|Stanley Crouch told me that white jazz players can learn to sound black.
He wasn't making a racial point. To him it seemed natural that music has roots. If you
want to play Indian music, he said, go to India. If you want to play jazz -- whether
you're white or black -- play gospel in black churches, to soak up the sounds that
gave it birth. That made sense to me. Imagine two recordings of Glenn Miller tunes, one by
his band, the other by studio musicians playing the same charts. Which do you think would
be more likely to swing?
And now let me ask: where would you go to learn to play Beethoven?
When l talked this way not long ago at the University of Wisconsin, I was all but jeered. People thought I'd attacked the treasures we've preserved from the past. I compounded my blasphemy by asking why these treasures don't sound like they’re from the past. Read Dickens; look at paintings by Delacroix. You don't need special training to know that these are works from another age. Now listen to the Eroica symphony. Does it sound as if Beethoven wrote it nearly 200 years ago, in 1803? If you don't know the classical repertoire, you'll probably hear it simply as classical music. If you know a little about the field, you'll probably recognize Beethoven. If you know still more, you'll identify the Eroica itself. Its age shows only as a collection of stylistic traits, audible only to specialists. Classical music -- unlike clothes, furniture, or other works of art -- has lost the smell of the cultures that produced it.
Does it belong to any culture at all?
What happens at classical concerts? Let's start with some red meat, torn from the otherwise sober pages of The Beethoven String Quartets, a classic study by Joseph Kerman (one of this country's best musicologists): "Tension…shock…retching…strain…overpowering violence…unheard-of extremes."
A silly question: if we went to a classical concert, is this what we'd hear?
How do we hear classical music today? The PBS way: "basking in the glories of the classical masterpieces." (Those are the words of a New York Times reporter, describing yuppies -- his word -- from whom the Pittsburgh Symphony hopes to raise pots of money.) Or the scholarly way: deep meaning is supposed to be anchored in the music's structure. And how is structure heard? It sometimes looks as if without specialized training you can't hear it at all. Even Kerman is cowed. "After the Eroica," he writes, "Beethoven's compositions become to a cardinal degree pointed individuals." This is a reasonable point, one that might help beginners understand what a large-scale classical piece might be about. But as soon as he makes it, Kerman backs away. "Such a statement may seem distressingly untechnical." Soon he returns to his point. But why apologize?
Structures don't exist in the abstract; they have to be structures of something. Musical structures seem to be structures of notes. But the notes themselves have character. Kerman tells us that the first large section of the first movement of Beethoven's Quartet in D Major, Op. 18, No. 3, ends with a "gesture of transition"; the gesture concludes with the note C-sharp as the climax of a "bold" upward chromatic scale in the cello. The second large section of the piece, he says, ends with a larger climax, in which the same C-sharp -- now amplified to become a full C-sharp major chord -- is "splashed out noisily over five octaves and eight full bars." The two moments are linked by the C-sharps, in ways that are crucial for the structure of the piece. But they're linked also by turbulence, by the noisy five-octave splash, and by the bold chromatic scale, "the most dramatic event yet," Kerman says, "in a piece that has been emphasizing regularity of pace." Maybe the structure of the piece is articulated by drama as well as C-sharps. Will we even know the C-sharps are important if we don't hear the excitement that's linked to them?
Another example: In The Classical Style (winner of the National Book Award), the pianist and scholar Charles Rosen says that the "central idea" of the first movement of Beethoven's Hammerklavier sonata is "the relation of the large tonal structure (with its powerfully dissonant long-range clash of B flat major and B major) to the rhythmic and harmonic energy of the sequences formed by…falling thirds." At crucial turning points, he says, the falling thirds and, above all, the gulf between B-flat and B-Natural are made audible by an "explosion," a "shock," one transition that's "brutally abrupt" and another that's "as abrupt and rapid as possible." Exactly my point. But then he goes on to say that "the content -- the subject-matter -- of the Hammerklavier is the nature of contemporary [early 19th century] musical language," that it's "a work of art which is literally about its own technique." If that's true, what happens to what Rosen calls its "extreme character," even "a fury previously unheard in music"? If, as Rosen says, Beethoven, in writing a piano sonata longer than any written before, consciously tried to "produce a new and original work of uncompromising greatness," isn't this an emotional as well as an aesthetic stance? Beethoven's defiance -- of authority, restriction, and the customs of his time -- was legendary. Rosen would surely agree that the technical audacity he describes must have been linked to that. But both he and Kerman overwhelm Beethoven's raw power (which both of them graphically describe) with technical talk lengthy enough to create an atmosphere in which that power isn't likely to be realized in performance.]
