Third book riff

This one, you’ll see, is a little different from the last two. I expand

into some writing that has, maybe, the length and detail l’ll have in

the finished book.

And no, this isn’t the actual book text. Still just a riff, but partly

expanded. You’ll see that I’m asking you if my plunge into a new

subject — the classical music tradition, and what’s not just good, but

profoundly wonderful about it — makes sense, at this early stage of

the book. Remember that I’m riffing my way through the first chapter.

The plan: maybe one more first chapter riff, and then I move onto

chapter two — while writing chapter one for real.

The book so far:

Rebirth: The Future of Classical Music


Riff 1

Riff 2

The new riff:

    Greg Sandow


    Rebirth: The Future of Classical Music


    [third riff from chapter one]



And so now we’d better talk about resistance to classical music change.


Of course there’s resistance. There always is, to just about any kind of change.


But in classical music, resistance to change — at least for some

people — seems to go very deep. Maybe that’s in part because music

touches us so deeply. But I’ve seen people, when the public radio

station in New York cut back on classical music broadcasting, literally

howl with rage. And then we’d see implausible op-ed pieces in the New

York Times, urging that the broadcasts be restored, without giving any

reason that would convince anyone who wasn’t in love with classical

music already.


One classical music leader I know — an important person in the

orchestra world — privately said he and others might need grief

counseling, if classical music as they knew it was going to disappear.

And Pinchas Zukerman, in a wild explosion to a writer for the Denver

Post, said that if classical music disappeared from our culture, we’d

no longer be civilized, and we’d have riots, as we did in the ’60s.


(A really crazy notion, I can’t resist noting. The ’60s riots, first of

all, came at a time when classical music was much more central in our

culture than it is now. And they were caused — as a government study

done afterwards showed – by racism. And classical music hasn’t exactly

taken the lead in fighting racism, has it?)


So objections to classical music change — at least as I see them – can

have some exaggeration built into them. How, then, should I treat them

in my book? How much space should I give them? In some ways, they’re

extraneous. History is moving on, and classical music is changing, no

matter how much anybody howls. Howlers, in any case, are in a minority,

as is never more clearly shown than when they scream at classical music

cutbacks on public radio. They’re a small minority of public radio

listeners. That’s why the stations cut back on the broadcasts.


But I spend a lot of time — in my blog, for instance — arguing with

people who don’t like change. Which tells me, I think, that they’re

still a significant obstacle. I’m sure the same arguments go on in many

classical music institutions, and slow the pace of change, if they

don’t block it entirely.


So I think I should address this. We all should remember that opinions

come in more than two flavors. They’re not either black or white, for

change or against it. They exist on a spectrum, and many people aren’t

quite sure where they themselves stand, on one hand seeing reasons for

change, and on the other thinking that change might be bad.


And then even people who wholeheartedly want change may live and work

with others who aren’t so sure. So I think I do need to deal with the

resistance at least at reasonable length, because people who do want

change may need help and encouragement, which I might be able to give



(Comments on all of this are welcome, by the way. And, of course, on

anything else I write.) But my tone needs to be cheerful. And also

sympathetic. I don’t want to slam into anyone, and I have to

acknowledge that, much as I long for change, there’s also something

that we have to try to preserve.


And that’s the classical music tradition, or at least its essence.

This, as I’ll note later in the book, is a complex business, because

classical music as we know it today (with, for instance, reverent

silence at classical performances) is relatively new, historically. The

musical world that Mozart knew — with the audience talking while music

was played, and applauding the moment they heard anything they liked

(right in the middle of a piece), while the musicians improvised freely

— surely wouldn’t make today’s traditionalists very happy.


That said, though, our idea of classical music tradition (however

recent it might, historically, be) does carry a lot of force that isn’t

purely nostalgic. I myself grew up in it, as a music student and



And so I want to take time in the book to describe it authentically. To

talk, for instance, about the discipline involved in playing classical

masterworks, about how a great musician works for years — for an

entire lifetime — to get the music right. And how precisely because

the music is genuinely great, the challenges it offers can never be

fully mastered.


I can quote here from any number of books by or about great classical

musicians, especially those of a generation or two ago, when the

tradition still carried all of its force. And I can also talk about my

own experience. I started in classical music as a singer, and though I

never made a professional career, I got into the music very deeply.


Here I segue into something longer than a riff. It’s much closer –

in length and detail — to the kind of writing that might actually

appear in the book. So it might seem out of proportion. I might seem to

be spending too much time on what it’s about, as if I’d pulled the flow

of my writing out of shape.

