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“What can be done about the state of classical music?” Lawrence Kramer asks in this elegant, sharply observed, and beautifully written extended essay. Classical music, whose demise has been predicted for at least a decade, has always had its staunch advocates, but in today’s media-saturated world there are real concerns about its viability. Why Classical Music Still Matters takes a forthright approach by engaging both skeptics and music lovers alike.

In seven highly original chapters, Why Classical Music Still Matters affirms the value of classical music—defined as a body of nontheatrical music produced since the eighteenth century with the single aim of being listened to—by revealing what its values are: the specific beliefs, attitudes, and meanings that the music has supported in the past and which, Kramer believes, it can support in the future.

Why Classical Music Still Matters also clears the air of old prejudices. Unlike other apologists, whose defense of the music often depends on arguments about the corrupting influence of popular culture, Kramer admits that classical music needs a broader, more up-to-date rationale. He succeeds in engaging the reader by putting into words music’s complex relationship with individual human drives and larger social needs.
In prose that is fresh, stimulating, and conversational, he explores the nature of subjectivity, the conquest of time and mortality, the harmonization of humanity and technology, the cultivation of attention, and the liberation of human energy.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

Classical music isn't necessarily that bad off, Kramer admits; there's still a diverse range of concert performances, and many listeners are choosing to download works from the Internet. But "something still feels wrong," something he identifies as the loss of the genre's crucial role in our cultural lives. The reasons Kramer, a music and literature professor at Fordham University, offers for why one ought to appreciate classical music fall back on the usual high-culture arguments that it "asks its listeners to imagine a work with more fullness and complexity than most other music does," converting emotions into tangible sound yet somehow not reducing them to abstraction. The problem with writing about classical music, of course, is that no matter how passionately you describe a Brahms quintet, it's not the same as hearing an actual performance. At times, Kramer's enthusiasm becomes overwrought, as when he rhapsodizes about the piano's harp and hammers uniting to create an instrument of " magic and engineering." He's more convincing when he describes the effect a young busker's Bach sonata has on the crowds at a New York subway platform. Such moments of direct observation are sprinkled throughout the erudite text—if only they appeared more consistently. (May)

Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal

Kramer (English & music, Fordham Univ.; Musical Meaning: Toward a Critical History) here asks, "What can be done about the state of classical music?" and in seven chapters explores the relevance of classical music through the intersection of music, culture, and society. He searches for answers that will resonate not only with lovers of classical music but also with novice listeners and skeptics who proclaim that classical music is facing extinction. Kramer describes the power of classical music in various settings, e.g., in an orchestra hall and in film, television, and via the Internet. By focusing on the themes of life—love and death, memory, war, identity, suffering and longing, solitude and community—he provides readers with the essential vocabulary to understand, actively engage with, and give meaning and value to classical music in our contemporary popular culture. Recommended for public and academic collections.
—Elizabeth M. Wavle Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780520258037
  • Publisher: University of California Press
  • Publication date: 1/7/2009
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 256
  • Sales rank: 966,060
  • Product dimensions: 5.46 (w) x 8.18 (h) x 0.58 (d)

Meet the Author

Lawrence Kramer is Professor of English and Music at Fordham University and editor of 19th-Century Music. His many books include Opera and Modern Culture: Wagner and Strauss (2004), Classical Music and Postmodern Knowledge (1995), After the Lovedeath: Sexual Violence and the Making of Culture (1997), and Musical Meaning: Toward a Critical History (2002), all from the University of California Press.

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Read an Excerpt

Why Classical Music Still Matters

By Lawrence Kramer

University of California Press

Copyright © 2007 The Regents of the University of California
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-520-25082-6

Chapter One

Classical Music and Its Values

Classical music has people worried. To many it seems on shaky ground in America. For more than a decade the drumbeat of its funeral march has been steady. The signs are rife: a wobbly CD market, symphony orchestras struggling to find money and audiences, the press and the Internet fretting over the music's fever chart. The public radio stations that were once the mainstay of classical music broadcasting have been replacing music of any kind with talk, talk, talk. The recording industry is less and less willing to subsidize classical albums for the sake of status and tradition; it has cut back on new recordings and stuffed the "classical" category with treacly high-toned crossover projects that brilliantly manage to combine the worst of both the classical and popular worlds. And classical music is long, long gone from the television networks that once upon a time maintained their own symphony orchestras and broadcast such fare as Leonard Bernstein's Young People's Concerts-in prime time, no less.

