Sunday, August 15, 2021

Jacques Barzun, Guest Blogger (again)

This comes from Music in America Life (1956). It still rings true after 66 years. I have reinforced it with links, which I'm sure Barzun would appreciate.
Music in the literary fallacy Neither composers nor listeners nor—reprehensibly—the critics seem to appreciate the extent to which their convictions depend on the deceptive charm of words. "Absolute" music gives comfort, "pure" art gives nobility, by the mere name on the label—just like a patent-medicine. Writings about music are weighted down with traditional errors embodied in familiar phrases. All references, for example, to musical logic, to its kinship with mathematics, to its suitability as a universal language, to its total separateness from other arts, to its immateriality and meaninglessness, are old catchwords with no shadow of validity. They are repeated, however with unanimity of a flock of crows on a telegraph wire by all the educated men and women who address themselves in speech or in print to the delicate particular questions of modern and classical music.

The contrasts of music with literature are especially absurd, in that they show the speakers have never given a moment‘s thought to the questions: what is the literary effect, what is the pleasure of literature? before they contrast that art with their notion of the pleasure and effect of music. They assume that literature does not differ from what they experience in reading the morning paper or the instructions on the bottle—whence their views about meaning in words and in music, and mutatis mutandis, meaning in pictures, dancing, etc.

The one important difference between literature and the other art is external and consists in the fact that literature has developed a fairly rich vocabulary of criticism, whereas the other arts flounder about in technicalities mixed with bad metaphors. The music critic’s second pressing task is therefore the development of an adequate, precise, non-technical vocabulary for describing without sentimental or fanciful imagery what happens in music, as well in as in his mind while he listens. This is a continuing obligation which carries with it the duty of criticizing the question-begging, fallacy-breeding vocabulary now in use.

To date, the most encouraging attempt to fashion a proper speech for discussing music is Mr. Robert Erickson’s The Structure of Music (Noonday, N.Y. 1955). But in speaking of this desideratum to the literate connoisseur in one’s circle, one encounters great resistance to the idea that any need exist. When the need is shown, the second lot of resistance is that a language of criticism for music is an impossibility. When fragments of such a language are pointed to as already in use, the third entrenchment of the stubborn is that talking about music destroys its essence and robs the listener of his enjoyment. One must then give assurances that the intention is not to make critical talk a substitute for attendance at concerts, but simply a means of greater pleasure before an after—it being obvious the talk (and writing) about music is already a massive occurrence which nothing is going to stop.

The distinction between sound criticism and "music itself" is no different from that between intelligent discourse and any other activity. The distinction applies to life itself which is meant to be lived and talked about. People read about painting and baseball and old silver without failing into the error of supposing that a paragraph is the same thing as a canvas, a home run, or a teapot. The fact, then, that music lovers fear words is not the result of greater devotion but of a more muddled mind.

This would harm none but themselves if our acceptance of a high art were unself-conscious or, as we say, traditional. But as we just saw, it is highly self-conscious and demanding. Like Lydia in The Lady of the Aroostook, the interested public "wants to know." It wants to know whether something is atonal or surrealistic or Native American or expressive of dialectical materialism. And this is what justifies the criticism of criticism. Unguarded, the public takes in but little more than homeopathic doses of newspaper reviewing and program notes, and only adds to its own confusion when it makes an effort to escape it.

The use of words can lead to over-intellectualizing and desiccation, no doubt. But this is a danger chiefly to the composer and performer, who are often ruined by "getting ideas." The point of a fit critical vocabulary is not necessarily to increase anyone’s stock of ideas; only to put better order among those he has, so that they will not stand in the way of intelligent perception. The most articulate critic will willingly join the great inarticulate creator in keeping absolutely quiet while music unfolds its meaning in its own medium; and afterward both may be disposed to approve of the words of Lowell Mason when, having found the first Academy of music in this country, he prepared a teaching manual:

Music is almost the only branch of education aside from divine truth whose direct tendency is to cultivate the feelings. Our systems of education generally proceed too much on the principle that we are merely intellectual beings. . . . Hence we often find the most learned the least agreeable.

As we cry "Here! Here!" and echo Mason‘s conviction that vocal music "tends to improve the heart" one mentally measures the distance between his pioneer call to song in the mighty answer it has received. One thinks of his indefatigable colleagues and successors who labored for a century before seeing results in keeping with their enthusiasm, skill, and patience: Mason‘s contemporary old Anton Heinrich, who tried in vain to acclimate Beethoven in Kentucky; Sidney Lanier, the Southern poet-musician who wrote so justly of the two arts; Theodore Thomas and the Damrosch family to whom we owe the founding of our orchestral eminence; William Henry Fry, journalist and composer and gadfly; Jerome Hopkins, the heroic organizer and critic, who yet managed to composing voluminously; MacDowell and Griffes, who still speak to us in their native tongue; Victor Herbert, the born entertainer who also fight for the creator’s rights; T. W. Surette and Archibald Davison, who revolutionized the school repertory; and Koussevitzky who made Boston the trying ground for modern American music. Often isolated and misunderstood and and even misguided, they none the less brought us where we are.

It was a hundred years ago this year that Whitman told an unheeding world: "I hear America Singing." If he returned today, he would find this hopeful baseless metaphor turned into a living truth.

Jacques Barzun July 1955

You can read another passage from this book here.

1 comment:

gus said...

Thank you for posting this "teaser". Jacques Barzun has just moved to my my "must read" list!

Jonathan Brodie