Who Needs Classical Music? Cultural Choice and Musical Value
By Julian Johnson
(Oxford University Press, 140 pp., $25)
Classical Music, Why Bother? Hearing the World of Contemporary Culture Through a Composer's Ears
By Joshua Fineberg
(Routledge, 162 pp., $21.95)
Why Classical Music Still Matters
By Lawrence Kramer
(University of California Press, 242 pp., $24.95)
Last January, Gene Weingarten, a Washington Post columnist, persuaded the violinist Joshua Bell to join him in an experiment. Bell was to dress in jeans, a T-shirt, and a baseball cap, position himself at the head of the escalator in the L'Enfant Plaza subway station at the height of the morning rush hour, open his violin case, take out his $3.5 million Stradivarius, launch into Bach's D-minor Chaconne for solo violin, and see what happened.
Nothing much happened. People hurrying to work hurried by. Half a dozen or so, mainly those working in the station or early for appointments, listened for a little while and put some money in the open case. One passerby, a former violinist, knew the playing was superb and dropped a five. Another recognized the performer and dropped a twenty.
But of course it was hardly an experiment. All concerned knew perfectly well that people at rush hour are preoccupied with other things than arts and leisure, and would not break their stride. But the fulfillment of the self- fulfilling prophecy gave Weingarten the pretext he sought, in an article titled "Pearls Before Breakfast," to cluck and tut, to quote Kant and Tocqueville, and to carry on as if now we knew what really happened at Abu Ghraib.
Bloggers took up the refrain. Notice, wrote one, that "all the children wanted to stop and listen. They knew. But their parents kept them moving on. Sadly it reminds me of an occasion when children wanted to stop and listen to Christ but his disciples didn't let them." Saddest for me was that the weblist of the American Musicological Society, my professional organization, added its meed of clucking and cackling. Scholars are supposed to be skeptical of spin and pose, but here we were piling on. My hat goes off to one Ben H., a netizen who saw through it all. "Perhaps the Post could do a whole series of articles about philistines ignoring Joshua Bell's sublime music-making in different locations," he suggested:
1. Outside a burning building (not one fireman stopped to listen!)
2. At a car crash site (one paramedic actually pushed him aside!)
3. During a graduation exam (shushed by the invigilators!)
4. At a school play (thrown out by angry parents!)
5. On an airport runway (passing jet liners seemed oblivious!)
In one respect, though, the caper was instructive. It offered answers to those who wonder why classical music now finds itself friendless in its moment of self-perceived crisis--a long moment that has given rise in recent years to a whole literature of elegy and jeremiad. These three books, by self-appointed counsels for the defense, constitute one of its subgenres. Others have argued the case for the prosecution. Their books include Who Killed Classical Music? Maestros, Managers, and Corporate Politics by Norman Lebrecht, a sloppy but entertaining British muckraker; Classical Music in America: A History of Its Rise and Fall by Joseph Horowitz, the latest version of a book that Horowitz has written several times by now, beginning with Understanding Toscanini in 1987; and Mozart in the Jungle: Sex, Drugs, and Classical Music by Blair Tindall, a journalist and recovering oboist, which despite a pandering title actually contains the smartest and most constructive take on the situation.
What makes the classical music crisis suddenly newsworthy is itself a question worth asking. When has the place of classical music in modern society ever been secure? Reviewing Lawrence Kramer's book in The New York Times, Edward Rothstein shrewdly observed that it might have appeared decades ago, but then it would have had a title more like "Why Contemporary Composers Don't Matter" or "Why Audiences Are Stuck in the Past." This is a weatherbeaten complaint, and one that no longer seems worth debating. To quote Pieter van der Merwe, a South African music historian, "for the general public, 'classical music' belongs mainly to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, carries on with rapidly diminishing vigor into the first few decades of the twentieth, and has ceased to exist by 1950." The difference is that the irrelevance to concert audiences of contemporary music now seems to be merely a special case of a problem facing the classical field as a whole. Doubts have widened, and Rothstein admits that he has come to share them. "Though I once tended to whine about its problems with cranky optimism, now even a stunning performance seems like a spray of flowers at a funeral."
If a supporter as staunch as Rothstein, who served as the classical-music maven for this magazine before briefly assuming the post of chief classical critic for the Times, can fall away, you surely see why I speak of friendlessness. Classical music has itself (among others) to blame for the quandary that it now faces, and I see the reason epitomized in The Washington Post's disgusting "experiment" with Bell the busker. The discourse that supported its old prestige has lost its credibility. As with rising gorge I consumed these books, the question that throbbed and pounded in my head was whether it was still possible to defend my beloved repertoire without recourse to pious tommyrot, double standards, false dichotomies, smug nostalgia, utopian delusions, social snobbery, tautology, hypocrisy, trivialization, pretense, innuendo, reactionary invective, or imperial haberdashery.
On the evidence before me, the answer is no. The discourse supporting classical music so reeks of historical blindness and sanctimonious self-regard as to render the object of its ministrations practically indefensible. Belief in its indispensability, or in its cultural superiority, is by now unrecoverable, and those who mount such arguments on its behalf morally indict themselves. Which is not to say that classical music, or any music, is morally reprehensible. Only people, not music, can be that. What is reprehensible is to see its cause as right against some wrong. What is destroying the credibility of classical music is an unacknowledged or misperceived collision of rights. The only defense classical music needs, and the only one that has any hope of succeeding, is the defense of classical music (in the words ofT.W. Adorno, a premier offender) against its devotees.
It would take a book--Joseph Horowitz's book, or Lawrence Levine's widely cited Highbrow/Lowbrow--to account for the cultural clout that classical music managed to acquire in such unlikely terrain as postbellum America; although maybe it is not such a riddle after all that the traditionally "high" musical genres should have amassed unassailable cultural capital in the "gilded" age of intensely concentrated wealth and increasing social stratification. Nor is it easy to describe the terms of its prestige in the period of its American ascendancy. It does have one rough and readily observable measure, though: the cultural prestige of an art medium can be calculated according to the extent to which there is perceived social advantage in claiming (or feigning) an appreciation of it.
By that standard, one can demonstrate that the high plateau of public esteem that classical music reached in America in the 1880s (the decade that saw the founding of the Boston Symphony and the Metropolitan Opera) lasted through the Depression (when the Works Progress Administration was called in to rescue it), and the Good War, and into the Eisenhower decade; and that its decline thereafter was precipitous. In the fall of 1956, when Eisenhower was running for re-election, RCA Victor issued a long-playing disc called The President's Favorite Music, consisting of a selection of items from the firm's backlist, a cover photo that is evidently an official White House portrait of the grinning occupant seated at his desk with the First Lady by his side, and a back cover containing a sort of benediction, signed with a facsimile of the president's handwriting, celebrating the role of musicians and of music in his life and in the life of the nation. The musical selections include some that had plausible connections with Eisenhower, like Dmitri Tiomkin's title theme for High Noon, as well as inspirational numbers such as Marian Anderson singing "He's Got the Whole World in His Hands" and Leopold Stokowski's arrangement of Bach's "Sheep May Safely Graze" (a paean not to the deity but to wise political leadership). But the bulk of the president's musical offering consists of three orchestral overtures: Beethoven's Coriolan (originally written to accompany a German tragedy, as the producers of the album had surely forgotten, about unwise political leadership), Mendelssohn's Fingal's Cave, and Strauss's Fledermaus. I have no idea how much actual input Eisenhower had in the planning of this record, but it does not matter. What matters is that identification with classical music was considered, by him or his handlers as much as by the record folks, to be a significant enhancer of his image.
