Classical music is significant to modern society. For more than 300 years, classical music has expressed terrible sorrow, despair, love, humor, and great joy. Beauty in the form of powerful literature, art, architecture, and music gives us sensual pleasure and creates continuity in human history. Though classical music has been far eclipsed by pop music, its importance as a mode of expression remains strong. Music has the power to transform lives.
Art is affected by the times and art is a reflection of the times: Dmitri Shostakovich, who broke with classical tradition through his dissonant and brooding symphonies, was inspired by the massive suffering during World War II. Johann Sebastian Bach’s tinkling, cheerful keyboard sonatas were composed in a period when art was revered and encouraged by royal courts.
I’m seated in a restaurant and gradually become aware of music. I lean forward, listening intently, and suppress a smile as I recognize Tchaikovsky’s Romeo & Juliet Fantasy Overture. Since I’m a nerd, recognizing obscure symphonies in public places is a game I like to play. Beneath the clinking silverware and the constant hum of conversation, this piece that has moved listeners to tears was relegated to background noise. In a wave of ill humor, I suspected that the restaurant had intentionally used the music to mask the clamorous sounds of pigs at a trough, much like cheap air freshener is used in gas station bathrooms.
At the other extreme, I’ve seen music make a tremendous impact. Easily the best concert I’ve seen was the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela. My youth orchestra in San Francisco was given tickets for all our members. They were phenomenal—this orchestra is the pinnacle of “El Sistema,” a government-funded program that trains a half-million young Venezuelans in music. Children as young as two years can be provided with an instrument and lessons. El Sistema’s founder, José Antonio Abreu, envisioned an orchestra in every town, and now the country has over 200 youth orchestras.
Venezuela’s music program has literally saved the lives of many children by keeping them off the crime-ridden streets. I was astonished to hear a boy admit that if he had not started the trumpet, he would have ended up stealing, selling drugs, and begging with other boys his age. Children living in extremely poor barrios leave their instruments at school for fear they might be stolen at home. Because of Venezuela’s poverty, music is incredibly important to young musicians. It provides them with hope for their futures.
The spread of classical music could have an enormous impact on the world’s youth: Music’s positive influence on the children of Venezuela proves its ability to change the course of seemingly fixed lives.
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