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Book Review

Why Classical Music Still Matters

Why Classical Music Still Matters
Lawrence Kramer
Berkeley: University of California Press. 2007. 242 pp
ISBN: 0520250826
ISBN-13: 978-0520280526
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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 obfuscatory habits.

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 #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.

Copyright © 2007 by Steve Schwartz.