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October 31, 2005

Part 1
Introduction to the Problem

Episode 1: Mark, Jed, and Beny Moré

This isn't a book yet, and not quite even the draft of a book. It's a riff, an adventure, an improvisation heading toward a book.

And I’m not sure how to start. The most obvious way would be to list the problems classical music seems to have, much as I’ve discussed them in my blog. The aging audience. Shrinking ticket sales. The increasing (if not yet fatal) difficulty that classical music institutions have in raising money. Declining media coverage. The disappearance of so many classical radio stations. And so on, moving down a long and troubling list, though I could also list some hopeful signs. Youth orchestras are thriving. Music schools are packed with students. Orchestral musicians now are younger than their audience; surely that should be a sign of hope.

But I think it’s dull to start like that. And anyway I think the problems go much deeper than any facts and figures can convey. Are performances of classical music very interesting, these days? Are they creative? Surprising? Individual? Why all the emphasis—in program notes, for instance, or music education—on scholarship, history, and technical analysis? If all this is changing (which it is), is it changing fast enough? And what’s our relation—all of us in the classical music world—to contemporary culture? Theater companies do plays by living playwrights; classical musicians, in striking contrast, play music from the past. And, sure, there’s more new classical music played now than there was 10 years ago, but how much of it sounds new? How much of it sounds like the world outside the concert hall, the world we really live in?

To address those deeper questions, I need another way to write the book. I need to talk about the culture outside classical music, and I also have to talk—very specifically, and with a lot of love—about music itself. So I’m going to start by talking about a musician who isn’t classical, though he’s certainly a classical in his own tradition—Beny Moré, the greatest Cuban singer of the 1950s.

Why Beny Moré? Simply because I’ve just been listening to him, and because, if I want to write, honestly and thoroughly, about the culture outside classical music, I have to write about the way I live in that culture. And so I have to say that I’ve been unpacking boxes of old pop CDs that I’ve had in storage, while my wife and I waited to move into our new house. In one of these boxes was Beny Moré. I’d bought the CD when I visited Havana in 1999 to write about classical music in Cuba, for The Wall Street Journal. The CD was an official release of EGREM, the Cuban record company. But it looked homemade, except for the cover (and even that wasn’t exactly printed very skillfully); inside the case was a Verbatim brand recordable CD, with Moré’s music recorded on it, and his name scrawled on it by hand.

And his music just enchanted me. Beny Moré had a high voice, very sweet and smooth, and canny; he could perfectly control what classical singers would call his registers, or in other words his full voice, his falsetto, and every step along the way from one into the other. Any tenor singing opera ought to envy him. He forces us to pay attention, not because he shapes the music lovingly, or sings with powerful emotion, but because he’s willful. He starts one song (called “Mi amor fugaz”) almost by wrestling the music to a halt. His band has been playing, fast and bouncily; then he begins, and grabs the music, forcing it into a slower tempo, making every note a spectacle, putting gaps between the notes, pacing the song any way he wants to, taking us with him, no questions asked, anywhere he goes.

For classical musicians, to sing or play like this would be illegal. You have to learn the proper style for everything you play—Bach goes like this, Mozart goes like that. And then you work within that style. But for Beny Moré (or for any pop or jazz musician, especially the great ones), style is anything he wants to do. He makes his own style.

But most of all, I love his rhythm, the way he floats around the beat, or flies right over it, beneath it, ahead of it, behind it. He places all the notes he sings—or really all the words, because for anyone like this, notes have no meaning without the words attached to them—anywhere he thinks they ought to be. And he sounds as if he chooses where that is only at the moment when he’s singing.

This, too, doesn’t often happen in classical music. Or at least it doesn’t happen now. From descriptions of long-ago performances, we can learn that classical pianists used to let the melodies they played with their right hands float apart from the accompanying rhythms that their left hands shaped. And opera singers in the 19th century would slip away from their orchestral accompaniment.