You would never guess that fifty years ago the music was flourishing on the strength of a recent invention, the long-playing record, which made it more available than ever before. You would never guess that a hundred years ago it was the hottest thinggoing on the cultural scene. People longed for it, argued about it, swooned over it. In those days you heard it live and hot or not at all, and no one had to worry about that musty "classical" label we're now stuck with. The echoes of that musical world were still audible when I was a teenager in New York City in the early 1960s. Some of my most vivid memories of the time involve summer nights in a stadium filled with people from all walks of life, from all over the city. The acoustics were terrible; the pleasure was overflowing; the ovations were long and noisy.

Free concerts in New York's Central Park can still draw crowds, but the cultural atmosphere has distinctly changed. No wonder that when one classical music lover meets another, each heaves a silent sigh of relief: the fear that the music will become extinct creeps down a notch.

The danger of extinction can be exaggerated by these anxious fans. There are statistics that tell a happier story-healthy Internet downloads and a robust increase in concert offerings over earlier decades, with audiences to match. But the feeling of danger is itself a fact to be reckoned with. Something still feels wrong; something still is wrong. The problem is perhaps less economic or demographic than it is cultural, less a question of the music's survival than of its role. A small cohort of the population (and it was never much more) may still favor classical music, but the music does not mean what it once did. For what it's worth, my anecdotal impression is that people are generally less knowledgeable about it than they were even a generation ago. People still listen, but the days when listening to classical music could feel like an integral part of cultural life are long gone. We know, some of us, how to enjoy it, but we don't know what to do with it. In this sense, classical music is indeed on shaky ground in America.

One reason why is the loss of a credible way to maintain that people ought to listen to this music, that the music is something that should not be missed. Our growing reluctance to impose prescriptive or judgmental shoulds has obscured the power of the should that says, "Don't deprive yourself of this pleasure, this astonishment, this conception!" If you don't listen, no one is supposed to mind. No wonder, then, that many culturally literate people who visit museum exhibits and keep up with the latest books, movies, and ideas think nothing of being classical-music illiterates. There is nothing, any more, that one just has to hear.

Meanwhile, the music industry relentlessly pushes its more profitable products out into a soundtracked world where they can't help being heard. Music in general becomes something to get excited about but not to take too seriously. Status accrues, not to music, but to its performers. Bands and singers become temporary demigods and permanent media fodder, their charisma and celebrity usurping the luminosity that music once claimed as its own. Lovers of popular music aren't always gratified by this; many are well aware that "product" tends to be more important than creativity. But the product is what there is. For many people in the first years of the third millennium, the supposedly timeless body of classical music is just irrelevant.

For me it is anything but. I not only love this music but also make my career as an academic writing about it. Like many in both positions, I've often wondered what, if anything, people like me can do to help fix things.

Two efforts, it's seemed very clear, could certainly help make things worse. The first would be to explain patiently that if people would only absorb some technical information, follow the instructions of an expert, and listen for some formal routines, they could come to understand this music and discover that it is not only "great" but also good for them. Virgil Thomson long ago skewered this approach as the "music-appreciation racket." The second bad choice is to try hectoring people into the belief that this music really is good for them by praising it and its composers in extravagantly high-minded terms and generally suggesting that the best people like the best music. The first attitude is condescending and authoritarian, the second pompous and moralistic. If I felt that classical music really supported such attitudes-or rather, needed to support them, since the attitudes themselves have been all too common-I too would run for the nearest exit.

What, then, can someone like me do to help? Well, maybe nothing, but I don't want to believe that. This book is my version of "maybe something; maybe this." It springs from an effort to shed both my long-accustomed assumptions and my professional interests to ask for a simple answer to a simple question: What's in this music for me? In other words, why does classical music still matter?

