The Musical Mystique


's most recent books are The Oxford History of Western Music and the
revised edition of Music in the Western World: A History in
Documents (with Piero Weiss). He teaches at the University of
California at Berkeley.

Who Needs Classical Music? Cultural Choice and Musical Value

By Julian Johnson(Oxford University Press, 140 pp.,


Classical Music, Why Bother? Hearing the World of Contemporary
Culture Through a Composer's Ears

By Joshua Fineberg

(Routledge, 162 pp.,


Why Classical Music Still Matters

By Lawrence Kramer

(University of California Press, 242 pp.,



Last January, Gene Weingarten, a Washington Post columnist,
persuaded the violinist Joshua Bell to join him in an experiment.
Bell was to dress in jeans, a T-shirt, and a baseball cap, position
himself at the head of the escalator in the L'Enfant Plaza subway
station at the height of the morning rush hour, open his violin
case, take out his

$3.5 million Stradivarius, launch into Bach's D-minor Chaconne for
solo violin, and see what happened.

Nothing much happened. People hurrying to work hurried by. Half a
dozen or so, mainly those working in the station or early for
appointments, listened for a little while and put some money in the
open case. One passerby, a former violinist, knew the playing was
superb and dropped a five. Another recognized the performer and
dropped a twenty.

But of course it was hardly an experiment. All concerned knew
perfectly well that people at rush hour are preoccupied with other
things than arts and leisure, and would not break their stride. But
the fulfillment of the self- fulfilling prophecy gave Weingarten
the pretext he sought, in an article titled "Pearls Before
Breakfast," to cluck and tut, to quote Kant and Tocqueville, and to
carry on as if now we knew what really happened at Abu Ghraib.

Bloggers took up the refrain. Notice, wrote one, that "all the
children wanted to stop and listen. They knew. But their parents
kept them moving on. Sadly it reminds me of an occasion when
children wanted to stop and listen to Christ but his disciples
didn't let them." Saddest for me was that the weblist of the
American Musicological Society, my professional organization, added
its meed of clucking and cackling. Scholars are supposed to be
skeptical of spin and pose, but here we were piling on. My hat goes
off to one Ben H., a netizen who saw through it all. "Perhaps the
Post could do a whole series of articles about philistines ignoring
Joshua Bell's sublime music-making in different locations," he

1. Outside a burning building (not one fireman stopped to listen!)

2. At a car crash site (one paramedic

actually pushed him aside!)

3. During a graduation exam (shushed by the invigilators!)

4. At a school play (thrown out by

angry parents!)

5. On an airport runway (passing jet

liners seemed oblivious!)

In one respect, though, the caper was instructive. It offered
answers to those who wonder why classical music now finds itself
friendless in its moment of self-perceived crisis--a long moment
that has given rise in recent years to a whole literature of elegy
and jeremiad. These three books, by self-appointed counsels for the
defense, constitute one of its subgenres. Others have argued the
case for the prosecution. Their books include Who Killed Classical
Music? Maestros, Managers, and Corporate Politics by Norman
Lebrecht, a sloppy but entertaining British muckraker; Classical
Music in America: A History of Its Rise and Fall by Joseph
Horowitz, the latest version of a book that Horowitz has written
several times by now, beginning with Understanding Toscanini in
1987; and Mozart in the Jungle: Sex, Drugs, and Classical Music by
Blair Tindall, a journalist and recovering oboist, which despite a
pandering title actually contains the smartest and most
constructive take on the situation.

What makes the classical music crisis suddenly newsworthy is itself
a question worth asking. When has the place of classical music in
modern society ever been secure? Reviewing Lawrence Kramer's book
in The New York Times, Edward Rothstein shrewdly observed that it
might have appeared decades ago, but then it would have had a title
more like "Why Contemporary Composers Don't Matter" or "Why
Audiences Are Stuck in the Past." This is a weatherbeaten
complaint, and one that no longer seems worth debating. To quote
Pieter van der Merwe, a South African music historian, "for the
general public, 'classical music' belongs mainly to the eighteenth
and nineteenth centuries, carries on with rapidly diminishing vigor
into the first few decades of the twentieth, and has ceased to
exist by 1950." The difference is that the irrelevance to concert
audiences of contemporary music now seems to be merely a special
case of a problem facing the classical field as a whole. Doubts
have widened, and Rothstein admits that he has come to share them.
"Though I once tended to whine about its problems with cranky
optimism, now even a stunning performance seems like a spray of
flowers at a funeral."

If a supporter as staunch as Rothstein, who served as the
classical-music maven for this magazine before briefly assuming the
post of chief classical critic for the Times, can fall away, you
surely see why I speak of friendlessness. Classical music has
itself (among others) to blame for the quandary that it now faces,
and I see the reason epitomized in The Washington Post's disgusting
"experiment" with Bell the busker. The discourse that supported its
old prestige has lost its credibility. As with rising gorge I
consumed these books, the question that throbbed and pounded in my
head was whether it was still possible to defend my beloved
repertoire without recourse to pious tommyrot, double standards,
false dichotomies, smug nostalgia, utopian delusions, social
snobbery, tautology, hypocrisy, trivialization, pretense, innuendo,
reactionary invective, or imperial haberdashery.

On the evidence before me, the answer is no. The discourse
supporting classical music so reeks of historical blindness and
sanctimonious self-regard as to render the object of its
ministrations practically indefensible. Belief in its
indispensability, or in its cultural superiority, is by now
unrecoverable, and those who mount such arguments on its behalf
morally indict themselves. Which is not to say that classical
music, or any music, is morally reprehensible. Only people, not
music, can be that. What is reprehensible is to see its cause as
right against some wrong. What is destroying the credibility of
classical music is an unacknowledged or misperceived collision of
rights. The only defense classical music needs, and the only one
that has any hope of succeeding, is the defense of classical music
(in the words ofT.W. Adorno, a premier offender) against its


It would take a book--Joseph Horowitz's book, or Lawrence Levine's
widely cited Highbrow/Lowbrow--to account for the cultural clout
that classical music managed to acquire in such unlikely terrain as
postbellum America; although maybe it is not such a riddle after
all that the traditionally "high" musical genres should have
amassed unassailable cultural capital in the "gilded" age of
intensely concentrated wealth and increasing social stratification.
Nor is it easy to describe the terms of its prestige in the period
of its American ascendancy. It does have one rough and readily
observable measure, though: the cultural prestige of an art medium
can be calculated according to the extent to which there is
perceived social advantage in claiming (or feigning) an
appreciation of it.

By that standard, one can demonstrate that the high plateau of
public esteem that classical music reached in America in the 1880s
(the decade that saw the founding of the Boston Symphony and the
Metropolitan Opera) lasted through the Depression (when the Works
Progress Administration was called in to rescue it), and the Good
War, and into the Eisenhower decade; and that its decline
thereafter was precipitous. In the fall of 1956, when Eisenhower was
running for re-election, RCA Victor issued a long-playing disc
called The President's Favorite Music, consisting of a selection of
items from the firm's backlist, a cover photo that is evidently an
official White House portrait of the grinning occupant seated at
his desk with the First Lady by his side, and a back cover
containing a sort of benediction, signed with a facsimile of the
president's handwriting, celebrating the role of musicians and of
music in his life and in the life of the nation. The musical
selections include some that had plausible connections with
Eisenhower, like Dmitri Tiomkin's title theme for High Noon, as
well as inspirational numbers such as Marian Anderson singing "He's
Got the Whole World in His Hands" and Leopold Stokowski's
arrangement of Bach's "Sheep May Safely Graze" (a paean not to the
deity but to wise political leadership). But the bulk of the
president's musical offering consists of three orchestral
overtures: Beethoven's Coriolan (originally written to accompany a
German tragedy, as the producers of the album had surely forgotten,
about unwise political leadership), Mendelssohn's Fingal's Cave,
and Strauss's Fledermaus. I have no idea how much actual input
Eisenhower had in the planning of this record, but it does not
matter. What matters is that identification with classical music
was considered, by him or his handlers as much as by the record
folks, to be a significant enhancer of his image.