But in our time, classical music stays, if not in lockstep with the beat, then at least in strong agreement with it. If anything gets varied in the rhythm, the entire tempo changes; the music speeds up, or slows down, and everybody playing—even 100 musicians playing in an orchestra—make those changes all together. This isn’t a good thing, or a bad thing. It’s just a musical style. But it’s also just one musical style among many, and it’s useful to remember—as we set out to look at the problems classical music has right now, and how they might be fixed—that other kinds of music do things that classical music can’t, and also that things that might seem to be purely musical also have a cultural meaning. Another way to put that is that musical styles have causes, and also consequences. It’s hard to imagine any Latin band not having loose and sexy fun with rhythm (Beny Moré’s musicians sound both careless and accomplished, both casual and suave); it’s equally hard, given all the formality of the classical concert hall, to imagine classical musicians being rhythmically free. (Do we need to be that formal? As George Clinton sang, “Free your mind and your ass will follow.” a proposition that, come to think of it,  might work just as well the other way round. Once performances get looser the formality might disappear. But we’ll get to all that later.)


And now I want to talk about the gentle guy who cuts my hair. His name is Mark; he likes jazz a lot, especially jazz piano. But sometimes he’ll go browsing in the classical department of a Tower Records store near his salon. Sometimes he’ll buy something, usually piano music. He bought a Martha Argerich CD, he told me, though he couldn’t remember what she was playing; he also bought one by Glenn Gould. These are fabulous choices, pianists who are memorably individual. But there’s a reason why he can’t remember what Martha Argerich played; he doesn’t think about classical music much, and doesn’t know all the classical composers’ names.

And so when Mark goes to Tower’s classical department, he’s mostly confused by what he sees. There are thousands of CDs displayed, almost all of them by performers and composers that he doesn’t know. Many of the CDs have covers with text in foreign languages. Is Mark supposed to think he needs a graduate degree, just to shop for classical recordings?

And if he knows what piece he wants to buy a CD of—maybe he heard it somewhere, or read about it—how can he decide which recording of it he should choose? This is a common problem, much discussed, for at least a decade, by people in the classical music business (including even classical record company executives). But who’s doing anything about it? When I was in Tower about a week before I’m writing this, I saw that some CDs of well-loved masterworks had stickers on them, saying things like “Buy this one! It’s the best!” Other CDs have text on them that tell us they’ve been honored by a British music magazine. (I’ll bet that impresses Mark.)

And making matters worse is how awful many of the CDs look. I found myself staring at a bin with many versions of a Schumann symphony. One of them had a dark, unpleasant, badly printed portrait of Schumann on its cover; it made me feel like I’d enrolled in a class in some amateurish music school. Another CD had a photo of the star conductor who’d recorded it; he was standing with a self-important smirk, wearing blue jeans, a sloppy, untucked dress shirt, and (from an entirely different clothing universe) a completely ridiculous cream-colored vest.

Another conductor, from generations past, looked like an angry schoolmaster. The most appealing CD had a photo on its cover of sunlight filtered through some trees, a photo not exactly good enough for National Geographic, but which at least suggested somebody’s idea of how the music ought to sound. Why, though, should that interest anyone who’s used to more sophisticated images (like the ones we see around us every day)? Classical music, I have to think, hasn’t figured out how to compete in the modern world, or how to lessen Mark’s confusion.

But now imagine Mark’s delight when he found something that could really speak to him. This was a series on the Philips label, called Great Pianists of the Twentieth Century, a really huge release of 100 double-CD sets, each devoted to a single pianist. Imagine seeing that on display, or even part of it. A single “great pianists” CD would be something you could take or leave. You might be suspicious, or at least unsure. How easily could you read the fine-print listing of their names? How could you tell how great the pianists really were?

But a display of many CD sets—now the title seems to be supported by the scope of what you see. Even if you’re not an expert, you might well recognize the biggest names, Horowitz or Artur Rubinstein. That might give you confidence; you’d know the series really had the greatest pianists. You’d see that certain artists had two sets devoted to theme, and that some had even three. You might conclude that someone planned this series carefully. You might wonder about the pianists that you’d never heard of. They’re in this series; they must be good. Simply seeing all the CD packages might make you think the pianists must be very individual. Why else devote two full CDs (or four, or six) to them?

Of course Mark bought a few of these CD sets, and cared enough to tell me about it the next time I saw him. The series isn’t now available; maybe it didn’t sell. But I have to wonder what a record company could do with it, or something like it, if it truly understood the problem that the piano series partly seemed to solve.


Which brings me to my other friend, a therapist named Jed, a quiet man you wouldn’t want to underestimate, because his eyes see right through everything he looks at. Like Mark, he doesn’t spend much time with classical music. But he loves Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, a piece that’s warmed by Beethoven’s love of nature, with its birds and storms and flowing brooks.

