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
The new riff:
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
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
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,
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
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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