On November 2 and 3, 1 heard all-Beethoven concerts by America's two leading string quartets, the Guarneri and the Juilliard. The Juilliard's, at least, was lively. But the Guarneri Quartet were like travelers who'll tell you the history of each stop on their tour but don't look at the scenery. They lost me in that first movement of Op. 18, No. 3, not because they neglected the C-sharps, but because they didn't change their tone at measure 45, when the transition turns fierce. "Fierce" is a matter of degree; Kerman calls the same passage "decidedly awkward." But at the very least we've got something sharper than we've heard before, which helps propel the music toward something new. This, too, is part of the movement's structure. If the sharpness loses its edge, the music loses bite and direction; as Schoenberg said about a similar fault, "I…find myself unexpectedly in a ‘foreign country,’ not knowing how I got there."
What about Glenn Miller? Was Beethoven as uncomplicated a product of his time as big-band jazz?
Any music is in some ways like other music of its time and in some ways unique. Kerman talks about Beethoven's "favorite dances," which are evoked often in his music and which, however transformed, were standard dances of his time. When he was young he wrote music people actually danced to; surely we've lost touch with the rhythmic life of large parts of his work because we can't see how 18th century Viennese in fact danced to it. The parts of his work that are unlike the other music of his time are equally lost to us, because if we don't know what was normal we can't know why Beethoven was different ("overpowering," "extreme").
The classical music world thinks classical music is universal. That leads to performances as bland as Dickens would be if -- to highlight the universal message of David Copperfield -- Mr. Micawber were renamed Jack Smith.
Can we play modern Beethoven? Pierre Boulez conducted the Fifth Symphony without striving or drama, as a translucent construction of notes. To the Violin Concerto Gidon Kremer added cadenzas (by the Soviet composer Alfred Schnittke) that place Beethoven in the explicitly quoted context of later concertos by Brahms and Berg. Glenn Gould thought Beethoven's most popular pieces are built from "empty, banal, belligerent" gestures; he tried (in the Emperor concerto) to transform the belligerence into the kind of layered articulation he worked such wonders with in Bach, or (in the Appassionata sonata) to rarefy both structure and content so that belligerence was no longer needed. Kremer's cadenzas at least place the concerto in perspective as a work 180 years old (the rest of his performance -- on his Philips recording, anyway -- is flat). Boulez and Gould, in their different ways, silence what Kerman called "Beethoven's voice -- a deaf man's harsh peremptory shout." They don't comment on the void they create; instead, they make Beethoven's insistent gestures genuinely banal by robbing them of the strain behind their insistence.
Can we take Beethoven as he was, and make him our music? Kerman says the "natural matrix" of any Beethoven work is Beethoven's total oeuvre. I think a classical work will most vividly live if we place it in the context of its own time and then -- above all if we're performers -- of ours. To do that, we first have to place ourselves in our own time. Andrew Porter suggested once that performers might wear casual dress; that could help though I'd also think classical musicians should know the non-classical music of today. Can you understand Beethoven's dances if you've never played music people dance to now?
Savoring the past is harder. We might play Beethoven's music on the instruments of his time; their gutsier sound might shock us into hearing how distant his work really is (though the exercise might also make the study of his work even more academic than it's already become). We need to know everything we can about his culture; details of dress, philosophy, or even landscape might illumine otherwise blank moments in his work. We need to know how each moment of his music might have been heard by an audience of his own time; we need to connect their reactions -- including their amazement, their tears, and, sometimes, their dismay -- to reactions we have today, both to his work and to anything in our experience. (Last month I described Giuseppe Sinopoli doing that with Verdi and Schubert.) We need an actor's imagination to bring each layer of our understanding alive in performance.
Most of all, we need to understand that performing old music can be -- perhaps should
be -- a radical act. When we read Dickens, we learn about 19th century life; have any
of us ever tried to live it?
Village Voice, December 17, 1985
Other Village Voice columns from the '80s:
The Struggle for Form [about Meredith Monk]
A Fine Madness [about Milton Babbitt]