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?
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