The Magazine

Requiem for Strings

The salutary past, and uncertain future, of classical music.

Jul 30, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 43 • By GEORGE B. STAUFFER
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Why Classical Music Still Matters

by Lawrence Kramer

California, 251 pp., $24.95

The Life and Death of Classical Music

Featuring the 100 Best and 20 Worst Recordings Ever Made

by Norman Lebrecht

Anchor, 352 pp., $14.95

Cultural commentators have been noting for quite some time now classical music's fall from grace. The plummeting attendance at classical concerts, the abandonment of classical repertory by the major recording labels, the precarious financial state of professional orchestras, the replacement of pianos by media centers in middle-class homes, and the elevation of popular music and idolization of popular musicians (some of whom can neither read music nor sing it in tune) are taken as signs that classical music is doomed, and that it will not be long before it fades from modern life altogether.

Cultural shifts in Europe towards the end of the 19th century spurred Nietzsche to proclaim that God is dead. Is it time, in light of recent trends, to declare that Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven are dead, too?

Maybe yes, maybe no, to judge from two recent books on the topic. The yes vote is cast by Norman Lebrecht, well-known British music critic, who traces the rise and fall of the classical recording industry. To Lebrecht, the authoritative hold of classical music was broken with the arrival of Elvis Presley on the Western front and the Beatles on the Eastern front. Their pincer movement in the 1950s and '60s delivered a blow from which classical music--and perhaps Western civilization as well--has never recovered.

The no vote is cast by Lawrence Kramer, professor of music and English at Fordham, who champions the salutary effects of classical music upon the soul. To Kramer, classical music remains a Lourdes-like spring in which weary pilgrims plagued by the stresses and complexities of 21st-century life can bathe and find themselves restored. In his view, classical music is not only alive--it is a potential source of salvation.

Of the two volumes, Kramer's is the more substantial. The author presumes that the reader still has access to classical music and that he seeks more edification than popular music provides. And the underlying theme of the book is compelling: Classical music, unlike popular music, can enhance the quality of life. Listening to classical music is like working out at an aural fitness center: It not only provides escape from the tedium of daily activities but also commands attention, pushes the intellect, and offers insight and empathy.

How does it do this? As Kramer points out, the precise notation of classical music allows for thoughtful organization and manipulation of the text. Popular music presents good tunes; classical music develops them. With classical music, the fate of the melody becomes important. Melody, harmony, rhythm, and other musical elements are artfully arranged and granted substance. The music becomes a story in which details count: Characters (in the form of themes) appear and take life, plots and subplots unfold and interweave; dilemmas develop and resolve. Kramer believes that classical music deals with the fundamental choices and transitions of life: Loss and recovery, desire and destiny, forgetting and remembering, change and recognition. The listener takes possession of the tale and wants to know how it comes out.

Classical music also appears to have stabilizing qualities. Although the "Mozart effect" has now been discredited (a group of lab researchers at Texas Tech claimed that rats exposed to the music of Mozart and Schoenberg preferred the former, seemingly because of its calming properties and pleasing organization), Kramer maintains that the hierarchical structure of classical music helps to train the ear to listen deeply and perceive how the world might be arranged. As Otto Bettmann said of Bach's music: It puts in order what life cannot.

The vagueness of classical music only serves to make it richer, according to Kramer. It is often difficult to put one's finger on precisely what happens, but this only enhances meaning. Here the author cites Ludwig Wittgenstein, who compared listening to classical music to viewing the expression on a face: We understand it, but we don't decode it. It is the general nature of the emotion in music that gives it its power. As many historians have noted, Lincoln's Gettysburg Address comes from its nonspecific language--language that calculatedly transcends a battlefield in Pennsylvania to apply to the broader fight for freedom worldwide. In a similar way, Kramer argues, the battle for consonant resolution in a Beethoven symphony has the ability to symbolize the wider struggle for peaceful existence.