Wednesday, June 02, 2004

Publishers be damned...

I've just been reading Alex Ross's article 'Listen to this' from The New Yorker, which you can find on his Blog. It's a superbly written, perceptive, spot-on critique of the concepts and preconceptions that are too often associated with the word 'classical'; and it serves to underline several gripes I have with the outside world's attitude to 'us', especially the attitude of publishers and bookshops.

As Alex points out, when people hear the word 'classical', they think 'dead'. Music is alive. Try telling this to the publishers of books on music. Browsing through the few remaining shelves in shops like Waterstones and Books Etc devoted to music - almost all have cut back to the bare minimum - I look at the offerings and wonder what planet these people are on. One noteworthy thing about Alex's aforementioned article is that it is so well written. There are not many writers on music with such a fine grasp of style. That's possibly why, when they exist, they get snapped up by a public that does have a hunger for intelligent writing about culture in general. Norman Lebrecht also springs to mind - even if what he says raises your blood pressure, the way he says it is so well-turned that some of us forgive him virtually anything.

Music begins where words end. Therefore expressing the essence of a musical experience in words is unlikely to be adequate. Usually it is rather worse. The bookshelves, such as they are, feature volumes intended for university libraries and perhaps the private collections of what we in Britain commonly call 'anoraks'. Publishers perceive a specialist market for books on music in which anything basically 'accessible' (awful word) or 'readable' is wide of the mark. At the opposite extreme, the number of books on classical music addressed in their titles to 'dummies' or suchlike is staggeringly large. Publishers seem to think that to want to read about music, you have either to be so intellectual that you can't bear to step outside your ivory tower, or alternatively that you regard yourself as thick. Most of us are neither.

Music books are segregated in the music shops like women in an orthodox shul. I dream of the day when my biography of Korngold will live on a shelf of mainstream biographies rubbing shoulders with Kafka and Kokoschka, and my Faure book will happily cohabit with tracts on Foucault and Flaubert. Composers have made as great a contribution to the history of culture as writers and artists, but are seen as something to be handled with kid gloves, graphs and Schenkerian analyses, kept well away from the superbug infections of the mainstream. Music is boxed out, away from literature, away from art, away from real life. (It is also boxed out of absolutely everything by lazy marketing and promotion departments...) This is not only ridiculous but also damaging.

About a year ago I made a little academic discovery... The full story will be coming out in The Strad later this year. All I can say for now is that this discovery has been lurking in the depths of fin-de-siecle Paris for more than a century, but has so far gone unremarked. Perhaps that is because music, art and literature tend to be studied in isolation from each other. If experts on certain writers also bothered to look at the lives of certain composers who were close to them, this would have been spotted decades ago. And if experts on composers looked in any detail at their contact with the writers in question, who knows what could turn up? About 110 years ago in Paris, these segregations were unheard-of. Chausson was friendly with the artist Odilon Redon. Faure married the daughter of a well-known sculptor. Pauline Viardot virtually lived with Ivan Turgenev, an opera libretto by whom her friend Brahms once rejected (!). Most of them met at each others' salons. I rather enjoy Schenkerian analysis on occasion, but what can it tell us about the way these circles of artists fed off each other's creativity and what cross-fertilisations this could have produced that we enjoy, unknowingly, today?

Here are a few recommendations of books on music that are well written, well researched, serious and still enjoyable to read:

Edward Elgar: a creative life, by Jerrold Northrop Moore

Beyond the Notes, by Susan Tomes (as mentioned the other day)

Parallels and Paradoxes, by Daniel Barenboim and Edward Said

Wagner and Philosophy, by Bryan Magee

Tchaikovsky, by David Brown

The Maestro Myth, by Norman Lebrecht