ROWING UP in the 1990s, we watched “Nick At Night,” which played reruns of old television shows. Readers might remember a show called Bewitched, whose characters were named Samantha, Darrin, and Endora. The plot never varied. As a result, Bewitched was famously mocked by Gary Larson in his FAR SIDE comic strip. Something abrupt happened after the show’s fifth season: Samantha’s husband Darrin (Dick York) was replaced by a completely different actor (Richard Cox).
How Can That Happen? • There was no explanation given for why “Darrin Stephens” was suddenly a completely different person. Decades later—during a Bewitched documentary—one of the producers was asked whether he’d been afraid audiences might reject the new Darrin. I can’t recall his exact response, but he basically said: “Look, television audiences aren’t persnickety as long as the actors stay in character. If you stick a fish bowl on your head and tell the audience you’re a man from outer space, they accept it. They get it.” His point was actually quite profound. Let’s call it the FISHBOWL PHENOMENON.
Great Music • At a certain time in my childhood, I was obsessed with bands like Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and Green Day. But the lyrics were often obscene and depraved. Eventually an FSSP seminarian was able to convince me to destroy my complete collection of cassette tapes. It wasn’t easy, but I did it. I made up my mind to embrace great music—and that’s precisely where the FISHBOWL PHENOMENON comes in. You see, when it comes to great music (“music with depth”) one must approach with a docile attitude. Don’t expect to immediately fall in love with the music of Bach. Don’t expect to immediately crave—with an insatiable appetite—the powerful counterpoint of Guerrero, Marenzio, or Gabrieli. Don’t expect to immediately weep after hearing Josef Hofmann perform a Chopin Ballade. Don’t listen to five minutes of a Mass setting by Cristóbal de Morales and throw up your hands, saying: “Well, I gave it a try, but I hate it.”
Best Way To Wreck Fun • Don’t imitate that famous spoiled brat who kept asking: “Are we having fun yet?” That’s a sure way to destroy any chance of having fun. Don’t be the guy who—while watching a show about the man from outer space—keeps repeating over and over: “That space helmet looks like a fish bowl.” Forget about the fish bowl. Try to appreciate the drama and interaction of the characters. If you keep focusing on how Darrin looks “different,” you’ll never laugh at the jokes!
Where To Begin • I could argue that the first ten measures of Bach’s Fugue in C# Minor (BWV 849) are perhaps the greatest moments in all of music. Indeed, I could make a case that it’s worth dying for those ten measures! But I’m not an idiot—and I fully realize someone who’s never learned to appreciate great music, upon hearing those ten measures, will probably scream: “Boring!” So where should one begin? The sheer amount of masterpieces is overwhelming! I would strongly suggest starting with this:
How To Listen • The best way to begin is by listening while you drive. Glenn Gould was one of the most amazing pianists of all time, but he has an annoying habit of humming as he plays.1 The car engine noise will make it impossible to hear Gould’s humming. Listen to that YouTube video over and over, again and again. Remember, this is “music of depth.” One can listen for decades yet barely scratch the surface! For instance, I’ve been listening to Bach’s Contrapunctus #7 (DIE KUNST DER FUGE) constantly for twenty years, yet it still gets better and better—even though it’s only 3 minutes long. There are so many compositions like this.
Catholic Music • Since you’re just starting out, you won’t appreciate the breathtaking contrapuntal feats Bach accomplishes. It may be decades before you reach a level where you can thoroughly analyze the music. I can tell you, however, that everything Bach did was taken from the Catholic Church. All his amazing tricks—Stretto, Canon, Ostinato, Counter-Exposition, Invertible Counterpoint, Perpetual Imitation, Augmentation, Diminution, and so forth—100% of it was taken from the great Catholic composers: Palestrina, Guerrero, Morales, Victoria, Lassus, and so on.
1 Glenn Gould couldn’t stop the humming, because he suffered from severe mental illness. This is not uncommon when it comes to people with as much talent as Gould. For example, Sviatoslav Richter couldn’t function in life without carrying around a plastic lobster doll—but he put it down when he played concerts.