Even better proof that classical music consumption was seen as a
political asset, as an admirable personal quality, came during the
next election season. In 1960, Time magazine reported on the
musical tastes of the major-party candidates for president and vice
president, as ascertained by Paul Hume, the music critic of The
Washington Post (whose main claim to fame was a contretemps with
President Truman over his review of First Daughter Margaret's
recital debut). John F. Kennedy responded to Hume's inquiry through
his wife, who sent a letter listing Debussy's Afternoon of a Faun,
Ravel's La Valse, the overture to Berlioz's Benvenuto Cellini,
Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov, and the Polovetsian Dances from
Borodin's Prince Igor. (I am pretty sure that this Franco-Russian
repertoire reflected the future First Lady's taste. While a junior
at George Washington University studying in Paris, Jacqueline
Bouvier had won a Vogue magazine essay contest on "People I Wish I
Had Known" with an entry on Oscar Wilde, Charles Baudelaire,
and--most germane--Serge de Diaghilev. When Stravinsky heard about
this list from President Kennedy at a White House dinner, he
concluded that she had been researching pederasty.)

Richard Nixon confessed to Time that his sentimental favorites were
Oklahoma! ("because it was the first show that he and Pat saw after
moving to Washington") and Mexican folk songs ("because they
reminded him of his honeymoon south of the border"), but he still
complied with Hume's request for a classical choice, and cited
Chaikovsky's Swan Lake. Lyndon Johnson put himself down as "an
indiscriminate admirer of Strauss waltzes." Henry Cabot Lodge, the
true patrician in the company, named Mozart's Clarinet Quintet, K.
581 (he gave the Kochel number), alongside Handel's Messiah and (the
noblesse oblige concession) recordings by the Dukes of Dixieland.
(His wife added Bach's Suite No. 3 for Unaccompanied Cello, but
only if "performed by Pablo Casals.")

And now? I learn from Joshua Fineberg's Classical Music, Why Bother?
that George Herbert Walker Bush, every bit as much of a patrician
as Henry Cabot Lodge, "was known to prefer the Beach Boys to the
Philharmonic and saw no need to pretend a love for high culture."
From Richard H. Solomon's Chinese Political Negotiating Behavior,
1967-1984, I learn that when Gerald Ford visited the People's
Republic of China in 1975, his hosts made discreet inquiries as to
what music he would like to be entertained with. It turned out to
be the University of Michigan football song, "Hail to the Victors."
(They goofed and played Michigan State's fight song instead.) When
it was Vice President Walter Mondale's turn to visit in 1979, "the
Chinese delighted their guest by playing his favorite songs from
'The Sound of Music' but left him most impressed with the degree of
manipulation they were prepared to resort to in order to make a
positive impression."

Fineberg takes a sour Spenglerian view of this devolution, and with
startling fatuousness he blames it on a late-blooming "misreading"
of Dada's (yes, Cage's and Duchamp's) "attacks on the artistic
status quo." But what actually happened was more like a trahison
des clercs--a defection of intellectuals to pop culture that was a
by-product of the social and cultural turbulence of the 1960s. The
first symptoms in music took the form of regal welcomes to the
Beatles from conspicuously placed mandarins. First there was
William Mann, the chief music reviewer (which in those days, it went
without saying, meant classical music reviewer) for The Times of
London, and his surprise nomination of John Lennon and Paul
McCartney as the outstanding new composers of 1963.

Then, far more decisively, came Ned Rorem, a well-known if not yet
celebrated American composer with a recognized specialty in art
songs, seething with resentment against an academic establishment,
then dominated by twelve- tone composers, that despised him. Rorem
contributed an essay called "The Music of the Beatles" to the
four-year-old but already august New York Review of Books. It
appeared early in the fateful year 1968, and began with a
remarkable salvo: "I never go to classical concerts anymore, and I
don't know anyone who does." Along the way there were yummy
stinkbombs such as this. "There are still people who exclaim:
'What's a nice musician like you putting us on about The Beatles
for?' They are the same ones who at this late date take theater
more seriously than movies and go to symphony concerts because pop
insults their intelligence, unaware that the situation is now
precisely reversed." (Between Mann and Rorem the boys from
Liverpool were inducted into formal academic criticism via Richard
Poirier's "Learning from the Beatles" in Partisan Review, replete
with the mandatory dissertation prologue proclaiming that everyone
who has written about this subject before the author is a dunce.)

Mann compared the Beatles to Mahler, Rorem to Poulenc (and
Poirier--yep--to T.S. Eliot). That sort of hype looks quaint now,
because soon enough there were highly educated critics aplenty who
could write expertly about rock and other popular genres, and about
their histories, without having to validate them with comparisons
to canonical greats. This new breed of critic emerged first in
"alternative" newspapers and samizdat fanzines, of which Crawdaddy!,
originally a mimeographed sheet with a print run of five hundred,
was the first. In an early essay from Crawdaddy! called "The
Aesthetics of Rock," later widely anthologized and expanded into a
book, Richard Meltzer (then a philosophy major at SUNY Stony Brook)
gave the flavor of this new pop criticism. The essay ranged from
James Joyce to Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit to Lennon and
McCartney to Andy Warhol to Bob Dylan, winding up with W.V. Quine.
The idea that someone who read Hegel and Quine would seek musical
fulfillment in McCartney rather than Webern was new, and it was
very threatening to established authorities such as Milton Babbitt,
who complained, in an interview published in 1979, that "we receive
brilliant, privileged freshmen at Princeton, who in their first
year of college are likely to take a philosophy of science course
with [logical positivist] Carl Hempel, and then return to their
dormitories to play the same records that the least literate members
of our society embrace as the only relevant music." Pierre
Bourdieu, were you listening? This came very close to enunciating
as an explicit program the tacit view of art as a producer of
social distinction that the Joshua Bell "experiment" reinforced.

Babbitt's complaint came much too late to matter. Since the "British
invasion," nearly half a century ago, it has been socially
acceptable, even fashionable, for intellectuals to pay attention
primarily to commercial music, and they often seem oblivious to the
very existence of other genres. Of no other art medium is this
true. Intellectuals in America distinguish between commercial and
"literary" fiction, between commercial and "fine" art, between
mass-market and "art" cinema. But the distinction in music is no
longer drawn, except by professionals. Nowadays most educated
persons maintain a lifelong fealty to the popular groups they
embraced as adolescents, and generation gaps between parents and
children now manifest themselves musically in contests between rock

Of course professionals can be just as oblivious, and they look
funnier, since they are blind not to a blip but to the main
picture. I had a grim laugh when I read an interview in The New
York Times this past July with George Benjamin, a
forty-seven-year-old British composer, in town for the American
premiere of a chamber opera that he had written. He was pulling the
usual long face about the fact that music "is not valued in
contemporary society." He challenged the reporter interviewing him
to "name a single politician who shows interest in the music of our
time." This was only days after the Times had published an
interview with John Edwards in which the candidate spoke
enthusiastically about U2, Bruce Springsteen, and Dave Matthews.
Poppy Bush, as we have noted, is into the Beach Boys. Bill Clinton,
the most musical of our recent presidents, claimed no
identification with the classics; he and his wife even named their
daughter after a Joni Mitchell song. But while his musical
attitudes might not console George Benjamin, they do attest to an
authentic involvement with the music of our time, and I for one
rate our sax-toting president's participatory investment in music
higher than anyone's passive consumption of the classics, to say
nothing of the previously expected feigning of cultivated taste.
Such authenticity is a positive change in our culture, connected to
the generally enhanced level of seriousness with which America has
been taking its professed social egalitarianism since the 1960s. Can
classical music fit into that?