Even better proof that classical music consumption was seen as a political asset, as an admirable personal quality, came during the next election season. In 1960, Time magazine reported on the musical tastes of the major-party candidates for president and vice president, as ascertained by Paul Hume, the music critic of The Washington Post (whose main claim to fame was a contretemps with President Truman over his review of First Daughter Margaret's recital debut). John F. Kennedy responded to Hume's inquiry through his wife, who sent a letter listing Debussy's Afternoon of a Faun, Ravel's La Valse, the overture to Berlioz's Benvenuto Cellini, Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov, and the Polovetsian Dances from Borodin's Prince Igor. (I am pretty sure that this Franco-Russian repertoire reflected the future First Lady's taste. While a junior at George Washington University studying in Paris, Jacqueline Bouvier had won a Vogue magazine essay contest on "People I Wish I Had Known" with an entry on Oscar Wilde, Charles Baudelaire, and--most germane--Serge de Diaghilev. When Stravinsky heard about this list from President Kennedy at a White House dinner, he concluded that she had been researching pederasty.)
Richard Nixon confessed to Time that his sentimental favorites were Oklahoma! ("because it was the first show that he and Pat saw after moving to Washington") and Mexican folk songs ("because they reminded him of his honeymoon south of the border"), but he still complied with Hume's request for a classical choice, and cited Chaikovsky's Swan Lake. Lyndon Johnson put himself down as "an indiscriminate admirer of Strauss waltzes." Henry Cabot Lodge, the true patrician in the company, named Mozart's Clarinet Quintet, K. 581 (he gave the Kochel number), alongside Handel's Messiah and (the noblesse oblige concession) recordings by the Dukes of Dixieland. (His wife added Bach's Suite No. 3 for Unaccompanied Cello, but only if "performed by Pablo Casals.")
And now? I learn from Joshua Fineberg's Classical Music, Why Bother? that George Herbert Walker Bush, every bit as much of a patrician as Henry Cabot Lodge, "was known to prefer the Beach Boys to the Philharmonic and saw no need to pretend a love for high culture." From Richard H. Solomon's Chinese Political Negotiating Behavior, 1967-1984, I learn that when Gerald Ford visited the People's Republic of China in 1975, his hosts made discreet inquiries as to what music he would like to be entertained with. It turned out to be the University of Michigan football song, "Hail to the Victors." (They goofed and played Michigan State's fight song instead.) When it was Vice President Walter Mondale's turn to visit in 1979, "the Chinese delighted their guest by playing his favorite songs from 'The Sound of Music' but left him most impressed with the degree of manipulation they were prepared to resort to in order to make a positive impression."
Fineberg takes a sour Spenglerian view of this devolution, and with startling fatuousness he blames it on a late-blooming "misreading" of Dada's (yes, Cage's and Duchamp's) "attacks on the artistic status quo." But what actually happened was more like a trahison des clercs--a defection of intellectuals to pop culture that was a by-product of the social and cultural turbulence of the 1960s. The first symptoms in music took the form of regal welcomes to the Beatles from conspicuously placed mandarins. First there was William Mann, the chief music reviewer (which in those days, it went without saying, meant classical music reviewer) for The Times of London, and his surprise nomination of John Lennon and Paul McCartney as the outstanding new composers of 1963.
Then, far more decisively, came Ned Rorem, a well-known if not yet celebrated American composer with a recognized specialty in art songs, seething with resentment against an academic establishment, then dominated by twelve- tone composers, that despised him. Rorem contributed an essay called "The Music of the Beatles" to the four-year-old but already august New York Review of Books. It appeared early in the fateful year 1968, and began with a remarkable salvo: "I never go to classical concerts anymore, and I don't know anyone who does." Along the way there were yummy stinkbombs such as this. "There are still people who exclaim: 'What's a nice musician like you putting us on about The Beatles for?' They are the same ones who at this late date take theater more seriously than movies and go to symphony concerts because pop insults their intelligence, unaware that the situation is now precisely reversed." (Between Mann and Rorem the boys from Liverpool were inducted into formal academic criticism via Richard Poirier's "Learning from the Beatles" in Partisan Review, replete with the mandatory dissertation prologue proclaiming that everyone who has written about this subject before the author is a dunce.)
Mann compared the Beatles to Mahler, Rorem to Poulenc (and Poirier--yep--to T.S. Eliot). That sort of hype looks quaint now, because soon enough there were highly educated critics aplenty who could write expertly about rock and other popular genres, and about their histories, without having to validate them with comparisons to canonical greats. This new breed of critic emerged first in "alternative" newspapers and samizdat fanzines, of which Crawdaddy!, originally a mimeographed sheet with a print run of five hundred, was the first. In an early essay from Crawdaddy! called "The Aesthetics of Rock," later widely anthologized and expanded into a book, Richard Meltzer (then a philosophy major at SUNY Stony Brook) gave the flavor of this new pop criticism. The essay ranged from James Joyce to Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit to Lennon and McCartney to Andy Warhol to Bob Dylan, winding up with W.V. Quine. The idea that someone who read Hegel and Quine would seek musical fulfillment in McCartney rather than Webern was new, and it was very threatening to established authorities such as Milton Babbitt, who complained, in an interview published in 1979, that "we receive brilliant, privileged freshmen at Princeton, who in their first year of college are likely to take a philosophy of science course with [logical positivist] Carl Hempel, and then return to their dormitories to play the same records that the least literate members of our society embrace as the only relevant music." Pierre Bourdieu, were you listening? This came very close to enunciating as an explicit program the tacit view of art as a producer of social distinction that the Joshua Bell "experiment" reinforced.
Babbitt's complaint came much too late to matter. Since the "British invasion," nearly half a century ago, it has been socially acceptable, even fashionable, for intellectuals to pay attention primarily to commercial music, and they often seem oblivious to the very existence of other genres. Of no other art medium is this true. Intellectuals in America distinguish between commercial and "literary" fiction, between commercial and "fine" art, between mass-market and "art" cinema. But the distinction in music is no longer drawn, except by professionals. Nowadays most educated persons maintain a lifelong fealty to the popular groups they embraced as adolescents, and generation gaps between parents and children now manifest themselves musically in contests between rock styles.
Of course professionals can be just as oblivious, and they look funnier, since they are blind not to a blip but to the main picture. I had a grim laugh when I read an interview in The New York Times this past July with George Benjamin, a forty-seven-year-old British composer, in town for the American premiere of a chamber opera that he had written. He was pulling the usual long face about the fact that music "is not valued in contemporary society." He challenged the reporter interviewing him to "name a single politician who shows interest in the music of our time." This was only days after the Times had published an interview with John Edwards in which the candidate spoke enthusiastically about U2, Bruce Springsteen, and Dave Matthews. Poppy Bush, as we have noted, is into the Beach Boys. Bill Clinton, the most musical of our recent presidents, claimed no identification with the classics; he and his wife even named their daughter after a Joni Mitchell song. But while his musical attitudes might not console George Benjamin, they do attest to an authentic involvement with the music of our time, and I for one rate our sax-toting president's participatory investment in music higher than anyone's passive consumption of the classics, to say nothing of the previously expected feigning of cultivated taste. Such authenticity is a positive change in our culture, connected to the generally enhanced level of seriousness with which America has been taking its professed social egalitarianism since the 1960s. Can classical music fit into that?
