Jan Ladislav Dussek and
François-Joseph Gossec
Once upon a time, there were several radio stations in my hometown which broadcast classical music. Then, sometime in the 1990s, the deep thinkers of National Public Radio decided to banish music of any kind, restricting their broadcasts to endless chatter interrupted periodically by fund-drives. This left only one radio source of classical music, a commercial station I will call Classic K. For a while, I thought that Classic K's policy was to broadcast only the most hackneyed, well-worn chestnuts of the classical music literature.

In time, however, I realized that this did not fully explain the peculiarities of their programming. If it had, they would have broadcast a lot more Beethoven, the most popular of all classical composers. But they actually programmed LvB's works relatively sparingly. They did broadcast a good deal of Mozart, and a numbing excess of Haydn. In addition, they incessantly broadcast the output of a zoo of 18th century nobodies like Cannabich, Quantz, Stamitz, Reicha, Richter, Hummel, Krommer, Gossec, Dussek, Fränzl, Spätzle (renowned for his "Eine Kleine Noodlemusik"), Cherubini (a simple woodcarver who made puppets), Boccherini (one of the wooden puppets who was magically transformed into a real boy), Ditters Von Dittersdorf (who can only have been an animated cartoon character), and Haydn's little brother Mikey.

Evidently, the station favored relics of the era when the nobility commissioned music to serve as unobtrusive background for their dinner table conversation, and the product was valued most for being innocuous. In short, the management of Classic K took its listeners to be 18th century Hapsburg aristocrats with wigs on their empty heads. The station's single-minded pursuit of the innocuous explained why they broadcast relatively little Beethoven, whose music was of course far too intense for the station's purpose.

Although the playlists emphasized the well-bred 18th century, they also included plenty of music from the 19th century, and occasionally were even bold enough to tiptoe into the first few years of the 20th. Here the listeners might occasionally be challenged by such daring radicals as Elgar or Percy Grainger. In this area, the station's heavy weighting toward the innocuous sometimes verged on eccentricity.

Take, for example, music by the students of Rimsky-Korsakov. The most consequential by far of Rimsky's students was Igor Stravinsky, whose revolutionary, staggeringly brilliant "Rite of Spring" of 1913 virtually created the modern era in music, and whose later compositions in the vein that came to be called "neoclassical" pioneered still another modern musical idiom. Classic K of course never broadcast the "Rite of Spring," and broadcast very little Stravinsky of any kind. But they did program much more music (four times as much during two years when I kept count) by another one of Rimsky's students: Alexander Glazunov. The latter was a plodding academic hack who combined an unfortunate lack of talent with a deep reverence for Tchaikovsky. His easy-listening constructions were simply mock Tchaikovsky, although without the tunes or the passion, and they go down as easily as sleeping pills. This no doubt explains why Classic K for a time subjected its listeners to a Glazunoverdose.

At nighttime, needless to say, the station's offerings are limited not only to the soporific but to the short. It strings together miniatures and single movement snippets snipped from complete works, played three or four in succession just like the pop stations. When identifying a piece, the night announcer always confides that the orchestra. conductor, ensemble, and/or soloist had just played such and such "for us," as if the record just used had been a private performance. As an added treat, the night announcer impartially mangles all non-English words, using an affected accent that sounds like a hybrid of Irish, Cuban, Buginese, and Klingon.

The commercials on Classic K were a bizarre parade of ads for fish-oil pills to keep the brain limber, nutritional supplements, anti-aging elixirs, and pitches for local painless dentists. I assumed that the station wished to keep its audience either doing other things or half asleep, so that they would take in the ludicrous commercials, no less than the music, at a purely subliminal level. I used to refer to this cultivation of the soporific as "capitalist realism," in memory of the policy of "Socialist Realism" in the old USSR, which, much like Classic K, banned any music that was too personal, too pessimistic, or too modern.

However, I had to rethink my theory during the past year, when Classic K transformed itself into a "non-commercial" station. The fish-oil pills and quack medications vanished from its airwaves, to be replaced by fund-drives, just like those on NPR. Yet, the soporific programming continued. Thus, purely commercial considerations cannot explain the programming. Listeners tranquilized to the point of coma by hours of Quantz, Reicha, and Glazunov would probably be scarcely capable of writing a check. So a new theory was required to explain Classic K.

My theory now is that the individuals to whom Classic K broadcasts are all elderly members of an aboriginal tribe which has never been in contact with the modern world. I can almost picture these unspoiled primitives, gathered around their cooking fire in a park somewhere on the outskirts of the furthest suburb. I picture them worshipping an old portable radio, under the belief that Hummel, Krommer, Von Dittersdorf, and the other deities are actually living inside it, and that these tiny supernatural beings themselves perform the music inside the magic box. When the Classic K primitives go foraging for roots and berries at the edge of civilization, perhaps they also pick up road-kill to bring as offerings to their magic box. In their cargo-cult-like religion, they no doubt believe that proper sacrifices to Dussek and Gossec will be rewarded with eternal youth and painless dentistry.

--- Dr. Phage
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