Longevity & Legacy

by Derek Winter


I was sitting on the grass at the Sidney Myer Music Bowl recently, gazing at the stars, watching the moon behind the cityscape and getting lost in the music of Dvorak and my mind turned to consider why this music has stood the test of time and why or whether it was relevant in the 21st century. Why such longevity and what a legacy.

The Sidney Myer Music bowl is a fantastic outdoor venue for listening to live music and there would have been in excess of 10,000 people there that night. I am sure there must be other sound bowls around the world, but in such close proximity to the city, with easy accessibility and the opportunity to listen to the world class Melbourne Symphony Orchestra just served to remind me how privileged I am to live in Melbourne.

I digress though. (perhaps this whole post is a digression from the normal tone on this blog!)

Some people question the relevance and value of playing music that is so old on instruments that haven’t changed for hundreds of years. Surely we’ve progressed beyond that and there are better things to master and more meaningful music to get absorbed into. Aside from individual taste and preference, It intrigues me that in fact music such as this clearly does attract an audience after 150 years, and other composers much older than that. That’s quite a legacy and something that I can’t imagine the composer’s at the time contemplated or imagined possible. How do we achieve such a legacy and such longevity from our contributions?

It says something about their art and talents however. The music is certainly evocative. Can transport you on a journey and paint a picture in your mind. It is however not as accessible and ‘consumable’ as todays commercial music. Perhaps todays 3 minute radio hit is to classical music (of it’s various era’s) what T20 cricket is to Test cricket. (Apologies to those of you in countries where cricket is not played and hardly comprehensible!). 

There’s no doubting the excitement and entertainment of a T20 game, nor the talents of many of those writing music suited to short bursts on the radio. However to the true aficionado’s of the game of cricket, a 5 day test match with all the ebb’s and flows, the building tension and the drama that is played out is the epitome of the sport. So too, the concerto’s and symphonies of the past.

I had three pieces to savour in a 2 hour concert, exhibiting a wide range of emotions and styles. Tchaikovsky, Smetna and Dvorak. The Dvorak and Tchaikovsky provide a good comparison and contrast. Tchaikovsky’s violin concerto is technically one of the hardest pieces of music to play on the violin and feted as one of the most important and impressive pieces ever written from the instrument. It is a brooding, angst ridden piece, yet tuneful, colourful, exciting. It has moments of reflection and fireworks. This is perhaps not surprising given that it was written in the months following Tchaikovsky’s marriage disintegrating.

Dvorak’s 8th Symphony on the other hand was optimistic and inspiring. Although written prior to his move to America and less famous than his “New World” symphony which is wrote there, the 8th does seem to evoke the optimism of the “New World” and encourage enthusiasm.

Tchaikovsky’s violin concerto was certainly not a hit when first ‘released’. In fact the worlds leading violinist refused to play it and the violinist that assisted Tchaikovsky in finalising it also refused to play it. When it was played publicly it was derided heavily. And yet now, no violinist would be without it in their repertoire. In contrast Dvorak’s work was critically acclaimed straight away and his growing reputation saw him return from America back to Europe.

So both pieces remain today. They wouldn’t fit into a commercial radio stations timeframes between advertisements, they require an effort and commitment from the listener to allow them to carry you away, but if you stay the distance - both take over half an hour - you are rewarded and transported to another place.

It led me to consider what music of this generation would still be learnt and played in 150 years time? Who will they be listening to in 2165? What will stand the test of time? I’d like to think that there are some artists that are significant enough, original enough, talented enough that they will still be well known. Who they are is not for me to assess and no doubt becomes a matter of very personal taste. Had you asked the general populous of the late 1800’s they would be highly unlikely to have expected Tchaikovsky’s violin concerto to be well thought of!

And then more generally. Who leaves a legacy? It’s not only musicians that leave their mark on the world which remains hundreds of years later. Leaders in industry, education, politics all have shaped the society we live in today. Each at their time would have no idea what impact they might have had after such a long time and many would not have even considered the longevity of their contribution. Mostly they were focussed on their lifetime, their personal contribution to make a difference. For many it was more fundamental. Earn a living to support a family doing what they could do best. 

So the challenge remains for us all. Only a small percentage have the freedom and privilege of choosing a field of endeavour and seeking a world changing contribution. But all have the ability to give of their best and make a difference to their local community. The longivity and legacy of those actions and those efforts will be for others to determine.