One would not think so, to judge by all the cutting back now going
on. The big news this summer was the elimination or downgrading of
classical music reviewing in the nation's newspapers and
general-interest magazines. The Chicago Sun-Times and the
Minneapolis Star-Tribune eliminated their classical critics by
buying them out and retiring their positions. The Atlanta Journal-
Constitution demoted its critic to the status of a feature writer.
The biggest story concerned New York magazine's Peter G. Davis, a
veteran critic who once worked for the Times and is widely esteemed
as a connoisseur of opera and singing. He was replaced, against his
will, by Justin Davidson (formerly of Newsday), who will cover
architecture as well as music. But although it made headlines this
year, this development has long been in progress. The beat of this
magazine's masthead music critic has gone over from classical to
pop. The Atlantic once had a classical record column and for a
while regularly printed excellent essays on classical music by the
composer David Schiff, but now it spurns the topic. The Nation used
to let Edward Said play at classical reviewing, but now covers only
pop and jazz with regularity.

Nor are print media the only, or even the most important, venue to
suffer spectacular cutbacks. Classical radio stations have dropped
like flies. New York has been a one-classical-station town since
1993, the San Francisco Bay Area since 1994. The Metropolitan Opera
lost its national broadcast sponsor in 1987 as a result of the
collapse of oil prices, and its broadcasts are now funded
catch-as-catch-can. The Bay Area, home of the second most
prestigious opera company in America, no longer receives them
because no local sponsor finds them profitable, and the one
remaining classical station, being a default monopoly, can afford
to flout its opera-loving listeners. The collapse of big- ticket
classical recording is also an old story (though hardy indie labels
such as Naxos, with low overheads, are still bucking the trend).
Tower Records is gone, and classical CD sales mostly take place
online. Most orchestras are now without major-label contracts. Some
of them, like the San Francisco Symphony, have gone into samizdat.
In sum: classical music is now generally regarded not as a common
cultural heritage (except, perhaps, at funerals) but as an upscale
niche product.

But the present collapse looks more dramatic than it really is, if
that is any consolation. It follows a period of enthusiastic but
unsustainable growth that coincided, ironically enough, precisely
with the inauspicious changes in consumption patterns just
surveyed--a testimony to the triumph of romanticism over realism in
our musical culture. (This is the story that Tindall's book tells
especially vividly, because its author is an angry victim of the
bubble's burst.) It was only since the 1960s, the very decade when
the prestige of classical music began losing ground, that most
orchestras instituted year-round seasons. Professional arts
education also ballooned in that decade: among the institutions
founded at the time were the California Institute of the Arts and
the North Carolina School of the Arts, the latter the first
state-supported school of its kind. Lincoln Center, dedicated by
Eisenhower in 1959, opened its first doors, to Philharmonic Hall
(now Avery Fisher Hall), in 1962. Spurred by the Cold War (which
turned Van Cliburn's 1958 victory at the first Chaikovsky
Competition in Moscow into a geopolitical triumph) and Lyndon
Johnson's Great Society agenda, the federal government itself took
up the task of arts funding-- not as a bailout, as in the
Depression, but in the expectation that increased supply would
increase demand. Johnson's National Council on the Arts led
directly to the establishment the next year, in 1965, of the
National Endowment for the Arts. The high-water mark for federal
arts funding was reached under Nixon ("the NEA's messiah," in
Tindall's words), who ratcheted its budget up to

$40 million in 1971. By then, the New York State Council on the
Arts, founded under the aegis of Nelson Rockefeller, a seasoned
patron of the arts, had been in business for a decade.

Especially in New York, then, the period roughly from the founding
of Lincoln Center to Black Monday in 1987 was a golden age for art
producers. Major organizations used public subsidies to supplement
private donations and vastly improve the working conditions of
their employees. Tiny groups, including several in which I then
participated as a performing musician, proliferated. And I have not
even mentioned the corporate foundations, which also mushroomed
both in number and in lavishness of largesse. The Ford Foundation,
the biggest one pre-Gates, had been founded in 1936 to "strengthen
democratic values, reduce poverty and injustice, promote
international cooperation and advance human achievement." It took
up the cause of the arts, including classical music, in the late
1950s. The Rockefeller Foundation, a much older organization, got
on the arts bandwagon in connection with Lincoln Center. In the
1980s, the big name was Citicorp. During this period, as Tindall
comments, "most performing arts groups were subsidized by unearned
donated income, as well as tax incentives, and therefore did not
always have to link revenue to the quantity, quality, or type of
product they offered."

As long as this gravy train lasted, the attrition of the audience
could be overlooked. The result of living for three decades in a
fool's paradise was a vast overpopulation of classical musicians as
many more were trained, and briefly employed, than a market economy
could bear. The cutbacks that seemed to imply the sudden cruel
rejection of classical music were really more in the nature of a
market correction, reflecting the present scarcity of patronage and
a long-deferred confrontation with the changed realities of demand.


There are two ways of dealing with the new pressure that classical
music go out and earn its living. One is accommodation, which can
entail painful losses and suffer from its own excesses (the
"dumbing down" that everybody except management deplores). Blair
Tindall's main grievance is the inadequate education she received
at the North Carolina School of the Arts, which left her unskilled
for other work. Her accommodation consisted of retraining as a
journalist. Orchestras have accommodated by modifying their
programming in a fashion that favors the Itzies and Pinkies and
little divas. Composers have accommodated by adopting more
"accessible" styles. Love it or hate it, such accommodation is a
normal part of the evolutionary history of any art.

The other way is to hole up in such sanctuary as still exists and
hurl imprecations and exhortations. That is the path of resistance
to change and defense of the status quo, and it is the path chosen
by the authors of the books under review here. The status quo in
question, by now a veritable mummy, is the German romanticism that
still reigns in many academic precincts, for the academy is the one
area of musical life that can still effectively insulate its
transient denizens (students) and luckier permanent residents
(faculty) from the vagaries of the market. Inevitably, all three
authors are professors. In its strongest and most "uncompromising"
form, the heritage of German romanticism is the ideology of
modernism, and it is again no surprise to learn that two of the
authors are composers who write in academically protected styles.
(The third, Kramer, is also a dabbler in composition, but that is
not his main profession.) Despite their obvious self-interest, they
claim to be offering disinterested commentary and propounding
universal values.

These values are now a little more than two centuries old, deriving
from a discourse that originated with Moses Mendelssohn and
Immanuel Kant in the late eighteenth century, made its first
beachhead on musical terrain in the work of E.T.A. Hoffmann in the
first decade of the nineteenth century, reached an apogee with
Schopenhauer, and had Adorno, who died in 1969, as its last
authentic apostle. Although it began as an ethnocentric creed and
continues to have German epigones, its chief bastion is now the
Anglophone academy. (When I vented a rather vehement anti-Adornian
position, somewhat along the lines of what will follow here, before
a German audience in Berlin last year and encountered surprisingly
little resistance, I asked one of my hosts about it and was told,
"Oh my dear, Adorno is your problem now.")

