The last few days, I’ve seen a lot of purple. I live in Minnesota, and everywhere I’ve been, purple has appeared — purple clothing, purple light, purple banners, purple flowers, purple everywhere. Purple is my favorite color, but it’s still astonishing to see so much of it. Cars drive by blaring the music of Prince, a burst of sound and then gone. On Friday, my earworm was the first six notes of “Purple Rain.” The music world has lost a lot of fine musicians this year, both in the classical realm as well as the pop/rock. Prince’s mysterious death is only the latest.
I confess: I know little of Prince’s music. He’s been a presence in my state, though, since his birth, and during the last nearly 40 years has followed his creative soul here, far from the distractions of fame or notoriety. During the last 48 hours, I’ve learned just how prolific he was as a musician, songwriter, and performer. He worked hard. He remained true to his inner muse, to his musical imagination. What he produced could have been dismissed and rejected because it didn’t fit with current music trends. But it was accepted as innovative and original. He was lucky. He persevered. He did what he could not not do.
Something that’s intrigued me about Prince that I’ve heard over and over the last few days is that he blended music genres, established his own “sound” and broke boundaries. That reminded me of another short musician who lived over 200 years ago: Ludwig von Beethoven. Probably a major difference between the two is Beethoven read music, composed on paper using musical notation. From what I’ve heard about Prince, he was self-taught, didn’t read music, and composed by playing, although I’d think that at some point he’d have someone write it all down for other musicians. Beethoven, though, was one of the pop musicians and composers of his day, like Prince.
Beethoven also broke boundaries in classical music. He learned how to follow the rules first, and composed music in the accepted forms and styles. Then came his Third Symphony. His Fourth Piano Concerto. The piano sonatas. The string quartets. And of course the Ninth Symphony. All new, all revolutionary. He was a pianist who wrote incredible music for orchestra, but he had some challenges when it came to vocal music. He didn’t allow the challenges to become obstacles that stopped him, though. Like Prince, who seems to have turned any obstacles into opportunities to make music. If Beethoven were alive today, would he have liked Prince? Did Prince like Beethoven’s music?
I’ve been reading a lot of memories of Prince also the last few days. They’ve reminded me of my own brief encounter with him many years ago. At the time, I’d heard of him but was more immersed in classical music.
I returned to Minnesota after a trip, landing at MSP on a beautiful, sunny late spring day. I left the terminal to catch a cab and walked past a shining white car, maybe a town car or a modest limo. I crossed the road in front of it, and as I looked to the left to check oncoming traffic, the guy in the white car waved to me, he smiled a really big smile like he was seeing an old friend, waving excitedly. I didn’t know the guy, but he made me smile, and I waved back at him. I crossed over to the first available cab. The driver looked at me slack-jawed as I got in the back seat. “You know Prince?” I started to shake my head and ask “What Prince?” when it hit me. He was talking about Prince the pop music star. I looked back at the white car but it was gone. Yeah, that was Prince sitting in that white car making me smile.