The Musical Mystique: Defending classical music against its devotees

‘He played Bach at a subway door and failed. She played Bach on a subway platform with success. What does this say about Bach? Subways? Classical music?’

In the latest edition of The New Republic, Richard Taruskin – author of The Oxford History of Western Music and the revised edition of Music in the Western World: A History in Documents (with Piero Weiss) – gives us a really engaging (and lengthy) review of three books:

Who Needs Classical Music? Cultural Choice and Musical Value, by Julian Johnson (Oxford University Press),

Classical Music, Why Bother? Hearing the World of Contemporary Culture Through a Composer’s Ears, by Joshua Fineberg (Routledge), and

Why Classical Music Still Matters, by Lawrence Kramer (University of California Press).

Taruskin recounts Joshua Bell’s sublime music-making in different locations:

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!)

Taruskin’s response: ‘In one respect … 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’.

He proceeds to suggest that German romanticism is the ‘veritable mummy’ 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’.

In a world (and blogoshere) of far too many positive book reviews, Taruskin’s criticism of Johnson’s book are refreshing – whether or not it is fair. He describes it as ‘a sort of Beyond the Fringe parody of a parish sermon in some Anglican backwater, [that] will convince no one but the choir. To have such a voice advocating one’s own cause is mortifying’.

My favourite quote of the review, however, is reserved for Fineberg:

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.

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