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Raise Me Up, Dumb Me Down

Rereading Harold Schonberg's "The Great Pianists" this summer, I've been struck anew by his distinctive style: clear to the point of nearly being simplistic, peppered with punchlines as if he were a standup comic. (Here's one: Carl Maria von Weber did not play much in public because "he was too busy composing, conducting, staging his operas, and writing reviews about how bad Beethoven's music was." Badup-bum.)

It's made me muse yet again on the vexed issue of popularizing classical music. Schonberg's book, which came out in 1963, is certainly -- even aggressively -- targeting the general public. In a way it marks a point on the slippery slope to the host bevy of "Intro to Classical Music" books that have emerged in bookstores in the last ten years or so, of varying degrees of quality, but generally proceeding with a didactic, classical-music-can-be-fun-boys-and-girls approach. In their prim and proper way, I think many books in this category are just as guilty of dumbing down the tone of discourse in the field as the pablum we love to hate (Classical Brits, lite FM, and all the rest).
(read more after the jump)

A counter-example, which I always cite with great pleasure, is offered by Alex Ross, who with "The Rest is Noise" re-elevated the concept of the general-interest book, writing a smart book about music that a lot of non-specialists were eager to read.

Schonberg, of course, did that too. A long-ago musician boyfriend gave me Schonberg's "Lives of the Great Composers" with the inscription "A book that's worth three semesters of music history," and I still refer to that battered copy from time to time. His books are filled with good information -- packed with it, in fact -- and are also fun.

It's just that his tone raises for me, once again, the perennial question of how far a writer can or should or has to go, these days, to lure a so-called general audience into caring about the things we care about in this particular field. I usually stoutly maintain that good writing is enough to draw any audience, and "The Rest is Noise" would seem to bear that out. But in practice, it can be hard to draw the line. I remember, when I wrote for The Wall Street Journal, sometimes feeling I was resorting to downright hucksterism in my effort to come up with an opening paragraph that wouldn't scare off the businessmen I used to see reading the paper in the Frankfurt Airport.

What are your favorite books on classical music, and why?

By Anne Midgette  |  August 11, 2009; 8:30 AM ET
Categories:  random musings  
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I'm working through Alex Ross's magnum opus -- The Rest is Noise -- at the moment. It's not for beginners, and the coverage can be quite idiosyncratic, but it packs a huge amount of useful information into what, for all its length, is only one volume. And I have yet to encounter a single throw-this-book-against-the-wall moment while reading it.

For my bar mitzvah some kind soul gave me a copy of a one-volume encyclopedia with a title like "The Music Lover's Encyclopedia." In those ancient times, "music" apparently meant "classical music" -- the book contains no mention of any other genre. It was spotty, and some of its content was a bit weird even back then -- Meyerbeer a great composer? Mahler barely worth a short note? But it served as my guide as I navigated the treacherous waters of the musical past, and I still have it a half century later.

Beyond those two comes so much more: Rimsky's memoir, Tovey on Beethoven, Ned Rorem or Charles Rosen on anything. Also, it's possible to assemble a whole bookshelf of good to great biographies of composers and performers, but let's not get started.

Posted by: BobL | August 11, 2009 10:35 AM | Report abuse

"The Great Pianists" was a crucial book for me, because it opened up a new/old world of unfamiliar names and unfamiliar styles of playing, which are now part of my baseline for how music can be reimagined and played. If there is anything in English that does anything like what it does, I don't know it. Complaints about Schonberg's strategy for communicating with a lay readership seem to me to miss the point completely.

On the other hand, "Lives of the Great Composers" was a far lesser project - partly because it had been done so many times before, and partly because of Schonberg's approach. When the publisher received the project, the music editor there considered it so far below that house's distinguished music list, in so basic a matter as getting the facts straight, that he refused to edit it, and the job was assigned to a general trade editor. The book was expected to sell well, otherwise it would doubtless have been rejected, and so it did, but I'm surprised to read such high claims made for it.

Writing for an audience that may like classical music but knows little about it, or how to think about it, is certainly a big challenge. I admire Alex Ross's and Andrew Porter's writings as much as anyone's, but to take the best as the enemy of the good does not help the cause.

Posted by: JohnFrancis2 | August 11, 2009 10:56 AM | Report abuse

I don't consider myself a classical music officianado, nor an ignoramus. I had never heard of The Rest is Noise until I received it as a gift from a friend. It strikes the perfect balance between history and music theory, narrative and prose. One of the best books I've ever read.

