By Sy Schechtman

When I first became a sentient human being radio was the influential mode of indoctrination. Not what you visually apprehended but what you aurally acquired. What you heard from the sounds emanating from the instrument, large or small, placed on the table or on legs against the wall. Usually one or more voices or musical sounds, talking, singing, laughing or crying. And, of course, then as now, ardent or seductive messages that came to be known as commercials, that in our free enterprise society bore the brunt of paying all the expenses for the entertainment and information supplied with this amazing new technological breakthrough. And all this filtered through one’s imagination, giving us great freedom to exercise far away wistful. fanciful, or upfront images that were evoked by the this inanimate usually wooden piece of furniture.

Unrestrained by the graphic reality of television, higher, esoteric values could be called forth or conjured up. Yet most of us today only smile tolerantly at this almost antediluvian mode of communication, easily superceded in the late nineteen forties by black and white television and then overwhelmingly by color television less than ten years later. Not only was radio then relegated to inferior second class status but even motion pictures, the bell weather world wide, most eminent Hollywood product, seemed in danger of mortal wounding. I believe, if memory serves, that Tuesday night, when Milton Berle ---the famous or infamous "Uncle Miltie"---was on TV in the late forties and early fifties, all the streets and stores were empty except for those congregating in front of appliance store windows watching Berle’s hour long antics or securely at home in front of their own TV sets watching him, along with many invited friends or favored relatives who still did not own a TV set. The power of visual communication—seeing is believing—seemed the inevitable wave of the future, and it did for awhile cause much upset and rearrangement in the field of communication. And soon, to compound the disconnect between radio and modernity was computer driven internet and mobile phone conversation!

But radio and other seemingly threatened communication modes are still around, albeit perhaps in somewhat altered or truncated form. Newspapers are in less demand but radio has transformed itself remarkably because of the ever ubiquitous and flourishing automobile. Who would ever think of committing oneself to the isolation that the automobile seems to entail if the car radio were not around as a constant, loyal, and malleable companion? And in the beginning, before the recent incursion and intrusion of talk radio in the last five or ten years, there was much more music, and a fair amount of it classical or semi classical. And that is the era where I began my music listening career, alone in a room with a radio in the late nineteen thirties and it is still the mode that remains my only true means of classical music appreciation, being able to listen without the intrusive spectacle of seeing musicians or the gyrations and/or squirming agony of the conductor and/or physical prescence of a soloist. Alas, I have never advanced beyond that relatively primitive technologic stage: l do go to concerts, but it is mainly a social manifestation. The sum total of the concert hall scene, besides the above, the presence of the coughing, sometimes murmuring and shushing audience, seat location and possible inferior acoustical balance, and assorted rustlings, are also part of the distraction. I am not alone with the splendid sound of the orchestra, or smaller ensemble, and the intimate message of the music that the composer has elaborated, which floats on the air and should transcend all human images. Usually the lovely sound emanating from the tuned up orchestra at the very start was the last sound I truly enjoyed at a live concert.

But I was not at all deterred in pursuing my classical music almost lustful thrust. The radio provided enough hours a day of such listening on WNYC and WQXR and for a substantial interim, WNCN. And I remember warmly in the forties live Sunday afternoon broadcasts of the New York Philharmonic, Sir John Barbirolli conductor, and Deems Taylor eminent composer and music critic and commentator. A triple threat bore really, who hardly interrupted my algebra homework. But by then I heard, as the music resumed soon after, the scherzo movement of Brahms’ Fourth symphony and wow! I put aside my algebra struggles and listened to this great musical joyous revelation. After that the working out of the mysteries of the various meanings of "x" became tolerable. So gradually, incrementally, with radio as my infallible guide, I achieved a working knowledge of the musical literature. By the time I was a young adult I knew almost all the standard symphonic repertoire and was making some inroads into the more popular chamber music literature.

Opera was a different matter. There, seeing was believing. At least for the initial encounter with its grand scope, which was both human enactment and musical transcendence. So, still indomitably persistent, by the time I was a young adolescent I was a fairly regular standing room listener at the old Metropolitan Opera on 40th street and Broadway. I was only a nickel ride way then from the 55th Street station of the West End BMT line to Times Square, a two block walk to the old Met. I think it cost two dollars to go standing room and I had a sizable bank account—about 200 hundred dollars, a bar mitzvah present of a year before--for my own personal use!

It is true that my radio music fixation was aided by several other agents of cultural reinforcement. One was the strong input of music appreciation in the school system, a once a week session where we were exposed to small sections of serious music. We had among many other items Rossini’s William Tell overture, the last part of which was the forceful theme of the then ever popular Lone Ranger program. Even the recalcitrant nerds in the back of the room admitted that there had to be something to this music appreciation_!!xx_sh__! after that. Of prime importance too was the hoopla of Arturo Toscanini being "imported" to this country from Italy in 1938, I believe, by David Sarnoff of the then regnant Radio Corporation of America (RCA) and the attendant record promotion of the New York Post of ten different albums (heavy bulk before the advent of long playing records and then Compact Discs!) of really serious great music. Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, Franck, Wagner, Debussy among those my aging recall still retains most pleasurably. All this and my constant radio companion made my concert going forays most infrequent and almost grudging—a social necessity that impinged upon my already tightly scheduled budget of available time. For a time all the attendant media attention made classical music very fashionable and as a culture marker many people felt it necessary to play as background music arias, symphonies and sonatas just below the audible level of one’s conversation. And appear dutifully at concerts as a mark of their cultural sincerity. While I had difficulty controlling myself then in the face of this obvious philistinism I did also look forward with passive indifference to the almost certain demise of formal concert going and that my indifferent attitude to this happening had to be the correct response to this inevitable technologic result.

