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The Music Box

By Jonas Barish

If there is one generalization which can safely be drawn concerning music today it is that this is a primarily symphonic age. All over the country people flock to concert-halls to hear the modern orchestra, like some gigantic cocktail-shaker, dish up a little Beethoven, Wagner, and Rimsky-Korsakov.

The reasons for this symphonic era are not far to seek. They lie, quite naturally, in the character of modern civilization, and its mechanized, accelerated tempo. Symphonic music means variety, and change of pace; volume, and diversity of tone color; filled with a potent appeal for the man who wakes up to the sooth sweetness of electric drills, and ends the day with one ear glued to a radio that blares. Even the programs of symphonic concerts, in their limitations, echo this love for the loud and violent. They are filled with music of an aggressive character, with strong rhythms and climaxes. Such a piece of music is the Beethoven Fifth Symphony. Its short, ruthless opening theme collars the attention of the listener at once, and holds him throughout the movement in a bull-dog grip.

Another standard of taste evident in the modern concert program is a love for music with pictorial effects and instrumental coloring, music with a story in it. This preference, a by-product of the modern fetish of realism, is responsible for the continued popularity of tone-poems and ballet-music. A lusty theme for the hero, a gentle little melody for his lady-love, a spinning theme and perhaps a brook motif: these seem irresistible to American audiences.

Anyone who is addicted to this kind of music must find chamber-music very dull, flat, and colorless, indeed. Its comparative quietness, and its total lack of aggressive character, demand much greater concentration on the listener's part. But the reward of this extra concentration is well worth the effort. For in training oneself to appreciate these smaller forms, not an insuperable task by any means, one will become acquainted with the greatest music of Schubert and Haydn, and much of the greatest of Mozart, Brahms, and Beethoven.

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