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Why Classical Music Still Matters

by Lawrence Kramer

University of California Press, 251 pages, $24.95

It’s perhaps the most stunning comment I’ve ever read about music. Fairly early in his recent book Why Classical Music Still Matters , in an aside discussing the effort required to listen to classical music, Lawrence Kramer reminisces: “From the day I first accidentally heard a Beethoven overture (someone bought the record by mistake) rocking through the chilly, lifeless suburban ‘family room’ of my early teens with simply unbelievable vehemence, I’ve been convinced that the music is worth the bother, and more.”

The supercilious tone of sub­urban , the ironic quotation marks around family room , the veiled aggression of unbelievable vehemence , the paired chilly and lifeless : Somehow the recorded music of one man”who wrote for the patricians of a Central European capital two centuries and four thousand miles from Kramer”was both more alive to him and more beloved of him than the house he actually lived in and the presence of a family that presumably loved him, or at least provided his daily substance (including access to a record player). Apparently, classical music must ­ really matter. Still.

But now that I think about it, why that still in the book’s title? Anti­thetical to the spirit of multiculturalism, and commercially irrelevant compared to its cousin popular music, classical music has interest and support that is shrinking rapidly. In the name of diversity, time spent studying this music in many university fine-arts curricula is being replaced by studies of popular and non-Western music. ( Soundings, an important college music-appreciation textbook, gives two pages to ­reggae composer Peter Tot, three to Zydeco performer Ida Guillory, and zero to Beethoven and Mozart.)

Meanwhile, philanthropies are increasingly directing their gifts away from support for music and other arts programs to environmental and world health concerns; the Rockefeller Foundation, for in­stance, eliminated its arts program entirely in 2006. Similarly, state and local governments are finding it difficult to support the arts. Because the tests mandated by No Child Left Behind have no music content, many school districts are shrinking what little music instruction they once offered”which results in a growing population of young adults who, though passionate about music, find the musical world outside that of their MySpace friends terra ­incognita .

Losing traditional patrons, and faced with an increasingly untutored audience, orchestras are finding themselves forced to abandon the repertory for which they were created and dedicate large chunks of their programming to pops concerts. (Last year, concerts of classical music generated only 5 percent of the operating budget of one major American orchestra.) Adopting the aesthetics of InStyle magazine and MTV, opera houses are casting singers based on their waistline, not their musicianship, and hiring pop musicians to provide them with new repertory (as the Metropolitan Opera has done with its commission from Rufus Wainwright).

Thinking the music’s death certificate already signed, in 1997 Norman Lebrecht gave us Who Killed Classical Music? In 2002, Julian Johnson asked, Who Needs Classical Music? (We do”he thinks it’s good for civil harmony, among other things.) Blair Tindall’s 2005 saucy memoir, Mozart in the Jungle: Sex, Drugs, and Classical Music, joined Sheldon Morgenstern’s more circumspect but equally funereal No Vivaldi in the Garage: A Requiem for Classical Music in North America from 2001. In 2005, Joseph Horowitz contributed Classical Music in America: A History of Its Rise and Fall (he thinks it’s been falling since about 1900), and last spring Lebrecht returned, writing the music’s obituary in Maestros, Masterpieces, and Madness: The Secret Life and Shameful Death of the Classical Record Industry . (Apparently, there’s more kick in the old body than Lebrecht thought; in October, his British publisher was forced to withdraw the book after Naxos Records took them to court for false statements.)

Although he isn’t joining in these authors’ death knells, Kramer, an English professor at Fordham, helped weave the rope that’s pulling the bell. His many books”from Classical Music and Postmodern Knowledge to After the Lovedeath: Sexual Violence and the Making of Culture ”have established him as a major writer in “new musicology,” the movement that sought to place thought about music in the postmodern constellation that has so brightened other branches of the humanities with deconstruction and gender studies.

Nonetheless, Kramer deeply loves this music. He doesn’t want it to vanish. With Why Classical Music Still Matters , Kramer is in the ironic position of trying to make a case for why the repertory should be valued after its cultural hegemony has been found passé.

His answer, simply put, is that classical music provides a unique tool for the understanding of the modern self. Without it, our ability to understand, or at least acknowledge, the core of our being is potentially ­stunted.

