Why Classical Music Still Matters
Berkeley: University of California Press. 2007. 242 pp.
Summary for the Busy Executive: Fitfully intelligible.
A long time ago, I was very interested in relationships between music
and poetry. I honed in on investigating how song worked, as an entity
different from the poetry and music that comprised it. I picked up a
volume by Lawrence Kramer (it may have been his first book), Music and
Poetry: The Nineteenth Century and After, which seemed to lie right up
my street. Written in the American adaptation of French deconstructionist
criticism, the book repelled my attempts to understand any point Kramer
may have made, and after a couple of months, I gave up. To this day, I
have no idea whether Kramer had anything significant to say or whether
he was simply waving his hands and blowing smoke.
Nevertheless, I keenly anticipated Kramer's latest, not least because
the University of California Press, known for its strong music list,
publishes it. The title intrigued me most, in that it shows how much
the stature of classical music has changed within the general culture.
After all, when Aaron Copland wrote What to Listen for in Music, he
assumed a value for classical music that his readers shared, at least
enough to go to the trouble of learning how to listen. That, of course,
has changed, although some argue we, if we only recognized it, live in
a golden age for classical music, as they cite sales figures and tickets
sold. Kramer acknowledges this, but, as he says, "it feels wrong."
Indeed. On one of those awful "best-of-millennium" shows, Charlie
Rose asked his panel - including Robert Hughes, Rob Reiner, and others
who made their living in the arts - to decide the best composer of the
century. I dimly recall it came down to a tie between Louis Armstrong
and Bob Dylan. At one point, Hughes asked whether they should at least
consider Stravinsky, only to meet with embarrassed silence. I'd contend
that most of the panelists didn't know enough Stravinsky, or any other
twentieth-century classical composer, to bring him to the discussion.
Again, these people made their living from the arts and therefore had
a special interest. Imagine how much further off the radar Stravinsky
lies for even the average "educated" listener. In many ways, the reception
of classical music doesn't differ all that much from that of other
"complicated" arts. After all, Thomas Pynchon will never sell as well
as Tom Clancy. It seems, however, a matter of degree. The college-educated
class interested in culture might be vaguely discomfited by its lack of
interest in Pynchon rather than by its ignorance of Elliott Carter.
Classical music "feels" more marginalized.
Given the sense of crisis, finding someone to blame (as Norman Lebrecht
does, for example) makes little sense. Kramer feels one can best serve
the cause of classical music by articulating its values. In other words,
Kramer feels obliged to step up to the role of public intellectual, a
missionary to the skeptical. I applaud the intention and the effort.
However, I doubt most people will get through the first fifty pages of
this book. Kramer knows he can't do his usual post-modern-criticism
song and dance, but his prose is still plagued by it. Citing examples
from West Wing and The Simpsons, he often comes across as Square Dad
trying to sound With It. It must have taken him years of effort to learn
to write so badly. One quote (by no means the clumsiest passage in the
book) will, I think, be enough:
The experiential difference between playing and listening is hard to
describe. It's like seeing the same landscape by sunlight and moonlight.
In listening the telepathic illusion of performance arises like a metaphor;
it gives the listener a sense of being on the inside of a lived subjectivity
but of visiting only, not of dwelling there. Yet the effect still feels
more immediate than anything available through either words or images.
The music opens up the zone in which one subjectivity cannot clearly be
separated from another.
To quote Pogo, "Oog. Double oog with nuts."
I can't imagine the person that paragraph would convince. Notice there's
no argument here, not even an attempt to argue. What we get is an "x=y,"
"this is that, and that is something else" strategy. The book as a whole
is light on argument, although when Kramer goes to the trouble, his book
begins to lift off the ground. Unfortunately, most of the book is a
series of critical bulls. If the passage has a meaning, it's a meaning
I bring to it from my own experience of listening to and performing
classical music. (Wow! How post-modern is that?) Those who ignore
classical music are left, of course, in the dust. At best, Kramer
preaches to the choir.
Let me also register my annoyance with one chapter title: "Persephone's
Fiddle." I have two questions: Why Persephone's fiddle? Why Persephone's
fiddle? I know of no connection between the two, and of course Kramer
doesn't bother to explain. He seems to have misappropriated what Donald
Hall calls "the vatic voice," something that makes you appear deeper
than you know yourself to be. A poet doesn't always know what he means.