I like listening to it, of course, but I like listening to some other kinds of music too. With classical music I also like to eavesdrop on myself, to listen in on my own experience. I feel impelled to think about what the music demands and what it offers, what visions it summons and what logic it pursues. These and similar questions seem inseparable from the music, which poses them in the very act of capturing attention and giving pleasure. And they are questions with a wider resonance. This music provides as much insight as it invites; thinking and writing about it gives me a means of pondering big questions of culture, history, identity, desire, and meaning. The music is full of powerful feelings, but they're feelings that are always pushing beyond their own boundaries to open and refresh these questions. This music stimulates my imagination and my speculative energies while it sharpens my senses and quickens my sense of experience.

Of course all music, whatever its type, is a gift to its devotees. Music enhances life; almost everyone loves some form of it. The real question about classical music is not whether it rewards our attention but how it does-the very thing I've only just begun to suggest. Its rewards, I'm convinced, have nothing to do with the elitism and esotericism too often associated with this music. They are accessible to anyone with open ears and a sense of adventure; they require no mysterious rites of initiation. To find them out it is necessary only to talk about musical experience with confidence and precision.

Here classical music may have a certain advantage in the rich vocabulary available to describe it. This music has historically maintained a prolific dialogue with language, even though, like all music, it is supposed to work, and does work, at levels above or below language, even when the music, being sung, uses language with great expressive power. One of the most remarkable features of classical music is the way it always seems to teeter on the edge of speech. We can never know just what it-almost-says, but we can harmonize our words with its sounds in ways worth hearing.

That's what this book tries to do. My idea for it was to identify some of the distinctive life-enhancing qualities of classical music by using language freely to show them in action. By presenting an example of how one listener enters into a kind of intimate dialogue with this music, its history, and its values, I might be able to suggest to others that the music really is worth bothering about. Those who already believe in its value might find that the resources of their own dialogues can expand in gratifying, perhaps unexpected ways. At the very least the question could be raised afresh among both the music's friends and its foes. A fresh airing is just what we need at this point. So I decided to share some of my own musical dialogue, built up of listening, thinking, writing, and a bit of lore: not in raw form, of course, but shaped and elaborated to bring out its hidden consistencies, including consistencies previously hidden from the author.

No hectoring, no lectures, no pretense of instruction from on high: just a record of lived and living experience that might strike a chord with the experience of others. The idea is simply to suggest by example how classical music can become a source of pleasure, discovery, and reflection tuned not only to the world of the music, rich though that is, but also to the even richer world beyond the music.

This project involves some risks, including preachiness and pretentiousness. It's pretty awkward when academics pretend to shed their robes to seek a wider audience and end up doing justice neither to the audience they seek nor to their academic friends. But risks, like learning, go with any venture worth trying. So, though mindful of the fabled astronomer who fell in the ditch while looking at the stars, I will trust that my steps have better instincts and hope for an unmuddy outcome.

As an academic, I can imagine several other problems that need to be faced at the outset. These musical remarks, someone is sure to say, are arbitrary, merely subjective, untrustworthy as knowledge of anything but my whims. Besides, the remarks don't rise much above the level of-dread term!-program notes. They don't go deep enough because you can't go deeply into music without getting into questions of technique that only experts can deal with.

To these imagined charges, I cheerfully plead a qualified "guilty." Art, being formed from imagination and addressed to the imagination, needs to be answered imaginatively. Some learning, of course, is involved; no one's imagination benefits from ignorance. But responses to art neither can nor should be verifiable, only credible, and they achieve credibility by a lucky combination of knowledge, insight, and a feel for playing hunches. Interpretation may inevitably be subjective, but subjectivity is neither arbitrary nor whimsical. We have to learn subjectivity, be taught how to have it and practice it: much of subjectivity is in the public domain. And an idea that begins subjectively does not have to end that way. It can and should be tested, discussed, submitted to evidence, examined for reasonableness. The notion that we can keep reason and imagination in separate compartments, separate cages, does a great disservice to both.