One would not think so, to judge by all the cutting back now going on. The big news this summer was the elimination or downgrading of classical music reviewing in the nation's newspapers and general-interest magazines. The Chicago Sun-Times and the Minneapolis Star-Tribune eliminated their classical critics by buying them out and retiring their positions.* The biggest story concerned New York magazine's Peter G. Davis, a veteran critic who once worked for the Times and is widely esteemed as a connoisseur of opera and singing. He was replaced, against his will, by Justin Davidson (formerly of Newsday), who will cover architecture as well as music. But although it made headlines this year, this development has long been in progress. The beat of this magazine's masthead music critic has gone over from classical to pop. The Atlantic once had a classical record column and for a while regularly printed excellent essays on classical music by the composer David Schiff, but now it spurns the topic. The Nation used to let Edward Said play at classical reviewing, but now covers only pop and jazz with regularity.
Nor are print media the only, or even the most important, venue to suffer spectacular cutbacks. Classical radio stations have dropped like flies. New York has been a one-classical-station town since 1993, the San Francisco Bay Area since 1994. The Metropolitan Opera lost its national broadcast sponsor in 1987 as a result of the collapse of oil prices, and its broadcasts are now funded catch-as-catch-can. The Bay Area, home of the second most prestigious opera company in America, no longer receives them because no local sponsor finds them profitable, and the one remaining classical station, being a default monopoly, can afford to flout its opera-loving listeners. The collapse of big- ticket classical recording is also an old story (though hardy indie labels such as Naxos, with low overheads, are still bucking the trend). Tower Records is gone, and classical CD sales mostly take place online. Most orchestras are now without major-label contracts. Some of them, like the San Francisco Symphony, have gone into samizdat. In sum: classical music is now generally regarded not as a common cultural heritage (except, perhaps, at funerals) but as an upscale niche product.
But the present collapse looks more dramatic than it really is, if that is any consolation. It follows a period of enthusiastic but unsustainable growth that coincided, ironically enough, precisely with the inauspicious changes in consumption patterns just surveyed--a testimony to the triumph of romanticism over realism in our musical culture. (This is the story that Tindall's book tells especially vividly, because its author is an angry victim of the bubble's burst.) It was only since the 1960s, the very decade when the prestige of classical music began losing ground, that most orchestras instituted year-round seasons. Professional arts education also ballooned in that decade: among the institutions founded at the time were the California Institute of the Arts and the North Carolina School of the Arts, the latter the first state-supported school of its kind. Lincoln Center, dedicated by Eisenhower in 1959, opened its first doors, to Philharmonic Hall (now Avery Fisher Hall), in 1962. Spurred by the Cold War (which turned Van Cliburn's 1958 victory at the first Chaikovsky Competition in Moscow into a geopolitical triumph) and Lyndon Johnson's Great Society agenda, the federal government itself took up the task of arts funding-- not as a bailout, as in the Depression, but in the expectation that increased supply would increase demand. Johnson's National Council on the Arts led directly to the establishment the next year, in 1965, of the National Endowment for the Arts. The high-water mark for federal arts funding was reached under Nixon ("the NEA's messiah," in Tindall's words), who ratcheted its budget up to
$40 million in 1971. By then, the New York State Council on the Arts, founded under the aegis of Nelson Rockefeller, a seasoned patron of the arts, had been in business for a decade.
Especially in New York, then, the period roughly from the founding of Lincoln Center to Black Monday in 1987 was a golden age for art producers. Major organizations used public subsidies to supplement private donations and vastly improve the working conditions of their employees. Tiny groups, including several in which I then participated as a performing musician, proliferated. And I have not even mentioned the corporate foundations, which also mushroomed both in number and in lavishness of largesse. The Ford Foundation, the biggest one pre-Gates, had been founded in 1936 to "strengthen democratic values, reduce poverty and injustice, promote international cooperation and advance human achievement." It took up the cause of the arts, including classical music, in the late 1950s. The Rockefeller Foundation, a much older organization, got on the arts bandwagon in connection with Lincoln Center. In the 1980s, the big name was Citicorp. During this period, as Tindall comments, "most performing arts groups were subsidized by unearned donated income, as well as tax incentives, and therefore did not always have to link revenue to the quantity, quality, or type of product they offered."
As long as this gravy train lasted, the attrition of the audience could be overlooked. The result of living for three decades in a fool's paradise was a vast overpopulation of classical musicians as many more were trained, and briefly employed, than a market economy could bear. The cutbacks that seemed to imply the sudden cruel rejection of classical music were really more in the nature of a market correction, reflecting the present scarcity of patronage and a long-deferred confrontation with the changed realities of demand.
There are two ways of dealing with the new pressure that classical music go out and earn its living. One is accommodation, which can entail painful losses and suffer from its own excesses (the "dumbing down" that everybody except management deplores). Blair Tindall's main grievance is the inadequate education she received at the North Carolina School of the Arts, which left her unskilled for other work. Her accommodation consisted of retraining as a journalist. Orchestras have accommodated by modifying their programming in a fashion that favors the Itzies and Pinkies and little divas. Composers have accommodated by adopting more "accessible" styles. Love it or hate it, such accommodation is a normal part of the evolutionary history of any art.
The other way is to hole up in such sanctuary as still exists and hurl imprecations and exhortations. That is the path of resistance to change and defense of the status quo, and it is the path chosen by the authors of the books under review here. The status quo in question, by now a veritable mummy, is the German romanticism that still reigns in many academic precincts, for the academy is the one area of musical life that can still effectively insulate its transient denizens (students) and luckier permanent residents (faculty) from the vagaries of the market. Inevitably, all three authors are professors. In its strongest and most "uncompromising" form, the heritage of German romanticism is the ideology of modernism, and it is again no surprise to learn that two of the authors are composers who write in academically protected styles. (The third, Kramer, is also a dabbler in composition, but that is not his main profession.) Despite their obvious self-interest, they claim to be offering disinterested commentary and propounding universal values.
These values are now a little more than two centuries old, deriving from a discourse that originated with Moses Mendelssohn and Immanuel Kant in the late eighteenth century, made its first beachhead on musical terrain in the work of E.T.A. Hoffmann in the first decade of the nineteenth century, reached an apogee with Schopenhauer, and had Adorno, who died in 1969, as its last authentic apostle. Although it began as an ethnocentric creed and continues to have German epigones, its chief bastion is now the Anglophone academy. (When I vented a rather vehement anti-Adornian position, somewhat along the lines of what will follow here, before a German audience in Berlin last year and encountered surprisingly little resistance, I asked one of my hosts about it and was told, "Oh my dear, Adorno is your problem now.")
The main tenet of the creed is the defense of the autonomy of the human subject as manifested in art that is created out of a purely aesthetic, hence disinterested, impulse. Such art is without utilitarian purpose (although, as Kant famously insisted, it is "purposive"), but it serves as the symbolic embodiment of human freedom and as the vehicle of transcendent metaphysical experience. This is the most asocial definition of artistic value ever promulgated. Artists, responsible to themselves alone, provide a model of human self-realization. All social demands on the artist--whether made by church, state, or paying public--and all social or commercial mediation are inimical to the authenticity of the creative product.
