I’m happy to reignite these online thoughts by extending a big “thank you” to Jon Hofferman of Carissimi Publications for sending me a complimentary copy of the wonderful “Classical Composers Poster.”  I first stumbled on the website for the poster (which you can link to here) at some point last fall.  I was struck by the breadth and detail of the timeline:

“The Classical Composers Poster features over 950 composers from Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179) to Philip Glass (1937-) and Frank Zappa (1940-1993). It shows which composers lived when, the names and dates of thousands of compositions, and key events in music history. The poster measures 40″ x 27″ and is perfect for anyone who loves – or is learning about – classical music.”

My sense was that posters of this special kind were as rare as one-line descriptors of classical music history that extend from an inspired 12th century mystic abbess to the Grand Wazoo.  Long story short: I cold-called Carissimi Publications; Jon Hofferman responded warmly, and I received the poster in three or so weeks’ time.

With a nod to Giacomo Carissimi (1604-1674), one of the lesser-known composers of the early Baroque era, Carissimi Publications’ Classical Composers Poster is a real achievement: incredibly detailed, and on high-quality art stock, the whole is sequenced chronologically and helpfully colour-coded according to the generally agreed-upon level of a composer’s significance for classical music tradition.  It’s as artful as it is useful – source of reference and labour of love alike.  It now hangs on one of my apartment walls alongside two music greats: bluesman of the Mississippi Delta, Charlie Patton, and the notorious J.S. Bach.

How best to pierce the surface of classical music?  A good many people – among them some of my greatest music-loving friends – comment on how difficult it is to get into classical music.  I have too much to say about this to get down to business here; and nothing will ever replace the experience of actually listening to music.  But the poster’s one example of a valuable point of access, a gateway to a living tradition of music that often seems to have gone underground.

It’s often difficult to approach the long history of classical music.  Some might have the sense of not knowing where to begin or of stepping into a developed story midway.  But we have certain markers that orient us: We have the setting and dawning of the centuries; and then there are signposts for the different periods (of Medieval, Renaissance, Baroque, Classical, Romantic and Twentieth Century).  And while I tend to view this framework as relatively fluid, it can be helpful.  Looking to the rich historical past sobers us up from the siren call that music is a perfect mirror of beauty, say, or the romantic notion that artistic genius is somehow independent of history.  Genius, history tells me, is a matter of influence and of education as much as it is one of creative independence and imagination.  The Classical Composers Poster reminds me of the importance of music history – of tradition and the individual talent.

It was Hegel who first recognized the history of philosophy as a valuable philosophical pursuit in its own right.  Up to his day, philosophy students were largely trained in logic, aesthetics, metaphysics and the like – but by way of primers or textbooks (essentially, “how to” manuals) on the branch of philosophy in question; but its history was silent.  It was all rather like hearing echoes without the sound – with neither a sense of origin nor of context.

Music, too, can be approached by way of its history.  I write this as someone who’s functionally illiterate in terms of music notation; I have as little formal knowledge of counterpoint as I do of harmony.  But its history has been anything but silent to me.

Shuggie Otis - Inspiration Information (1974)

I hesitate to say that the Classical Composers Poster is a great source of information alone, if only because “information” is a term that’s bandied about quite thoughtlessly these days.  This isn’t just information: It’s memory, history and culture.  It’s what a largely forgotten 1974 R&B album by Shuggie Otis calls Inspiration Information.  (You can take in the title track from that brilliant album here.)  And like that album, the Classical Composers Poster stands as a reminder that the musical well may very well be bottomless.

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