Why Classical Music Still Matters Hardcover – May 2 2007
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From Publishers Weekly
Classical music isn't necessarily that bad off, Kramer admits; there's still a diverse range of concert performances, and many listeners are choosing to download works from the Internet. But "something still feels wrong," something he identifies as the loss of the genre's crucial role in our cultural lives. The reasons Kramer, a music and literature professor at Fordham University, offers for why one ought to appreciate classical music fall back on the usual high-culture arguments that it "asks its listeners to imagine a work with more fullness and complexity than most other music does," converting emotions into tangible sound yet somehow not reducing them to abstraction. The problem with writing about classical music, of course, is that no matter how passionately you describe a Brahms quintet, it's not the same as hearing an actual performance. At times, Kramer's enthusiasm becomes overwrought, as when he rhapsodizes about the piano's harp and hammers uniting to create an instrument of " magic and engineering." He's more convincing when he describes the effect a young busker's Bach sonata has on the crowds at a New York subway platform. Such moments of direct observation are sprinkled throughout the erudite text—if only they appeared more consistently. (May)
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The latter is partly a function of Kramer's prose-poetic style: you're invited to negotiate 226 pages of such passages as "Regardless of the specific analogies involved, thinking about the performer or performance in the sense of creative reproduction and worldly activity takes us into the wider field of human performances, both symbolic and material, and therefore into the realms of action, desire, social condition, and the vitality of experience." Philosophical arguments about aesthetic value are notoriously difficult to follow in any event; it comes with the territory.
While Kramer has only good things to say about jazz and pop music, he locates a reflexive, ambivalent individualism -- the product of Enlightenment values and a fundamental condition of modernity -- in "classical" music, here identified with European art music from Bach to Ligeti. If the burden of creativity in jazz and pop lies almost entirely within the power of the performer (or arranger), the classical score is a symbol, a notional concept of music; the actual music is created by the subjective listener, in close collaboration with the composer and the performer(s). Far from being "timeless", classical music is provisional; it exists only in the hearing of the listening subject, and so the music has different meanings in different contexts, from the concert hall to the movie soundtrack.
Kramer's summary chapters on musical value bookend the essay, whose individual chapters focus on melody, which enacts a journey through experience; on score and performance, or the musical expression of emotions that we can't, or won't, put into words (Kramer's examples drawn from Hollywood movies are persuasive here); on art songs of loss and defiance, and the life-affirming process of finding meaning in them; on the paradox of classical piano music, which centers on a machine designed for players to embody mind and spirit, both their own and the composer's; and finally, a chapter on how art music creates a sense of cultural memory, a critical and reflexive sense that transcends mere nostalgia.
This is by no means an easy book to read, but I finished it with a richer sense of what this music has to offer to the engaged listener: the stimulation of a wider imaginative freedom, with which to better grasp the relation of [musical] work to world. And if classical music still matters, that's not too much to ask of it.
As an enormous fan of classical music, especially composers of the 20th century and beyond, I'm always interested in arguments that might convince some of my peers to try the genre out. Kramer does not argue for any superiority of classical music over other, popular genres. Instead he tries to focus on a few aspects of classical music that he believes unique to the genre and rewarding, such as melodic development and the relationship between the unchanging score and the rich differences between individual performances.
However, Kramer writes his defense of classical music in such longwinded, highfaultin' prose that the only people likely to keep up with him are people already committed to the genre. To offer one representative quotation, here's how he describes the Brahms Clarinet Quintet:
"If nothing else, the hope is to amend the sense of loss, even if it cannot be rememied, by saying an appropriate farewell. So the music goes systematically rummaging around in memory or fantasy (unable, really, to tell them apart) until it finds what it wants, which may or may not be what it has so long sought. The bliss is the music's secret, a secret kept even from the music itself that in the end it can be discovered, blurted out, confessed. Yet when it appears at last the blissful melody smothers the desire it rewards. It collapses one last time -- really, the last, this time -- into a gloomy, dark-tone B-minor close on the strings. The long search has only reconfirmed the transformation of a once-present hapiness into an eternally lost object of desire. What the quintet learns from that transformation is the hard necessity of resigning oneself to it."
Imagine reading such ecstatic reveries of one man's personal experience of various pieces (which may not reflect other people's interpretations at all) for a couple of hundred pages without any prior attraction to classical music.
I would say the only real audience for this book are readers who are already interested in classical music and who want to expand their collections. Kramer's inclusion of some great 20th century tonal repertoire is to be commended. He writes passionately about Messiaen's "Quartet for the End of Time" and Ligeti's Piano Etudes, noting that they maintain longstanding concerns of classical music and offer many delights, so hopefully he will encourage some conservative listeners to give these works a chance. As an book for to get the general public on board, this is a failure.
He wrote in the "In Lieu of a Preface" to this 2007 book, "few have asked forthrightly why and how classical music should still matter. That is exactly what this book does... [It] looks for answers that can appeal both to lovers of this music and to skeptics... It affirms the VALUE of classical music by revealing what its VALUES are." (Pg. vii) He adds, "This book... springs from an effort to ... ask for simple answer to a simple question: What's in this music for me? In other words, why does classical music still matter?... The idea is simply to suggest by example how classical music can become a source of pleasure, discovery, and reflection tuned not only to the world of the music, rich though that is, but also to the even richer world beyond the music." (Pg. 4, 6)
He suggests, "Classical music finds its special character in a sustained encounter with this dimension of melody." (Pg. 38) Later, he adds, "So rooted, so culturally fraught, is the principle of melodic return that its own return is virtuallly irrepressible. It seems like the force of nature itself, of a piece with traditional conceptions of cyclical time." (Pg. 69) He states, "The [musical] score is like a map that traces a route while erasing its destination... What makes a score 'classical' is the particular relationship between the way it is written and the way it is treated. The classical score has to project a conception of the fate of melody (or a credible alternative), and it has to endow its details with meaning and drama." (Pg. 81)
He says, "The history of the piano might be written as the gradual discovery and development of its ability to create an intimate space in which playing and listening meet, touch, part, and meet again. This ability... allows the piano to become a microcosm for the whole enterprise." (Pg. 137)
He summarizes, "Classical music still matters because we can now openly recognize something that has always been true of it but little heeded: that performance is a way to live with music, and even a little to live through music, and that anyone and everyone can play." (Pg. 87) He argues, "All classical music is designed to be heard attentively... More 'popular' types of music are more attuned to movement; they are something one moves to, not something one grows still for. People in the subway can literally take such music in stride. With music like this Bach, one can only stride away." (Pg. 210)
This is not a book particularly analyzing/critiquing the current classical music outlook (see books like Who Killed Classical Music?: Maestros, Managers, and Corporate Politics and Classical Music in America: A History of Its Rise and Fall for such analysis), and reads more like a series of general prose essays, than an attempt to present a progressive argument. Nonetheless, for anyone who wants an intelligent commentator on classical music in general (that's less "negative" about popular music than, say, Who Needs Classical Music?: Cultural Choice and Musical Value), this book will be of much interest.
It's a long preface to reading Aaron Copland's "What to Listen for in Music."