I’ve had some correspondence about my last post, and now I think I may have tangled two issues that ought to be separated. One is what cultural things classical and pop critics refer to in their writing. I said that pop critics often have a wider range of reference than classical critics do, and that sometimes my Juilliard students can’t follow what the pop critics talk about. Maybe that’s true, but obviously there are people who write about classical music who have a wide range of cultural reference — Charles Rosen, a profound scholar (at least of the past), would be one obvious example.
And really the range of reference in pop criticism (the best pop criticism, of course) is irrelevant to my main point, which is that pop criticism relates music to the present day. Here we can get in endless discussions. Who defines the nature of “the present”? What’s the relationship of what we might call purely musical discussion — the form of a Beethoven sonata movement, the shape of the long acoustic piano introduction in Ani DiFranco’s “You Had Time” — to discussion of music’s cultural meaning?
Here, I think, people in classical music cherish some misconceptions, chief among them the idea that classical critics talk about “the music itself,” while pop critics talk about its meaning in our culture. One problem with that is that pop critics do talk about purely musical facts (and, not quite the same thing, but related, there’s now a growing academic practice of pop-music analysis, using the same analytic tools — study of pitch relationships, for instance — that for generations have been applied to classical music). The other problem is that “the music itself” is quite an amorphous concept, one that itself is culturally determined. It’s usually allied to an idea that classical music is timeless, and that classical compositions live, ultimately, in their notation, which can be examined objectively.
But of course pop music also can be written down and analyzed. I’ve had fun doing that with two of my favorite doowop songs. If I were a musicologist, I would have published papers on “Thirds and Fourths: Recurrent Pitch Relationships in the Penguins’ ‘Earth Angel’,” and “In Search of B Natural: An Ascent from G to B as the Structural Spine of the Dells’ ‘Oh What a Nite.'”
And classical music also lives in performance, which means that it takes its place in the world around us. In fact, I’d say we only study its notation, and all the inner structure we find in it, because the music is performed. Which means that it has some value in the outside world, a value that might be connected to its inner structure (just as the value of “Earth Angel” bounces in some ways off those inner thirds and fourths), but takes tangible form in the very social, very cultural realms of sound and hearing.
In the end, it’s easy to make this discussion too complicated, and lose sight of the simplest things, which are also the most important. Why do we listen to classical music? Why do we like it? Why do other people not listen? What can we say to these people, that might make them want to listen? What do I get from classical music, that enriches my life, that helps tell me who I am and where I fit in the world, which might also enrich someone else?
The answers aren’t as obvious as we might think. This is ground I’ve been over here before. If, for instance, I say that classical music is “beautiful,” that’s true enough, but doesn’t help anyone who doesn’t respond to the beauty. In my post on criticism, I wrote about Nick Hornby’s Songbook, which is full of lovely and thoughtful observations on why Hornby likes his favorite songs, and what role they’ve played in his life. What’s notable, from the classical vs. pop criticism point of view, is the ease with which he can make connections between musical facts and cultural facts. He does it so easily, in fact, that I feel embarrassed writing such a nerdy sentence as my last one. I might as well say it’s notable how easily Hornby breathes.
Classical critics, once more, don’t do this, though I imagine some of them very easily could. One critic I know admires Haydn, and from reading him it’s easy to see why. He likes balance, wit, and discretion, and looks uncomfortably at music that veers off toward excess. We could ask, then, how his admiration functions in his life. Does it come into play when he hears Haydn, or are there times when he turns to Haydn to give him balance that he needs for other things?
In the past, nobody hesitated to find real-world value in what we now think of as classical masterpieces. Nobody in the 19th century worried whether Lucia di Lammermoor was timeless. Instead, in a memorable passage in Madame Bovary, Flaubert’s character is transported by the opera, which embodies all her hopeless romantic longing. Around the turn of the century, a New York matron could confide to her diary that Wagner aroused passions she could barely name. Earlier, the violinist Ysaÿe, after hearing Tristan und Isolde, went back to his room, and threw his shoes in the fire, thinking that shoes were an impossible bother, if music like that could exist.
Pierre Boulez, at another emotional pole, is fond of saying that tonal music evokes only nostalgia, at least when composers write it now. Atonal music, by contrast, expresses contemporary emotions (though Boulez, to my knowledge, has never said what those are). Years ago, someone asked me what Steve Reich’s music meant, and I said it was about joie de vivre and hard work. Webern’s 12-tone pieces show me the deep meaning of discipline — the willingness to discover and embrace treasures you would never have known, if you hadn’t restricted yourself to the patterns of musical notes your 12-tone row lays out for you.
Richard Strauss’s later work seems terribly sad, even at its most involved and bustling, as if he’s in mourning for a world that’s gone. (Of course that’s the overt subject of the Four Last Songs, where mourning for the lost world mingles with the sadness of approaching death. This implicit meaning in Strauss’s later work may help explain why the music was better accepted in our era than it used to be — our era being one in which all classical music might be shrinking toward the past, which makes Strauss’s long look backwards more sympathetic than it seemed when the ascent modernism made people believe in musical progress.)
I don’t think it’s hard to relate classical music to our present life, though I’ve made only the smallest beginning here. I’d love to see others try. I can dream of a book, in which many writers do for classical pieces what Nick Hornby does for pop songs…