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for the love of music

19 october 2019

I'd been reading some books on music appreciation lately, and often quickly discarding them. Their authors, musicologists for the most part, usually jump straight into technical discussions of structure and harmonics which might as well be theoretical physics as far as I can follow them. So I was hopeful when I learned about conductor John Mauceri's For the Love of Music. "A guide to the art of listening," the subtitle promised – at least, I thought, he's not going to talk about the science of listening. And Mauceri's book exceeded my expectations. It's really a long essay about establishing a personal relationship with classical music, no matter where you start such a relationship from.

Mauceri is a musical professional with a long resumé. He doesn't go in for false naïvete; his essay is sprinkled with connections he's had to musical greats, to memorable programs and ensembles that he has conducted. At the same time, he is aware that almost none of his readers will share his perspective. And we perspectiveless listeners are the reason classical music survives. Conductor John Pritchard once said that "the experience over the years of giving concerts in all sorts of localities has proved to me that on the whole the audience is right." I think Mauceri shares this view – not that the vagaries of popular taste absolve him of the duty to add his own perspective, but that ultimately music is for the people who hear it, not just for the lonely geniuses who create it.

Mauceri writes about the classical canon, music as part of human nature, time, musical structures and conventions, affect, coming to musical works for the first time, the live concert experience, and the development of individual taste. But he does not limit himself to rigorous discussion of any of these topics, and is ready to go, in the best tradition of the essay, anywhere his ideas take him. The book has no overall theses except that music is a great good and your own engagement with it, whatever that is, is valid. So in reviewing For the Love of Music, I feel OK just dipping into a few of the ideas that engaged me.

I opined once here that "music seems to serve no particular adaptive purpose" in the evolutionary scheme of things. Mauceri disagrees, saying that "communication in music mimics the basic communication and seduction skills of the animal kingdom" (42). It's of course possible that music is a kind of mating display (as rock stars would no doubt attest). Animals certainly deploy music of their own, as well as dance, in the service of mating; and there is even recent evidence that human music, long thought to be sui generis, can be heard by some animal species in terms analogous to how we hear it.

Yet I still wonder. Music is so pervasive, so widely elaborated beyond "seduction skills," so frequently abstract or gratuitous … it seems that music either serves some wider purpose (the greatest opiate of the people), or is better seen, perhaps, as an exaptation: a feature that arose either without an adaptive purpose, or has now developed far beyond that initial purpose. I am wary of just-so stories, because they're so easy to provide, and I'd like to think more before agreeing that music is how the primeval bone-flutist got his (or her!) mate.

When it comes to Western classical music in particular, one also has to be wary of ethnocentrism. It's true that the Western classical canon of 1710-1940 has become high culture globally, as valued in North Korea (as Mauceri observes, 185) as in Vienna. But is the global sway of classical music proof of its universal appeal, or just a concomitant of Western power? Mauceri is guarded in his claims, aware that he may be mistaking the fashions of cultural influence for eternal aesthetics. In the end, though, he thinks that there is something special about the J.S.-Bach-to-Richard-Strauss tradition, something that has enabled that "inevitable" music to take its place at the top of a worldwide artistic hierarchy.

And Mauceri asks, as seems indicated, whether that's a good thing. Western music is inseparable from Western values, and those aren't all good values, and even if "natural" may not show us human nature at its most admirable.

My better is not necessarily your better. … If military marches encourage young men into battle … that might be good for one side but not the other. (97)
Heck, it might be really bad for both sides.

And so the music of Wagner and Orff was co-opted by the Nazis (and there are suggestions that Orff, who stayed in Germany composing during the Third Reich, didn't need much co-opting). Much Western classical music was written for a Catholic Church that many people now find less admirable than they used to. Many composers and virtuosos were bad people. I had a hard time recently, watching an old DVD of Verdi's Otello, with Placido Domingo pressuring Kiri Te Kanawa for "un bacio, ancora un bacio!" It can be hard to find music that wasn't produced, somewhere along the way, by somebody pretty compromised.

"Classical music is ultimately a force for good," Mauceri concludes (98), because of the "inevitability" I mentioned above. Mauceri believes that Western classical music, whatever historically contigent paths it took to get there, eventually reached a point during its highest two-and-a-half centuries where it found an aesthetic structure latent, perhaps, in the universe all along, and brought that structure to its highest degree of order. Euclid alone has looked on beauty bare, perhaps, but Mozart and Brahms came awfully close.

I have come to opera fandom late in life, well after my project here at lection began 16 years ago. But I have come to opera more and more obsessively, and thus loved hearing Mauceri's opinion that "Opera is the messy, complex, and ultimate expression of Western art" (174). Mauceri makes the reasonable point that opera's "key ingredient is music … There is no opera in the canon that is there for any other reason than its musical score" (172). I am tempted to object that opera would not be opera without a libretto, but that's not quite to the point. Mauceri is saying that operas with similar libretti, sometimes telling identical stories, vary widely in their canonicity. He points out that Leoncavallo wrote a La Bohème that few people have ever even heard of, let alone heard – and one doubts the lyrics are the reason. In any case, much of the time, in grand opera, you can't understand the words even if you're fluent in the language. The human voice becomes an instrument of its own, singing vowels and using consonants to demarcate between them.

And yet "not all operas are the same" (174), and in some the libretto is far more important than in others. Mauceri discusses Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande (83-85). He loves the opera, but his commentary takes the form of an anti-appreciation: he tells us how he can sympathize with people who cannot sit through it. Pelléas et Mélisande is musically unconventional and deeply invested in the symbolism it inherits from the source playwright, Maeterlinck; it's an opera where the words matter and the music bears an uncertain relation to the words. And there are other operas where the words matter strongly: Wagner passim, Hugo von Hofmannsthal's collaborations with Strauss (Elektra, Der Rosenkavalier), and Verdi's adaptations of Shakespeare (where one can perhaps not always notice the language precisely because the English originals are so familiar, and the translations so faithful to them).

Mauceri, near the end of For the Love of Music, ponders a contradiction:

The public might not be faulted for viewing classical music and classical arts as the most conservative expressions on earth while simultaneously seeing supporting the arts as a left-wing, big-government (i.e., liberal) agenda item. (186)
For Mauceri, the contradiction is false: classical music is just music, inherently both conservative and liberal, like its proponents. Regimes and revolutionaries alike try to co-opt classical music, and it keeps escaping them, paradoxically bound to its traditions and always seeking new ways to embody those traditions. After reading For the Love of Music, you will love classical music a little bit more than you already do, and that's all one can ask from writing about any art form.

Mauceri, John. For the Love of Music: A conductor's guide to the art of listening. New York: Knopf [Penguin Random House], 2019. MT 90 .M287