Posted by: akg001 | August 11, 2009 12:29 PM | Report abuse

It's not so much because it's classical music related but because it's autobiographical, I love The Memoirs of Berlioz, and Letters of Mozart (I forget which edition, not the penguin, which I have but haven't opened). I also like biographies of instruments like Stradavarius' Genius. I'm a sucker for old stories.

Other than Rosen (Classical Style), Schonberg (Lives) already mentioned, I have a secret pleasure enjoying Lebrecht (Maestros, Masterpieces and Madness). It's odd my liking this book because I keep buying new CDs, and I think what's offered now is vastly superior than what was offered then. Again, I suppose it is the inside stories that I enjoyed, even though I'm certain none of it really happened that way... especially the stories about Heymann! (In case he's reading.)

Posted by: prokaryote | August 11, 2009 1:14 PM | Report abuse

The recently deceased Michael Steinberg wrote elegant and informative program notes for the San Francisco SO and other major orchestras for many years, as well as for the booklets that come (or used to come) with CDs. Over the last few years, and based on these annotations, Steinberg published a series of "listener's guides" to the symphony, the concerto and choral music, and I have found them to be extremely valuable reference works, written in terms the layman can understand. He wrote particularly well about the music of Mahler, one of my favorite composers.

Posted by: pgaron | August 11, 2009 5:49 PM | Report abuse

I like G. B. Shaw's music criticism a lot, even though in his reviews the performance in question is usually just a springboard to some other topic (the appalling quality of amateur pianism, the virtues of Fabian socialism, etc). They are proudly biased, pitiless, provocative, and wonderful. The "man in the street" read him out of a morbid curiosity to know what musical personage or institution was to be eviscerated that week. Perhaps he learned something, too, while watching the autopsy.

"It is the capacity for making good or bad art a personal matter that makes a man a critic," Shaw said. I guess it's that personal quality that I miss in "The Rest Is Noise". Although it's true that Ross doesn't talk down to his audience, he rarely communicated to me the enthusiasm that he must feel for the music. It's almost as if he deliberately removed himself from the picture, so that his book would be more objective or historical. Does anyone else feel that way, or am I the only person on the planet who doesn't worship at the shrine of Alex Ross?

Posted by: erclark | August 12, 2009 3:14 AM | Report abuse

My favorite books on classical music are Doktor Faustus (by Thomas Mann) and Jean-Christophe (by Romain Rolland) because they made me live the creative process while I was reading them. Although not a book, I loved Amadeus, because it showed Mozart as I'd always thought of him (and had some splendid music, with due apologies to all the noise enthusiasts who think that Mozart is only for old fuddy duddies -- of which I am one -- the sort of bone orchestras throw to the people who buy tickets so they can get to perform Joe Blow's Symphony for Peanut Butter and Orchestra).
Not a book, but I really like Anne's reviews and provocative material and her patient willingness to broaden her readers' perspective.

Posted by: gauthier310 | August 12, 2009 11:08 AM | Report abuse

I'll echo the praise for the books of the late Michael Steinberg. On the other hand, I've never been a big fan of Harold Schonberg; it's not that I don't like opinionated individuals, it's that I don't like his mostly-reactionary opinions. A more well-rounded source of opinions from the same period as Schonberg would be those of Irving Kolodin; I learned more from his monthly columns in Stereo Review when I was getting my feet wet many years ago than from anyone else, and his wide-ranging tastes (from the complete Schumann of Joerg Demus, which Kolodin rightly champions over that of other better-known pianists, to the big-band sound of Benny Goodman from his famous 1938 Carnegie Hall concert) can be appreciated by the inquisitive reader. Any of Kolodin's books are worth the effort to find.

Finally, I must give a tip of the hat to pianist/critic/author Harris Goldsmith. There is no critic in the last 40 years to whom I turn more often for reviews of recordings. He is not only an expert on the classical/romantic piano repertoire, but chamber music (much without the piano) and orchestral music from the same period. His liner notes for many recordings on my LP and CD shelves set the standards by which others should be judged. I would love to read his memoirs, should he choose to write them.

Posted by: 74umgrad1 | August 12, 2009 4:46 PM | Report abuse

Joseph Kerman “Opera As Drama” ... not Drivel.

Posted by: snaketime1 | August 13, 2009 10:55 AM | Report abuse

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