The argument runs like this: Kramer defines classical music as the body of nontheatrical music produced since the eighteenth century with one aim in view: “to be listened to,” existing outside some other social or religious ritual. Sometime in the eighteenth century, Europeans discovered that human beings “are grounded in deep inner selves, that each of us has a private core of being to call our own.” Classical music developed alongside that psychological revelation and is composed to be listened to by the modern, private core of being. It requires a different way of listening than does music of previous centuries and carries different rewards.

This music does not simply contain meaning or even reveal it. Instead, it carries on a kind of emotional discourse between itself and the listener. Through this discourse, meaning emerges from the interplay between the melodic details of the music and the matrix of the listener’s life. This interplay (which Kramer calls “acoustic cinema”) can yield imaginary forms of experience that can become substantial realities, having first been imagined: “forms of being, becoming, sensing, witnessing, remembering, desiring, hoping, suffering, and more.”

The “more” is our ability to make the world meaningful. Classical music “enlarges the capacity of all music to attach itself, and us, more closely to what we care about” when it makes audible Kramer’s list of being, becoming, and all the rest. There is no particular tutoring required for this attachment. Technology has made it available to anyone who chooses to listen. But when we listen, Kramer thinks, music becomes a portal to a psychologically and emotionally rich inner life that can transfix and even possibly transform the listener.

Why Classical Music Still Matters supports this thesis through chapters that don’t so much develop as spiral through lieder, piano music, political crisis, movies, and an anonymous violinist playing in a subway station.

Unfortunately, the argument collapses in on itself at every turn. Just because they are works of theater, do we hear Mozart’s operas so differently from his symphonies that they can’t be considered as part of the same classical tradition Kramer still thinks matters? If not classical, what are we to label Don Giovanni ? Austro-Italian rap? Do we hear the music of Palestrina, Schuetz, and even Machaut with such fundamentally different ears that we can’t fit them all into some kind of classical taxonomy? Didn’t Mozart, and Beethoven, and Brahms think of their work as part of a tradition going back at least to the Renaissance”and if not, then why all those sixteenth-century counterpoint exercises?

Even if we grant Kramer’s unlikely claim that this music does mark a way of hearing, superseding all earlier kinds of listening, doesn’t that suggest Kramer’s classical music itself has become irrelevant? The postmodernists insist that we will soon come to recognize the elements of our own twenty-first-century postmodern age”moving beyond, as they have it, the constricting binary grids of modernism to embrace the creative tension of plural truth-constructs in multidimensional matrixes of relationships. Well, by those dim lights, isn’t classical music even now a historical curiosity? It has, after all, exact scores, right and wrong notes, consonance and dissonance polarities, teleological harmonic progressions, and performance traditions that are grounded in patriarchal imperialistic hegemonies.

For that matter, isn’t the modern orchestra”the instrument par excellence for Kramer’s classical repertory, presided over by an erect and shaman-like conductor”almost a caricature of phallophilic imperialistic patriarchy? The conductor even commands his host with a wand-cum-scepter baton, itself a thinly veiled weapon of threatened ­violence.

Oh, sorry, I got carried away. But Kramer gets carried away a lot, and his excursions frequently have little contact with reality. Here is Kramer talking about the European origins of the music in Disney’s 1940 Fantasia : “We can only guess at how closely those violent episodes seemed to mirror the silent background, the desperate situation of Europe in 1940. Many Americans were in an isolationist mood and felt immune from the effects of what they perceived as someone else’s war. But the people doing the fighting were also the people who made the music. The resonance is hard to ignore. At a minimum, the animation Americanizes the music and thus, in fantasy, cleanses it of the taint of European politics by bathing it in new-world innocence. At a maximum, the film’s underlying rhythm models the idea of a Pax Americana capable of emerging from the ashes of Europe as tranquil music emerges from musical terror.”

As far as I know, Bach, Tchai­kovsky, and Mussorgsky weren’t fighting the war; the musicians who played the score all lived in Los Angeles; the music was as American as it was European, since the descendants of the German immigrants who founded New Ulm, Minnesota, had as much a right to claim Beethoven’s symphonies as the Nazi descendants of the Viennese who heard him play; and nobody thought it was so polluted by the politics of anything that it needed a bath.

Still, Kramer does get one thing right: the fantasy business. The discussions of actual music in Why Classical Music Still Matters are fantastic and frequently just plain wrong. Kramer profoundly misunderstands the basic character of this music.

