I'm not sure how many times I picked up and put down Lawrence Kramer's recent book, "Why Classical Music Still Matters" (University of California Press, Berkeley. 2007, 2008) before finally buying it earlier this month while at the Bard Music Festival. Perhaps it helped that the author was present for a panel discussion on Wagner and aesthetics. Regardless, once I picked it up this time I couldn't put it down.
Maybe it was the defensive-sounding title, or the notion I have of being one of the many (lesser) disciples of Robert Shaw in "preaching the gospel of the arts" which told me I didn't need to read this book. I was wrong. Kramer's engaging, thoughtfully presented book is one I'll be recommending to colleagues, board members, patrons, and anyone else who'll listen.
"Classical music has people worried. To many it seems on shaky ground in America." In the introductory chapter, Kramer spells out some of the reasons for this. And while written before the current recession's effects were fully felt, his provocative reasoning is still relevant as classical music ensembles and organizations struggle with how to not only remain relevant, but remain open. Many anxious performers & presenters have been clamoring about the "danger of extinction." If Kramer's dismissal of this seems untimely given the subsequent (& ongoing) financial meltdown, consider this:
"The problem is perhaps less economic or demographic than it is cultural, less a question of the music's survival than of its role...For what it's worth, my anecdotal impression is that people are generally less knowledgeable about it than they were even a generation ago...We know, some of us, how to enjoy it, but we don't know what to do with it."
I couldn't agree more, and if worried producers and planners dismiss Kramer's initial diagnosis--that the "crisis" is less economic than cultural-- he backs up his claim with the following:
"One reason why [classical music may be in trouble] is the loss of a credible way to maintain that people ought to listen to this music...Our growing reluctance to impose prescriptive or judgmental shoulds has obscured the power of the should that says, 'Don't deprive yourself of this pleasure, this astonishment, this conception.'...No wonder, then, that many culturally literate people who visit museum exhibits and keep up with the latest books, movies, and ideas think nothing of being classical-music illiterates. There is nothing, any more, that one just has to hear."
Before embarking on the body of the book which does answer the statement claimed by the title, Kramer warns against a couple lines of reasoning many of the above-mentioned "preachers of the gospel of the arts" revert to time and again. The first is the one famously dubbed by the acerbic critic, Virgil Thomson, as the "music-appreciation racket." If you've not heard the term, you've heard the argument. If you've read one of my letters to Virginia Chorale supporters you've heard the so-called "racket:" that classical music is good for you--body, mind, and soul. From "The Mozart Effect" on down, the notion that this music makes its particpants better human beings is a timeless argument. And the argument is no less valid than the more elitist one that seeks to shame the unwashed into submitting to the greatness of the (usually dead) masters. Kramer debunks both approaches. He says,
"This music provides as much insight as it invites...[it] is full of powerful feelings, but they're feelings that are always pushing beyond their own boundaries to open and refresh these questions. The music stimulates my imagination and my speculative energies while it sharpens my senses and quickens my sense of experience."
In not taking the music-appreesh or the elitist route, he is sensitive to the competing genres of musics like pop and jazz. Throughout the book he carefully balances arguments that don't elevate classical music at pop music's expense (even if many of us might want a more level playing field). He finds creative ways around this challenge by returning to classical music's "advantage in the rich vocabulary available to describe it." Language is one of--if not THE--primary means we have of not only articulating experience but ascribing meaning to the experiences that add up to make what we call life. And music--specifically classical music (in the broad sense from the 18th century baroque up through the present)--is one of the richest repositories for such linguistic performance. The other principal means of experience Kramer explores is the act of listening. This is music to not only be listened to, but "to be listened into."
In the span of a few pages--the book is imminently readable--Kramer traces the importance of the act of listening itself in the digital age to the shifting relationship between music and audience from the 19th century forward. One of his professed aims is "to refresh listening: to reconnect the listener with a community and culture of listening," and he cites a few poignant examples of this both in his introduction and near the book's conclusion.
In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, "classical music provided a perhaps unexpected, perhaps momentary, but nonetheless real resource, consoling in both an emotional and something like a metaphysical sense." He cites performances by the New York Philharmonic, the MET, and the Louisiana PO.
As a personal anecdote, I was scheduled to give the first of my doctoral recitals for the University of Maryland that very day. That recital was delayed one week, and the final lines of Lee Hoiby's setting of Dickinson's "There Came a Wind Like a Bugle"--"how much can come/and much can go/and yet abide the world!"--proved again the fact of music's rare gift of transcending time & space. If it is not the "universal language," it still is as close as we have come to one.