An essayist had damn well better. It's one more symptom of Kramer's
Nevertheless, despite his self-sabotage, Kramer manages to say
interesting and valuable things, chief among them an account of how we
might attach meaning to classical music. For Kramer, the Enlightenment,
and Rousseau in particular, changed our view of ourselves. To Aristotle,
mankind consisted of types, with individual variations. The real work
of understanding was directed outward, toward the political and social
world. The Enlightenment posed the Sensitive Man, each person individual,
distinct, and sacred. The work of understanding was directed inward,
government and social institutions justifiable only as far as they
respected and conformed to the inner sacrament. The demand to "know
thyself" becomes ever more important. Thus, for Kramer (and for the
composers of and since the Enlightenment), listening with our whole
attention is a way to meditate on our lives, and our lives bear on the
insights we achieve. The music changes us. Furthermore, because our
lives change, because most of us don't remain fixed in our knowledge or
in our character, when we listen again with that kind of commitment, we
take away different things from it. We change the music.
Kramer admits that this can happen with many different kinds of music.
I listen to blues a lot, and mostly through an "art for art's sake" ear.
I admire the variations, the individual style a particular singer or
player brings to a fairly simple form. However, as an ex-New Orleanian
who lost his house and his city to Hurricane Katrina, Irma Thomas singing
a blues about a flood tears up my insides. Why is classical music any
different, or any better?
Let's leave aside jazz or Indian classical music, for example, since
I know a lot less of either. Classical music primarily gives you more
time than popular music, and within that span, a greater variety of, for
lack of a better word, narrative. Kramer dubs the way classical music
builds a narrative "the fate of melody," which I think gets to the
essence. You follow a thread, or even several threads, to experience
their transformation, their flowering. Again, even if you've heard the
piece many, many times - say, Beethoven's Fifth - the outcome is never
quite the same, if only because you and often the performance are not
the same. In popular music, the performance is primary. A classical
score, on the other hand, to some extent, exists in our minds as independent
of a performance or even our own circumstance. That's one reason,
according to Kramer, why it seems inexhaustible. In The Man Who Was
Thursday, G. K. Chesterton posited that getting into the Tube and
always going through the same succession of stops was actually quite
miraculous, given the fact that in an arbitrary universe, anything could
happen. I'd say that listening to classical music is like riding on the
Tube. Despite the sameness of the route, it's never really the same
journey. And occasionally, you even wind up in a different place, as
the route magically transforms into something else. Those are the moments
you especially treasure.
As far as Kramer goes, I don't quarrel with any of this. I believe many,
myself included, listen to music in this way. But that's not, of course,
the only way. I believe one can experience music (or almost any art)
as a rapture of pure beauty and form. I happen to remember the first
piece of classical music I ever heard: Bach's English Suite No. 2 in
a. I was three, with very little experience (even self-awareness),
certainly none with classical music, at least none I knew about. The
opening prelude, with its wild leaps and close imitative entrances, made
me feel like Ezekiel and the vision of the wheels within wheels. I
didn't know who Ezekiel was back then, however. But I remember quite
clearly the sense of time leaping forward and being yanked back to its
starting point, over and over again, even as it flowed on. I threw my
left arm out to the side with each entrance of the theme. My poor
explanation aside, I would say that this has nothing to do with the way
I live my life. I experienced fundamentally an aesthetic epiphany which
I've remembered in detail for close to sixty years, and the memory still
moves me. The work itself is part of my experience, far more so than
the circumstances under which I heard it. In other words, the fact of
hearing these works can be the primary experience.
Kramer also deplores what Thomson called "the music-appreciation racket."
Robert Shaw made roughly the same point when he said that what anyone
needs to get something out of classical music is the ability to hear
patterns and remember them. I don't disagree. On the other hand, I
really do believe knowing something about sonata form, first and second
subjects, contrapuntal techniques, harmony, and orchestration enhances
that experience, and some of it may even help listeners more easily make
sense of what they hear. It's not the most important thing about
listening, but it has considerable advantages. Chief among them may be
an appreciation of the thing made as well as insight into the designer's
mind. I can certainly drive a well-designed car without knowing a thing
about the engine, but understanding the relationship of its working parts
may deepen my pleasure and my appreciation. A camshaft is a lovesome
thing, God wot.
My favorite section of the book comes at the end, the final paragraph,
in fact. It's a credo that articulates what classical-music lovers like
myself find it so hard to express:
Despite the frigid connotations of its label, classical music is the
very opposite of frozen in its presumed grandeur. Lend it an ear, and
it will effortlessly shuck off the dead-marble aspect of its own status
and come to as much life as you can handle. It will invite you to hear
meanings it can have only if you do hear them, yet it will give you
access to meanings you had no inkling of before you heard the music. It
has nothing to do with the classic in the sense of a timeless monument
that dictates a self-evident meaning and demands obeisance for it. It
opens itself like a willing hand or smile, making itself available to
you for self-discovery, reflection, and, yes, critique. And at times,
as here, it will go further. It will offer you moments of revelation -
however one wishes to take the term - that stay in the mind's ear with
a resonance that, like the song of Wordsworth's solitary reaper, will
not die out:
I listened, motionless and still,
And, as I mounted up the hill,
The music in my heart I bore
Long after it was heard no more.
Say "A-men," somebody.
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