But I hope you’ll indulge me. I’ve said that I want to put a lot

of music in the book – to bring music alive with my writing, music

that’s both classical and nonclassical. I want to do this with

classical music first because the best argument for classical music is

always, in the end, the music itself, so I want to establish its power

as vividly as I can. And then the book is not just for people who

already care about classical music. It’s also aimed at a wider

audience, at (for instance) people who more or less like classical

music, but don’t pay much attention to it, and maybe wonder why. Or,

more generally, for people who might wonder why such a great and

venerable art form means so much less to them than theater, novels,

painting, or film.

And I’ll write about nonclassical music to establish its artistic

quality, in a classical context, to show that it’s not inferior to

classical music. That’s a point I’m going to make forcefully in the

book, so I need to have music that isn’t classical come alive in the

text to support my argument. And since I’ll also say that classical

music, in my view, can’t survive unless it’s willing to coexist – and

mingle – with music that isn’t classical, I need to make that happen in

my writing, to show what I mean, and what the benefits can be.

Finally, I want the book to have me in it, to include a lot of my

own experience. What follows is one way to do that, and I have to say

that it comes from my heart.

Having said all this, I’ll get back to the riff.


I can quote here from any number of books by or about great classical

musicians, especially those of a generation or two ago, when the great

classical music tradition still carried all of its force. And I can

also talk about my own experience. I started in classical music as a

singer, and though I never made a professional career, I got into the

music very deeply.


At one point, for instance, I sang large chunks of Verdi’s great opera

Otello, singing the baritone role of Iago. In an opera, a composer (as

I came to see) plays many roles. He or she is, in effect, a playwright,

creating a work for the stage.


But the composer also does more than a playwright. Because music has,

in so many ways, so much more power than words, the composer creates

not just the play, but the performance of the play. The opera’s

libretto — its written text — might, for instance, specify that a

scene takes place in the top of a mountain. Or in the American gold

rush, as in Puccini’s La fanciulla del West, or at the bottom of the

river Rhine, as in Wagner’s Ring.


So, having established those things, the composer then writes music to

describe them. And so we don’t just get any mountain top, but a

particular one, the one the composer imagines, working now not just as

a playwright, but as, in effect, also the set and lighting designer.


And when it comes to acting — the way the characters speak and move —

the composer is even more specific. He or she sets the tone and the

pacing. Do you, as the actor, pause before saying a particular line? in

a play, that’s up to you and the director. In an opera, it’s written

into the score.


So when I sang Iago, I felt that Verdi had gotten there before me — as

of course he should have — and had made choices better than any I’d

(at least at first) be likely to make. My first job, then, was to

understand the choices he’d made, the tone and mood and flow and

emphasis he’d given every moment of my part, to understand what he’d

set down for me, and quite honestly to try to be equal to it, before

making any creative choices of my own.


To be more precise, the creative choices of course might show up at any

moment. The process isn’t linear, Verdi first, and then whatever I can

bring. I’m interacting with Verdi at every moment I study his score.

But he has to come first, not because of any ritualistic respect for a

great composer, but because the way he wrote my part shows me, right in

my face, how great he was.


And so there were places I pondered, so strongly that I remember them

to this day, more than 40 years later. Take the place where Iago,

making Otello jealous, talks in the most quiet but insinuating way —

lying, burrowing under Otello’s skin — about a handkerchief Otello

had  given his wife. “That handkerchief,” Iago sings, “I saw it in the

hands of Cassio!”


Or in other words in the hands of the man I want Otello to believe his wife is unfaithful with.


So how should I sing that? When the name “Cassio” shows up Verdi writes

two simple notes, nothing dramatic, just the standard way any musical

phrase in his music might end. But then he puts accent marks over those

notes, indicating that they should should be sung with some amount of



But how much emphasis? Some baritones don’t sing these notes. Instead,

they shout out the name, not singing at all, ignoring the written

notes, sounding like they’re throwing the name right in Otello’s face,

or maybe even jumping up and knocking him down. They’re not just

telling a forceful lie. They’re dramatizing their point, showing how

strong it is, flaunting their triumph.


Is that the right thing to do? It’s not always wrong, in opera, to

speak or shout instead of singing. There’s a famous moment in Tosca,

when Tosca, having murdered the ghastly police chief Scarpia, stands

over his body and says, “And all of Rome used to tremble before him.”

Puccini directs these words — in Italian, “E avani a lui tremava tutta

Roma” — to be intoned on a single note, to be sung, in other words,

but in the manner of speech. It’s now the custom, though, to speak the

words instead of singing them, and — as I saw forcefully demonstrated,

when a soprano at the Met actually did sing them — speaking is far

more effective, far more truthful dramatically.  More stark, more

biting, more vulnerable, and more exposed. (But with the danger, if you

speak in too stagey a way, of sounding falsely theatrical.)


So if someone wants to speak or shout those last two Iago notes,

there’s nothing in principle wrong with that. But to me it seems wrong.