One day Jed walked past Lincoln Center, and saw a poster for a concert at which some orchestra would play the Pastoral. Impulsively, he bought a ticket. Nothing else that Lincoln Center advertised meant anything to him, not the other pieces on the concert with the Pastoral, not the other concerts advertised on other posters, not the photographs of flashy singers, suave conductors, stirring pianists, or star violinists. All he cared about was the Pastoral. He didn’t even remember if the concert was by the New York Philharmonic, the main orchestra that plays at Lincoln Center, or else by one of the visiting orchestras that come there on tour.

Maybe there’s no reason he should know which orchestra he heard; if he’s not interested, why should anybody force him? But it’s also fair to ask whether Lincoln Center or the Philharmonic—or any other classical music institution—does anything that could ever make him care. What do any of them ever do to seize anyone’s attention, to make anybody feel enough at home with them to think of coming back? They dress in formal clothes. They play the music. They provide a program book, with writing that’s variously empty, vapid, blank, or far too scholarly.

And yes, all this is changing. But is it changing fast enough? And, maybe even more important, intelligently enough? Wouldn’t Jed like other classical pieces besides the Pastoral? What could Lincoln Center and the New York Philharmonic do—without insulting Jed, without implying that he needs some education, without treating him in ways his probing eyes would see right through—to make him want to hear another concert?


But taking Jed’s cue, I want to say I love the Pastoral Symphony myself. I’ve loved it ever since I heard it for the first time, when I was 10, in 1953. My family was musical; my mother gave piano lessons, and I’d hear her practice in the evening, when I was going to sleep. My father was a scientist, but at first he’d thought of being a composer, and then a music critic; he’d listen to music on the radio, and sometimes—very rarely, but always with a lot of feeling—he’d play the piano, too.

My mother gave me piano lessons. But none of this clicked in for me until, for reasons I can’t begin to understand, an uncle whom I hardly knew sent me an opera record for my

birthday. I was nine. The opera was Don Giovanni; the recording was of excerpts, on the Haydn Society label, sung by what I now understand was a mostly Viennese cast, with an Italian, Mariano Stabile, in the title role. I could hear, even at age 10, that Stabile sounded alert, but just a little watery; much later I learned that he was in his 60s when he sang this (old, of course, for any opera singer), and that he’d always been more famous for his acting than his vocal sound.

Not that I cared, at first; I wouldn’t even listen to the record. But my father listened; I sneaked in and listened with him; I fell in love with what I heard, and again I can’t say why. Listening to Don Giovanni as I’m drafting this (to the same recording I had when I was nine), I wonder if it wasn’t Mozart’s sense of character that hooked me. I wouldn’t have understood that then—or rather I wouldn’t have thought the music needed any explanation—but there’s always something going on, a laugh, a sigh, a rush, a sudden stillness as something new begins to happen.

So then I guess someone must have asked what other music I might like. How about a symphony? That apparently meant Beethoven, and Beethoven, in the ‘50s, meant Toscanini, thought to be the greatest conductor who ever lived, who at age 86 still commanded the NBC Symphony, an orchestra created just for him (by the big NBC radio network; classical music was much more popular back then), and which wouldn’t survive after he died. How could it? What would have been the point?

My father bought me Toscanini’s recording of the Pastoral. There were other choices. I remember also looking at an LP of Beethoven’s Third Symphony, the Eroica, on the Urania label, with Wilhelm Furtwängler conducting. He was Toscanini’s opposite, a man driven by an inner vision, while Toscanini…but it doesn’t matter for what I’m saying now. How could I have understood those distinctions? But I clearly remember the way the records looked, and the name of the mostly now forgotten Urania record company;  this must have been a pregnant moment in my life. The Toscanini Pastoral turned out to serve me well. I loved it. I bought it once again, a week or so before I’m drafting this, and it was fun to hear how beautifully it sings; less fun to understand (I didn’t hear this when I was 10) that it never, ever smiles; and most fun of all to discover, a few years ago, when I gave a talk on all the Beethoven symphonies, that the Pastoral was still my favorite.

