Connecting to history through music

For more of Nancy Kranzberg’s commentary, listen to KWMU (90.7) St. Louis on the Air the first Friday of each month at approximately 12:50 p.m. She also hosts a weekly Arts Interview podcast for KDHX (88.1), available at

By Nancy Kranzberg, Special to the Jewish Light

If you’re looking for a great holiday gift, pick up a copy of “The Story of Music: From Babylon to the Beatles – How Music Has Shaped Civilization.” It goes all the way back to the Paleolithic caves of Chauvet, France, up to the music of today.

Author Howard Goodall cites a 1995 find in a Slovenian cave of a flute made of bear bone and says, “Our own day to day survival may no longer depend on our ability to sing but our ancient ancestors were on to something that applies to modern lives, too.” Study after study around the world has shown that singing enables infants to train their brains and memories to recognize pitch differentiation as a preparation for the full development of spatial awareness. In the Palaeolithic Age this was an absolutely crucial skill, if survival depended on knowing from which direction a wild animal’s cry was coming, what size it was and what mood it might be in.

What child doesn’t try to whistle through his teeth or through his thumbs, or make drumming sounds with his fists or other instruments?  Oh how music tears through our hearts and souls, lifts our spirits and can change our mood.

Goodall talks of composers writing uplifting music when a third of the population of Europe was being wiped out by the black death in the 14th century. A day doesn’t go by when I’m not moved or soothed by music or make or hear a reference to some sort of musical theme, from a rendition of “Happy Birthday” to typical elevator music.

At a meeting a couple of years ago with Art Silverblatt, a professor at Webster University, we discussed media literacy and different interpretations of what we see and hear. He asked if the terrifying, scary score of the movie “Jaws” was changed to the soothing sounds of a waltz, how would we view the shark? Maybe the shark would look balletic in the blue waters of the ocean.

In a walk through the St. Louis Art Museum’s African and Pre-Columbian sections one can see musical instruments and references to music throughout the galleries. There are many traditional paintings with pictures of musical instruments as well.

The Sheldon has several galleries that feature jazz and blues themes as well as exhibitions of the famous Hartenberger World Musical Instruments Collections. There are pieces from cultures all over the world.

And listening to our wonderful St. Louis Chamber Chorus in one of the churches or temples in which they perform, reminds me of how music has always played a major role in religion and its liturgy. The Hebrew chants of the cantor or the masses or other ceremonial rites of various churches are always mood altering.  The wonderful sounds of the Bach Society’s annual Christmas Candlelight Concert always brings tears to my eyes.

Goodall says, “No civilization, except perhaps for our own, has valued, venerated and taken pleasure in music more than the ancient Greeks, whose culture dominated south-eastern Europe and the Near East nearly 700 years in the first millennium B.C., before it was absorbed into the Roman Empire.” Even the word “music” comes from the Greek mousike, referring to the fruits of the nine muses in literature, science and the arts. This reminds me of our own Diane Touliatos, retired professor of music at the University of Missouri – St. Louis, who discovered musical manuscripts of the oldest musical piece written by a woman.

The St. Louis Symphony, Opera Theatre of St. Louis and Jazz at the Bistro are all wonderful venues to listen to and savor world-class music in comfortable, enjoyable settings. During the summer, the Muny and Stages St Louis fill the air with their wonderful musical productions. And of course, the Sheldon is one of the most acoustically perfect settings in the world  to hear every type of music from folk, to classical, to jazz and blues.

Rich O’Donnell, retired principal percussionist of the St. Louis Symphony and professor of music and one of the founders of The New Music Circle and HEARding Cats Collective, loves to respond to those who claim not to like new music. He counters, you like what you know. Open your minds and ears.

As usual, I have to say — you don’t need the jillion dollar tickets of a New York production to hear the best music — you can stay right here in our fantastic St. Louis and find dozens of affordable options.