Finding a Home in Music

by Sara Evans

Childe Hassam, The Sonata, courtesy of Google Art Project

Music can provide solace or stimulation when we’re spending so many hours at home.  As we shelter in place, we realize how much we depend on sound to guide us through the day—and how we each have our own set of favorite tunes. For me,  these house-bound days have been a walk down memory lane, a time for reviewing my introduction to a variety of performers and venues.   

When I was a budding tween, my father caught me listening to Elvis and promptly enrolled me in the RCA Record of the Month club, determined that I would have a proper music education.  His mother, Adele Stern, was a well-known violinist who had started the first women’s orchestra in Vienna. He himself was a fine pianist.  Through RCA I discovered Szell and Walter, Toscanini, Reiner, Stokowski, listening to their performances on a small record player in my upstairs bedroom. I fell passionately for the Russian romantics with their folkloric roots —Rimsky-Korsakov, Tchaikovsky and Mussorgsky.  Then I began to turn towards the quieter,  more restrained music of  the Baroque, from Bach and Vivaldi, Haydn and Mozart, and to the earlier works of Palestrina, Praetorius and Monteverdi. 

I also discovered chamber music, with its varied combinations of instruments and fascinating social history.  Chamber music evolved in aristocratic homes, private chapels and  intimate salons. Often composers took into account the acoustics of the rooms where their pieces would be played and tweaked them accordingly. The musicians were often long-term residents at the various courts in Europe, and a good ensemble was considered a cultural prize, a material possession.  A harpsichord and later the pianoforte usually set the tone and rhythm of a piece. A specific theme might be explored, as in Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. The passage describing a winter storm never fails to give me an anxiety attack though his concertos for mandolin and guitar, have the uncanny ability to soothe and stroke the soul. 

Women not only were active and ardent salonnieres who supported composers like Chopin and Tchaikovsky,  they also performed. Mozart’s sister, Nannerl, was a superb musician who toured the continent and was known as a child prodigy. Not only was she her brother’s muse, there is some evidence that she contributed a portion of  his staggering opus.   “My dear sister,” he wrote to her, “I am in awe that you can compose so well.”

Nannerl Mozart by an unidentified painter.

Two more examples of hostess-cum-musician come to mind.  Clara Wieck was born in Leipzig in 1819 and showed her prodigious talents at an early age.  As a composer and a performing artist, she toured Europe, then met and married Robert Schumann. In their home, they mentored other up and coming musicians, including Johannes Brahms. 

Then there is Fannie Mendelssohn, Felix’s devoted and prolific elder sister, known to have composed some 500 pieces, chamber and piano compositions, and art songs—several of which were published under her brother’s name. Fannie was also a passionate patron of the arts, hosting musical events in the Mendelssohn’s elegant estate in Berlin.  

Musical Salons Today

Music lovers continue to open their homes for intimate performances.  As David Bloom, Board Chairman of Musica Sacra, notes  “Every week, New Yorkers transform their homes into pop-up concert halls. Accomplished performers gather for small, but avid audiences whose pay-for-play attendance supports any number of worthy not-for-profit causes. This is music at its local and most intimate best—beautiful sound with a powerful purpose.”

 Juilliard-trained pianist Matthew Graybill adds, “It’s difficult for even highly skilled performers to find opportunities to perform in a concert setting. Salon or house concerts have become a popular alternative to traditional concert venues. As musicians, we connect with the audience on a deeper and more personal level. And guests experience an immediacy and intimacy that can be lost in larger spaces.”

But this isn’t just a New York thing.  In Sonoma, California wine country, patrons of the Valley of the Moon Chamber Music Festival (below) are treated to in-home concerts and since the order to shelter at home, musicians have been live-streaming duets and trios on their facebook page.

Valley of the Moon Musical Festival in Sonoma concentrated on composers supported by the Salonnieres.

Inspiration from the Concert Hall

There is something to be said for the reverence of the concert hall and the way it teaches us to listen.  For decades, Carnegie Hall has been has been my spiritual home. It is there, during a performance of Bruckner’s Fourth conducted by Stokowski, that I learned a good deal about the balance of an orchestra.  My friend Bill, who became a music critic, leaned over and said. “Pay attention to the horns. They are hunting in the forest!” and then, “They are back in the village, dancing and celebrating the hunt.”  

Carnegie Hall has long been known for its superb acoustics.  In May, 1986 the venue, which had hosted Tchaikovsky, Judy Garland, Duke Ellington, Ray Charles, Sarah Vaughan, and The Beatles, underwent repairs.  but after nearly 100 years, the building underwent extensive renovations.

On opening night in December,  the musicians knew something was wrong.  “We all felt that there was something different… this brittle quality,” said Jonathan Spitz, the principal cellist of the American Ballet Theater Orchestra.