Belief in the transcendent human value of creative labor has always invested German romantic aesthetics with the trappings of a secular or humanistic religion. In the twentieth century, such a theory of art could be seen as a bulwark against totalitarianism. Adorno held it up as a counterforce also to the instrumentalizing and rationalizing tendencies of "administered" capitalist society, which turns human subjects into objects of economic exploitation. Since he was trained in music, he held up classical music in its least compromising forms (epitomized in the famously esoteric work of Arnold Schoenberg) as the chief example of "truth-bearing" art, as opposed to the dehumanizing popular music churned out by the culture industry for mass dissemination.
Skeptics of this viewpoint, while often appreciating the loftiness of its aspirations, have pointed to the ease with which high ideals can shade into complacency, autonomy into irrelevance, and disinterestedness into indifference. My admittedly tendentious diction ("serve," "vehicle") signals my own skepticism as to the genuineness of its disinterestedness. This skepticism is not mine alone. Many have noted the relationship between this highly individualistic and self-celebrating concept of art and the social emancipation (or more accurately, the social abandonment) of artists with the demise of reliable aristocratic patronage, and suspected it of seeking a compensatory advantage. "Materialist" historians have long investigated the relationship between its high-minded claims and actual marketing strategies.
Particularly as it pertains to music, the doctrine of aesthetic autonomy was pre-eminently a congeries of German ideas about German art that consoled and inspired the Germans at a particular point in German history. Even in the nineteenth century, it never won much credence in France or Italy or Russia (though Britain was susceptible). Now that the whole twentieth century has run its course and German music has run aground, the claim of universality is threadbare, recalling Stanley Hoffman's sublime definition of ethnocentrism in these pages some years ago: "There are universal values, and they happen to be mine." The doctrines that Johnson's, Fineberg's, and Kramer's books continue to advance retain so little credibility that one has to ask what sort of reader they mean to persuade.
Who Needs Classical Music?, the worst of them, is a painful thing to read. Julian Johnson declares himself an Adorno epigone, but the declaration is superfluous. Anyone who knows Adorno even by reputation will recognize this truculent book as the Cliff Notes version. But the dour Frankfurter, the most histrionically pessimistic of all cultural critics, is not the only presence in these pages. He functions here as the bad cop, yanked into an unlikely partnership with Matthew Arnold, the prophet of sweetness and light, but also the original herald of elitism ("the best that has been thought and said"). Johnson ladles out the Adornian brimstone and the Arnoldian bubble bath in indiscriminate gobbets, desperate as he is to recover for himself and the rest of his deposed cohort the unquestioned cultural authority, and the unlimited official patronage, that once were theirs. The result, a sort of Beyond the Fringe parody of a parish sermon in some Anglican backwater, will convince no one but the choir. To have such a voice advocating one's own cause is mortifying.
The primary assertion, made on the first page of Johnson's introduction and reiterated endlessly thereafter, is that classical music is uniquely distinguished by "its claim to function as art, as opposed to entertainment." The whole book is an elaboration of this categorical, invidious, didactically italicized, and altogether untenable distinction, the purpose of which is to cancel the claims of consumers on the prerogatives of producers.
John Cage once observed that he was fortunate in that his work was also his entertainment. That was his explanation for his lifelong commitment to the practice of a particularly abstruse brand of art-making that afforded little or no pecuniary return: he took pleasure in it, or (to quote my desk dictionary) found in it "an agreeable occupation for the mind." That pleasure, the agreeable mental pursuit that (if one is persistent and lucky) can repay the pursuer with a great intensity of delight, was certainly my own conduit into what has become my vocation. Wasn't it Johnson's? Isn't it everybody's? Can there be any other motivation for engagement with art? Before romanticism raised the stakes, the purpose of art was always described as that of "pleasing. " All pretenses notwithstanding, other purposes, and especially Johnson's, remain secondary.
The reason for denigrating pleasure and claiming some other "higher" purpose for art (or, alternatively, denying that it has any purpose at all) had in the first place to do, perhaps, with the bad conscience that Kant's principle of disinterestedness imposed. But the notoriously tin-eared Kant did not deny pleasure, least of all to music, which he designated "the highest among those arts that are valued for their pleasantness." Granted, he intended no compliment, for he meant thereby to deny music a place among the arts that are valued "by the culture they supply to the mind." And one can understand an impulse to try to reclaim for music the status thus denied it by downgrading its sensuous appeal and relegating that aspect to the low category of "entertainment."
But pleasure does not have to be defined sensuously, and there are all kinds of pleasures: guilty pleasures, altruistic pleasures, animal pleasures, spiritual pleasures, perverse pleasures, the pleasure of a good meal, of a good cry, of worthy accomplishment, of self-improvement, of self-possession, of exclusion, of ascendancy, of dominion, of revenge. And, of course, there is also the pleasure known in Kant's native tongue as Schadenfreude. I must reject the claims of those who affect to pursue the arts for reasons other than pleasure or satisfaction. The question, rather, is pleasure of what kind?
Johnson asserts high claims indeed. He contends that his commitment to classical music is an ethical choice. His exhortation to the prospective cultural consumer is akin to Betty Friedan's old combination of promise and threat--that if women "do not put forth, finally, that effort [and Johnson is forever reminding us how difficult and demanding classical music is] to become all that they have it in them to become, they will forfeit their own humanity." The difference is that Friedan was talking about social and economic justice and Johnson is only talking about some kind of music. But that ethical pretense gives him the pretext to open the floodgates to a deluge of supplementary invidious distinctions, chiefly at the expense of what (in German, inevitably) is known as "entertainment music" (Unterhaltungsmusik, or U-Musik), or what in English we call popular music. Of our three authors Johnson is the one least content to sing Arnoldian praises of his chosen genre. Like Adorno, he feels compelled to heap torrents of frantic abuse on the Big Other. These passages are shameful, in the first instance, because--again like Adorno--he shows himself to be exceedingly ill informed about the object of his derision.
What is driving him? No doubt there is pleasure in it, but there is more. Let us observe his invective at full tilt. The middle of the book contains the main elaboration of the art-versus-entertainment polemic. Here is its dizzy zenith, which I quote at some length, only slightly condensed, so that you may fairly judge its tenor. Contemporary popular culture, Johnson contends, is
obsessed by packaging, image, and design. The surface is everything.... Even in music, visuals are everything: hence the ubiquity not only of the music video but the marketing of the star. And when it comes to the music itself, the surface sheen is everything; the music is literally one-dimensional--it has one sound, one timbre, one kind of material. It rejects polyphony and discursive forms. It is as if the art of costume design were replaced by admiring pieces of cloth.... What might seem harmless in relation to cultural practices, fashion, cars, or even music, is clearly invidious in relation to people. The ideal of humanity on which we have based our greatest religious, ethical, philosophical, and political thinking is not defined by our outward, material surface but by our capacity to exceed the limits of our material existence. Great art expresses this ideal in every work. In rejecting it to embrace the ideal of a blank and depthless surface embodied in contemporary culture, we reject that ideal of humanity and instead embrace a simulacrum--a synthetic and hollow substitute. Human potential is not well expressed by the fashionable, the glossy, or the chic, and yet we allow ourselves to be dominated by a culture defined almost exclusively in these terms. In doing so, we collude in our own reduction to objects.
