger.  As the music was written to arouse emotion, transforming it into bland “muzak” is totally against the composer’s intentions, and while mass-marketing Baroque can be done tastefully (as I have seen), this is going too far.  I totally understand that historically correct performance cannot be enforced in all situations and totally support  today’s generation gaining exposure to quality music, but there is a place where to draw the line.  Seagulls and Purcell just do not mix.

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