The main tenet of the creed is the defense of the autonomy of the
human subject as manifested in art that is created out of a purely
aesthetic, hence disinterested, impulse. Such art is without
utilitarian purpose (although, as Kant famously insisted, it is
"purposive"), but it serves as the symbolic embodiment of human
freedom and as the vehicle of transcendent metaphysical experience.
This is the most asocial definition of artistic value ever
promulgated. Artists, responsible to themselves alone, provide a
model of human self-realization. All social demands on the
artist--whether made by church, state, or paying public--and all
social or commercial mediation are inimical to the authenticity of
the creative product.

Belief in the transcendent human value of creative labor has always
invested German romantic aesthetics with the trappings of a secular
or humanistic religion. In the twentieth century, such a theory of
art could be seen as a bulwark against totalitarianism. Adorno held
it up as a counterforce also to the instrumentalizing and
rationalizing tendencies of "administered" capitalist society,
which turns human subjects into objects of economic exploitation.
Since he was trained in music, he held up classical music in its
least compromising forms (epitomized in the famously esoteric work
of Arnold Schoenberg) as the chief example of "truth-bearing" art,
as opposed to the dehumanizing popular music churned out by the
culture industry for mass dissemination.

Skeptics of this viewpoint, while often appreciating the loftiness
of its aspirations, have pointed to the ease with which high ideals
can shade into complacency, autonomy into irrelevance, and
disinterestedness into indifference. My admittedly tendentious
diction ("serve," "vehicle") signals my own skepticism as to the
genuineness of its disinterestedness. This skepticism is not mine
alone. Many have noted the relationship between this highly
individualistic and self-celebrating concept of art and the social
emancipation (or more accurately, the social abandonment) of
artists with the demise of reliable aristocratic patronage, and
suspected it of seeking a compensatory advantage. "Materialist"
historians have long investigated the relationship between its
high-minded claims and actual marketing strategies.

Particularly as it pertains to music, the doctrine of aesthetic
autonomy was pre-eminently a congeries of German ideas about German
art that consoled and inspired the Germans at a particular point in
German history. Even in the nineteenth century, it never won much
credence in France or Italy or Russia (though Britain was
susceptible). Now that the whole twentieth century has run its
course and German music has run aground, the claim of universality
is threadbare, recalling Stanley Hoffman's sublime definition of
ethnocentrism in these pages some years ago: "There are universal
values, and they happen to be mine." The doctrines that Johnson's,
Fineberg's, and Kramer's books continue to advance retain so little
credibility that one has to ask what sort of reader they mean to

Who Needs Classical Music?, the worst of them, is a painful thing to
read. Julian Johnson declares himself an Adorno epigone, but the
declaration is superfluous. Anyone who knows Adorno even by
reputation will recognize this truculent book as the Cliff Notes
version. But the dour Frankfurter, the most histrionically
pessimistic of all cultural critics, is not the only presence in
these pages. He functions here as the bad cop, yanked into an
unlikely partnership with Matthew Arnold, the prophet of sweetness
and light, but also the original herald of elitism ("the best that
has been thought and said"). Johnson ladles out the Adornian
brimstone and the Arnoldian bubble bath in indiscriminate gobbets,
desperate as he is to recover for himself and the rest of his
deposed cohort the unquestioned cultural authority, and the
unlimited official patronage, that once were theirs. The result, a
sort of Beyond the Fringe parody of a parish sermon in some
Anglican backwater, will convince no one but the choir. To have
such a voice advocating one's own cause is mortifying.

The primary assertion, made on the first page of Johnson's
introduction and reiterated endlessly thereafter, is that classical
music is uniquely distinguished by "its claim to function as art,
as opposed to entertainment." The whole book is an elaboration of
this categorical, invidious, didactically italicized, and
altogether untenable distinction, the purpose of which is to cancel
the claims of consumers on the prerogatives of producers.

John Cage once observed that he was fortunate in that his work was
also his entertainment. That was his explanation for his lifelong
commitment to the practice of a particularly abstruse brand of
art-making that afforded little or no pecuniary return: he took
pleasure in it, or (to quote my desk dictionary) found in it "an
agreeable occupation for the mind." That pleasure, the agreeable
mental pursuit that (if one is persistent and lucky) can repay the
pursuer with a great intensity of delight, was certainly my own
conduit into what has become my vocation. Wasn't it Johnson's?
Isn't it everybody's? Can there be any other motivation for
engagement with art? Before romanticism raised the stakes, the
purpose of art was always described as that of "pleasing. " All
pretenses notwithstanding, other purposes, and especially
Johnson's, remain secondary.

The reason for denigrating pleasure and claiming some other "higher"
purpose for art (or, alternatively, denying that it has any purpose
at all) had in the first place to do, perhaps, with the bad
conscience that Kant's principle of disinterestedness imposed. But
the notoriously tin-eared Kant did not deny pleasure, least of all
to music, which he designated "the highest among those arts that
are valued for their pleasantness." Granted, he intended no
compliment, for he meant thereby to deny music a place among the
arts that are valued "by the culture they supply to the mind." And
one can understand an impulse to try to reclaim for music the
status thus denied it by downgrading its sensuous appeal and
relegating that aspect to the low category of "entertainment."

But pleasure does not have to be defined sensuously, and there are
all kinds of pleasures: guilty pleasures, altruistic pleasures,
animal pleasures, spiritual pleasures, perverse pleasures, the
pleasure of a good meal, of a good cry, of worthy accomplishment,
of self-improvement, of self-possession, of exclusion, of
ascendancy, of dominion, of revenge. And, of course, there is also
the pleasure known in Kant's native tongue as Schadenfreude. I must
reject the claims of those who affect to pursue the arts for
reasons other than pleasure or satisfaction. The question, rather,
is pleasure of what kind?

Johnson asserts high claims indeed. He contends that his commitment
to classical music is an ethical choice. His exhortation to the
prospective cultural consumer is akin to Betty Friedan's old
combination of promise and threat--that if women "do not put forth,
finally, that effort [and Johnson is forever reminding us how
difficult and demanding classical music is] to become all that they
have it in them to become, they will forfeit their own humanity."
The difference is that Friedan was talking about social and economic
justice and Johnson is only talking about some kind of music. But
that ethical pretense gives him the pretext to open the floodgates
to a deluge of supplementary invidious distinctions, chiefly at the
expense of what (in German, inevitably) is known as "entertainment
music" (Unterhaltungsmusik, or U-Musik), or what in English we call
popular music. Of our three authors Johnson is the one least
content to sing Arnoldian praises of his chosen genre. Like Adorno,
he feels compelled to heap torrents of frantic abuse on the Big
Other. These passages are shameful, in the first instance,
because--again like Adorno--he shows himself to be exceedingly ill
informed about the object of his derision.

What is driving him? No doubt there is pleasure in it, but there is
more. Let us observe his invective at full tilt. The middle of the
book contains the main elaboration of the art-versus-entertainment
polemic. Here is its dizzy zenith, which I quote at some length,
only slightly condensed, so that you may fairly judge its tenor.
Contemporary popular culture, Johnson contends, is

obsessed by packaging, image, and design. The surface is
everything.... Even in music, visuals are everything: hence the
ubiquity not only of the music video but the marketing of the star.
And when it comes to the music itself, the surface sheen is
everything; the music is literally one-dimensional--it has one
sound, one timbre, one kind of material. It rejects polyphony and
discursive forms. It is as if the art of costume design were
replaced by admiring pieces of cloth.... What might seem harmless
in relation to cultural practices, fashion, cars, or even music, is
clearly invidious in relation to people. The ideal of humanity on
which we have based our greatest religious, ethical, philosophical,
and political thinking is not defined by our outward, material
surface but by our capacity to exceed the limits of our material
existence. Great art expresses this ideal in every work. In
rejecting it to embrace the ideal of a blank and depthless surface
embodied in contemporary culture, we reject that ideal of humanity
and instead embrace a simulacrum--a synthetic and hollow
substitute. Human potential is not well expressed by the
fashionable, the glossy, or the chic, and yet we allow ourselves to
be dominated by a culture defined almost exclusively in these
terms. In doing so, we collude in our own reduction to objects.

