‘Gesamtkunstwerk,’ a term inspired by the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, refers to the total embodiment of dynamic human experience in a singular body of art. While applying to all mediums, including architecture and film, the term is predominantly associated with classical music. Richard Wagner, an influential proponent of this theory, espoused the virtues of traditional composition; to him, music represented the highest form of emotional expression.
However, the role of classical composition in everyday life has dramatically shifted since the 19th century. Today, enthusiastic consumption of classical music is often associated with a niche artistic elitism. With the advent and subsequent popularization of modern genres such as the blues and rock and roll, cultural emphasis on classical musical has markedly subsided; how often do we turn on Tchaikovsky at a social gathering?
Due to both a lack of lyrics and a perceived no-fuss simplicity, classical music is often relegated to stimulating study and/or sleep habits. While we extol its health benefits, including lower blood pressure and boosted levels of creativity, most people passively listen to classical music, if at all (as I write this article, Tchaikovsky is stirring quietly in the background).
I say this in part because I am guilty of this myself; I claim to love classical music but seldom go out of my way to actively incorporate it into my everyday life.
When I saw that Pomona College Department of Music was hosting a classical music showcase, I knew that I had my chance to shift courses. The concert, held on a Friday night, tested my commitment to change; could I forego a Friday night of socializing for the solitary experience of sitting still and listening to two instruments for an hour and forty-five minutes?
As I walked into Bridges Hall of Music, I couldn’t help but notice that I was one out of a small handful of concert-goers under the age of 40. Willful suspension of disbelief in play, I contentedly took my seat and admired the traditional yet grandiose architecture of the theater in anticipation. I couldn’t help but become affixed by the stage’s bareness, save for a beautiful Steinway & Sons piano and a lone music stand; it was as if all else inside my mind dissipated into the air like a lost tune.
Featuring three Sonatas of Beethoven, Lekeu, and Brahms, the selections were performed by violinist Jonathan Wright, a Pomona College biology professor, and pianist Stephan Moss, a Pomona College IT specialist. If I had any inkling about the ephemeral elements of classical music that Wagner so admired becoming obsolete, the first piece, Beethoven’s Sonata No. 3 in E-flat, Op. 12, no. 3, stripped me of my conscious thinking and demanded my full fixation.
The violin, with a domineering personality of its own, crooned with a forceful vigor of melancholic urgency. The piano, quietly intertwining in the background, dripped through the melody like a soft spring rain. I drifted into a make-believe vignette of sprawling emerald meadows and youthful lust, the music my mind’s montage. The air felt palpable with the musical tension between gentility and longing. I could feel myself falling in love- with what, who knows. Before I knew it, half an hour passed; had I really listened to the same song, staring off into space, for that long?
The second piece, Guillaume LeBeau’s Sonata for Piano and Violin in G Major, left me just as entranced. Having characterized his score as “savage and untamable,” the piece commands an undeniable force. The violin weaved effortlessly between a swooning, almost romantic demeanor and a dramatic temperament of anguish, sounding almost like the soul had been transcribed for composition. If the violin represented human life, then the piano almost certainly mirrored the dynamism of the natural world, its chords falling and soaring like shooting stars. The interplay between these two elements was vastly overwhelming yet somehow inexplicably liberating.
It’s difficult, and maybe even naive, to attempt to provide a critically analyzed musical review that can be generalized into a one-size-fits-all package. The perceived quality of musical experience is highly subjective simply due to our own personal preferences. As much as I try, I will never truly take a positive review of country music to heart because I’m just naturally averse to the genre (except for you, Johnny Cash; you have my heart).
That being said, I noticed an almost universal pattern of behavior throughout the audience. The lack of theatrics surrounding classical music concerts draws the listener into a more intimate experience. With no surround sound speakers, FX effects, or visual accompaniment, the only element of entertainment that is retained is your mind’s reaction to the music itself. Looking around the theater, I noticed that everyone seemed to be experiencing their own montage of sorts. An older man in the front row wearing a zany purple sweater smiled blithely with closed eyes as he swayed his body; a younger college-aged boy sitting in the balcony gazed longingly towards the stage, resting his crossed arms and outstretched head on the railing; a woman in front of me quietly tapped her fingers against her leg, trailing behind the piano’s lead while letting out an occasional whispered exclamation to her husband about the beauty of a particular moment.
While lacking the obvious connotational power of words, the transient nature of classical music represents a more abstract, yet intense manifestation of emotion. You may not always be able to explain it logically, but you feel it viscerally.
As students at a college stigmatized for its intense focus on pre-professionalism, our lives are often defined in quantifiable measures, so much so that taking time out of your overbooked schedule to immerse yourself in classical music seems like a laughable luxury. Without it, however, we risk becoming out of touch with ourselves. While finding the perfect resume building summer internship is an important component of life at Claremont McKenna, our ability to appreciate beauty for the sake of itself is just as consequential for success.