Dido’s Lament

I may previously have mentioned that I’m not particularly cultured. For instance, I share in my late grandmother’s opinion of opera. Grandma would hear an aria on the radio and demand, “Whose cat’s dying?”

She got a universal laugh with this line until the day when she said it and the feline death wail in question turned out to be sung by her granddaughter Kim, who had presented Grandma with a CD of her senior musical thesis. Oooh, Grandma was embarrassed. She flushed brighter red than she used to after a margarita at Nuevo Leon.

She and Kim made up, and Kim went on to sing karaoke to a devoted West Coast audience. (She currently is traveling in Laos, attempting to fulfill her goal of singing karaoke in every Asian country she’s visited. Laos makes number five.)

But I digress.

My point is that I’m doing a musical course entitled How to Listen to and Understand Great Music, and I may be coming around on opera.

I decided to listen to this course to deepen my understanding of what I’m reading. Writers do not write in a vacuum, but rather process the culture surrounding them as they develop their worldview on the page. I have no real understanding of the musical side of past culture despite years of piano lessons and a childhood of Music Memory in public school.

I’ve heard of composers, sure. I’ve played some of them. I’ve listened to many of them. But before this course I couldn’t have told you that Bach preceded Mozart (who studied as a child with Bach), who preceded Beethoven (who studied as a teenager with Mozart). Or that Bach’s death marked the end of the Baroque period and Beethoven’s death marked the end of the Classical period.

I couldn’t have told you that Beethoven was five years old when the Declaration of Independence was signed in the American colonies or that Mozart was already enormously famous by 1776 and Thomas Jefferson probably was familiar with his work. Ben Franklin, who was hanging out in Paris and (successfully) convincing King Louis XVI to send the American revolutionaries arms and money, probably saw Mozart perform at Versailles in the late 1770’s. Louis loved music, and Mozart was a European rock star.

Cultural context is important for seating all of the facts floating around in my brain. It’s like historical facts in my head have been randomly scattered on a large piece of fabric, all unrelated to each other, and now they are suddenly coming together and synthesizing into a linear, orderly structure that makes sense. That’s why I’m doing this — to bring order to the nebulous mishmash up there in the gray matter. It seems to be working.

Back to opera.

Its invention in 1598 marked a cultural shift from focus on the group (usually in the context of worshipping God) to focus on the individual (how do I feel about things?). Shakespeare had written Romeo & Juliet a couple of years before and was working on Henry V and Julius Caesar (both based closely on Plutarch’s Lives.)

Old-school opera performances were something like today’s minor-league hockey games. You’d have your food vendors walking around in the stands hawking beer and something hot on a stick, and you’d talk to your friends, and shush them if some singer came on that you liked and maybe boo and hiss if another came on that you didn’t. The opera (like the minor-league hockey game) was secondary to the experience of just being there and enjoying yourself.

I could get behind a revival of this kind of opera. My friends and I could chat and drink beer, and when someone tried to shush us, we could say — hey, we’re just being historically accurate.

As it is, I’ve been walking around for the last week (badly) singing an aria called “Dido’s Lament” from a 1689 English-language opera by Henry Purcell and wondering about who might have been walking around London that year humming the same tune. John Dryden, for one, might have been. He did the translation of Plutarch’s Lives that I’m reading.

So there you have it. Opera has connected me with someone I was already reading. That’s pretty cool.

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Categories: Brain Workouts

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