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The Class of Classical

No lie: The first time I really fell in love with a piece of classical music was on an episode of The Twilight Zone. The story had something to do with a couple in 19th century dress living in a doll house and someone watching them from outside—I don’t remember the exact details. But I do remember the music. At the beginning and end of the episode, the woman in the dollhouse sat at the piano and played the song in the video above—Mozart’s sonata KV331, though I didn’t know it at the time—accompanied by Rod Serling’s voiceover. The music was so beautiful, so filled with yearning. If I had seen the episode in the age of VCRs, I would have rewound it over and over just to hear her play those first eight bars.

This wasn’t the first time I heard classical music at home. Though he mainly had a hankering for acid rock—I still have his original Cream’s Disraeli Gears LP, complete with a price tag for $1.99—my father was also a Mahler man. I remember him blasting Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 on the hi-fi while he lay stretched out on the couch in his underwear, shouting Would you just listen to that wall of sound! when I happened to walk by. But, be it Mahler or Brahms, Beethoven or Bach, symphonies usually just don’t do it for me. Too big, too bombastic, ultimately too overwhelming.

When I heard this piece on The Twilight Zone I became obsessed with it. If I found out a classmate had a piano I would get myself invited to come over to their house, even if I didn’t like them that much, just so I could feel the weight of the keys when I pressed them down. I picked out the tune of the sonata by ear and played it as often as I could.

I still love classical music, particularly smaller, more intimate works: Satie’s piano pieces, Scarlatti’s sonatas, Schumann’s song cycles, Bach’s Goldberg Variations, all quiet jewels meant to be played behind closed doors. On occassion I buy tickets for the Berliner Philharmonic, sometimes taking my daughters along with me. Whenever I do, I find myself surrounded by half of Zehlendorf with a sprinkling of Friedenau and Wilmersdorf—in other words, Berlin’s suburban and urban enclaves of the upper middle class. Class always surprises me. At this point it shouldn’t, but it always does. Although I suppose my family is technically “cultured middle class”—college educated, well-read, a love of art house films, etc.—I didn’t grow up with any typical class pressures or expectations. When I was born, my parents lived in a hippie, Jesus freak commune. In elementary school, I wore halloween costumes to school whenever I felt like it. In junior high and high school I had so many pets (Bring it home and dad will build a cage for it), I was about a half a step away from being an animal hoarder. Growing up, my family was a motley crew eccentric even by West Coast standards. But classical music and literary writing, two things I truly love, are the typical stomping grounds of a class I’ll never feel a part of.

In the end, does it matter? Not really. A year ago, I finally bought myself a piano, an electric Kawaii in Liberace white. Now I can finally play those first eight bars of Mozart’s sonata KV331.

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