The emphasis on the surface of things is essentially inhumane. It is pornographic because it fetishizes the materiality of human existence and denies the spiritual personality that vivifies it from within. Perhaps my use of the term "pornographic" seems inappropriate and sensationalist in relation to music. But the central category of pornography is perhaps not sex but the process by which the humane is reduced to the status of things. Pornography is reification employed in the sexual arena and displays all of its hallmarks: the reproducibility and interchangeability of all commodities, the reduction to an object, the importance of packaging, the reduction to pure surface, the simulacrum of desire, the formulaic sameness of posture, the domination of nature. But the sexual arena does not have a monopoly on the debasement of the humane. While society publicly deplores the objectification of the humane in pornography, it is busy colluding with it elsewhere through advertising, commodity fetishism, and music.
This harangue, from the musical equivalent of the religious right, is not something to be rebutted or otherwise "falsified," but to be gazed upon by those with a capacity for wonder. It commits virtually every one of the sins I enumerated above, from the false dichotomization of the material and spiritual (as if classical music did not have a material presence), to the double standard whereby the reification of classical music in the form of recordings and other manufactured goods is overlooked, to smug nostalgia for an uncommodified golden age, to the utopian delusion that such a paradise might be regained, to the hypocritical stance of moral superiority in the face of the author's obviously mendacious (unless stunningly ignorant) reduction of the other (as having only "one sound, one timbre, one kind of material"). The social snobbery borders on racism (we have minds, they have bodies) and the browbeating is blatant (assent or be lumped with Them). A page or so later, losing all self-control, Johnson tears into a description of people who do not seem to need classical music, in thrall to "prerational immediacy," lost in "libidinal energy," athirst "for the luxury of blind, adolescent emotions." What could be more "invidious in relation to people"?
What renders this rant especially awful to anyone who knows the history of music and its discourses is its resonance with the most bigoted of all texts about music, Wagner's Das Judenthum in der Musik, or Jewry in Music, which appeared in 1850. The morally charged dichotomization of surface and depth is a romantic trope that--as the musicologist Holly Watkins has shown--goes back at least as far as the writings of Hoffmann. Between Hoffmann and Wagner, however, the metaphor of depth had been claimed by German writers as a national trait; and just as nationalism underwent its general transformation from a modernizing and liberalizing discourse into a belligerent and regressive one in the later nineteenth century, so the notion of spiritual depth had been turned into a weapon of national and racial aggrandizement in Wagner's hands. "In listening to either our naive or our consciously artistic musical doings, however," wrote Wagner (in William Ashton Ellis's nineteenth-century translation),
were the Jew to try to probe their heart and living sinews, he would find there really not one whit of likeness to his musical nature; and the utter strangeness of this phenomenon must scare him back so far, that he could never pluck up nerve again to mingle in our art-creating. Yet his whole position in our midst never tempts the Jew to so intimate a glimpse into our essence: wherefore, either intentionally (provided he recognizes this position of his towards us) or instinctively (if he is incapable of understanding us at all), he merely listens to the barest surface of our art, but not to its life- bestowing inner organism; and through this apathetic listening alone, can he trace external similarities with the only thing intelligible to his power of view, peculiar to this special nature.
More specific, and with an even more chilling echo of Johnson's language, is Wagner's characterization of Felix Mendelssohn, whose example
has shown us that a Jew may have the amplest store of specific talents, may own the finest and most varied culture, the highest and the tenderest sense of honor--yet without all these preeminences helping him, were it but one single time, to call forth in us that deep, heart-searching effect which we await from Art because we know her capable thereof, because we have felt it many a time and oft, so soon as once a hero of our art has, so to say, but opened his mouth to speak to us. To professional critics, who haply have reached a like consciousness with ourselves hereon, it may be left to prove by specimens of Mendelssohn's art-products our statement of this indubitably certain thing; by way of illustrating our general impression, let us here be content with the fact that, in hearing a tone piece of this composer's, we have only been able to feel engrossed where nothing beyond our more or less amusement-craving fantasy was roused through the presentation, stringing together, and entanglement of the most elegant, the smoothest, and most polished figures--as in the kaleidoscope's changeful play of form and color--but never where those figures were meant to take the shape of deep and stalwart feelings of the human heart.
Wagner's rhetoric, lacking the Arnoldian or possibly Leavisite strain on which Johnson draws, is less morally fraught than Johnson's, and more purely racist. Does that let Johnson off the hook? Doubtless he would claim as much, but other aesthetic moralists have been less sure. George Steiner, who defers to no man in what he himself has called "the worship (the word is hardly exaggerated) of the classic," finds himself at the tormented twilight of his life baffled by the example of the culture-loving Germans of the mid-twentieth century, Wagner's heirs, "who sang Schubert in the evening and tortured in the morning." He confesses that he is "haunted more and more by the question, 'Why did the humanities not humanize?' I don't have an answer." But that is because the question is wrong. It is all too obvious by now that teaching people that their love of Schubert makes them better people teaches them nothing but vainglory, and inspires attitudes that are the very opposite of humane. Julian Johnson's tract suppurates with attitudes like these. To cast aesthetic preferences as moral choices at the dawn of the twenty-first century is an obscenity. Both the book itself and its reception (as recorded on Amazon.com) expose the sort of pleasure it promotes: that of solidarity in sanctimony. To all who have read it with enjoyment I urgently prescribe a reading of Father Sergius, Tolstoy's parable of moral exhibitionism and its comeuppance. I will pray for the salvation of their souls.
You will not find anything comparably disgraceful in Joshua Fineberg's book, but his exhortations will prove no less futile. Fineberg is no moral grandstander. His vices are self-pity and false humility. Where Who Needs Classical Music? apes Adorno, the author of Classical Music, Why Bother? plays Uriah Heep. It may be a better way to capture the reader's benevolence, but it is a sham. Still lost in the German romantic miasma, Fineberg continues to trade in universals and absolutes, and his strategy, like Johnson's, is to flatter his readers' elitist impulses.
So a few words about elitism before proceeding. All these authors argue strenuously that there is no necessary conflict between democratic or egalitarian ideals and striving for the best. Who would disagree? If that were all that elitism implied, there would be no debate. Contention swirls not around the question of whether there is such a thing as quality, but around the question of how--and, especially, by whom--it is to be defined. When Johnson declares that "to argue that classical music, like art more generally, makes a claim to types of functions and meanings distinct from those of popular culture is to risk the charge of elitism," he is flagrantly disingenuous. "Distinct from" is a transparent euphemism for "better than," and Johnson's recourse to euphemism betrays his guilty consciousness that his argument carries politically unacceptable baggage. He is arguing for privilege, not equality; and that is why his index predictably contains seven entries under "political correctness," the discredited euphemism through which privileged people have gone on the offensive in defense of their privileges.
