The Ginger Series tackles classical music with a captivating, oblique apologia

How to Hear Classical Music by Davinia Caddy
No 11 in The Ginger Series
Published by Awa Press, Wellington

Book review

One has waited quite a while for this brilliant little series of monographs to find a writer able to deal with what the media likes to suggest is about the most intractable (and irrelevant) of artistic fields: classical music.

The many subjects covered so far have included such quirky topics as bird watching, watching video games, how to pick a winner, fishing, as well as more serious matters like listening to pop music, reading a book, watching rugby and cricket, looking at paintings.

So I was delighted when this book appeared, in large part because a few years ago Mary Varnham of Awa Press had invited me to try my hand at the subject. It attracted me greatly because I have developed quite strong views on the nature and importance of music, especially over the 25 years that I have been writing music reviews.

But although I had clear ideas as to the style and tone of a book that would match the excellence of those that were appearing in this series, what I wrote persisted in deviating from that path. The temptation to self-indulgence (as will be in evidence below), to draw too much on my own memories and experience of exploring and discovering music, not to mention becoming unduly polemical, proved too strong, and I also came to realize that the job of being entertaining, of employing lots of amusing and relevant anecdotes, and vivid examples that would hold the reader’s attention, called for time-consuming research that I never made space for.

A quick skim through Davinia Caddy’s achievement, however, showed me how it should be done.

What struck me first was her avoidance of any predictable organization of material either chronological or by topic. So the chapters deal with notions and conceptual things that are usually introduced by an anecdote, often drawn from the writer’s own experience as a student or as a teacher.

The uses of classical music
Nothing could have been as arresting as story No 1: the author, house-hunting in Auckland, comes across the full score of Massenet’s little-known opera, Esclamonde, sitting ostentatiously on a piano in an evidently pretentious house for sale. It leads obliquely to a consideration of one of the uses of classical music – ostentation.

It was the entrée to chapters that sought to discover whether there were more important reasons for its continued relevance, indeed for its indispensability to civilization and to the fulfilment of human desires and needs.

The next chapter was entitled ‘Play me, I’m yours’; it described a phenomenon that has yet to reach New Zealand: the placing of old pianos, tolerably playable, in public places. The writer’s first encounter was with one on the approach to the Millennium Bridge in London, where she watched people play it shyly, tentatively, confidently, virtuosically (the small George dashes through the fiendish last movement of the ‘Moonlight’ Sonata).   There are scores of such pianos in public spaces round London and in many cities round the world; the inspiration of British artist Luke Jerram, it’s clearly a growth industry.

Davinia observes that the pianos, in unusual places, and the music that people play on them has a remarkable social impact, and quotes thinkers from Plato on who have recorded the powerful spiritual force of music. Classical music has a hold over listeners.

Later chapters too, deal with aspects of music’s uses, starting with early Christian and Renaissance music, but somewhat surprisingly Davinia explores Ockeghem’s Missa Prolationum somewhat analytically, discussing the use of canon and other technicalities. Ultimately she reveals her reason for employing such an example – ‘you can float away on the soaring phrases’, and it leads to recalling Baudelaire’s understanding of the character of Wagner’s music which acts in a similar way.

‘Concert halls, blow ‘em up’
The matter of where music is played reappears later, in a chapter, ‘Concert halls, blow ‘em up’. A follow-up of Boulez’s famous recommendation for opera houses, she hesitates at that but perhaps shares a tendency to denigrate the normal concert hall environment: dim light, silence, quasi-religious, seeming to ignore the fact that crowds still happily inhabit these places, enjoying the whole experience of dressing up a bit, talking to others before, during and after, interval drinks; just the whole thing. (I was not born into affluence or high society, yet I never remember, as a teen-ager, feeling in the least inhibited in going to concerts in the Town Hall). Pop concerts too take place in the same halls. However, she does advocate widening the range of places where classical music happens and enlivening music with the help of other art forms; she tells pertinent stories of The Rite of Spring performances in London and Auckland where young dancers and spontaneity brought different experiences to listeners.

‘Performance anxiety’ begins with the question about the place of performers between composer and listener, concluding that our era has elevated the performer’s role to stardom compared with the view a century ago that ‘a work’s meaning lay in its internal qualities and technical innovations rather than in its social function and expressive qualities’; thus its performance was a matter of little import. It’s this emphasis today on the importance of performance that has led to seeking for historically informed performance of earlier music, particularly the baroque and ‘classical’ periods and she writes engagingly about John Eliot Gardiner and his Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists. Under this heading too, is reference to the remarkable Los Reciclados, an orchestra, the Landfillharmonic, formed by deprived children living on a landfill in Paraguay who have created instruments from recycled rubbish. See interalia:…/landfill-harmonic-an-upcoming-documentary.

Classical music for beginners
A book like this needs to offer a bit of guidance to the sort of music the tyro might be attracted to, blown away by. The little diversions in that direction read a little like self-conscious parentheses: composers’ dates of birth, and dates of pieces of music, but it’s often the musical examples that look odd, for they are generally there just to illustrate an argument rather than as recommendations that will change your life.

