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
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

But are people truly engaged when they listen to classical music--engaged enough to experience the transcendence that Kramer describes? Modern observers commonly claim that audiences listened more intensely in the past, when they were not diverted by innumerable distractions. To me, the record on "the good old days" of classical listening is mixed. On the one hand, we have Mozart's description of an audience in Paris that heard one of his symphonies and applauded gleefully when it recognized the return of a theme cunningly delayed. That Parisians could follow the intricacies of classical sonata form without the aid of a Music 101 course suggests enlightened times. On the other hand, boxes at many opera houses in the 18th and 19th centuries were set up for eating and card playing, implying that audiences did not always listen with rapt attention. As Lady Henry declared in The Picture of Dorian Gray, "I like Wagner's music better than anybody's. It is so loud that one can talk the whole time without people hearing what one says."

If today's audiences are not conscientiously listening, there is still the chance that they are conscientiously looking. Kramer devotes considerable discussion to the effective use of classical music in film, from Disney's groundbreaking Fantasia through Brief Encounter and People Will Talk to such recent movies as Paradise Road and Impromptu. His appraisal of the Prelude from Bach's G-Major Cello Suite in the soundtracks of Master and Commander and The Pianist is masterful and shows how classical music can add both nuance and new meaning to the cinematographic image. In film, the life-enhancing social energy of classical music forms a convincing partnership, one that proves effective even in campier productions. Would the restoration of Superman's powers after his encounter with kryptonite feel as strong if it were not accompanied by the return of the heroic main theme in John Williams's stunning score?

While Kramer is convinced that classical music still has the right stuff, Lebrecht would say it doesn't matter, since the recording industry that carried the great masterpieces to a broad audience has changed priorities. Lebrecht begins with the first recordings of classical music by Enrico Caruso in 1902. Short, stout, and not particularly handsome, Caruso was an unlikely operatic superstar, but his penetrating tenor voice with its dark, baritone-like timbre carried through the pop and crackle of the early cylinders and 78s. His renditions of Verdi and Puccini convinced listeners that the gramophone was not just a gimmick. By his death in 1921, Caruso had earned more than $2 million from his recordings--more than Babe Ruth could boast in his famous salary face-off with President Hoover. Equally improbable was Wilhelm Kempff, a solid but lackluster pianist whose career blossomed on the basis of recordings rather than concerts.

By the mid-1920s, the recording industry was moving forward at full steam, fueled by its recordings of classical music. In 1926 RCA Victor sold $20 million worth of Victrola players in one week alone, and by 1929, annual classical record sales totaled $104 million. Following the stock market crash, this figure plummeted to $6 million. But with RCA and Columbia in the United States competing against EMI and Decca in Britain and DGG and Telefunken in Germany, the recording industry steadily revived and prospered though the 1940s. With the switch from the 78 to the long-playing album in 1948, classical music entered a golden age of recording. The introduction of magnetic tape in the 1950s opened the door to studio editing and the manipulation of the recorded sound.

In early times a wealthy patron could bring Handel and Scarlatti, Bach and Marchand, or Chopin and Liszt together for a match-up of skills. By the middle of the 20th century any middle-class citizen could sit in his home and compare Kempff and Backhaus, Heifetz and Milstein, or Rachmaninoff and Horowitz. Arthur Schnabel's cycle of Beethoven sonatas, although riddled with technical slips, nevertheless became a cultural marker, a reference tool as necessary in one's personal library as the Encyclopedia Britannica or the World Book. Recordings also led to the rise of star conductors--Toscanini, Walter, Klemperer, von Karajan, and others--whose albums took them far beyond their local cities, Lebrecht points out.