New book episode

There’s a new episode — the 13th – of my in-progress book on the future of classical music online. Or my in-progress improvised draft of a book. But whatever I call it, the response has been wonderfully warm, quite enthusiastic, really, from all kinds of people who e-mail me. Or who talk to me out in the physical world.

I’ll refrain from quoting any of the reactions, so this blog won’t read like a movie ad, but I’m warmly grateful. (And now I’m going to be precise, and say that this is the 13th episode of the second version of the book, since there was also a first version, which I abandoned after six episodes that I decided weren’t going in the right direction. It’s fun to write in the glare of public light, and yes, I really mean that.)

This new episode continues a section of the book that might be called, “How Classical Music Got That Way.” Which means, “where did the classical music world as we know it today come from?” And the answer is, or at least my answer is: It came from three things, from the emergence of the very concept of classical music early in the 19th century (or in other words the concept of supreme musical works, written by supreme creators, and requiring utter devout silence from anyone listening to them); from the emergence of modernism, early in the 20th century (which helped put new classical music beyond the reach of ordinary mortals — but note that I’m not saying that modernist music is in itself bad); and finally from the emergence of current pop culture, that (with rock and jazz) created a musical soundtrack for contemporary life that’s really far from classical music.

The new episode starts the second part of this, the part about modernism. And what I try to show is that in the1890s, before modernism appeared, new music wasn’t considered at all remarkable just because it was new. By that point (because people really believed in the idea of classical music), far more music by dead composers was played than music by new composers (exactly the pattern we have now). But the new music was taken in stride, welcomed, and often loved. We need to get back to that place today.

All the old episodes are still online, by the way. Including even the six episodes of the old version. Just go to the main book site, and you’ll see them listed in a box on the left.

Subscribers to the book got a bonus. They got two revealing anecdotes, one about the first part of the 19th century, when classical music — highbrow works by serious composers — was fighting with popular music, otherwise known as opera and recitals by flashy virtuosos. Mendelssohn was a classical composer, a high priest of a tradition that, as people saw it then, began with Haydn, Mozart, and especially Beethoven. Donizetti, a prolific, theatrical opera composer, was a prime example of popular music. But when Mendelssohn’s friends attacked Donizetti, Mendelssohn (bless the man) defended him. And not even as a guilty pleasure — he just loved the music. Now, of course, we think Italian opera is as classical as Mendelssohn, which is just one way that our classical music world blurs (to put it mildly) any distinction between the many kinds of work that “classical” composers have written.

The other anecdote for subscribers was an early taste of something that’ll be in the next episode of the book — how, in 1913, Saint-Saens (at that point the dean of established Parisian composers) reacted (with utterly deadpan derision and disbelief) to Stravinksy’s Rite of Spring. It’s a priceless story, which I found in the memoirs of Alfredo Casella (an Italian neoclassicist), and which I haven’t seen printed anywhere else.

To subscribe to the book — which above all means you’ll get e-mail notification of all new episodes — just click mailto: here, and write “subscribe to the book” in the subject line of the blank e-mail form that will appear. And I’d be grateful if you’d tell me a little about yourself. My subscribers (bless them all) are a varied and delightful group, from several countries. Some are classical music professionals (some of these high-ranking), some very thoughtful music students, some are equally thoughtful teachers at universities or music schools, and some are just plain listeners. I like knowing who they are, and I’ve learned a lot from them.

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  1. Anonymous says

    As an aspiring opera singer, I love your ideas; but please, please check your grammar! “What it ought to look at is…” It should be are. “As if the danger was real.” The “was” should be in the subjuctive tense: were. Good thesis. Is this going to be published in hardback?

    Well, I’m very flattered when someone reads me this carefully! It’s always good to have an editor on hand.

    I can’t find the first phrase you mention in the current episode. (or anywhere else on my computer), so I can’t weigh your suggestion. Can you help me locate it?
    As for the subjunctive, I prefer to write colloquially, so I avoid it. It always sounds a little too fancy for me. I think this would be considered a mistake only from a rather high church point of view, where writing is concerned.

    And of course I’m glad you like my ideas. The book at some point will appear in print, but that hasn’t been a priority of mine — yet.

    Good luck with your singing!