For one thing, Verdi marks the passage, before those two notes, to be

sung very quietly (pianissimo), darkly (cupo), and slowly (lento). He

doesn’t say to get louder on the last two notes. And while composers

can be wrong about such things, or at least not implacably right,

beyond any reconsideration, we should take his direction seriously.


And Verdi also once wrote a letter, saying how he thought Iago should

speak, not at this moment, but in general. Iago, he said, while

manipulating everyone, and spreading horrible lies, should do it all in

the most easy, natural, unremarkable tone, so that if anyone objected,

he could simply shrug, and in effect reply (like Gilda Radner), “Oh,

never mind.”


All this suggests to be that I shouldn’t shout the two notes, but

instead should deliver them naturally. And not too loudly. And yet with

emphasis! So the search for the exactly right amount of emphasis

becomes long and consuming, a matter of trial and error, informed,

beyond all this, by my knowledge — looking now at more than my own

part — that the real blowup comes when Otello, now finally in my

power, reacts to what I say, and that my two notes are only one step in

ramping toward his explosion.


(The loudness alone, by the way, becomes a problem in itself. What does

it mean to sing softly, but with emphasis, and does adding emphasis

mean that you have to sing louder? And would the answer be the same for

every singer, and in every staging? Maybe, if you’re standing upstage,

far from the audience, you might have to sing a little louder, so your

point comes across.)


I’ve used this operatic example — maybe an obvious one — from my own

performing experience. People who play Beethoven piano sonatas, or

string quartets, or who conduct Beethoven symphonies, have to make

these choices at just about every moment, and without words to give

them any guidance. But always sensing that Beethoven had something in

mind, stronger than most of what we might think of, and that if we go

off the track, the entire piece starts sounding wrong.


I love and honor this tradition, and if people think that it — and the

reverent silence that surrounds it — is being hurt by the way

classical music is changing — I really do sympathize.


A question. Is this something I should spend this much time on,

this early in the book? Remember that the other sections of this

chapter, the ones I’ve riffed on earlier, will be equally long, so this

one, with any luck, won’t jump up to take more space than it should.

But still: Do you think it’s something I should spend time with

here? And should I write about it in this way? I’m planning to add some

things from great classical musicians, about how they approach the

music they sing and play, and compose. But I’m thinking the bulk of

this section will be about me.

Comments are more than welcome.

Next: a closer look at resistance to change. What forms it takes,

what the resisters believe, and the short version of why I think

they’re wrong. The long version, of course, is the book itself.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons

Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States

License. Which means that you may share this, redistribute it, and put

it on your own blog or website, and in fact circulate it as widely as

you want, as long as you don’t change it in any way. You also can’t

charge money for it, or use it for any other commercial purpose. And

you must give me credit, which means naming me as the author, and

providing a link to my blog, where this riff will also appear. (The

link will be

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  1. Yvonne says

    Among other things, in taking this time here you’re establishing (or showing in very real terms) your credentials: by which I mean your own connection to the music, your own love of it as a listener and performer, and your own appreciation of its challenges and joys. That’s very important, I think.

    Perhaps the question lies in this:

    «much as I long for change, there’s also something that we have to try to preserve.»

    To what extent do you want to take the time this early in the book to establish what it is exactly about classical music in its various forms that we have to preserve? Or is that aspect of it something that you want to touch on and then expand later, perhaps as you go or in a discrete section?

    Thanks so much, Yvonne. I especially value this comment from you, because I know you love the classical music tradition.

    I think the second way — quick comment at the beginning, longer section later — is the way to go. I’m finding, as I draft the actual text of the book, that I have to put in some reassurances early on, so people won’t think I want to throw out the baby with the bathwater.

    When I work inside the music business, I’ve found that people who might disagree with many of my thoughts are reassured when they find out I know and love classical music as well as they do. I want to replicate that in the book, for readers who worry (and why wouldn’t they?) about what might be lost.

    Thanks again. Very valuable to hear from you and others about this.

  2. says

    I’d be interested in what you think of pieces like Beethoven’s 9th Symphony 4th Movement (the Ode to Joy part) or Handel’s Messiah Hallelujah Chorus that are part of (as someone who I can’t remember put it cleverly) “the musical unconscious”. Do you think these pieces, which really have a pop element to them and even, in the case of the Hallelujah Chorus, can be found playing on pop radio around Christmas, will play a role in the rebirth of classical music? Are they a basis to be built on to bring in new audiences (as some orchestras are trying to do) or something overemphasized that should be downplayed in honor of new traditions?

    It seems to me that you are arguing for a new path, but I feel the pop element of classical music should not be ignored. (Its interesting to compare the pop element of classical music to another supposedly dying genre-jazz. If you hum the opening of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony or the William Tell Overture someone is sure to know it, but hum Take the A Train and a lot fewer people will know it. Of course Beethoven and Handel are alot older than Duke, but I think that also plays a role in how deeply classical music is felt in pop culture.)

