“Classical” Music and Other Kinds

I grew up with so-called classical music. That term is misleading, because it refers to many different kinds and eras of music at once, but people know more or less what it means. It doesn’t mean Bob Dylan or Thelonious Monk (though jazz and classical have close relations at times, as do classical and folk). It does mean Bach, Beethoven, Pärt, Schnittke, and others. It is usually in relatively long form (not three-minute pieces), played with acoustic instruments at a high level of proficiency or virtuosity, and performed in somewhat formal settings. All of this is just a start, though, and it doesn’t touch on the exceptions, the breaks, and the many connections with other kinds of music.

Most of the music in our record collection was not just classical, but Baroque. Except for a few albums of children’s songs, and some cantatas and Gilbert and Sullivan operettas (which I loved), there were hardly any songs to be found. That’s partly why I fell in love with songs later; I didn’t know at first how brilliant they could be. Popular music was written off as “junk”; I had no idea that, within so-called popular music, there were musicians breaking with the norms and seeking the music that came closest to what they heard in their souls and minds.

But even in childhood I liked to listen to favorite albums again and again, just as I do now, and I love those favorites still. One of my very favorites (and a standout item in the family collection) was Beethoven’s piano trio Opus 1, no. 3, as performed by Casals, Végh, and Horszowski. I have never heard a recording of this piece that I love as much as this one. It is feverish and subtle and restrained. Listening to it now, I anticipate those favorite turns and runs, the instruments’ intertwinings, the silences between the notes (one of my favorite parts is around 9:53, right near the end of the first movement, but you have to hear everything leading up to it). I played the first movement in an informal trio too, in my first year of college. I think we might have performed it once, but again, informally.

I listen to music in a similar way today, playing favorites over and over (often in my head), with full or almost-full focus, and slowly adding more. The love for certain classical pieces has not gone away, nor has my desire to hear more within that vast category, but there are so many directions to take in music, each one with its brilliances and darknesses.

At some point in adulthood I became somewhat resistant to classical music because of all the adult approval that had gone along with it in my childhood. (Approval, beyond a certain point, overemphasizes the feelings and preferences of the approver.) Classical music was approved, other kinds disapproved or completely discredited. Right now, I don’t really care, because those were limited judgments anyway, and there’s so much more music, of all kinds, than I will get to hear in my life. Music is one area where, within basic limitations, you get to do whatever you want, especially as a listener. Who can turn down that invitation?

In the photo at the top, I am ten years old; we are on the Russian (Soviet) ship the Mikhail Lermontov, on our way to the Netherlands, where we would spend a year. Here the passenger chorus is singing “Kalinka.”

Update: For a beautiful example of the intersections between classical and folk/popular music, see Lázár tesók’s recent live session, which opens with “Csak mi,” one of my favorites of their songs.

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  • “To know that you can do better next time, unrecognizably better, and that there is no next time, and that it is a blessing there is not, there is a thought to be going on with.”

    —Samuel Beckett, Malone Dies

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    Diana Senechal is the author of Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture and the 2011 winner of the Hiett Prize in the Humanities, awarded by the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture. Her second book, Mind over Memes: Passive Listening, Toxic Talk, and Other Modern Language Follies, was published by Rowman & Littlefield in October 2018. In February 2022, Deep Vellum will publish her translation of Gyula Jenei's 2018 poetry collection Mindig Más.

    Since November 2017, she has been teaching English, American civilization, and British civilization at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium in Szolnok, Hungary. From 2011 to 2016, she helped shape and teach the philosophy program at Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science & Engineering in New York City. In 2014, she and her students founded the philosophy journal CONTRARIWISE, which now has international participation and readership. In 2020, at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium, she and her students released the first issue of the online literary journal Folyosó.


    On April 26, 2016, Diana Senechal delivered her talk "Take Away the Takeaway (Including This One)" at TEDx Upper West Side.

    Here is a video from the Dallas Institute's 2015 Education Forum.  Also see the video "Hiett Prize Winners Discuss the Future of the Humanities." 

    On April 19–21, 2014, Diana Senechal took part in a discussion of solitude on BBC World Service's programme The Forum.  

    On February 22, 2013, Diana Senechal was interviewed by Leah Wescott, editor-in-chief of The Cronk of Higher Education. Here is the podcast.


    All blog contents are copyright © Diana Senechal. Anything on this blog may be quoted with proper attribution. Comments are welcome.

    On this blog, Take Away the Takeaway, I discuss literature, music, education, and other things. Some of the pieces are satirical and assigned (for clarity) to the satire category.

    When I revise a piece substantially after posting it, I note this at the end. Minor corrections (e.g., of punctuation and spelling) may go unannounced.

    Speaking of imperfection, my other blog, Megfogalmazások, abounds with imperfect Hungarian.

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