He writes, for instance, that “the fate of melody is what the composer composes,” contrasting melody’s “open road” with the “closed circle of harmony.” But while the relation is symbiotic, melody is a function of harmony and not the other way around. (Think of the melody for the Moonlight Sonata.) Then he tells us that “the logos, God’s creating Word, became identified with the fabled music of the spheres.” Jesus as a diapente ? Hardly mainstream theology.

In discussing the structure of the piano, Kramer writes that “the frame on which the strings are stretched is called the harp, connoting the instrument of inspired, age-old song, the vibrating tones of which are produced in close proximity to the body of the player who sings while playing, but the devices that make the sound are called the hammers, connoting technology, industry, machinery, force, the whole apparatus of modern enterprise.” Connoting? Phooey. It’s called a harp because it looks like a harp and the hammers, well, they are hammers.

A repeated D in a movement from Schubert’s Winterreise , Kramer says, “besets the piano’s effort to be expressive. Now more audible, now less, the note feels like a fragment of the external sounds that the wanderer has taken into his mind and from which he cannot get free.” Nice story, but since Schubert gives that repeated note four expression marks in one measure (staccato, slur, crescendo, decrescendo), it’s a stretch to see where Kramer gets his notion that the pitch isn’t expressive.

When discussing the largo from Dvor??ák’s Ninth Symphony, used in the movie Paradise Road , Kramer observes the famous melody’s “often noted resemblance to the spiritual ‘Going Home’” and draws an ironic relationship between the spiritual’s “deep longing for homecoming, salvation, relief from a weary load” and the movie’s prison guards, “who can hear nothing in the music but its beauty.” But Dvor??ák’s tune is pure Dvor??ák. Spiritual-like words were written for it by Williams Arms Fisher, one of Dvor??ák’s students, in 1922. They had very limited circulation in American Protestant circles in the early twentieth century, probably wouldn’t have been known to the British expatriates captured by the Japanese, and certainly didn’t have an effect on the moviegoers, since the vast majority of them knew neither the Dvor??ák original nor the Fisher arrangement.

Kramer talks a lot about classical music in movies and TV shows . In discussing the use of the prelude from Bach’s G Major cello suite in an episode of The West Wing and the movies The Pianist and Master and Commander , Kramer argues that, by realizing the meanings that “lie like seeds in the music, eager to be disseminated,” these films model a kind of “creative listening” that can serve as a model for the way classical music is listened to. He seems deaf to the fact that the relation between music and pictures is parasitical.

This matter of “creative listening,” however, does help illustrate the fundamental traditionalism of at least two aspects of Kramer’s thought. Spinning stories in your head while listening to symphonic works was an old music-appreciation trick. And the notion that classical music represents an aesthetic advance over earlier styles was very much a late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century view about the “progress of music.” Kramer’s view that this music represents a new human consciousness, giving access to meanings otherwise unsuspected, is a close cousin to the notions underlying the so-called Mozart Effect on children and the idea that classical music is somehow deeply connected to the fundamental patterns of human intelligence.

But back to Kramer’s suburban living room. Why was that Beethoven overture so important to him? Later, in sections dealing with Schubert’s Winterreise and Americans’ reactions to the attacks of September 11, Kramer gives us a clue. Classical music makes suffering bearable by helping to create temporarily persuasive fantasies.

Wrong though I think he is on many things, I think Kramer is dead right on this. Classical compositions are sonic fantasies that can temporarily persuade us of purposefulness. A Beethoven overture somehow made Kramer’s adolescence bearable. In the wake of September 11, people found consolation in the Louisiana Philharmonic’s performance of the adagio from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and the New York Philharmonic’s concert of Brahms’ German Requiem. Classical music is still important because it provides intricately textured forms through which the suffering individual can feel and sustain desire even when doing so appears irrational or self-destructive.

But it is deeply sad when all you have to give meaning to life is a fantasy, and there’s something pathetic about people gathered in a concert hall to find courage to face disaster by listening to pieces of music”clever vibrations hanging for a bit in air.

Certainly courage and hopefulness, even if short lived, are good things. And if classical music can provide this, it’s worth preserving. But if that’s all classical music is”whistling in the dark”can’t we find better, and more cost-effective, fantasies that would work just as well? And are we sure that these sonic fantasies are our best defenses against the slings and arrows that threaten us? Against those things, there have to be better breastplates, shields, helmets, and swords than minuets and trios, art songs and polonaises.

Michael Linton is head of the Division of Music Theory and Composition at Middle Tennessee State University.