And now, fifty years later, I am only somewhat dubiously proud to state, it seems that the music population is finally catching up with me! But not necessarily for the perhaps aberrant isolationist behavior that has motivated me. But it is lamentably true that the prime base of classical music, for whatever reasons we ascribe, seems to be literally withering away. Gray haired people like me (occasionally) make up almost all the classical music audience. The younger generations seem to sway almost innately to rock and roll rhythms; jungle archetypes perhaps that still resonate today as powerfully as in the dim dark ancestral past. This is less true, fortunately, of the state of opera. Here there is some interest by younger people in opera’s fate. In the creation of new works, in addition to viewing the standard repertoire, probably because opera is a manifestation of the human dilemma. This could be serious or comic, on a more intense or suitably exotic level, allowing a more contemporary, relevant and immediate emotional bond. Integration, if successful, in sound and words of universal human situations that seem eternally relevant because of the music that speaks to the heart and soul. Not that American opera seems to be in its ascendancy, but that contributions like Bernstein’s’ West Side Story and Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess do give us some respectful stance in modern operatic lists. However, pure orchestral music of a symphonic, classical nature seems to be languishing. We seem to be worshipping at the feet of mighty masters of the past and have not been able to transmit our enthusiasm and reverence for their work to much of the present generation.

One possible explanation, among many, of why this is so is that the creative essence of classical music, encompassing those dead white males of European birth from Bach to Mahler had inimitable musical genes not inherent in other people or cultures. Over 50 percent of the standard repertoire today is Austro German, and most of the of the balance is European in nature—French, Russian, and a smattering of Spanish and Czech. The most popular composition of American music is Dvorak’s New World Symphony!! The only example of "Amercian"music in the first 50 choices of popular classical fare. In the last century, it is true, the center of creativity has become more diffuse—shifting from Germany and Austria to France(Ravel, Poulenc), and more heavily to Russia (Rachmaninoff, Stravinsky, Prokovief, Shostakovich, Katchaturian). And that great Finnish master, Sibelius.

Many current, and past, native American composers resent the stigma of Dvorak and his intrusion into the American music scene as our cultural avatar. Yet the fact remains that we have had no Mozart in our classical music lists to champion. We have had much beautiful lyrical and lilting music sung and listened to with world wide acclaim, composers justly famous in their more popular music. Berlin, Porter, Kern, Rodgers, etc. (What song is more universally acclaimed at Yuletide time----Ave Maria or I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas? ) And also in the symphonic lists, Bernstein, Gershwin, and Copeland claim justly some share of acceptable stature in the lists of enduring masterpieces. And the greatest of these, from the purely American vantage point has to be, Aaron Copeland, from Fanfare for the Common Man, and the ballets Rodeo, Billy the Kid, and Appalachian Suite, among many other more general works of impelling interest, as El Salon Mexico. Many other works by American composers have been performed and championed by eminent conductors, especially Serge Koussevetsky and Leopold Stokowski, themselves prestigious imports a la Toscannini, vainly looking for the "American Mozart". It is not for a dearth of earnest search that little pure

Classical gold composing turned up.(Other, of course of the "triumvirate" of Bernstein, Gershwin, and Copeland). And then came an about face into minimalism, atonalism and dreary dissonance. An adventure from which we are now beginning to extricate ourselves, and our prototypical composer now is John Adams, who has several opera commissions going.

John who?

The basic point here is that the last century was not the creative century for American classical music. To make up for this relative sterility performance was over emphasized. The super star artist was always front and center as was the dynamic, overpowering conductor giving the definitive performance of the work. An infinite number of recordings of the same musical literature have been offered by many famous orchestras, conductors and soloists. While it is no doubt true that in the case of vocal soloists the average discriminating listener can detect important nuances and cherished differences, many of us who are still vitally interested in the rest of the literature are not too enthused by these redundant outpourings of already familiar works. Not that the standard repertoire is not worth cherishing and hearing many more times, but why not just as well in the intimacy of one’s home with friends or loved companions, also with the enhanced enjoyment of acoustically perfect audio reproductions?

Our beloved classical music is far from dead. The exaggerated mass marketing that has over emphasized large scale attendance at concerts may be. But there is more hope for positive things by the growing small scale approach of learning basic instrument skills, be it violin, piano, clarinet, etc. and learning the joy of personal music making in school or local orchestra and marching band----or chamber group. And solitary listening to great music of different moods through out the day while doing humdrum household tasks or driving the car. On that dear old media mode----- the radio! And the twilight of our favorite art form that we perceive all about us also may yet see a healthy resurgence as more personal involvement in the playing and actual involvement in the music helps the next generation appreciation and bond to its intrinsic beauty.