Classical and pop reviews (6)

I’ve said that classical music reviews normally don’t do what a lot of pop reviews do — engage the music (and, even more, the critic) with the world outside the music. But in the past, this wasn’t always true. Here are two examples, from the 19th century, of comments on classical music that absolutely engage the lives of the people who commented. In one way, these are a special case, because they’re about Wagner, whose music really did throw the world into an uproar. You had to be for him or against him, and your position had a lot to do with what kind of person you were, and what your views were on just about everything important about life. But there are other examples, which I’ll have to save for later (I’m away from home, without access to my books), and in any case, the Wagner uproar really did happen, and really did show classical music as a living art, which made people think about the lives they led.

Here’s one example, from a review of a Tannhauser production in New York in 1859 (the first staged production of a Wagner opera in the U.S.):

The general idea … is the struggle between the pleasure of senses and the conviction of duty. It is but a romanticized epitome of the similar trials in every day real life.

A very simple thought, unremarkably expressed. But would anyone say this now? Would anyone say that Tannhauser was, in the end, about the lives all of us lead right now? And if it’s not about that, what is it about? Why do we go to see it? Classical music reviews, as I noted in a previous post, tend to treat classical works as objects, lying outside everyday life, subject to various kinds of analysis that don’t raise questions about how we should live.  (I know that people wild about the Ring sometimes do say that it can tell us things about our own lives. But I’ve rarely, if ever, seen anything like that find its way into a serious review.)

Second example — a private letter from M. Carey Thomas, one of the founders of Bryn Mawr College, and later its president. She saw Tristan in 1891, and here’s what she wrote in a letter to an intimate friend:

If I say it seemed to me the most glorious of all Wagner’s operas, flawless from first to last, the most triumphant rhapsody of love ever that, rapturous, soaring, heavenly high, winging thro. the Empyrean, without a touch of earth, all human emotion sublimated into godlike passion & longing panting & throbbing thro. thousands of memories of the splendid things of seas & stars and plains and marble & pictures & poetry until all together are blended into one in the rapture & fire of the music-I never imagined Wagner so great. During the bridal night of Tristam [sic] & Iseult as she lies in his arms while this glorious chant rises & falls one thinks passion has said its last word, but when the dying Trisram hears of Iseult’s approach & tears open his wound in the wildest excitement it rises higher & over his dead body in the death song of Iseult so high that one fairly breaks down under its weight of splendour. I never in a public place came so near to losing my self control…

And later, in another letter:

I think I should be capable of any thing mad and impulsive after a week of Tristam…

Smile if you like (though I think she’s marvelously honest). But would anyone now say that they’d almost lost their self-control during Tristan, or that they’d be capable of anything mad? Is there anything at all in classical music that would make someone feel this way — and, even more to the point, would any classical music critic ever say they felt such things, even if they really did feel them?

(My two examples come from an invaluable book by Joseph Horowitz, Wagner Nights.)

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  1. Best Music? says

    Coming home from an O.A.R show the other day, my friend – a longtime classic rock fan – made the point that concerts are primarily social experiences. We were talking about another friend’s decision to see a concert by herself and he adamantly protested this.

    Their disagreement may parallel the fault lines in the mentalities of classical and pop fans. Classical fans would see the concert, accompanied or not, with the purist’s view that the music is enough for the experience. Pop fans would not want to be alone in the audience because their priority is “the concert experience,” of which the music is only one ingredient.

    But I wonder if there’s a deeper link between these two attitudes. If pop concerts are loud and rowdy, but classical concerts are silent and subdued, is one necessarily social and the other anti-social? After all, pop fans enjoy listening by themselves on an ipod, and classical people enjoy more social occassions like the outdoor festival or salon concert. The problem is that this binary – anti-social classical v. social pop – fits nicely into the comparisons you’ve been making between classical and pop reviews. Pop reviews emphasize the experience and classical reviews stick to the music proper. This simple distinction is inaccurate and powerfully damaging to the perception of classical music by new listeners. Indeed, my friend is profoundly right to argue that concerts are an essentially social experience. For all of the Adorno-esque disdain for the audience floating around modernism, concerts are, by definition, a connection between the performer and listener. It’s still a social connection, however much more abstract than the frequent dialogues between performer and audience at pop events. The success of a concert turns on the strength of this connection. The technical quality of the performance is one, but not the only ingredient to strengthening the performer/audience relationship, not even the most important. Where classical reviews become preoccupied with minute technical details, they miss other aspects of the connection between performer and audience. Some groups, for instance, pride themselves on informalizing the atmosphere of the classical concert. They might converse with the audience about the music or tell stories about their performances. For most concertgoers these gestures would be more important to their experience than a performer’s interpretive mastery or nearness to perfection. I think most audiences would gladly trade some informality in the performance for a little heart and soul from their performers. Personally, it’s more exciting to see a musician struggling with music, being challenged by it, than to breeze through it.

    Good points. In past centuries, especially before 1800, the music we now call classical was performed at rowdy concerts. The audience participated, noisily.

    And then something else evolved. Christopher Small, in his book Musicking, has a wonderful evocation of a classical concert, in which he lays bare his impression of the unspoken social interaction when everybody sits in silence, and both the construction of the concert hall and the conventions of concerts keep the musicians and audience from making contact.

  2. says

    Greg, Several years ago the NYT published a short profile on Colin Davis in which he said that for years he avoided Wagner because he was rather repuled by it, but he was conducting Tristan at Covent Garden and in the last act suddenly felt that he would have to flee the orchestra pit, as the music was “fairly groaning” with emotion. He goes on to say he couldn’t leave, as “that isn’t bloody practical.”

    Wonderful, David! Thanks. Here’s a link to that NY Times profile: But unfortunately it’s not available free. We have to pay them to read it.

  3. says

    There’s kind of an unspoken ur-theme behind many of your posts, at least for me, which is “If classical presenters gave us much more contemporary music, and contemporary classical music was fruitfully engaged with the world, classical music would have more cultural currency and immediacy, thus leading to fewer existential questions regarding the genre.” I guess I’m not going to pretend this is a comment as such, but if I follow the implications of many of your posts, this is where I find them winding up.

    FWIW, I agree.

    Hi, Andrew. Yes, that’s exactly what I think. Thanks for ferreting it out! It’ll be one of the main points in my book.

    Here’s another way to put it. If classical music functioned the way it did in past centuries — up to the first years of the 20th century — it might be as widely loved and accepted as it was back then.

    One caveat. I’m not sure things will change simply because presenters give us more new music. A whole new classical music social structure has to emerge, in which presenters, performers, composers, and audience all are linked, and all are thinking in new ways. As regular readers know, I think that’s begun to happen in New York.