The body of the book is devoted to chapters on "The Fate of Melody" and how centrally important the "tune" is--what it says, how it changes, and how it affects and changes the listener in the process of participating in performance. He cites examples from three very different films in the third chapter, engaging evidence that this music really can transcend specificity to apply to a range of meanings. Or in the singleness of its expression, music can not only identify an emotion or state, but embody such feeling, so that the listener experiences it as real (even though it is "merely" simulated). Of Mahler's beloved "Resurrection" Symphony, he says "the effect of transcendence is less something the music expresses, as something it does, something it accomplishes."
This goes to the heart of why we continue to be moved by such works, and why, as Kramer says, the works seem to take on a personality and life of their own. When we talk about our favorite popular music, one of the only occasions where a song is separate from a performer is when a "cover" artist is involved. We might have a favorite Beatles song or album, but it's the band that's the thing. "Abbey Road" does not exist as an independent score or work, nor take on a life of its own apart from its status as one of the greatest albums ever recorded by a particular band. And while you may prefer Solti's Mahler 2 to my Mehta (or Bernstein, or Klemperer, or...), the fact is Mahler's 2nd Symphony has a life of its own. It exists in a discernable, transferable yet individual body in the specific score that bears its name.
The two middle chapters deal with the special worlds of art song and solo piano music, the intersection of music and society, performance and reception, and again, the difference between these forms as composed scores in the classical genres they inhabit. Even more important is the light Kramer sheds on the music's engagement with subjectivity and all the implications of the term--emotion, feeling, meaning, interpretation, reception, etc. I love the following:
"Our times may be telling us that subjectivity itself is old-fashioned, but perhaps that just makes us hunger for it more. The signs of the times suggest as much. Classical music can help fill our emotional needs; all we have to do is let it."
He cites both the 19th century art song and solo piano piece (exemplified by Schubert & Chopin) as paradigms of culture's first representations of modernity vis-a-vis the formation of the individuated self. Not only does such music help define the very idea of "the self" but it has the power to help that "self" understand & deal with the conflicts of modern life. No wonder we refer to such music as being "therapeutic."
The penultimate chapter returns to musical meaning in the wider community, tracing an arc from Beethoven's symphonies (appearing in the midst of early 19th century war and political upheaval) through one of the works written in response to 9/11, John Adams' arresting elegy, "On the Transmigration of Souls."
Along the way he cites the British novelist E.M. Forster's argument that art does not just lead to the ideal, "it is the ideal." In the essay "Art for Art's Sake" Forster argues the requisite order of art (ie: its form, and the technique required to create it) makes it the best model for social effectiveness we have.
The final chapter, "Persephone's Fiddle: The Value of Classical Music" is Kramer's impassioned finale. And like a great 19th century symphony, the author culls and gathers his work's themes and presents them with a forward moving, organic unity that not only makes a strong impression, but lingers and invites further consideration.
He quotes from a 1903 study by the sociologist Georg Simmel who's findings ring even more true today. Technological advances have increased the number of external stimuli, quickened the pace of everyday life, and have had deleterious effects on the attention spans of the beings inhabiting the modern world. To defend ourselves, we pretend indifference or build walls to distract from the outside. Thus, we find ourselves "the furthest removed from the depths of the personality." One antidote to the maddening pace and consequence of modern life was & is music. Kramer poetically summarizes Simmel by saying "listeners to a composition could compose themselves by their listening."
He concludes by relating an unlikely experience in the NY subway system that involved a small crowd gathering around a young violinist playing perhaps the least likely music to be heard--much less appreciated--in the loud, crowded, unpleasant environment underground between the local and express tracks at Times Square.
The passersby who stopped to listen to what they could hear of the Bach partita being played were offered "the chance to experience the depth of the inner life--by which I mean to enact it, to produce it."
He quotes T.S. Eliot's couplet about this active experience of listening:
"Music heard so deeply that you are the music/While the music lasts."
This music "offers an antidote to both the distractions of a complex world and the adaptations required to navigate them."
Classical music matters for many reasons, And many of those reasons are explored in this gem of a book. "Falling in love requires three things--being with the right person at the right time for long enough time." So Robert Shaw said in relationship to falling in love with Bach, Beethoven, and company. I think Kramer might agree with that. Regardless, we who spend time with classical music do it because it matters to us. And the "things that matter are things we bother with."
Kramer closes by quoting the great English Romantic poet, William Wordsworth, who's "Solitary Reaper" plays an important role:
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.