As a result the names sometimes appear slightly arcane and rather much attention, interesting in itself, is devoted to music unlikely to win over novices to classical music. Thus the range of actual suggestions is limited, and there is little room to describe what they are like and what they might do for or to you. Though when she does offer descriptions they are colourful and evocative.

I often wonder at the neglect these days of much of the music that took me by the throat in my teens, and still has a hold. Leaving aside the major symphonies and concertos: a variety of arias and choruses from Bach and Handel, Bach’s concertos, Handel’s Water Music and Royal Fireworks, Wagner’s arrangement of the overture to Iphigenia in Aulis, overtures of Mozart, Beethoven, Boieldieu, Weber, Rossini, Auber, Hérold, Berlioz, Mendelssohn, Wagner’s Rienzi and Tannhäuser, Offenbach, Brahms’s Academic Festival, Dvořák; Beethoven’s Archduke Trio;  Mozart’s Sinfonia concertante for violin and viola, the clarinet concerto and quintet; Schubert: many songs, Trout Quintet, Violin sonatina in D; quite a lot of Chopin’s, Liszt’s and Schumann’s piano music; Berlioz’s Hungarian March, Minuet of the Will-o’-the-wisps; and the Trojan March and ‘Royal Hunt and Storm’ from Les Troyens; Tchaikovsky: 1812, Romeo and Juliet, Capriccio Italien, Francesca da Rimini, the ballet suites; Franck’s Symphony in D minor; Sibelius’s Finlandia and the Karelia Suite; Vltava, Symphonie fantastique, Schumann’s songs, Carnaval and Fantaisie, the Piano Quintet; Les Préludes; pops like España and Fête polonaise of Chabrier, Polovstian Dances, Widor’s Toccata from his fifth organ symphony, Rimsky-Korsakov’s Capriccio espagnol, Gaité Parisienne and Les deux pigeons ballet suites, The Bartered Bride dances, ballet music from Meyerbeer’s Les patineurs, and Offenbach’s ballet, Le papillon, Poulenc’s Les Biches; Waltz and Polonaise from Eugene Onegin, Clog Dance from Zar und Zimmermann, Polka and Fugue from Schwanda the Bagpiper by Weinberger; ballet suites from music of Boccherini, Domenico Scarlatti, Gluck, Bach and Handel; waltzes of Johann and Joseph Strauss, Waldteufel, Lumbye and Ivanovici’s Donauwellen; Richard Strauss: Rosenkavalier suite, Till Eulenspiegel, Also sprach Zarathustra and Don Juan...   [I could go on; but sorry about the proliferation, the flow became uncontrollable].

The nature of opera
Opera tends to be the target of particular attack in many quarters, criticized as irrational ever since it first appeared. Caddy deals with this up to a point, though failing to note than most opera is based on plays, poems and novels which appear not to attract the same scorn by reason of improbability; suspension of disbelief is a pre-requisite of most art.

And this chapter is distracted by consideration of the occurrence of songs within an opera that are directed within the drama rather than at the audience.  Many plays have songs in them, but opera is singled out as irrational because its medium is also that of certain parts of the story, the term is apparently ‘diegetic’ music. Her example: Carmen singing to Don José; there are lots of others: the Italian tenor in Rosenkavalier, Cherubino’s ‘Voi che sapete’, the Don serenading Elvira’s maid: ‘Deh vieni alla fenestra’. And how about Walther’s Prize song in Die Meistersinger?

So this section falls short perhaps of generating an overwhelming compulsion for the reader to become an opera fanatic.

The most fruitful pages are those where the author demonstrates how media reports of the death of classical music are stupid and wrong. In drawing on examples such as Mozart to demonstrate how classical music had not traditionally been considered elitist, navel-gazing, complex and difficult, she stresses how composers till the last century wrote music to make a living and used popular musical forms and tunes routinely. Thus it had to please the audience, and what’s wrong with that?

The problem of ‘modern’ classical music
In contrast, she quotes, approvingly, a description of much ‘modern classical’ music as ‘scientific experiment’, taking apart a piece by Milton Babbitt of no audible beauty, quoting remarks that such music is for the academic musician and not to be played in public.

Yet much unlistenable music is dutifully included in public concerts and is sometimes justified, Caddy explains, alleging that traditional sounds in music have become impossible for a serious composer in the wake of the horrors of 20th century wars. (Earlier war horrors did not impinge on Purcell or Bach, Mozart or even Beethoven or the French composers such as Offenbach, Franck, Bizet, Fauré, Saint-Saëns and Massenet who lived through the Franco-Prussian war and then the Paris commune with no marked effect on their music. Why make an exception of the late 20th century to justify the creation of ugly music?)

Clearly, she shares the view that this stuff has contributed largely, along with the huge growth of popular music and many changes in society, to the alienation of the general population from, not just the ‘classical music’ of today, but through collateral damage, to the standing of great, classical music in general.

Another major element in the decline of classical music, as well as of all the arts and literature generally, as Caddy reflects, has been their virtual banning from the school curriculum. If humans aren’t exposed to certain experiences, like music, poetry and foreign languages, in childhood and youth, they can well remain blind and deaf to them throughout life.

And finally, she deals with the civilizing benefits of classical music, tongue-in-cheek perhaps with regard to curing physical and psychological problems, but she successfully establishes, nevertheless, its ubiquity, universality and sheer indispensibility.