The emphasis on the surface of things is essentially inhumane. It is
pornographic because it fetishizes the materiality of human
existence and denies the spiritual personality that vivifies it
from within. Perhaps my use of the term "pornographic" seems
inappropriate and sensationalist in relation to music. But the
central category of pornography is perhaps not sex but the process
by which the humane is reduced to the status of things. Pornography
is reification employed in the sexual arena and displays all of its
hallmarks: the reproducibility and interchangeability of all
commodities, the reduction to an object, the importance of
packaging, the reduction to pure surface, the simulacrum of desire,
the formulaic sameness of posture, the domination of nature. But
the sexual arena does not have a monopoly on the debasement of the
humane. While society publicly deplores the objectification of the
humane in pornography, it is busy colluding with it elsewhere
through advertising, commodity fetishism, and music.

This harangue, from the musical equivalent of the religious right,
is not something to be rebutted or otherwise "falsified," but to be
gazed upon by those with a capacity for wonder. It commits
virtually every one of the sins I enumerated above, from the false
dichotomization of the material and spiritual (as if classical
music did not have a material presence), to the double standard
whereby the reification of classical music in the form of
recordings and other manufactured goods is overlooked, to smug
nostalgia for an uncommodified golden age, to the utopian delusion
that such a paradise might be regained, to the hypocritical stance
of moral superiority in the face of the author's obviously
mendacious (unless stunningly ignorant) reduction of the other (as
having only "one sound, one timbre, one kind of material"). The
social snobbery borders on racism (we have minds, they have bodies)
and the browbeating is blatant (assent or be lumped with Them). A
page or so later, losing all self-control, Johnson tears into a
description of people who do not seem to need classical music, in
thrall to "prerational immediacy," lost in "libidinal energy,"
athirst "for the luxury of blind, adolescent emotions." What could
be more "invidious in relation to people"?

What renders this rant especially awful to anyone who knows the
history of music and its discourses is its resonance with the most
bigoted of all texts about music, Wagner's Das Judenthum in der
Musik, or Jewry in Music, which appeared in 1850. The morally
charged dichotomization of surface and depth is a romantic trope
that--as the musicologist Holly Watkins has shown--goes back at
least as far as the writings of Hoffmann. Between Hoffmann and
Wagner, however, the metaphor of depth had been claimed by German
writers as a national trait; and just as nationalism underwent its
general transformation from a modernizing and liberalizing
discourse into a belligerent and regressive one in the later
nineteenth century, so the notion of spiritual depth had been turned
into a weapon of national and racial aggrandizement in Wagner's
hands. "In listening to either our naive or our consciously
artistic musical doings, however," wrote Wagner (in William Ashton
Ellis's nineteenth-century translation),

were the Jew to try to probe their heart and living sinews, he would
find there really not one whit of likeness to his musical nature;
and the utter strangeness of this phenomenon must scare him back so
far, that he could never pluck up nerve again to mingle in our
art-creating. Yet his whole position in our midst never tempts the
Jew to so intimate a glimpse into our essence: wherefore, either
intentionally (provided he recognizes this position of his towards
us) or instinctively (if he is incapable of understanding us at
all), he merely listens to the barest surface of our art, but not
to its life- bestowing inner organism; and through this apathetic
listening alone, can he trace external similarities with the only
thing intelligible to his power of view, peculiar to this special

More specific, and with an even more chilling echo of Johnson's
language, is Wagner's characterization of Felix Mendelssohn, whose

has shown us that a Jew may have the amplest store of specific
talents, may own the finest and most varied culture, the highest
and the tenderest sense of honor--yet without all these
preeminences helping him, were it but one single time, to call
forth in us that deep, heart-searching effect which we await from
Art because we know her capable thereof, because we have felt it
many a time and oft, so soon as once a hero of our art has, so to
say, but opened his mouth to speak to us. To professional critics,
who haply have reached a like consciousness with ourselves hereon,
it may be left to prove by specimens of Mendelssohn's art-products
our statement of this indubitably certain thing; by way of
illustrating our general impression, let us here be content with
the fact that, in hearing a tone piece of this composer's, we have
only been able to feel engrossed where nothing beyond our more or
less amusement-craving fantasy was roused through the presentation,
stringing together, and entanglement of the most elegant, the
smoothest, and most polished figures--as in the kaleidoscope's
changeful play of form and color--but never where those figures
were meant to take the shape of deep and stalwart feelings of the
human heart.

Wagner's rhetoric, lacking the Arnoldian or possibly Leavisite
strain on which Johnson draws, is less morally fraught than
Johnson's, and more purely racist. Does that let Johnson off the
hook? Doubtless he would claim as much, but other aesthetic
moralists have been less sure. George Steiner, who defers to no man
in what he himself has called "the worship (the word is hardly
exaggerated) of the classic," finds himself at the tormented
twilight of his life baffled by the example of the culture-loving
Germans of the mid-twentieth century, Wagner's heirs, "who sang
Schubert in the evening and tortured in the morning." He confesses
that he is "haunted more and more by the question, 'Why did the
humanities not humanize?' I don't have an answer." But that is
because the question is wrong. It is all too obvious by now that
teaching people that their love of Schubert makes them better
people teaches them nothing but vainglory, and inspires attitudes
that are the very opposite of humane. Julian Johnson's tract
suppurates with attitudes like these. To cast aesthetic preferences
as moral choices at the dawn of the twenty-first century is an
obscenity. Both the book itself and its reception (as recorded on expose the sort of pleasure it promotes: that of
solidarity in sanctimony. To all who have read it with enjoyment I
urgently prescribe a reading of Father Sergius, Tolstoy's parable
of moral exhibitionism and its comeuppance. I will pray for the
salvation of their souls.


You will not find anything comparably disgraceful in Joshua
Fineberg's book, but his exhortations will prove no less futile.
Fineberg is no moral grandstander. His vices are self-pity and
false humility. Where Who Needs Classical Music? apes Adorno, the
author of Classical Music, Why Bother? plays Uriah Heep. It may be
a better way to capture the reader's benevolence, but it is a sham.
Still lost in the German romantic miasma, Fineberg continues to
trade in universals and absolutes, and his strategy, like Johnson's,
is to flatter his readers' elitist impulses.

So a few words about elitism before proceeding. All these authors
argue strenuously that there is no necessary conflict between
democratic or egalitarian ideals and striving for the best. Who
would disagree? If that were all that elitism implied, there would
be no debate. Contention swirls not around the question of whether
there is such a thing as quality, but around the question of
how--and, especially, by whom--it is to be defined. When Johnson
declares that "to argue that classical music, like art more
generally, makes a claim to types of functions and meanings
distinct from those of popular culture is to risk the charge of
elitism," he is flagrantly disingenuous. "Distinct from" is a
transparent euphemism for "better than," and Johnson's recourse to
euphemism betrays his guilty consciousness that his argument
carries politically unacceptable baggage. He is arguing for
privilege, not equality; and that is why his index predictably
contains seven entries under "political correctness," the
discredited euphemism through which privileged people have gone on
the offensive in defense of their privileges.