Officials added absorbent panels,  but still, the acoustics were off.  Nine years later, as workers found the source of the problem as they were replacing the warped stage floor—and the Grand Dame of concert halls had her reputation restored. 

Carnegie Hall, the Grand Dame of New York's concert venues.

I have had religious experiences at Lincoln Center, as well, listening to Dvorak’s New World Symphony and Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition.  A few season ago, The New York Philharmonic had a special showing of the “The Red Violin.” The score was conducted by the composer, John Corigliano and featured its original soloist Joshua Bell. The boy-wonder from the film, who keels over while playing for a decadent patron, was there as well, playing in the orchestra, on loan from the Vienna Philharmonic.

 The David Geffen Hall also has plans for a major upgrade — one that will double the size of the lobby and streamline the auditorium, wrapping the audience around the stage.  The renovation will make sure that each person is seated in that “sweet spot” where every tone is crystal clear and the music washes over you in waves.   

As New Yorkers received orders to shelter in place, these great venues were shuttered.  With days, many began posting some of their most riveting performances online.  NPR has also compiled a list of streamed events to watch during the corona crisis.

Photo by Chris Lee. David Geffen Hall at Lincoln Center, celebrated for its perfect sound.

Massaging the Brain

Concert-going provides  a total mind massage. “We’ve found that listening to classical music enhances the activity of genes that are mainly related to reward and pleasure, cognitive functions and proper brain function,” says Chakravarthi Kanduri, a researcher at the University of Helsinki.

Subjects listened to Mozart’s  Violin Concerto No. 3 in G major then had their blood drawn.  Tests revealed that music activates the genes that help with mood, memory, learning and basic brain function. It also slows those linked to mental degeneration, meaning that listening to music acts like a shield for the brain.

The strongest responses were found in regular concert goers and people who had learned to play an instrument.   Those without musical backgrounds had few noticeable benefits. So the more music you hear, the more likely you are to be at your best. Regular listening also appears to combat stress, depression and addictive behavior.  And music has been used as therapy — to ease the mind and soothe the emotions — since the late 18th century.

Since music stimulates the brain, it’s no surprise that many of  our conductors are such astonishing polymaths:  Leon Botstein, conductor of the American Symphony Orchestra and the delightful youth orchestra TON (The Orchestra Now) who the president of Bard College.  Kent Tritle, organist and Director of Music at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine is also the leader of the superb Musica Sacra choir and the Oratorio Society of New York. And Yannick Nezet-Seguin, Music Director of the Metropolitan Opera also guides the Orchestre Metropolitaine of Quebec and the Philadelphia Orchestra.  

Kent Tritle conducting Verdi's Oratorio at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in upper Manhattan,

Music as a Mash-Up

After hearing these world class musicians, I must confess: Some of my happiest and most intimate musical moments occur at home, while streaming their performances or listening to their CDs.  

More by accident than design, my 1878 living room has not only perfect Palladian proportions, its old plaster walls make for great acoustics. I can soar with Beethoven’s symphonies and calm myself with the gentle tone-poems of Sibelius and Vaughn-Williams.  When I’m feeling low, I dig out the ethereally sublime “Powers of Heaven,” 17th and 18th Century Orthodox liturgy by the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir directed by Paul Hillier. 

But I’m not a classical music snob. Alongside the operas, you’ll find and a stack of Broadway musicals.  There’s enough Leonard Cohen, James Taylor, Johnny and June Cash, Joan Baez and Joni Mitchell to fill a thrift store.  When no one is watching, I jive to the Stones or the Beatles and clean my house to ABBA.  The great thing about music is that it’s so inclusive. It goes with any activity and it’s always crossing boundaries.   The other day I watched this video of hip-hop dancer ‘Lil Buck, performing to “The Swan” by Saint-Saens with the cellist Yo-Yo Ma at a concert in Beijing.  

Music is in our DNA. Bone flutes have been found in Neolithic caves in Southern Germany dating back more than 40,000 years. The need to make it is hard-wired in all of us, no matter how tone-deaf we believe ourselves to be.  Sad or joyous, music is central to our lives.   Plato said, “Music gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination and life to everything.” And Nietzsche, “Without music, life would be a mistake.”  That is why we must fill our homes with melody and song.

Sara Evans is a lifelong New Yorker and the East Coast editor of Reinventing Home.  She has written about travel, child development, gardening, antiques and the arts for The New York Times, Art & Antiques, Town and Country, Travel & Leisure, Parents, House Beautiful, Metropolitan Home, Country Living, Fine Arts Connoisseur, Art of the Times and Martha Stewart Living

Recommended Reading

Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain by Oliver Sacks

This is Your Brain on Music by Daniel Levitin

The Gustav Sonata by Rose Tremain

Bel Canto by Ann Patchett

Dr. Faustus by Thomas Mann

High Fidelity by Nick Hornby

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