Playing Favorites

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

A young cellist waited anxiously for her turn to audition for the high school all-district orchestra. She had searched carefully for an audition piece that was both appropriately demanding and personally meaningful. Her choice fell upon Max Bruch’s Kol Nidrei, Op. 47 (1881), a work combining motifs chanted on Yom Kippur evening, phrases from a song arranged by Isaac Nathan (“O Weep for Those that Wept on Babel’s Stream”) and passages derived from Bruch’s imagination. For the cellist and most others reared in Ashkenazi Judaism, Bruch’s Kol Nidrei is saturated with associations linked to the atonement holiday and larger themes of Jewish culture and identity. (This, despite the fact the Bruch was a Protestant, composed the piece for the concert hall, and intended it as a study in folklore, not for sacred consumption.)

As the cellist played for the adjudicator, her mother sat in the corner of the room weeping. The soaring tones flooded her with memories and emotions, just as they did each time her daughter practiced at home. The adjudicator was less visibly moved, partly because he had to maintain a professional demeanor, but mainly because he was not Jewish and had no investment in the music. To him, it was merely a nice piece, which was the term he used to describe it (and the performance).

This vignette is indicative of how we process music. No piece is heard in isolation. The mother’s experience was informed by past exposure, religious sentiments, ethnic affiliation and pride that her daughter, through her playing, was preserving their heritage. The adjudicator’s experience was not so weighty. The piece had no personal resonance for him, other than maybe recalling other late-Romantic adagios. If the girl had played something that touched him on a personal level—like a sonata he learned from a dearly departed mentor—he might have shown more emotion.

Our backgrounds always inform our musical reception. If we are intimately familiar with certain music and if that music has deep associations for us, we are likely to hear it as superior or otherwise set apart. It matters little what the music is or from which genre, era or purpose it derives. What is important is that we hear it as our music, and that it serves as an extension and self-reminder of who we are.

There are no rules or limits regarding which type of music can conjure profound attachments. Kol Nidrei might be an obvious example, with its lofty Romanticism and ethnic-religious substance; but for someone else, a tango, doo-wop ballad or cartoon theme song can have the same effect. There is really no point in debating whether one selection is more worthy of this high esteem than another. Fondnesses occur on such an individual level that they (at least should) escape criticism.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

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