As for the program note, it's a fine institution if by it one means a few words offering curious listeners an angle at which to cock their ears, a device to fine-tune their hearing. My remarks do aim to do this. They dwell on what anyone can hear and ask how to hear it well. But they are more conceptually ambitious than most program notes and less wedded to the mystique of musical form. In them I try to reflect both on and with music in contexts abuzz with matters of general importance. And I go into technical detail, with minimal jargon, only far enough to connect the formal language of music with significant measures of pleasure and understanding. One of the implicit points of this book is that a little such observation can go a long way.

This is not to deny that a lot can go a long way too. I'm trying to write nonacademically here, not antiacademically. But music does not communicate esoterically, or, if it does, it ceases to communicate at all. There is no reason to feel that you don't really understand it if you don't know the code. Musical meaning does not depend on being decoded; it depends on being lived. My remarks here are addressed neither to experts nor to nonexperts but just to you, whoever you are, holding this book and reading these lines because something about the topic matters to you.

If classical music doesn't make sense at this level of human interest, the other, supposedly deeper layers just don't matter much, at least to me. I want to reject the idea that there's a deep musical truth that loose talk about meaning and expression obscures and dumbs down. The meaning and expression are what matters; the rest should just be a way of showing how and why in more detail to those who find the detail compelling. (I do, of course; that's why I write about music for a living.) My aim in this book is to encourage an activity that nonprofessionals think they can't do and professionals feel they shouldn't do. I want to encourage doing things with classical music so that classical music can do things for us. That, even more than the content of my statements-and I care plenty about the content-is the heart of this project.

But how to keep this heart beating? I don't want to string together random musical remarks, but neither do I want to be systematic or professorial. And I want to be able to speak personally at times while also making use of such knowledge as I may have. My problem, in fact, is one I share with classical music itself. How do you reconcile richness of detail with a guiding thread? How do you find your way, enjoy the passage, and avoid the Minotaur?

My solution here is to keep this book focused on indispensable human concerns, the stuff of real life. Music may sometimes offer us needed relief from life's burdens, but it serves us better, I believe, when it offers us insight, intuition, and empathy. My topics are memory, ecstasy, identity, and war; they are suffering and longing, solitude and community, love and death. I write about these things through classical music-write about them because I am writing about this music, and write with the understanding that the music both draws meaning from them and imparts meaning to them.

These topics arise not as abstractions or generic themes but as concrete, historically specific matters of importance that find some of their many voices in this music. Sometimes what these voices convey is challenging; although I always aim to write clearly, I trust the reader to accompany me through the occasional rough patch. There are not many of them. My effort involves stories about how particular works of music can draw the listener into a vital dialogue that is the very opposite of recondite or rarefied. It asks what such music has made it possible to hear and to heed. It seeks to bring out the distinctive alliance of listening, subjective enrichment, and social participation basic to classical music. With no apologies, it treats this music as a gateway to the experience of a primal sympathy between sentience and sound.

The role of classical music in movies is prominent in this book; no modern medium has influenced the history of listening more than the cinema, which is also the locale where classical music today, if only in bits and pieces, finds its largest audience. The role of performance is prominent, too, since classical music comes into being in the passage from a written score to a sounding performance-a simple and obvious journey that is neither simple nor obvious. But because for most people enjoying music no longer means knowing how to play it, the experience of music making remains in the background. Or rather it acts from the background. I find both a model and an inspiration for this project in my own eager but maladroit piano playing. Like such playing, listening to classical music involves both unselfconscious absorption in the sweep of a piece as a whole and quickened attention to special details. This wavering balance holds the key both to my way of proceeding in this book and to the beliefs that underlie it.


Excerpted from Why Classical Music Still Matters by Lawrence Kramer Copyright © 2007 by The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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Table of Contents

In Lieu of a Preface

1. Classical Music and Its Values
2. The Fate of Melody and the Dream of Return
3. Score and Performance, Performance and Film: Classical Music as Liberating Energy
4. But Not for Me: Love Song and the Heartache of Modern Life
5. The Ghost in the Machine: Keyboard Rhapsodies
6. Crisis and Memory: The Music of Lost Time
7. Persephone’s Fiddle: The Value of Classical Music



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