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Modern Times — The High Cost of Speed

Tony Long contributes a thoughtful piece on the speed of modern life in “A Sour Note on Modern Times,” published at Wired magazine. Long begins with a lament on the fact that classical music stations, in a desperate attempt to attract new listeners, are chopping up symphonies for quick bite-sized listening.

Take a look at his lamentation:

I tuned into my local classical music station the other day and was pleased to hear the andante from Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony. I would like to have heard the movements that followed it, too, but the station chose to play Ludwig’s scene by the brook as if it were written as a stand-alone piece of music.

The standard symphonic form contains four distinct movements (although the Sixth has five to accommodate Beethoven’s sudden summer squall) with a total duration lasting anywhere from 20 minutes (common in Mozart’s and Haydn’s day) to an hour (for those expansive Romantics Beethoven, Mahler and Bruckner).

Regardless of its length, the symphony — or concerto, or chamber work — was meant to be heard as a unified piece of music, not chopped into bits and served as finger food. Yet increasingly, classical stations everywhere are doing exactly that. There are some legitimate reasons, survival being foremost among them.

As a devotee of classical music (among other forms of music, I hasten to add), this hits the soft spot — especially when Long points to a surgical break-up of Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony.

Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6, the “Pastoral” in F Major [Opus 68], was the first symphony I purchased in record form. (Yes, the old vinyl disk with the skipping from scratches.) I bought it as a 15-year-old, and it was the symphony to which I first listened when reading, studying, and writing.

Later, I became concerned about Beethoven’s pantheism and put it away — but never for long. Three different recordings reside on my iPod at the present. I moved on to a greater appreciation for other composers, but never lost my love for the majestic sixth. [A good interpretation of the symphony can be found here.]

Long extends his argument:

To listeners weaned on pop tunes running 2:48 (with guitar solo), a 15-minute adagio can be daunting. Some of Bruckner’s stuff, especially when played under a heavy baton, must seem excruciating to modern ears. But that isn’t Bruckner’s fault. His music was geared to his world, not ours.

Life is a sprint these days. So maybe the right solution for the purveyors of the classics is to take a work of 40 minutes and cut it to 10, giving you time to catch a quick listen before moving on to the next big thing in your day.

His thesis:

Speed kills. That used to refer to the dangers of driving too fast, and sometimes to the drug. Now it more ominously refers to the unhealthy pace at which we live our lives, coerced by rampaging technology into cramming as much as possible into our waking hours.

This is a good point to ponder (if you can squeeze in a few seconds of pondering). The pace of our modern lives is daunting and dangerous. I know of no way to resolve this problem (and I don’t have the time at present for an adequate analysis, of course), but it is worthy of serious and sustained consideration. For Christians, the question gets down to the basic issue of Christian identity and discipleship.

Or, to ask Francis Schaeffer’s famed question anew: How fast are we then to live?