The Emotive Power of Classical Music

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If I were to ask the Bucknell student population when they listen to classical music, I can just about guarantee that the majority of students will give one of two answers: never, or when studying. And it’s hard to blame them; many researchers have found that the brain, when listening to classical music, is more receptive to information, focusing, and concentration. But it’s all too easy to get caught up into this idea that classical music has no other use than to work, when in reality, it is equally as (or even more) emotionally inductive than even the most introspective and complex music the 21st century has to offer. It’s important to remember that what we call “classical music” is an incredibly rich and diverse musical tradition which began to stylistically come together in Europe near the year 1000 A.D. Centuries later, it became so ingrained in European culture that it dynamically responded to current events and tragedies, and was (and still is) even used as propaganda to push an ideology or teach a doctrine. Contemporary composer Leonard Bernstein, in response to President Kennedy’s assassination, declared that, “This will be [a composer’s] reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before.” This has been the attitude of the classical composer for the past 500 years—not necessarily to violence, but to the ebbs and flows of events.

Recently, I listened to Dmitri Shostakovich’s 7th Symphony, titled Leningrad. It was completed in 1941, and was composed as a response to the death of Vladimir Lenin, the establishment of the Russian city Leningrad, and is regarded to be a memorial to the 25 million Soviet citizens who lost their lives in World War II; it’s hard to think of a better example of a composition which had been influenced by contemporary events.

The Leningrad Symphony premiered on the evening of Sunday, August 9, 1942, in the midst of the German siege on the city of Leningrad. Challenging the Germans’ intent to starve the population of the Russian city to death, the piece became a powerful symbol of resistance, strength, and hope—the siege continued for another two years after the premier, but Leningrad did not fall.

It was important for me to keep this in mind when listening to the piece—one cannot separate such a work of art from its historical background. And through putting myself in the shoes of the Russian citizens of Leningrad listening to the Symphony for the first time over the loudspeakers on the streets, I was able to experience the fear, hope, and drama in a more human way.

To think that classical music is an upper-class hobby or that it requires musical knowledge to understand is one of the greatest hindrances to the art’s development today. At its very core, classical music was and still is made to evoke the rawest, most human emotions in all of our hearts, and to only listen to it as study music, or to not listen to it at all, does the thousand-year tradition a great injustice.

Image source: The Community Picnic