Johnson borrows from Adorno the notion that what proponents of
popular culture call democracy is instead the "pseudo-democracy of
commercial culture," which pretends to offer consumers free choice
but in fact dehumanizes them by omnipotently manipulating their
desires for commercial gain. People who consume popular music are
not exercising taste, on this view, for they have no taste to
exercise. Rather, they robotically gobble up whatever the culture
industry doles out. Johnson says that those who would ascribe
autonomous cultural agency to hoi polloi "might at least pause to
wonder why today's hits, apparently deeply significant to millions,
become objects of derision in a matter of years. " Really? The
Beatles? Elvis? Sinatra? And do the touted geniuses of classical
music always achieve timelessness? Read Bernard Shaw on Hermann
Goetz some time. Or Constant Lambert on Bernard van Dieren. Or
re-read, in a decade or so, Julian Johnson on Jonathan Harvey, or
Alex Ross on John Adams. The idea that in popular culture
production equals consumption was already a canard when it was
first handed down from Adorno's delphic armchair. (Think of all
those rockers driving taxis who by his logic should be
millionaires.) That his followers still parrot him only shows how
utterly ideology trumps observation in the world of "critical
theory," of all academic approaches the least critical by far.

"For me personally," writes Fineberg, "the problem is not elites
based on merit, but elites of birth, gender, race, or class."
Again, who would dare to disagree? But until one has offered a
definition of merit, the statement is empty; indeed, it is a Trojan
horse. Fineberg knows better than to load it with moralizing
slogans, although he does not scruple to pour scorn on those who
"spout" the virtues of diversity. Instead he seeks his universals
and absolutes within the world of art itself. He preaches the faith
forthrightly, on its actual romantic merits, and with due reckoning
of the price that it exacts in enlightenment. Just as religious
belief demands the voluntary repression of rational skepticism, he

a true belief in art is also predicated on an underlying conceptual
framework that depends just as absolutely on a belief in abstract
criteria of worth. This notion, which is profoundly out of fashion
today, has formed the underpinning of artistic endeavor in the West
for a very long time. Adherents of this idea believe that even if
societal fashions or institutional structures are opposed to a
particular artist or work, some essential greatness (or lack
thereof) will ultimately determine the worth of the art object if
given the chance. And even if the work is never recognized, it is
still of equal (albeit latent) value. In other words, a Rembrandt
hanging in the woods would still be great even if no one had the
good fortune to see it.

You have to grant a certain respect to Fineberg's up-front
promulgation of mystique. He does not try to argue the case for his
objective criteria, although he does make some attempt to define
them. He merely invites the reader, in what he calls "the artistic
or aesthetic version of Pascal's wager," to consent to them.
Pascal's wager, you will recall, is the proposition that believing
in God, or at least acting as if you did and behaving yourself
accordingly, is a good bet. If it turns out there is no God and no
afterlife, then all you have lost is a bit of ephemeral terrestrial
amusement. If it turns out that He does exist, you gain eternal
bliss. So put aside your modern mind, dear reader, and follow the
ancient path of righteousness. (Pascal offers a tip: rote religious
exercises such as rosaries will help, for cela vous fera croire et
vous abetira, "this will make you believe and make you stupid.")

Of course, Pascal was weighing something slightly more momentous
than choosing a musical menu. And nobody need ask about the source
of authority for religious dogma. But where shall the prospective
musical novice turn? Turn to me, says Fineberg. I know what's good
for you. "Art is not about giving people what they want. It's about
giving them something they don't know they want. It's about
submitting to someone else's vision; forcing your aesthetic sense
to assimilate the output of someone else's.... All art demands a
surrendering of your vision in submission to the artist's or at
least the museum or concert curator's."

Submit! Our youngest author, bizarrely enough, assumes the most
patently paternalistic posture, regurgitating the immortal words of
Lord Reith of Stonehaven, the first director-general of the BBC:
"We know precisely what the public wants, and by Heaven they're not
going to get it!" You see why I thought of Uriah Heep. Behind the
'umble exterior is an iron will, and an ego of positively
Rushmorean proportions. Fineberg reminds his readers that the onus
is theirs, not the artist's, when it comes to "deciphering his or
her meaning," for "religious individuals do not achieve a
worshipful state by being God," but "by contemplating God's actions
(or the actions we attribute to a God)."

Unlike Johnson's, then, Fineberg's cards are on the table. What are
his objective and abstract criteria of musical worth? Merely what
any university or conservatory composition teacher will tell you
they are. Their measure is the artist's degree of
craft-plus-originality. Since craft can only be judged by
practitioners, the appeal of an artwork to an audience can never
serve as a valid measure of its value, except in reverse:

The level of skill required to make most art of whatever type
requires intense and (from society's viewpoint) expensive training.
It seems clear that this training cannot be made freely available
to all comers without posing a burden that society would never be
willing to bear. Moreover, an art like contemporary classical music
is doubly burdensome. Composers don't produce wealth as they become
more successful; they consume it. Bigger, more prominent events
lose even more money (and require more subsidies) than small
student concerts. The success of a composer can be measured by
taking the inverse of the composer's market value: The more
negative the market value, the more important the composer.

So kindly leave war to the generals, and pay up. But music is far
too important to be left to the composers. Their interests and
aims, when insulated from public judgment, are apt to be trivial,
amounting to contests over academic turf and flare-ups of
professional rivalry. The risible second half of Fineberg's book is
a perfect illustration--risible, because after a hundred- page
sermon on disinterestedness we get a sales pitch. He turns out to
be flogging a product called "spectralism," a fairly recent French
trend based on computer-assisted spectrographic analyses of
instrumental timbres. And we also get a sectarian polemic against
Julian Johnson's faction, the Vienna-derived twelve-tone school,
now celebrating eighty years in the desert. My universal values,
Fineberg assures us, can lick their universal values, and my
technique is more advanced.

Will this sort of thing really persuade nonprofessional readers to
bother about classical music? Obviously not, but the book is not
really meant for them. Like Johnson's, it is sooner meant to
comfort the author's own cohort--it has already called forth a
hardy little amen corner in the blogosphere--and perhaps lull the
dean into keeping the old curriculum in place.


With Lawrence Kramer we come at last to a writer who really
addresses the readers whom he claims to address. He, too, writes
from within the German romantic tradition, but he has the sense
explicitly to reject Johnsonian- Adornian moralism (although, he
admits, "part of me is in sympathy with it") and Finebergian
mystification, along with all "condescending and authoritarian"
attitudes. His approach picks up directly from E.T.A. Hoffmann, the
fount of the tradition, perhaps as a way of skirting the pitfalls
to which later proponents of classical music have so readily fallen
prey. Indeed, Kramer quite resembles Hoffmann. Both are literary
men--Kramer's scholarly training was in English and comparative
literature--and both write about instrumental music in a way that
turns it into a kind of wordless literature.

That was seen in Hoffmann's day as an elevation of music (and
literature). This strain of criticism reached an early peak--its
pinnacle, I would say--in the writings of Robert Schumann. The
trouble with the approach in hands other than Schumann's is that it
readily descends into reductive verbal (usually narrative)
paraphrase--into "readings"--which can then replace the music as
the focus of interest and the topic of discussion. Although
Kramer's readings of music can make for entertaining and sometimes
absorbing reading--let it be said straightaway that he gives as
much pleasure to the reader as his counterparts give pain--I am
unpersuaded that they will win any souls to the cause. They are
simply too secondary to the musical experience. As Hector Berlioz,
another musico-literary paragon of early romanticism, once
observed, music can give an idea of love, but love can give no idea
of music. Explaining what music is "about," no matter how
appealingly, will not give anyone an idea of why people who listen
to music find it so powerful.