Johnson borrows from Adorno the notion that what proponents of popular culture call democracy is instead the "pseudo-democracy of commercial culture," which pretends to offer consumers free choice but in fact dehumanizes them by omnipotently manipulating their desires for commercial gain. People who consume popular music are not exercising taste, on this view, for they have no taste to exercise. Rather, they robotically gobble up whatever the culture industry doles out. Johnson says that those who would ascribe autonomous cultural agency to hoi polloi "might at least pause to wonder why today's hits, apparently deeply significant to millions, become objects of derision in a matter of years. " Really? The Beatles? Elvis? Sinatra? And do the touted geniuses of classical music always achieve timelessness? Read Bernard Shaw on Hermann Goetz some time. Or Constant Lambert on Bernard van Dieren. Or re-read, in a decade or so, Julian Johnson on Jonathan Harvey, or Alex Ross on John Adams. The idea that in popular culture production equals consumption was already a canard when it was first handed down from Adorno's delphic armchair. (Think of all those rockers driving taxis who by his logic should be millionaires.) That his followers still parrot him only shows how utterly ideology trumps observation in the world of "critical theory," of all academic approaches the least critical by far.
"For me personally," writes Fineberg, "the problem is not elites based on merit, but elites of birth, gender, race, or class." Again, who would dare to disagree? But until one has offered a definition of merit, the statement is empty; indeed, it is a Trojan horse. Fineberg knows better than to load it with moralizing slogans, although he does not scruple to pour scorn on those who "spout" the virtues of diversity. Instead he seeks his universals and absolutes within the world of art itself. He preaches the faith forthrightly, on its actual romantic merits, and with due reckoning of the price that it exacts in enlightenment. Just as religious belief demands the voluntary repression of rational skepticism, he writes,
a true belief in art is also predicated on an underlying conceptual framework that depends just as absolutely on a belief in abstract criteria of worth. This notion, which is profoundly out of fashion today, has formed the underpinning of artistic endeavor in the West for a very long time. Adherents of this idea believe that even if societal fashions or institutional structures are opposed to a particular artist or work, some essential greatness (or lack thereof) will ultimately determine the worth of the art object if given the chance. And even if the work is never recognized, it is still of equal (albeit latent) value. In other words, a Rembrandt hanging in the woods would still be great even if no one had the good fortune to see it.
You have to grant a certain respect to Fineberg's up-front promulgation of mystique. He does not try to argue the case for his objective criteria, although he does make some attempt to define them. He merely invites the reader, in what he calls "the artistic or aesthetic version of Pascal's wager," to consent to them. Pascal's wager, you will recall, is the proposition that believing in God, or at least acting as if you did and behaving yourself accordingly, is a good bet. If it turns out there is no God and no afterlife, then all you have lost is a bit of ephemeral terrestrial amusement. If it turns out that He does exist, you gain eternal bliss. So put aside your modern mind, dear reader, and follow the ancient path of righteousness. (Pascal offers a tip: rote religious exercises such as rosaries will help, for cela vous fera croire et vous abetira, "this will make you believe and make you stupid.")
Of course, Pascal was weighing something slightly more momentous than choosing a musical menu. And nobody need ask about the source of authority for religious dogma. But where shall the prospective musical novice turn? Turn to me, says Fineberg. I know what's good for you. "Art is not about giving people what they want. It's about giving them something they don't know they want. It's about submitting to someone else's vision; forcing your aesthetic sense to assimilate the output of someone else's.... All art demands a surrendering of your vision in submission to the artist's or at least the museum or concert curator's."
Submit! Our youngest author, bizarrely enough, assumes the most patently paternalistic posture, regurgitating the immortal words of Lord Reith of Stonehaven, the first director-general of the BBC: "We know precisely what the public wants, and by Heaven they're not going to get it!" You see why I thought of Uriah Heep. Behind the 'umble exterior is an iron will, and an ego of positively Rushmorean proportions. Fineberg reminds his readers that the onus is theirs, not the artist's, when it comes to "deciphering his or her meaning," for "religious individuals do not achieve a worshipful state by being God," but "by contemplating God's actions (or the actions we attribute to a God)."
Unlike Johnson's, then, Fineberg's cards are on the table. What are his objective and abstract criteria of musical worth? Merely what any university or conservatory composition teacher will tell you they are. Their measure is the artist's degree of craft-plus-originality. Since craft can only be judged by practitioners, the appeal of an artwork to an audience can never serve as a valid measure of its value, except in reverse:
The level of skill required to make most art of whatever type requires intense and (from society's viewpoint) expensive training. It seems clear that this training cannot be made freely available to all comers without posing a burden that society would never be willing to bear. Moreover, an art like contemporary classical music is doubly burdensome. Composers don't produce wealth as they become more successful; they consume it. Bigger, more prominent events lose even more money (and require more subsidies) than small student concerts. The success of a composer can be measured by taking the inverse of the composer's market value: The more negative the market value, the more important the composer.
So kindly leave war to the generals, and pay up. But music is far too important to be left to the composers. Their interests and aims, when insulated from public judgment, are apt to be trivial, amounting to contests over academic turf and flare-ups of professional rivalry. The risible second half of Fineberg's book is a perfect illustration--risible, because after a hundred- page sermon on disinterestedness we get a sales pitch. He turns out to be flogging a product called "spectralism," a fairly recent French trend based on computer-assisted spectrographic analyses of instrumental timbres. And we also get a sectarian polemic against Julian Johnson's faction, the Vienna-derived twelve-tone school, now celebrating eighty years in the desert. My universal values, Fineberg assures us, can lick their universal values, and my technique is more advanced.
Will this sort of thing really persuade nonprofessional readers to bother about classical music? Obviously not, but the book is not really meant for them. Like Johnson's, it is sooner meant to comfort the author's own cohort--it has already called forth a hardy little amen corner in the blogosphere--and perhaps lull the dean into keeping the old curriculum in place.
With Lawrence Kramer we come at last to a writer who really addresses the readers whom he claims to address. He, too, writes from within the German romantic tradition, but he has the sense explicitly to reject Johnsonian- Adornian moralism (although, he admits, "part of me is in sympathy with it") and Finebergian mystification, along with all "condescending and authoritarian" attitudes. His approach picks up directly from E.T.A. Hoffmann, the fount of the tradition, perhaps as a way of skirting the pitfalls to which later proponents of classical music have so readily fallen prey. Indeed, Kramer quite resembles Hoffmann. Both are literary men--Kramer's scholarly training was in English and comparative literature--and both write about instrumental music in a way that turns it into a kind of wordless literature.
That was seen in Hoffmann's day as an elevation of music (and literature). This strain of criticism reached an early peak--its pinnacle, I would say--in the writings of Robert Schumann. The trouble with the approach in hands other than Schumann's is that it readily descends into reductive verbal (usually narrative) paraphrase--into "readings"--which can then replace the music as the focus of interest and the topic of discussion. Although Kramer's readings of music can make for entertaining and sometimes absorbing reading--let it be said straightaway that he gives as much pleasure to the reader as his counterparts give pain--I am unpersuaded that they will win any souls to the cause. They are simply too secondary to the musical experience. As Hector Berlioz, another musico-literary paragon of early romanticism, once observed, music can give an idea of love, but love can give no idea of music. Explaining what music is "about," no matter how appealingly, will not give anyone an idea of why people who listen to music find it so powerful.
That is why I feel sure that Kramer's book, like the others, will mainly be read by those already convinced of its premise. Although he invokes a famous screed by Virgil Thomson against the "music appreciation racket," Kramer's method is actually quite similar to that of "appreciation" lecturers (though handicapped by the absence of sounding examples). Those worthies are always pressing listeners to listen for "the theme," since tracing its course through an extended composition, supposedly, will instill the ability to perceive its form.