    I think we’re moving on many paths at once, and that nobody should presume to dictate which paths are going to work and which won’t — or how they’re likely to work. We’re learning about the future by moving into it. My support for alt-classical music is based partly on my love for it, partly on my observation that many non-classical listeners — ranging from younger rock-oriented people to a Scottish poet in his 50s I met a couple of summers ago — can easily relate to it. And partly on the triumphant success it’s had developing an audience in New York.

    But that doesn’t mean other paths can’t be successful. You’re right that there’s a lot of classical music that people love, and you’re really onto something when you say more people would recognize Beethoven’s Ninth — or even better, Fur Elise (because of its success as a ringtone — than Take the A Train.

    Which might lead me to urge more music education, not in classical music, but in America’s terrific heritage in music of other kinds. The thought of kids being taught classical music when they don’t know jazz or the blues — their own American (and, for many, African-American) heritage — gives me the creeps, quite frankly.

  3. Fred Lomenzo says

    Any discussion of the future of “Classical Music” must be first and foremost about the music and those who create it. As Bill Clinton might say to us “its about the music %#@&*”. One discussion might include the realities faced by past composers and the overwellming realities facing composers of today. Thousands of “composers” trying to have their music performed or even listened to. Some with talent turning to popular music. Many are well intentioned musicians with various music degrees that just do not have that rare gift and work ethic. Some years ago I had a brief discussion with Milton Babbitt on the very remote possibilities of a relatively unknown composer (as well as a known composer) having their music performed by proffesional musicians ,including full orchestra. We also spoke about synthesizing the orchestra which I had been working on at the time. Many years later along with modern high speed computers this is now a reality.The more advanced the audio system the better it will sound.Forget what you have heard so far. This has taken many years, thousands of hours of work plus the finacial investment.However when I have completed a work be it(symphony, piano or violin concerto ect.) it is ready to be played and enjoyed by others here and now, and not perhaps after my death.

  4. says

    Congratulations! I have been reading your blog – and sometimes despairing, at the direction you have been taking your book. I think in general you can only make a strong argument for change in the established world of classical music, by spending time showing your relationship to it, and also your love of the traditions. Which you are now doing! Of course the tradition needs to change, the world has changed so much, we almost can’t keep up, just how it should change is a comlicated discussion. Can’t wait to read the book.

    Thanks, Barbara. Very, very important feedback for me.

  5. says

    A further thought: I totally agree with you that music education a) ought to occur and b) ought to be more comprehensive. I found myself thinking along the same lines as you when I saw the Berlin Philharmonic play Brahms and Schoenberg last week-part of the reason they played it so well is because it’s their heritage. And what is our heritage? Blues, jazz, and showtunes; we may have great classical composers, but the one thing you can point to that really characterizes American music are those three things. The interesting thing is, jazz has become a very stratified “genre”- there is a group of the elite who can name whatever record comes on in the Village Vanguard before a set starts, and will give you a dirty look if you don’t know which songs Bill Evans played on and which songs Wynton Kelly played on “Kind of Blue”. The other group may have heard of Charlie Parker but just likes that pianist guy who plays at Sunday brunch. Beyond that are scores of people whose only real contact with jazz/blues is that which was derived from it, rock, and then what came out of that. If people were given the chance to have the connections between what they hear today on the radio and the music of the past explained, as well as its importance for the creation of “American” music I think there would a much greater appreciation for jazz today.

    (It’s also interesting to see how the line between modern jazz and “alt-classical” can often blur)

  6. says

    You’re doing a great job, Greg. Keep up the good work.

    Bouncing off what Barbara said two comments ago, she points out that the world has changed so much we can barely keep up. Given your involvement and expertise on the subject, I assume you have already read Alex Ross’ book “The Rest is Noise”. A great read about the history of 20th century music and the cultural and political forces that surrounded and influenced it. This would no doubt be, at least, a good reference point for your writing on classical music’s relation to our modern culture.

    Regarding this post and the amount of time spent discussing your own experience with it, I agree with the other commentators in that it is important for you to express your connection to the traditions. It only helps your credibility later when you want to talk about why changes are needed. Better than some young “whipper-snapper” like me coming in having relatively minimal experience with tradition saying we need to make changes. So, in this regard, you are doing the right thing.

    I am not sure how each chapter is going to progress, but when addressing something related to tradition I would generally approach it this way: 1) What the tradition is, 2) Your experience with the tradition, 3) Why you understand and sympathize with the importance of it, and 4) Why it may or may not pose an issue in relating classical music to today’s cultural climate.

    Just some ideas. I really look forward to seeing the finished product.