[I've revised this a bit.]
Oprah’s book club is reading William Faulkner this summer.
Yes, Faulkner. Deep, serious, difficult stuff. You can go to Oprah’s website to see this talked about lightly, but there’s nothing light about Oprah’s commitment. She’s urging three Faulkner books on her fans, As I Lay Dying (June’s selection), followed by The Sound and the Fury and Light in August. And on the website, she has Faulkner scholars answering readers’ questions.
Bravo for Oprah. And this ought to have serious implications for classical music. If Oprah can get people to absorb themselves in profoundly serious, difficult books, why not profoundly serious, difficult music?
I’m sure that’s an unfair question. Oprah might not be into music, in the way she’s into reading. And books, in many ways, are easier than music. They have stories. They’re about something. They have characters, and plots. You can put them down if they get too difficult.
(Though Oprah’s readers seem willing to accept Faulkner’s knotty, sometimes almost impenetrable writing. On the site right now, one reader asks about a passage on pp. 80-81 of As I Lay Dying: “And since sleep is is-not and rain and wind are was, it is not. Yet the wagon is, because when the wagon is was, Addie Bundren will not be.” The explanation comes from Professor Robert W. Hamblin, Director of the Center for Faulkner Studies at Southeast Missouri State University. It’s substantial and thorough, around 450 words long.)
Besides, if Oprah were to promote profoundly serious, difficult music, that music might not be classical. Why shouldn’t she get her viewers listening to Charlie Parker, or Thelonious Monk, or Robert Johnson? God, wouldn’t that be wonderful!
But let’s think of how she might approach classical music. Or, maybe better, how we’d approach her, if we wanted her to give it a try. What pieces should she ask people to listen to? And how should she describe them?
Faulkner, difficult or not, has many connections to the current world. He writes about something many people—especially African-Americans, like Oprah—know about, the segregated south. And quite apart from racial issues, there’s his evocation of the kind of rural life that’s just about vanished now, which he sees tragically, without any nostalgia.
What can we offer in classical music that could be so vivid, so directly powerful for us, so American, so profound, so intuitively understandable?
That’s not an easy question, and until we can answer it, we shouldn’t be surprised that Oprah isn’t doing anything for classical music. Even though she’s urging three novels on her community that offer a sustained level of difficulty no orchestra would dare — for an entire summer’s programming — to touch.
I don’t know Faulkner well, so I’m going to read these three books myself. Thanks, Oprah!
Immediate reward, right on the first page of As I Lay Dying:
The path runs straight as a plumb-line, worn smooth by feet and baked brick-hard by July, between the green rows of laidby cotton, to the cottonhouse in the center of the field, where it turns and circles the cottonhouse at four soft right angles and goes on across the field again, worn so by feet in fading precision.
This took my breath away. (Precision, economy, rhythm and sound, evocation of heat and summer, compassion.) I closed the book. No need to read anything else for a while.