For Kramer this is just "formalism," almost as great a sin for hermeneuts as it was for Stalinists. But his first and most substantial chapter, "The Fate of Melody and the Dream of Return," really amounts to the same thing, only now the theme being traced is "read" as the subject persona of a quasi-literary narrative. The formal routines that in the hands of music appreciators are scorned as sterile all at once become stirring life trajectories, symbolizing and catalyzing the listener's own emotional epiphanies (Erlebnisse, in the German original) in a manner very effectively described half a century ago in Susanne K. Langer's Feeling and Form. But this was not a new insight even in Langer's day. It is a bedrock tenet of romanticism, and again goes straight back to Hoffmann. Its rise has been traced in a fascinating book by the cultural historian James H. Johnson called Listening in Paris: A Cultural History, which demonstrated how the kind of absorbed, attentive listening all proponents of classical music advocate, and the subjective identification with its progress that Kramer promotes, caught on in the mid-nineteenth century.
I bring up Langer and Johnson not to dispute a claim of originality that Kramer never makes, but rather to emphasize that the musical properties and the listening habits that Kramer wants to associate with classical music in general have a very circumscribed history and range of application. Their starting point has been located by Karol Berger in Bach's Cycle, Mozart's Arrow: An Essay on the Origins of Musical Modernity, a recent and highly stimulating book. The model that Kramer proposes for classical music-- that of forward- progressing narrative (the time arrow, in Berger's language)--is in fact only one of a number of ways in which classical music is organized. It is the one best suited to music-appreciation lectures, since it is the one in which it makes sense to trace the vicissitudes (a.k.a. the "development") of a theme-- though Kramer's account misses the even more crucial role of goal-directed (or "functional") harmony in propelling the arrow, perhaps because he thought it too technical.
The thematic-development model, though it does turn a lot of nineteenth- century compositions into thrilling emotional "journeys," lost its prominence in the twentieth century, and it characterizes very little recent classical music. The "minimalists," who now turn out the music of greatest proven audience appeal, frankly eschew it. For this reason, Lawrence Kramer's view of his subject seems in its own, less objectionable way just as nostalgic as Julian Johnson's or Joshua Fineberg's. It entails a kind of music and--more to the point--a kind of listener that is receding into the past, and it is unlikely to help solve classical music's most pressing problem, which is the problem of audience renewal.
I am uneasy, moreover, about encouraging listeners to decode formal archetypes, as when Kramer uses Beethoven's symphonic trajectories to show how music can become the bearer of deep-seated cultural myths. Such stratagems descend ineluctably into abuse. Look what's happened to poor Shostakovich, whose symphonies and quartets, perhaps the twentieth century's paramount examples of music as Bildungsroman, have been turned into political footballs by interpreters who have no ear for music. Or to poor Chaikovsky, whose symphonies are now routinely read as evidence of his homosexual guilt, and in support of ridiculous legends about his alleged suicide. If homophiles or homophobes can get their various kicks from a Chaikovsky symphony, or communists or anticommunists from Shostakovich, that is fine with me: I do not care why they listen as long as they go on listening. But when they tell me they know what a piece objectively means, and that their certainty makes them better listeners than I, then I know that they have stopped listening. The paraphrase is all they hear.
What draws listeners to music--not just to classical music, but to any music- - is what cannot be paraphrased: the stuff that sets your voice a-humming, your toes a-tapping, your mind's ear ringing, your ear's mind reeling. And that is not the kind of response anyone's books can instill. It is picked up, like language, from exposure and reproduction, which eventually lead to internalization. Kramer leads prospective listeners astray when he counsels them, in a chapter about performing music, that the "most vital role for performance" in relation to the fixed score "is precisely to suggest verbal and imagistic connections with the world, the very thing that the traditional culture of classical music, in the twentieth century at any rate, tried to get us to regard as forbidden." If the value of music lies in the words and the pictures it prompts, then why not cut out the middle man and go straight for the words and the pictures? Like a good citizen of Chelm, a listener taking Kramer's advice will go to the market for a goose and come home with a bucket of water.
Nor is Kramer's account entirely devoid of vainglory and invidiousness. Nobody's defense of classical music, it seems, can do without these failings. He traces his own involvement with classical music "from the day that I first accidentally heard a Beethoven overture (someone bought the record by mistake) rocking through the chilly, lifeless suburban 'family room' of my early teens." Ah, sensitive youth! And in a chapter on song, Kramer makes his only-- inevitably, ignorant and prejudiced--comparisons between the classical and the popular, asserting that, because of its emancipated accompaniment, art song can convey complexity of feeling--irony, ambivalence, self-reflection--whereas popular song can offer no more than a good tune and an uncomplicated emotional payoff. This is balderdash. Indeed, in another chapter Kramer himself takes note of Cole Porter's "wavering balance of irony and sentiment" (and I won't even mention the Beatles' "A Day in the Life" or "She's Leaving Home"). He will answer, no doubt, that Porter and McCartney had learned some tricks from classical music. No doubt they had, but that commerce has always been a two-way street.
Ultimately, Kramer betrays classical music by viewing it through an Eliotic scrim. Just as Eliot proclaimed that "it is a function of all art to give us some perception of an order in life, by imposing an order upon it," so Kramer, like Johnson and Fineberg, sees the key asset of classical music as that of providing repose and balance, control and restraint, amid the frightful hurly- burly of modern life. This leaves a lot out--where's The Rite of Spring? where's the Grosse Fuge?--and it colludes with the regressive and reductive tendencies that all three authors deplore, which threaten to turn classical music into an escapist pursuit or to link it with high-end consumer goods. Our solitary Bay Area classical station has an ad in which, to the strains of Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony (one of Kramer's prime exhibits), the announcer soothingly intones, "On the homeward commute, when it's just you and the radio, reach for the good stuff, reach for KDFC." KDFC's emblematic offering is a daily hour called "The Island of Sanity."
And yet, although I kvetch, I cannot deny that these contentments are among classical music's appeals, and no one has the right to declare them illegitimate. Indeed, I condemn attempts to hide classical music's association with creature comforts or its class affinities, because hypocrisy is the one thing a preacher's reputation cannot survive. That is why one of Julian Johnson's worst moves is to rail against Pierre Bourdieu's contention that classical music's "claim to difference is derived entirely" from its function "as a tool of class distinction." The over-emphatic italics give him away. He knows that Bourdieu never made such a claim. And he also knows that the claim Bourdieu did make--that class distinction is among the factors that have propagated high culture in our society, particularly since (and owing to) the decline of hereditary aristocracy--is irrefutable. Johnson is reduced to arguing on the level of a marital spat: when one spouse says, "But what about x?" the other is sure to retort, "All you ever think about is x!"
Here Kramer saves the day. The best parts of his book, which I hope he will gather up and publish as a single essay so that they can be read without having to read the rest, are the ones in which he writes about the use of classical music in the movies. I prescribe them to Johnson and Fineberg, because they suggest the myriad positive ways in which classical music has actually operated- -and will go on operating--in our culture. They transcend the silly opposition of the classical and the popular, because they show the ways in which the classical functions within the popular. And they evade the pitfalls of hermeneutics because here Kramer offers not readings of music, but readings of readings. To ask "what does it mean?" is death for music; but to ask "what has it meant?" can be illuminating. The one imposes arbitrary limits, the other welcomes all comers to share in the pleasure of engagement and response.
