I promise that I am not going to write a post today about how wonderful things used to be when I was young and how awful they are today. You wouldn’t want to read that kind of BS and frankly, I’m not interested in writing about it either.
What I do want to write about, however, is how today’s streaming and video access to classical music – all we could want, anytime – is changing the way people encounter classical music for the first time. And of course, how they continue to interact with it over the course of their lives.
Is the “new order” better or worse than the old? I really don’t know, but I’d like to explore.
My Record Collection
When I was growing up back in the 1950s and 1960s, I had a record collection. It all started in an odd way. When I was about 12, my mother went into New York City with a friend, went into a record store, and asked the clerk to recommend a few recordings for me, her son. For some reason I cannot fathom, he recommended an Archiv recording of anthems by Henry Purcell, and an Archiv recording of music by Orlando di Lasso. I mean, what was going on in that man’s head?
So my mother came home and gave me the recordings and I fired them up on in my upstairs record player and for some reason, I wanted more. I think I was probably being a snob, realizing that I was listening to music that nobody at school had even heard of. It was a rare opportunity to feel a little smarter than those around me. God knows, that never happened to me in school.
I joined a record club called the Musical Heritage Society and ordered more Purcell, some Bach and other recordings. I subscribed to the Swann Catalog of records, and perused the listings, planning my next purchases. I especially loved to buy those Archiv recordings. Each of them had been quality-tested by someone in the factory in Germany and each of those inspectors had used a ballpoint pen to write his or her initials on a label that was stuck on the cover, attesting to the quality of the product. Some Neibelungian record inspector had personally inspected my recording of Lully or Couperin? How cool was that?
Up until the time I entered my third year of high school or thereabouts, I believed that any music written after the Baroque era was not worth listening to. But after going to see some operas at the old Metropolitan Opera House at 39th Street and Broadway in New York, I got the opera bug too, and started collecting opera recordings. During those years, I worked summers as a machinist in Newark and later on, as an order filler in a book warehouse. Every few Friday evenings, I would take some of my earnings and drive to a Sam Goody store where I would buy a recording of an opera, if I could afford it.
I would then drive home, go into my house, show my new opera to my brother and parents, then spend some time in the following weeks “learning” the opera by listening, reading the liner notes, and following along with the libretto. I would add each new boxed set to a growing number of them on a shelf in my room. I would count my holdings and get thrilled when I found that I owned 40 LPs, then 50, then more. I was a fricking materialist.
Of course I was doing other musical stuff too. I started taking singing lessons, and I played various instruments. But that is another story. Today I am thinking about those recordings. I still remember all of them, and still own some – the London recording of Andrea Chenier with Mario del Monaco and Renata Tebaldi, the recordings of Tosca and Otello from the same label, with the same cast. I was probably the only kid in suburban New Jersey who owned the complete organ works of Buxtehude on nine LPs, housed in three Vox Box sets.
I kind of took things to the next level after I got to college. I got a show on the college radio station and ordered for the station the complete London/Solti recording of the Ring operas, in four boxes, for only $1/disk. Since the station only wanted recordings of bands like Cream and The Band, the station manager told me to go ahead and take those Wagner recordings home. Bang, I had The Ring.
Coveted Objects vs. Clicking Online
Today, I am thrilled to be able to listen to so much music online. At Classical Archives, I can listen to not just one recording of Tosca, but to lots of them. If I want to listen to Beethoven Piano Sonatas, I don’t have to go to a record store, pick out one boxed set, and bring it home. I can click and choose among dozens of performances by different performers. And the number of classical videos on YouTube is increasing day by day.
Maybe I am about to get nostalgic – oops, I promised at the start of this post that I wouldn’t do that. But for me at the time, there was something just right about acquiring one beautiful record or boxed set after another, at the slow rate I could afford them. They kind of titrated my intake of classical music so I learned about unfamiliar repertoire slowly. There was nowhere to click, nowhere to get ahead of that process as it unfolded. You sat there and you listened.
Maybe that is blather. Maybe I’d be a lot better off if I were a kid today and was learning about classical music by listening and watching videos online. Okay, I guess I would be. But there was something of its time, something special, about the way I did it. And in the words of an old song, you can’t take that away from me.