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Book Review

Music After Modernism

Samuel Lipman
New York: Basic Books. 1979.
ISBN-10: 0465047408
ISBN-13: 9780465047406
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Summary for the Busy Executive: A snapshot of musical history.

The late Samuel Lipman was one of the few serious music critics in this country. By "serious" I mean a reviewer of classical music untied to the chore of newspaper reviewing. He wrote for Commentary and also helped found The New Criterion, conservative both aesthetically as well as politically. I very seldom agreed with Lipman, but I have to admit at the least that he asked the big questions, that he knew both music and cultural history both widely and deeply, and that he assigned a social importance to art other than entertainment.

Lipman began as a pianist, a student of Rosina Lhevinne and among other things the soloist in the New York premiere of Elliott Carter's 1965 piano concerto. By the time he wrote this book, he had given up an active solo career. Much of this book originates, I think, in that letting-go.

The book mixes large cultural currents with quotidian details. Its thesis runs as follows: Modernism has come to a dead end. Most audiences don't like Modern music, although here and there one finds exceptions that have made their way into general consciousness. Performers don't perform modern works, for the most part, and have little communication with composers, mainly because they can't make a living playing anything other than the Romantic chestnuts. As a result, serious music lives so at the margins of culture that those who consider themselves in the thick of things usually know very little of contemporary work, and there seems to be no way forward. Western classical music is at this point dead, doomed to constantly resuscitate the increasingly remote past.

Of course, Lipman wrote all this almost thirty years ago, and for its time, it counted as a fairly acute assessment. Things, as they say, change, both for the better and for the worse. On the one hand, meaningful contemporary music has generally failed to penetrate the culture at large. Classical music of whatever period also fails, and its failure is only relatively less. Performers, who according to Lipman took center stage in public consciousness of classical music (Yo-Yo Ma, rather than Elliott Carter), have also become less vital. On the other hand, certain composers, like Reich and Adams, have connected with more listeners than usual. Indeed, against the odds, they can make a living from their works. Furthermore, the hegemony of post-Webernian twelve-tone music has given way to a healthy eclecticism. We judge music less on a priori grounds these days. A few new performers – Lang Lang, Hilary Hahn, among others – have long-term recording contracts and even sell.

Lipman erred by falling prey to despair. Unquestionably, the classical-music world cannot continue on its old models, and it has begun to reinvent its way. It's had to. We still have plenty of reasons not to congratulate ourselves yet, but we also have reasons for hope.

Copyright © 2009 by Steve Schwartz.