Maybe that’s because I was swayed by the warmth of childhood memories. But I’ve also come to love the way the Pastoral never strains or strives, compared to Beethoven’s Third and Fifth and Seventh symphonies, and most of all his sprawling Ninth. I also love the melodies, which sing almost without stopping, throughout the symphony. I think they have a message for us, in these days when classical music is so troubled. They tell us that classical music doesn’t have to be difficult or complicated. Beethoven—in his time as ahead of everybody else as any composer ever was, writing music whose depths have never been exhausted—could still be simple, creating symphonies with moments where there’s nothing else to do except surrender to his melodies.

And then I love the bits of birdsong that Beethoven worked into the background of the Pastoral. That’s especially true in the opening movement, where the music sounds as if it’s full of sun and trees. The birdsongs seem to fill the air, and yet they aren’t obvious; I hear them almost from the corner of my ear, as I might if I were really walking in the countryside. (Later on, near the end of the second movement, Beethoven brings three birds—a nightingale, a cuckoo, and a quail; he even names them in his score—to the center of his stage, but though that’s sweet, it also strikes me as a stunt, or at best a special effect. What’s interesting is how he finds the perfect place to do this trick, a moment when the music, birds or not, decides it wants to stop, and by stopping gives the birds the space to sing.)

And then there’s history. Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, we’re always told, is a revolutionary work. It broke the frame that symphonies fit into. The last movement grows directly from the one before. The music never stops, as it would have in a standard symphony; instead it darkens, slowly gathers strength, and then bursts free. It almost seems to speak to us, announcing that its triumph can’t be lightly earned. (Beethoven gives that triumph extra weight by adding extra instruments—a piccolo, and three trombones—that hadn’t, up to then, been part of anyone’s symphonic orchestra. The trombones, especially, add gravitas. Conductors these days like a smooth orchestral sound, and blend the trombones into the rest of the orchestra, but to me that’s wrong; their triumphant, unexpected entrance should be plainly heard, cutting through the other instruments with blazing heat.)

But the Pastoral—Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony, written at the same time as the Fifth—breaks through the frame even more decisively, though it’s not as strongly given credit for that, perhaps because it’s supposed to be a placid piece. The last three movements are connected. And they tell a story. All the movements of this symphony have titles. The first is “Awakening of happy feelings on arrival in the country” (that’s the usual translation from Beethoven’s German; it tells us immediately that classical music isn’t a contemporary art). The second is “Scene by the Brook.” And the next three are “Merry Gathering of the Countryfolk,” “Thunderstorm,” and then “Happy and Grateful Feelings After the Storm.” Thus the Pastoral, just like the Fifth, climbs out of the symphonic frame, and even more strongly seems to talk to us, saying how it earned the celebration at the end by going through a storm. (Which Beethoven underlined again with extra instruments, though this time using only two trombones.)

But now I’m going open the parenthesis from the middle of the last paragraph, and look again at what I said about classical music not being a contemporary art. This really is a problem, and it raises questions even about this symphony, no matter how much I say I love it. Look again at the titles of those final movements. What kind of storm was that made everyone so thankful when it finished? We don’t react to ordinary storms like that. And extraordinary storms (I’m writing this just after the three big 2005 hurricanes, Katrina, Rita, and Wilma) cause so much destruction that gratitude—especially, I’d think, the wholehearted singing gratitude in Beethoven’s finale—seems simply wrong, as anyone’s reaction once the battering is over.

I won’t make a great fuss about anything like this, or at least not yet; that will happen later in the book. And of course I understand that the Pastoral finale can be interpreted as something deeper than it seems, as profound rejoicing after trouble that’s much worse than any storm. But we usually don’t go there; the symphony is talked about as if ideas and sentiments from the distant past could speak to us directly, like a current novel, or the evening news. If this final movement were a painting—“Peasants Celebrating After a Thunderstorm”—we could study it and then walk on. But music gets to us more strongly. It envelops us; we can’t escape from it. And so the rejoicing, if it moves us very deeply, really needs some explanation. Why should we be aroused because the storm is over? The peasants might have had their reasons; Beethoven had his. But what are ours?

(Coming next, on November 14: What Jed would have seen at his concert; the odd and contradictory blankness of classical performances. And also why that blankness matters, why it’s not enough to say, as many do, that classical music is in trouble only because people are no longer taught to understand it.)


Posted by gsandow at October 31, 2005 03:46 AM

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