One of these passages juxtaposes a number of films "that depend on performances of classical music to defeat joylessness, intolerance, hypocrisy, and worse." The best known is the venerable tearjerker Brief Encounter, in which Rachmaninoff's Second Piano Concerto, derided by many as outmoded, bloated, and sentimental, becomes--through these very attributes--a reliquary of thwarted love and dashed hopes as cathartically relived by an "ordinary," emotionally repressed Englishwoman, who missed her one extraordinary chance in life. Jazz or pop music could not have embodied transcendence of ordinary modern life in this context, Kramer implies, to which I would add that something grander-- say, Isolde's "Liebestod"--would have so exceeded its scale as to perpetrate a bathos. Other examples include a weird old Cary Grant comedy called People Will Talk, in which a euphoric amateur performance of Brahms's Academic Festival Overture (conducted by Grant, playing a med school professor and music buff) crowns a plot that combines redemption through love with the defeat of a McCarthyish academic intrigue; and Impromptu, my favorite composer biopic, whose lovely anti-philistine message Kramer smartly encapsulates by observing that, of all the artists, would-be artists, and anti-artists depicted in the movie, "only [George] Sand and Chopin understand that art enhances life only indirectly, by suggestion, never by program or pronouncement." (Take that, Johnson and Fineberg.)
But Kramer's chef d'oeuvre is the inspired juxtaposition of two recent films, The Pianist and Master and Commander, which employ the same classical composition in their soundtracks, the Prelude to Bach's first Suite for Unaccompanied Cello. (As a lagniappe near the end of the book, he throws in yet another performance of the same morsel, Yo-Yo Ma's guest appearance on The West Wing in 2000.) The various handlings of the piece and its relevance to the action and the mood of the two films and the television episode are vastly different yet equally apt, and that in itself is already a superb point scored against attempts (including Kramer's own) to decode simple messages from complex musical designs. In the one context Kramer sees the piece as figuring fecundity and proliferation; in the other he reads withdrawal, maternal caring, and the fragility of life; while in the third the Prelude, cast as it were against type, acts as a poisonous little madeleine on a character's memory, and ultimately as a bearer of truth. These descriptions all ring true, even if (like any verbalization) they limit the illimitable--and isn't that the point, at last?
Not that this overflow of uncontainable signification is classical music's unique attribute or achievement. Kramer goes out of his way to remind the reader that "classical music shares this potential with more vernacular types." But what Kramer does succeed in showing is that classical music contributes a particular register of discourse that other genres do not duplicate. The classic register--I borrow the term from a fine forthcoming book by Michael Long called Beautiful Monsters: Music, Media, and the Imaginative Classic--is typically an elevated, exalted, aspiring one. That makes it an easy butt of ridicule. Think of Margaret Dumont, Groucho Marx's "plus-sized muse" (as Long describes her)-- but also recall that by the end of A Night at the Opera, Miss Dumont is no longer being satirized, and opera has worked its unmocked magic. Higher is not automatically better; but opponents of snobbish pretension would be foolish to lose sight of the reality of the high-low gamut. The proof of its reality is the way it reproduces itself within all discourses: now we have "classic jazz," "classic rock," and I will bet that somebody somewhere is touting classic kitsch. We all draw upon its full range, or as much of it as we can, and its narrowing would be a loss to everyone.
With that in mind, consider Kramer's cleverly titled final chapter, "Persephone's Fiddle," which is largely devoted to--guess what?--a violinist Kramer once heard busking unaccompanied Bach in the New York subway. Unlike Joshua Bell at L'Enfant Plaza, this fiddler drew a rapt crowd:
It was early fall, the start of a new academic semester, and the performer on the platform--Times Square, my usual spot--looked like a music student trying to pick up some extra cash for books or scores. She was young, in her early twenties, blonde, attractive, and well dressed, which may help explain the unusual amount of attention she was getting from a crowd that in normal circumstances wouldn't give a busker a second glance.
Or maybe it was the music. . . .
Kramer goes on to speculate about what it was in Bach that so captivated fifteen or twenty listeners in that noisy atmosphere, and moved them at the end to "a moment of complete silence followed by a smattering of applause." My question, rather, is whether you noticed the difference between the scene Kramer describes and the one that the Washington Post reporter engineered for Joshua Bell. It couldn't be simpler, or more crucial.
Bell was playing at the entrance to the station, where trains cannot be seen and everyone is hurrying to catch one. Kramer's little Persephone was playing down on the platform, where riders are apt to be at (enforced) leisure. Little Persephone knew that she needed an appropriate location to get across her message ("Isn't this beautiful?" or "Can I have some money?" or whatever you like). The Post reporter chose the least appropriate location possible. One of them was trying to make money, the other was trying to make a point. And Bach served them both equally well.
As a team of Texas researchers have recently announced, there are exactly 237 known reasons why people have sex. There are at least as many reasons why they listen to classical music, of which to sit in solemn silence on a dull dark dock is only one. There will always be social reasons as well as purely aesthetic ones, and thank God for that. There will always be people who make money from it--and why not?--as well as those who starve for the love of it. Classical music is not dying; it is changing. (My favorite example right now is Gabriel Prokofiev, the British-born grandson of the Russian composer, who studied electronic music in school, has headed a successful disco-punk band, and is now writing string quartets.) Change can be opposed, and it can be slowed down, but it cannot be stopped. All three of our authors seem reluctant to acknowledge this ineluctable fact. But change is not always loss, and realizing this should not threaten but console.
Altered demographics and evolving social attitudes will work their inevitable effects. New or advancing media will continue to transform what they convey. We may not like the changes, any more than speakers of Latin may have liked the transformation of their language into French or Romanian. That, too, must have looked to some like corruption, degeneration, and death. Others learned to reap its rewards. Maybe it takes a historian to realize that mediation, the hydra-headed monster at which the sub-Adornos tilt, has been around as long as music has been, and its function is adaptive--which is to say, destructive and preservative in equal measure. Autonomous art, the recent product of a chance concatenation of circumstances, will last only as long as circumstances permit. But its origin, whatever it was, and its end, whatever it will be, are points on a continuum.
Don't take it from me. There is a great moment in an early episode of The Sopranos, everybody's favorite example right now of popular culture transmuted into art, in which a Hasid, taking a beating from a team of enforcers with Tony Soprano at their head, is putting up unexpected resistance. He reminds his tormentors of Masada, where tough Jews held out against the Romans. "The Romans, " he snorts. "Where are they now?" "You're lookin' at 'em, asshole!" says Tony. Do not expect nuance from a mob boss; but if you agree that the line is funny, then you have acknowledged its kernel of truth. Toynbee could not have put it better.
Richard Taruskin's most recent books are The Oxford History of Western Music and the revised edition of Music in the Western World: A History in Documents (with Piero Weiss). He teaches at the University of California at Berkeley.
* Correction: The original version of this article incorrectly stated that the Atlanta Journal-Constitution demoted its classical critic to the status of a feature writer. Despite the recent staff reorganization of the AJC, neither the classical music critic’s title nor his responsibilities have changed. We apologize for the editorial error.
By Richard Taruskin