Weaponized Classicalism

I love classical music. I don’t love it in a holy or religious sense; quite the opposite. I love when classical is fought over in bars; hummed at a bus stop; a background for a kid’s cartoon.

I got in an argument with my grad school advisor one cold January Tuesday. I mentioned I’d be seeing Tchaikovsky’s 1st Violin Concerto at Boston Symphony Hall that Friday, and was subsequently hit with that all-too-familiar Serbian “Etch” expressing vapid disdain for my love and strong appreciation of that Russian drunk. This woman, pushing 60, having left her home country amidst a bloody political and cultural earthquake, who has had experiences that I could never compare, who holds an honorary doctorate in addition to her PhD, regards this conflicted pre-20th century composer as no higher than the Red Sox.

“How can you listen to something so loud and obnoxious it blows ears off?” She pointed. Not only is this musical canon of Russian identity not-so-grand in her eyes, it’s beneath her; cast aside like an unfortunate birthday present. And that’s precisely why I love it – Tchaikovsky has invaded my apartment and my mind; he reminds me of the walk I took through Rockefeller Center in December five years ago; his sixth symphony made me question my own self-purpose through a bad career decision. I played his sleeping beauty waltz (arranged by Rachmaninoff, another close friend of mine) with my first serious girlfriend and was criticized for sightreading too well. I’ve listened to all his Sinatra renditions – “None but the Lonely Heart” and “Moon Song” most prominently, and even heard several of his waltzes pop up in “Ren and Stimpy” as a kid.

But why am I so delighted that this close friend of mine, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, was so rudely lambasted by my advisor? Because she and I are now past the point of connection. I can’t begin to understand what this music means to her, and she can’t to me. Tchaikovsky in part is that soundtrack of the Human Race. Through wars, class struggles, crises in identities, to eventually the concert hall in Boston in 2023 and at some point the soviet-bloc apartment of the 1990s, we’ve listened to the same heart.

People will tell me they don’t listen to Classical. I always respond with, “you have, you just don’t know it.” Movie soundtracks, TV shows, walking past a recital hall or warm-up tunes late at night. It’s theory, it’s fundamentals, but it’s Shakespeare for music.

Another time I was waiting for a train in South Station and had the unlucky common occurrence of sitting through a delay. But imagine my elation when a complete stranger, appearing about 40, from a wildly different cultural background, hummed “Nessun Dorma” as if the street performers were practicing it outside. I didn’t speak to this man, I wouldn’t ever see him again, but I knew we shared this connection in a forgotten yet engrained art on a dingy delayed train layover.