Was Johannes Brahms a musical purist carrying on the spirit of the Baroque and Classical traditions? Or was he a stodgy conservative who resisted all change in the Western musical tradition? Indeed, Brahms was “old school” back when the old school may not have been that old, but it certainly wasn’t new. He steadfastly resisted the burgeoning and sensational “Music of the Future” movement inspired by Hector Berlioz and spearheaded by such luminaries as Franz Liszt and Richard Wagner. By the mid-19th century, classical music was churning with changes that promised to unify the literary, visual, and musical arts. For Wagner, this meant voluptuous multi-layered operatic productions; for Liszt, symphonic poems with literary or visual art underpinnings. All this pointed to a glorious future for music, and indeed paved much of the way towards the radicalism of the Twentieth Century.
In the face of such progress, Brahms was fly in the proverbial ointment. His first symphony, completed in 1876, embodied the classical ideal so much it was praised as “Beethoven’s Tenth”. He championed Bach back when Bach’s music still wasn’t all that fashionable in Vienna. He concentrated on succeeding Schubert as a composer of lieder (German for songs), equaling Beethoven as a composer of symphonies, and composing gorgeous chamber music like no one. After the voices of Mendelssohn and Schumann fell silent in the mid-nineteenth century, Brahms was, as one critic put it, the “keeper of the classical flame.”
So, I had an interesting experience today. I went to get some gas with my four year old in my backseat. And some dude was blasting rap music from his car. You could hear his speakers rattle, it was that loud. There is nothing more obnoxious than forcing your music on others at high volume. Now, normally, I would try to ignore it. But then I thought, ‘Am I just going to take this? This is my country too.’ And then I got angry. I thought, ‘You wanna play your music loud? Fine. I can do that too.’ So I opened my door and blasted WCPE the Classical Station. I set the dial to eleven and just went about my business. I couldn’t match his bass, but I took over the upper registers until I could barely hear his music at all. I’m sure no one else could either. I was a little scared because I was clearly trying to be kryptonite to his noise pollution. I was obviously sticking it to him. If the dude wanted to start something, I’d have a serious problem. Fortunately, he took the hint and turned his music off completely. I was much relieved when I turned down mine in response. Before he drove off, he looked to me and didn’t nod. Neither did I. That was the end of a very tense moment. And the music that cleared the air? Rachmaninoff’s Caprice Bohemien, Opus 12. Gonna go buy me copy just because.
One of the things that kills me in literature is the joining of two antithetical ideals, usually embodied in characters sharing a strong bond such as friends, siblings or lovers. Think of the ending of the Grand Inquisitor chapter of Dostoyevsky’s Brothers Karamazov. After the intellectual Ivan’s apocalyptic and tragic story of the second coming of Christ, the spiritual Alyosha kisses him, just as Jesus had done to the Grand Inquisitor who intended to execute him. Two things that shouldn’t be close, but have to be.
Okay, so this pertains, not coincidentally, to one of my favorite short stories, a story that happens to involve classical music. The Captive Outfielder, written by Leonard Wibberly, was first published by the Saturday Evening Post on March 25th, 1961. You can read it here. One of Wibberly’s biggest claims to fame was his 1959 satirical Cold War novel, The Mouse That Roared, which was later made into a film comedy starring Peter Sellers, Peter Sellers, and Peter Sellers.
So, in The Captive Outfielder, a boy is taking violin lessons when he’d rather be playing baseball–or, really, he’d rather be failing at baseball than at the violin, since he’s getting nowhere with either but is at least less awful at baseball. And his teacher being old and from Eastern Europe isn’t making things any easier. You see, the old man understands nothing about American culture, and therefore knows nothing about the boy.
One of the most fascinating novels about classical music I have ever read is Vikram Seth’s An Equal Music, published in 1999. It’s a love story featuring classical musicians (of course). It’s a case of boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy finds girl and prefers to raise his love to the point of cruelty rather than lose her again despite the fact that she’s married and has a young son. Amid the story, there’s a lot of passion, a lot of sex, a lot of picturesque European scenery, lots of deep, dark secrets, and of course, lots and lots of music.
