In the past week I’ve read — in newspaper pieces by respected critic colleagues — that a Mozart piece is “sublime,” and that a Mahler performance was “stamped by magnificence.” It’s not exactly rare to read things like this, of course, and I’m sure I’ve been as guilty of this puffed-up praise as anybody else.
But I’d like to call a halt to words like “sublime” and “magnificent,” when classical music is talked about, along with “great” and “masterpiece,” and a host of other empty ways to say how good the music (or a performance) is. Why are these words empty? First, because we use them far too much. They get dulled by repetition. They fade into the background. Instead of conveying anything specific — or even believable — about a musical experience, they all (taken together, in all their constant repetition) instead convey a sense that classical music is something almost sanctified, that it reaches far beyond ordinary life and ordinary language.
If everyone believed that — or, better, if everyone experienced it — then the words we use would be convincing. But everybody doesn’t believe it, or, worse, even care about it; that’s why classical music is in trouble. So in the present climate our words aren’t convincing at all. They make people think that we’re stuffy, that we’re full of ourselves, that we think we’re so special that it’s impossible to talk to us. (Though in fact we sound bland and empty, which also makes us seem impossible — and not worthwhile — to talk to.)
What should we do instead? We should — and I know this is hard, because it goes against years of working in the other way — talk about our experience, talk about how the music makes us feel, and do it in ways that are believable. If we genuinely feel a sense of sublimity when we listen to that Mozart piece, then let’s talk about how that happens, and how it works inside us. For instance, we might say, “The music is beautiful — with such a special, private beauty that, when it’s over, I feel refreshed, though not quite willing to face the everyday world of mortgages and disappointments.” One virtue of writing this way is that it’s believable. Another is that, while we can repeat “sublime” a dozen times a week, we can’t very well repeat the sentence I just made up. Everybody would know we were copying ourselves, and that we couldn’t truly feel what we described each time that we described it.
So we’d have to find something new to say, each time we praised a classical masterwork. (Oops! See how easy it is to fall into the trap?) We’d have to consult our actual experience — which might, in sad fact, be that we don’t feel sublime each time that we hear Mozart. We’d have to deal, in other words, with the realities of classical music performance, which might (among much else) be that we perform and hear a lot of things too much. Or maybe this isn’t what we’d find we wanted to say, but whatever we did say, it at least might show people why the music really is as great (oops) as we so incessantly claim it is.
Footnote: In my view, writing about our experience with music works best if it’s tied to something in the music itself. Instead of simply saying, “the music made me feel as if I’d been taken to a better world,” we need to say something like, “A quiet melody for the clarinet toward the end of the second movement seemed so peaceful, in contrast to everything that went before, that for a moment I felt as if I’d been taken to a better world.” I’ll be immodest enough to suggest an example of my own writing to show how this can be done: www.gregsandow.com/moyse.htm.
Second footnote: Roland Barthes, the French structuralist, wrote an essay about music criticism called “The Grain of the Voice.” In it he makes this devastating observation: that critics, from the comfort of their armchairs, so to speak, reach out to place labels (typically adjectives) on the music they review. The effect of that, in their writing, is to tame the music (it’s now completely accounted for), and to leave the critics themselves untouched. They sit comfortably, unchanged by anything they hear. Subtly (though mostly unintentionally), they stress their comfort, along with their knowledge, even their superiority. “Who is Mozart? He’s sublime. Who am I? I’m the person who can tell you that Mozart is sublime.” Both Mozart and the critic remain untouched by these proceedings — untouched by anything that might be unexpected, disturbing, or even truly enlightening, untouched by anything that’s truly and powerfully human.
(Disclaimer: What you’ve just read is my interpretation of Barthes, whose writing is profound, but not straightforward. I’ve translated him into more ordinary language, and perhaps supplied my own ideas to some extent in place of his.)