That is why I feel sure that Kramer's book, like the others, will
mainly be read by those already convinced of its premise. Although
he invokes a famous screed by Virgil Thomson against the "music
appreciation racket," Kramer's method is actually quite similar to
that of "appreciation" lecturers (though handicapped by the absence
of sounding examples). Those worthies are always pressing listeners
to listen for "the theme," since tracing its course through an
extended composition, supposedly, will instill the ability to
perceive its form.

For Kramer this is just "formalism," almost as great a sin for
hermeneuts as it was for Stalinists. But his first and most
substantial chapter, "The Fate of Melody and the Dream of Return,"
really amounts to the same thing, only now the theme being traced
is "read" as the subject persona of a quasi-literary narrative. The
formal routines that in the hands of music appreciators are scorned
as sterile all at once become stirring life trajectories,
symbolizing and catalyzing the listener's own emotional epiphanies
(Erlebnisse, in the German original) in a manner very effectively
described half a century ago in Susanne K. Langer's Feeling and
Form. But this was not a new insight even in Langer's day. It is a
bedrock tenet of romanticism, and again goes straight back to
Hoffmann. Its rise has been traced in a fascinating book by the
cultural historian James H. Johnson called Listening in Paris: A
Cultural History, which demonstrated how the kind of absorbed,
attentive listening all proponents of classical music advocate, and
the subjective identification with its progress that Kramer
promotes, caught on in the mid-nineteenth century.

I bring up Langer and Johnson not to dispute a claim of originality
that Kramer never makes, but rather to emphasize that the musical
properties and the listening habits that Kramer wants to associate
with classical music in general have a very circumscribed history
and range of application. Their starting point has been located by
Karol Berger in Bach's Cycle, Mozart's Arrow: An Essay on the
Origins of Musical Modernity, a recent and highly stimulating book.
The model that Kramer proposes for classical music-- that of
forward- progressing narrative (the time arrow, in Berger's
language)--is in fact only one of a number of ways in which
classical music is organized. It is the one best suited to
music-appreciation lectures, since it is the one in which it makes
sense to trace the vicissitudes (a.k.a. the "development") of a
theme-- though Kramer's account misses the even more crucial role
of goal-directed (or "functional") harmony in propelling the arrow,
perhaps because he thought it too technical.

The thematic-development model, though it does turn a lot of
nineteenth- century compositions into thrilling emotional
"journeys," lost its prominence in the twentieth century, and it
characterizes very little recent classical music. The
"minimalists," who now turn out the music of greatest proven
audience appeal, frankly eschew it. For this reason, Lawrence
Kramer's view of his subject seems in its own, less objectionable
way just as nostalgic as Julian Johnson's or Joshua Fineberg's. It
entails a kind of music and--more to the point--a kind of listener
that is receding into the past, and it is unlikely to help solve
classical music's most pressing problem, which is the problem of
audience renewal.

I am uneasy, moreover, about encouraging listeners to decode formal
archetypes, as when Kramer uses Beethoven's symphonic trajectories
to show how music can become the bearer of deep-seated cultural
myths. Such stratagems descend ineluctably into abuse. Look what's
happened to poor Shostakovich, whose symphonies and quartets,
perhaps the twentieth century's paramount examples of music as
Bildungsroman, have been turned into political footballs by
interpreters who have no ear for music. Or to poor Chaikovsky,
whose symphonies are now routinely read as evidence of his
homosexual guilt, and in support of ridiculous legends about his
alleged suicide. If homophiles or homophobes can get their various
kicks from a Chaikovsky symphony, or communists or anticommunists
from Shostakovich, that is fine with me: I do not care why they
listen as long as they go on listening. But when they tell me they
know what a piece objectively means, and that their certainty makes
them better listeners than I, then I know that they have stopped
listening. The paraphrase is all they hear.

What draws listeners to music--not just to classical music, but to
any music- - is what cannot be paraphrased: the stuff that sets
your voice a-humming, your toes a-tapping, your mind's ear ringing,
your ear's mind reeling. And that is not the kind of response
anyone's books can instill. It is picked up, like language, from
exposure and reproduction, which eventually lead to
internalization. Kramer leads prospective listeners astray when he
counsels them, in a chapter about performing music, that the "most
vital role for performance" in relation to the fixed score "is
precisely to suggest verbal and imagistic connections with the
world, the very thing that the traditional culture of classical
music, in the twentieth century at any rate, tried to get us to
regard as forbidden." If the value of music lies in the words and
the pictures it prompts, then why not cut out the middle man and go
straight for the words and the pictures? Like a good citizen of
Chelm, a listener taking Kramer's advice will go to the market for
a goose and come home with a bucket of water.

Nor is Kramer's account entirely devoid of vainglory and
invidiousness. Nobody's defense of classical music, it seems, can
do without these failings. He traces his own involvement with
classical music "from the day that I first accidentally heard a
Beethoven overture (someone bought the record by mistake) rocking
through the chilly, lifeless suburban 'family room' of my early
teens." Ah, sensitive youth! And in a chapter on song, Kramer makes
his only-- inevitably, ignorant and prejudiced--comparisons between
the classical and the popular, asserting that, because of its
emancipated accompaniment, art song can convey complexity of
feeling--irony, ambivalence, self-reflection--whereas popular song
can offer no more than a good tune and an uncomplicated emotional
payoff. This is balderdash. Indeed, in another chapter Kramer
himself takes note of Cole Porter's "wavering balance of irony and
sentiment" (and I won't even mention the Beatles' "A Day in the
Life" or "She's Leaving Home"). He will answer, no doubt, that
Porter and McCartney had learned some tricks from classical music.
No doubt they had, but that commerce has always been a two-way

Ultimately, Kramer betrays classical music by viewing it through an
Eliotic scrim. Just as Eliot proclaimed that "it is a function of
all art to give us some perception of an order in life, by imposing
an order upon it," so Kramer, like Johnson and Fineberg, sees the
key asset of classical music as that of providing repose and
balance, control and restraint, amid the frightful hurly- burly of
modern life. This leaves a lot out--where's The Rite of Spring?
where's the Grosse Fuge?--and it colludes with the regressive and
reductive tendencies that all three authors deplore, which threaten
to turn classical music into an escapist pursuit or to link it with
high-end consumer goods. Our solitary Bay Area classical station
has an ad in which, to the strains of Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony
(one of Kramer's prime exhibits), the announcer soothingly intones,
"On the homeward commute, when it's just you and the radio, reach
for the good stuff, reach for KDFC." KDFC's emblematic offering is
a daily hour called "The Island of Sanity."

And yet, although I kvetch, I cannot deny that these contentments
are among classical music's appeals, and no one has the right to
declare them illegitimate. Indeed, I condemn attempts to hide
classical music's association with creature comforts or its class
affinities, because hypocrisy is the one thing a preacher's
reputation cannot survive. That is why one of Julian Johnson's
worst moves is to rail against Pierre Bourdieu's contention that
classical music's "claim to difference is derived entirely" from its
function "as a tool of class distinction." The over-emphatic
italics give him away. He knows that Bourdieu never made such a
claim. And he also knows that the claim Bourdieu did make--that
class distinction is among the factors that have propagated high
culture in our society, particularly since (and owing to) the
decline of hereditary aristocracy--is irrefutable. Johnson is
reduced to arguing on the level of a marital spat: when one spouse
says, "But what about x?" the other is sure to retort, "All you
ever think about is x!"

