The Magazine

Strings Attached

How music went from noise to sound to melody and harmony.

May 25, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 34 • By JOHN SIMON
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The Triumph of Music

The Rise of Composers, Musicians and Their Art

by Tim Blanning

Harvard, 432 pp., $29.95

How things change! In this new book the Cambridge professor of modern European history calls himself Tim Blanning. In an earlier book of his he refers to--Reform and Revolution in Mainz, 1743-1803--he called himself T. C. W. Blanning. Those were the days when even nonacademic British writers tended to use more impersonal initials rather than Christian names. Nowadays he is not even Timothy, but Tim.

Appropriate enough for a historian of music whose book includes everything from classical to rap. Although I find it somewhat odd to get, ex cathedra, casual references to Beyonce and Madonna, I agree that the academic who invokes them had better be Tim.

This, to be sure, is no ordinary history of music. Rather, it is a history of the triumph of music, how it became the most widespread, popular, and important art--indeed, replacing religion. So chapter one, "Status," examines how the musician has evolved from slave or servant to one of the most affluent and important figures of the modern world. In chapter two, "Purpose," music emerges as "the most romantic art" and achieves in a more secularized society a kind of sacralization. It also goes from the private property of royals and aristocrats to becoming public--belonging to everyone but the tone deaf. The progress of romanticism has, according to Blanning, for main stepping stones, Beethoven, Liszt, Wagner, jazz, pop, and rock.

From this follows, in chapter three, "Places and Spaces: From Palace to Stadium," music's march from churches and palaces to opera houses, concert halls, pubs, cafes and (most democratically) stadiums and arenas. But for such evolution, the means of producing music, the instruments, also had to evolve, and so chapter four is "Technology: From Stradivarius to Stratocaster." That, of course, includes sections on "Recording," "Radio and Television," "The Electrification of Youth Culture" and, finally, in chapter five, "Nation, People, Sex," how music brought together people, helped promulgate the concept of nation by embracing minorities, and contributed to the sexual revolution.

Most of Europe is included, along with every type of music, as we follow the promise of the subtitle which, to his credit, demonstrate the historian's catholicity as bespoken by imposing research. To this, ample footnotes, chronology, and a list of further reading provide plentiful evidence.

The 400 pages are profusely illustrated with pictures of musicians, patrons, palaces, churches, opera houses, musical instruments, as well as scenes from salons and concert halls, studios and stadiums, often during characteristic events. Above all, there is the abundance of entertaining anecdotes and memorable quotations, making for steadily absorbing, often astounding, and sometimes horrific, reading.

As late as the 18th century, we learn, composers, singers, and musicians were treated like servants, lucky if they weren't actually valets or footmen. But change was afoot. So Haydn was first famous for being Count Esterhazy's
kappellmeister, but by the end of his long life it was the Esterhazys who were famous for having employed him. Whereas only one undisputed portrait of Bach exists, and there are only 12 contemporary portraits of Mozart, today, thanks to his image on the Mozartkugel bonbon, multitudes have seen his likeness.

The coming of Beethoven meant, among other things, the appearance of fans; Haydn and Mozart only had admirers. If we compare Mozart's obscure burial with Beethoven's grandiose obsequies, we realize how much the status of music has changed. Austria's leading dramatist, Grillparzer, never mentioned God in his eulogy; music was the deity and Beethoven its high priest.

Along comes the rising popularity of the virtuoso. The myths about Paganini (selling his soul to the Devil, etc.) may have been absurd, but the swooning about his showmanship was real enough. More spectacular yet was the career of Franz Liszt, who could put even the czar of Russia in his place and had women falling at his feet like autumn leaves.

Wagner, whose painted and sculpted portraits ran into thousands, had the crowned heads come to him; by the time of his death, books and articles about him reached five figures. Finally, instead of politicians seeking the support of musicians, musicians themselves entered the world of politics.