It is not easy to have classical musicians in your family, especially not if those classical musicians are your parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, and you are a 13 year old girl wanting desperately to fit in at your junior high, an institution of such social bias and rampant class-ism that John Hughes himself might have turned away in shame.
The classical musicians want you to be like them. They want you to play an instrument in the school orchestra, basically marking you for death, and they want you to listen to nice pretty records of nice classical music, just like the kind they play for a living. They do not want you to be like the other kids, the kids with their tapes of Guns n’ Roses and Morrisey, Madonna and Depeche Mode: that kind of music is garbage, they will say.
So you grow up a little warped, a little lustful for the things you’ve never had: cable TV, sugared cereal, video games. When you are at one of your many babysitting jobs, you drink in MTV and try to grab as much pop culture knowledge from that short encounter as you can, after the kids are asleep but before you are whisked away again, back to the land where your cello sits in the corner and your parents and grandparents and aunts and uncles have painted that corner in expectation.
But then, while lying on a hillside overlooking an outdoor amphitheater where your parents are playing their annual Fourth of July concert, you accidentally discover the most beautiful piece of music ever written. And to your horror, it is a piece of classical music.
It is a song filled with anticipation. You’ve heard it every year since you were too young to listen, and you know the song means the concert is almost over; that when it ends, the fireworks will go off and you will fold up the blanket and clean up the trash from Kentucky Fried Chicken and meet your parents at the stage door to drive back to your bedroom where you can turn up the radio and try to forget your lineage of pain. Thus, the song starts off as an ending. But soon you realize that the song itself begins something of its own, something that you now, years later, listen to just as loud as you listen to your garbage rock n’ roll: the song is the “1812 Overture,” by Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky.
It starts, just strings, so quietly you can barely hear. Strokes of nobility, of pride, and then, little by little, the other instruments awaken. The cellos take the lead in a minor key, tension mounting, the violins echoing, and then it is the French horns, booming a warning out over what you now know is a battlefield about to combust, and it does, with a cymbal crash and a bass line with the morbid drone of hell. Then the vision of the piece widens, and we take in an entire country: mountains and farmland and into the home of the common man, the man whose life this war is going to tear apart, the tango he dances around the fire, the beautiful maiden he kisses as he goes off to battle, and all seems quite lost as the strings escalate once again and are joined by an angry timpaniŠ
And then: a quiet horn. And you know that everything is going to end, right now, right at this moment the fate of the free world hangs in the balance of a fragile trumpet, and then the cannons begin and the battle has ended and we watch — as the entire orchestra arpeggios down for what seems an eternity — the final flag break loose from its staff and rise on the wind and then fall to the bloody ground where, yes! Our common man has prevailed! And the celebration can begin, and it does, with church bells and cymbal crashes and a marching beat of victorious soldiers entering the town to the peals of joyous cannons, cannons that this time announce all is well! Our men have come home! And the end of the piece takes forever, no one wanting to give up and play that last note, the bells and the brass holding, holding, as the strings find one more variant, and then it is over, done.
And you are left, spent, sweating, lying on the floor of your apartment with a pain in your shoulder from conducting just a little too vigorously during the last cannon part. But it was worth it. And now, of course, there are no fireworks, but you can still feel the breeze from that hillside and imagine that your parents are just yards away, packing up their instruments and jingling the car keys to say, let’s go home.