333. Classics

Once in a while, somebody creates something that’s really good – so good that people like it even when that somebody isn’t around any more. Then it’s called a classic. Some classics start to seem sacred; you aren’t supposed to change a word, note, or stroke of it. You’ve got to keep it exactly the way its creator meant it to be. The folk process can change folk tales, folk songs, etc., but classics aren’t supposed to be put through any folk processor.
I understand that way of thinking. I have my own favorite classics. I wouldn’t want a word of Walt Whitman’s poetry or a note of Beethoven’s music to be changed. That’s partly because those words and notes are so good the way they are, and partly because they’re part of my past. Not that I remember Walt or Ludwig personally, but I remember reading Whitman’s poetry and hearing Beethoven’s music in high school. And I want to hold on to those memories.
I’ve developed my own strategy for dealing with people’s tendency to mess with the classics. I look at their altered versions as separate works. When I first heard “A Fifth of Beethoven” during the disco era, I tried not to think of it as the bastardization of a classic. To me, it was just a disco tune. As far as I was concerned, Beethoven’s fifth symphony was intact; if it had inspired someone to create some new music, that was okay with me.
My friend Phil Hoose recently reminded me that works of art don’t become classics just by being good – that they have to be heard, seen, or read by people with influence. Phil refers to DWEM’s (dead, white, European males) as the ones whose creations get called classics in our culture. He thinks Ray Charles deserves a shot at it, too. I agree. And I suspect that there are also great artists whose work is given less credit than Ray Charles. I recently heard that Sitting Bull was an accomplished songwriter. Not to mention the female half of the human race, some of whom had to call themselves “George” or something to get any recognition.
I’m sure that when Shakespeare first came out with his plays, some critics accused him of mangling the classics. He took a time-honored myth, “Pyramus and Thisbe,” and turned it into a popular play called “Romeo and Juliet.” He changed the names, the setting, the plot – people who liked “Pyramus and Thisbe” must have thought some nasty things about Shakespeare. Why couldn’t the vulgar bard leave well enough alone? And then, a few hundred years later, Sondheim and Bernstein came up with “West Side Story,” which was even further from “Pyramus and Thisbe.” When will it end?
I choose not to let it bother me. Disney Productions can come up with versions of classics and folk tales, and as far as I’m concerned, they’re separate projects, to be judged on their own merits. Some may become classics, and some may not. People of the future will decide.

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