Classical Music Gateway Drugs: the 70s edition

Rarely, it’s true, but still from time to time I get asked by parents how to get their kids interested in classical music. Given that I am of the “let kids be kids” school, and since I don’t really recall any concerted effort on my parents’ part to influence me with respect to music or much else, I’m reluctant to provide a “program.” Certainly nobody gets coerced into a life long love of anything–or at least I hope not. But how does it unfold that some people end up loving classical music?

In my case there are a few conditions & milestones that I can pick out in retrospect. 1) My parents enjoyed classical music, without being maniacs about it, and 2) there was amateur music-making in my house throughout my childhood, as there is in mine. My mother’s German-Irish heritage came with an implicit respect for music, be it the seriousness of the European classical tradition, or the nostalgic emotion of the Irish folk one. My father’s love of Barbra Streisand is one of those strange things best passed over without comment. But music was abundant. This included playing piano and singing.

So of course there were LPs around (and anybody who came of age with LPs of any genre probably harbors emotional memories and responses to them that I wonder if downloads or streams will ever match. You could handle a record, inspect its cover, protect it from scratches, jealously hoard it or generously loan it–it was a thing in your life, again a message of value). One particular LP of my parents’ was called “Opera’s Greatest Hits,” a two-record compilation of orchestral highlights–overtures, intermezzi, and the like–from the Boston Pops with Arthur Fiedler conducting. Not one note of singing, which for some reason did not strike me as odd. It did not occur to my 4th-grade self to wonder how opera’s greatest hits could skimp on providing a single aria? Instead I reveled in these 70mm technicolor performances of big emotional pieces. Mostly it was a generous helping of once great hits of the classical “Top 40,” for instance, the William Tell Overture, in 1971 still indelibly the Lone Ranger’s tune, the Intermezzo from “Cavalleria Rusticana,” soon to enjoy renewed fame from a star turn in “The Godfather,” and this ridiculous piece: “Dance of the Camorristi,” from a mostly forgotten opera entitled “The Jewels of the Madonna” by Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari.

Listening to this now, what comes to mind first is Noel Coward’s quip “Extraordinary how potent cheap music is.” Second though, is the memory of how much fun I had connecting to it–and all these pieces–when I was a nerdy fourth grader: air conducting, imagining and then making up the story (I still haven’t a clue what Wolf-Ferrari’s opera is really about), and getting access to the sweep of something that felt big. Forty odd years later, naturally enough, different musical pieces feel “big” to me, but I know that music can do that. That’s a space that was made long ago. It gets filled up with different things, a natural progression.

Reflecting on this, my advice for a parent is pretty slight and obvious, I suppose: be out of the closet about your own love of music, have music around and available, and show some intention about it. Often, music is merely wallpaper in our lives now, and it doesn’t make a lot of sense for a child to hear “listen to this, it’s good for you,” as a prompt to make one pattern in that wallpaper leap out. Instead, a kid who catches a parent listening intently, or playing an instrument, might pick up the message that this is meaningful and worth attention. And finally, I wouldn’t worry about taste. I don’t know what my parents thought of that Pops record (although we did watch the Pops broadcast with pleasure many times). I’d bet that my playing it over and over in the family room was not one of my more popular moves. But never did I get a “you should be listening to …” (insert name of composer, work, band, singer, etc. meant to be improving, cool, or at least tolerable). It was my thing, and like so many things, my parents’ staying out of the way was the ticket.

For those interested: here is the track list for that LP. Looking over it, do you see any gateway pieces from your youth?

popsA1 Aida: Grand March
A2 Cavalleria Rusticana: Intermezzo
A3 Tsar Sultan: The Flight Of The Bumblebee
A4 Faust: Waltz Scene
A5 Hansel And Gretel: Dream Pantomime
B1 Samson And Delilah: Bacchanale
B2 Love For Three Oranges: March
B3 Eugene Onegin: Polonaise
B4 The Tales Of Hoffmann: Barcarolle
B5 The Jewels Of The Madonna: Dance Of The Camorristi
B6 Mlada: Procession Of The Nobles
C1 Lohengrin: Prelude
C2 Le Cid: Aragonaise
C3 Sadko: Song Of India
C4 Die Fledermaus: Du Und Du Waltzes
C5 Prince Igor: Polovetsian Dances
D1 William Tell: Overture
D2 Goyescas: Intermezzo
D3 Carmen: March Of The Toreadors
D4 Die Walküre: Ride Of The Valkyries

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