Could you imagine a love story between classical musicians being any other way?
Felix Mendelssohn transcends music in a way no other composer does. In addition to being firmly ensconced in the canon of great composers, Mendelssohn must also be regarded as an important figure in political history and in the history of ideas.
Felix was a Jew. His grandfather, Moses Mendelssohn, who was a noted philosopher and disciple of Leibniz, promoted the humanistic idea that Jews can assimilate into Western culture and still maintain their identities. Ideas such as this led to the great Jewish Emancipation of Europe and helped establish 19th century Germany as the world leader in the arts and sciences.
By converting to Christianity and spending much of his career championing Christian music, Felix Mendelssohn embodied his grandfather’s ideas of assimilation and emancipation. This led the famous German-Jewish poet Heinrich Heine to quip, “the most Jewish thing Felix Mendelssohn ever did was to become a Christian.”
In my previous post, I criticized the film 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould for being (among other things) not the best starting point for people who would like to begin appreciating the music of Glenn Gould. A Romance on Three Legs: Glenn Gould’s Obsessive Quest for the Perfect Piano, by Katie Hafner, on the other hand, definitely is.
What a thrillingly odd biography this was! Instead of having one principal, as in most biographies, A Romance on Three Legs has three: Glenn Gould, the quirky piano genius from Toronto, Verne Edquist, his meticulous near-blind piano tuner, and his beloved Steinway concert grand, CD 318.
In 1993, when I was in my mid-twenties I reviewed the film 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould by French Canadian director Francois Girard. In short, I hated it. I had never heard of classical pianist Glenn Gould and at that point only listened to classical music when forced to in public. I found the film disjointed, artsy-fartsy and smug. It was offensive, actually, in that it required its audience not just to be familiar with Gould but to harbor a kind of love or awe of him. Ahead to time. Like, before you entered the movie theater. And if you lacked this prerequisite, well, I’m sorry then, but you’re just not qualified to appreciate this film.
The punk rock fan in me bucked hard, and I wrote a suitably obnoxious piece in which I basically put the Velvet Underground and John Coltrane on the same artistic level as Bach (whom Gould most famously interpreted) and then proceeded to bash Girard for his cultural elitism.
Like I said, I was in my mid-twenties.
One of the sweetest classical music-related stories you can find is Marrying Mozart by Stephanie Cowell. Published in 2004, it chronicles Mozart’s relationship with the sisters Weber in Mannheim and Vienna. If there is anything inside of you that can fall for a good love story, then reading this novel will make you fall, and then get up, and then fall again.
I guess it can’t be helped, but classical music people really take this music seriously, don’t they? Not that they shouldn’t, of course. But how serious is too serious? Take pronunciation, or, really, the perils of mispronunciation. If you want to come across like you know something, like you are a true classical music connoisseur, it’s not enough to buy the recordings and attend the concerts. You must pronounce the names correctly as well. And that entails understanding pronunciations in, like, eight European languages, and a few east Asian ones as well. Because little in the classical world is phonetic, and spelling is not your friend. The pianist Lang Lang? No, no, that’s Long Long to you and me. Charles DuToit? Well, no, silly, his first name is “Sharl”. And how the heck am I supposed to pronounce the name “Chailly”, anyway?
In the afterward of TRIO, his sprawling two-volume novel about the Schumanns and Brahms, author Boman Desai describes his work as a “dramatized biography.” He goes on to say that “TRIO is a biography for people who hate biographies…and a novel for people who hate novels.”
This is pithy and clever, but only half right. It’s a work for people who love novels and biographies too. And it doesn’t hurt if you love the Schumanns and Brahms as well.
The beauty of this however is that TRIO is a great way for people to grow to love the Schumanns and Brahms. Maybe even better than the music itself. It’s got plot, music, politics, warfare. It’s got great characters (including Liszt, Mendelssohn, Wagner, and Chopin). Without knowing anything about classical music, there’s enough here to draw you in. Or, if you already love the music and know a thing or two about the principals, TRIO is so well-researched, so all-encompassing, so daring, and so deftly written that you will be pleased to read about what you do know, and your curiosity will be stoked about what you don’t.