Here Kramer saves the day. The best parts of his book, which I hope
he will gather up and publish as a single essay so that they can be
read without having to read the rest, are the ones in which he
writes about the use of classical music in the movies. I prescribe
them to Johnson and Fineberg, because they suggest the myriad
positive ways in which classical music has actually operated- -and
will go on operating--in our culture. They transcend the silly
opposition of the classical and the popular, because they show the
ways in which the classical functions within the popular. And they
evade the pitfalls of hermeneutics because here Kramer offers not
readings of music, but readings of readings. To ask "what does it
mean?" is death for music; but to ask "what has it meant?" can be
illuminating. The one imposes arbitrary limits, the other welcomes
all comers to share in the pleasure of engagement and response.

One of these passages juxtaposes a number of films "that depend on
performances of classical music to defeat joylessness, intolerance,
hypocrisy, and worse." The best known is the venerable tearjerker
Brief Encounter, in which Rachmaninoff's Second Piano Concerto,
derided by many as outmoded, bloated, and sentimental,
becomes--through these very attributes--a reliquary of thwarted
love and dashed hopes as cathartically relived by an "ordinary,"
emotionally repressed Englishwoman, who missed her one extraordinary
chance in life. Jazz or pop music could not have embodied
transcendence of ordinary modern life in this context, Kramer
implies, to which I would add that something grander-- say,
Isolde's "Liebestod"--would have so exceeded its scale as to
perpetrate a bathos. Other examples include a weird old Cary Grant
comedy called People Will Talk, in which a euphoric amateur
performance of Brahms's Academic Festival Overture (conducted by
Grant, playing a med school professor and music buff) crowns a plot
that combines redemption through love with the defeat of a
McCarthyish academic intrigue; and Impromptu, my favorite composer
biopic, whose lovely anti-philistine message Kramer smartly
encapsulates by observing that, of all the artists, would-be
artists, and anti-artists depicted in the movie, "only [George]
Sand and Chopin understand that art enhances life only indirectly,
by suggestion, never by program or pronouncement." (Take that,
Johnson and Fineberg.)

But Kramer's chef d'oeuvre is the inspired juxtaposition of two
recent films, The Pianist and Master and Commander, which employ
the same classical composition in their soundtracks, the Prelude to
Bach's first Suite for Unaccompanied Cello. (As a lagniappe near
the end of the book, he throws in yet another performance of the
same morsel, Yo-Yo Ma's guest appearance on The West Wing in 2000.)
The various handlings of the piece and its relevance to the action
and the mood of the two films and the television episode are vastly
different yet equally apt, and that in itself is already a superb
point scored against attempts (including Kramer's own) to decode
simple messages from complex musical designs. In the one context
Kramer sees the piece as figuring fecundity and proliferation; in
the other he reads withdrawal, maternal caring, and the fragility
of life; while in the third the Prelude, cast as it were against
type, acts as a poisonous little madeleine on a character's memory,
and ultimately as a bearer of truth. These descriptions all ring
true, even if (like any verbalization) they limit the
illimitable--and isn't that the point, at last?

Not that this overflow of uncontainable signification is classical
music's unique attribute or achievement. Kramer goes out of his way
to remind the reader that "classical music shares this potential
with more vernacular types." But what Kramer does succeed in
showing is that classical music contributes a particular register
of discourse that other genres do not duplicate. The classic
register--I borrow the term from a fine forthcoming book by Michael
Long called Beautiful Monsters: Music, Media, and the Imaginative
Classic--is typically an elevated, exalted, aspiring one. That
makes it an easy butt of ridicule. Think of Margaret Dumont,
Groucho Marx's "plus-sized muse" (as Long describes her)-- but also
recall that by the end of A Night at the Opera, Miss Dumont is no
longer being satirized, and opera has worked its unmocked magic.
Higher is not automatically better; but opponents of snobbish
pretension would be foolish to lose sight of the reality of the
high-low gamut. The proof of its reality is the way it reproduces
itself within all discourses: now we have "classic jazz," "classic
rock," and I will bet that somebody somewhere is touting classic
kitsch. We all draw upon its full range, or as much of it as we
can, and its narrowing would be a loss to everyone.

With that in mind, consider Kramer's cleverly titled final chapter,
"Persephone's Fiddle," which is largely devoted to--guess what?--a
violinist Kramer once heard busking unaccompanied Bach in the New
York subway. Unlike Joshua Bell at L'Enfant Plaza, this fiddler
drew a rapt crowd:

It was early fall, the start of a new academic semester, and the
performer on the platform--Times Square, my usual spot--looked like
a music student trying to pick up some extra cash for books or
scores. She was young, in her early twenties, blonde, attractive,
and well dressed, which may help explain the unusual amount of
attention she was getting from a crowd that in normal circumstances
wouldn't give a busker a second glance.

Or maybe it was the music. . . .

Kramer goes on to speculate about what it was in Bach that so
captivated fifteen or twenty listeners in that noisy atmosphere,
and moved them at the end to "a moment of complete silence followed
by a smattering of applause." My question, rather, is whether you
noticed the difference between the scene Kramer describes and the
one that the Washington Post reporter engineered for Joshua Bell.
It couldn't be simpler, or more crucial.

Bell was playing at the entrance to the station, where trains cannot
be seen and everyone is hurrying to catch one. Kramer's little
Persephone was playing down on the platform, where riders are apt
to be at (enforced) leisure. Little Persephone knew that she needed
an appropriate location to get across her message ("Isn't this
beautiful?" or "Can I have some money?" or whatever you like). The
Post reporter chose the least appropriate location possible. One of
them was trying to make money, the other was trying to make a point.
And Bach served them both equally well.

As a team of Texas researchers have recently announced, there are
exactly 237 known reasons why people have sex. There are at least
as many reasons why they listen to classical music, of which to sit
in solemn silence on a dull dark dock is only one. There will
always be social reasons as well as purely aesthetic ones, and
thank God for that. There will always be people who make money from
it--and why not?--as well as those who starve for the love of it.
Classical music is not dying; it is changing. (My favorite example
right now is Gabriel Prokofiev, the British-born grandson of the
Russian composer, who studied electronic music in school, has
headed a successful disco-punk band, and is now writing string
quartets.) Change can be opposed, and it can be slowed down, but it
cannot be stopped. All three of our authors seem reluctant to
acknowledge this ineluctable fact. But change is not always loss,
and realizing this should not threaten but console.

Altered demographics and evolving social attitudes will work their
inevitable effects. New or advancing media will continue to
transform what they convey. We may not like the changes, any more
than speakers of Latin may have liked the transformation of their
language into French or Romanian. That, too, must have looked to
some like corruption, degeneration, and death. Others learned to
reap its rewards. Maybe it takes a historian to realize that
mediation, the hydra-headed monster at which the sub-Adornos tilt,
has been around as long as music has been, and its function is
adaptive--which is to say, destructive and preservative in equal
measure. Autonomous art, the recent product of a chance
concatenation of circumstances, will last only as long as
circumstances permit. But its origin, whatever it was, and its end,
whatever it will be, are points on a continuum.

Don't take it from me. There is a great moment in an early episode
of The Sopranos, everybody's favorite example right now of popular
culture transmuted into art, in which a Hasid, taking a beating
from a team of enforcers with Tony Soprano at their head, is
putting up unexpected resistance. He reminds his tormentors of
Masada, where tough Jews held out against the Romans. "The Romans,
" he snorts. "Where are they now?" "You're lookin' at 'em, asshole!"
says Tony. Do not expect nuance from a mob boss; but if you agree
that the line is funny, then you have acknowledged its kernel of
truth. Toynbee could not have put it better.

By Richard Taruskin

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