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.

The great change was in the primary purpose of music, "from representing the power of the patron to expressing the individual feelings of the musician." Thus, Jean Baptiste Lully, composer to the Sun King, died filthy rich, the only man in history to run the Paris Opera for profit. Rousseau, composer as well as writer, declined a royal pension to free himself from any dependence, and so became a role model for future bohemians. Pursuing the rise of Romanticism in music, Blanning quotes the novelist Romain Rolland proclaiming Wagner's Parsifal "the fifth gospel."

Eventually, Blanning turns to popular music and proclaims one of John Coltrane's jazz recordings "one of the great musical masterpieces of the twentieth century." We read, further, of "Eric Clapton's quasi-divine status," and that Bob Dylan's music reaches "untold millions," and manages to "stimulate, elevate, perhaps even redeem them." Indeed, Dylan has helped "raise popular music's sights from a horizon bound by profit to
infinite transcendental heights."

I thought this was the sort of thing Jesus Christ had done; could Dylan be the Messiah? And when Blanning writes that "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club is generally agreed to be the most influential single recording of the 20th century," I wonder just what is meant by "influential" and what the yardstick for measuring it might be?

In the "Places and Spaces" chapter we get an extensive verbal and pictorial survey of the evolution of music's venues. Of particular interest is an ample and amusing account of Frederick the Great, an enlightened but also quirky autocrat, ruling the music world by sitting in front of the orchestra pit, his eye on both the score and the stage, and a single mistake drawing instant rebuke.

We get an account of the rise of various social dances, first different for different classes, then standardized for all, even though sometimes, like the waltz, causing a moral panic. There was talk of "choreographic rape," and even Lord Byron disapproved. Yet in due time Johann Strauss Jr., "the Waltz King," became the third most admired European after Queen Victoria and Otto von Bismarck.

Movie music became increasingly popular, and major composers were among its providers. With the arrival of the Walkman, and its successors like the iPod, "rare is the train or subway where the majority of passengers are not sporting earphones." Blanning summarizes that music has become the religion of the people, and that stadiums and arenas used for rock concerts are the cathedrals of the modern age, made possible by a complex interaction of technical innovations changing every art, but music most of all.

In the "Technology" chapter, Blanning finally takes a bit of a stand against the pervasiveness of music emerging from bars, cafes, clubs, and passing cars: "Even those who enjoy music, find its constant presence irritating, whether it is the buzzing from neighboring earphones on public transport, the Muzak in lifts, restaurants and shopping malls, or the easy listening that has to be endured when a telephone message puts the caller on hold."

There follows the history of how various instruments were invented, promulgated, or allowed to become extinct. This depended as much on performers as on the inventors; thus, the piano's prestige profited as much from Liszt as he profited from his stardom.

He was the first pianist to play entirely from memory; the first to place the piano at a right angle to his audience so that he would be more visible (indeed he liked to have two pianos on stage so that he could change places periodically and thus display his profile from the other side); the first to play with an open lid, reflecting the sound across the auditorium; the first to devote a whole concert to a single instrument--indeed he invented the term "recital" .  .  . for a concert in London in 1840.

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There emerged even a politics of instruments. The Belgian Adolphe Sax, inventor of the saxophone, died wretchedly in Paris, "unable to benefit from his creation, thanks largely to a vicious campaign .  .  . organized by native Parisian manufacturers." Amusingly, when Edison invented the "phonograph" and listed its 10 uses, office dictation came first; reproduction of music trailed in fourth position.

Finally, the most important new instruments are the various recordings, progressing from 78 rpm to the EPs (45 rpm extended play), thence to the LPs and now CDs. Novelty always helped. In 1954 Americans alone spent $70 million on classical discs; there were 21 versions of the Eroica and Toscanini's recording of Beethoven's Ninth sold a total of 149, 993 copies. Compare that to today's meager sales of classical CDs.

Probably the most entertaining chapter is the fifth, "Liberation," wherein Blanning traces the social and political significance of music, partly as a democratic leveler, partly as a universal civilizer. Significant, though, was its balkanizing effect, whereby the chauvinists of every country exalted its music while deriding that of other countries.

So we hear from French musicians that "Spain sobs, Italy wails, Germany bellows, Flanders howls, only France sings." A pair of French journalists write that Italian music is "like a painted whore, whereas French music is a beautiful woman." According to Italians, Germans could not write tunes and thus resorted to excessive harmony and counterpoint. Stendhal notes that even Mozart was regarded by Italians as "a crude barbarian, a vandal poised for invasion across the sacred frontiers of classical art."

Mozart, in turn, declared, "Let me never hear a Frenchwoman sing Italian arias: I can forgive her if she screeches out her French trash, but not if she ruins good music." A German journalist writes of French music: "Profound emotions are alien to it. It is neither cold nor warm, its nature is really like that of a frog." Another journalist asserts in debate:

You say that Italian music is the mother of all music. That may well be. But a mother is usually a woman .  .  . subject to the fate of that sex which .  .  . increases in talent and beauty only to a certain age and then .  .  . becomes richer in wrinkles and poorer in spirit. .  .  . The music .  .  . in Germany is of the male sex, has a serious nature .  .  . and therefore .  .  . when creating, thinks more about what is right than about what is beautiful .  .  . for that reason the German deserves the place of honor.

Or as C.F.D. Schubart summed it up: "The Germans invented music, the Italians vulgarize it, the French plagiarize it and the English pay for it," materialistic philistines that they are.

Blanning is equally fine when he traces at length the story of the "Marseillaise" from birth to various ramifications, notably its roles during the revolution; how, for instance, singing this new national anthem has been credited with enabling hard-pressed French soldiers, on three separate occasions, to turn the tide of battle. It is grimly comic that it was sung both by those gloating near the guillotine, as heads dropped into the basket, and by those who were mounting the scaffold to their death. Nationalism, Blanning concludes, grew through music.

He notes: "As only a very limited number of people ever meet face to face, they must have some means to conceive of themselves as belonging to the same national community. In that fundamental act of imagination, music played a hugely important part." He also notes such phenomena as the large number of Jewish composers achieving popularity, or how black radio in the black community was being enjoyed by the white community: "When wedded to white country music, rhythm and blues developed into rock 'n' roll."

Blanning also traces the sexually liberating aspects of music, from Monteverdi through Mozart to Wagner--"a multiple musical climax was reached in Act Two of .  .  . Tristan und Isolde, complete with postcoital depression." Romance, he writes, made way for sex, the very name rock 'n' roll having an explicit sexual connotation. Shaw, he reminds us, "famously defined dancing as 'the vertical expression of a horizontal desire legalized by music.'" Its next achievement was the opportunity it offered homosexuals, encouraging even same-sex physical contact by heterosexuals: "Madonna's open-mouthed kisses with Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera during the 2003 MTV Awards."

In his brief "Conclusion," Blanning makes clear that this is not the triumph of this kind or that kind of music, good or bad, but of "music per se," as it has helped to transform the modern world. A worldwide poll of 600,000 people, 20 years after his death, proclaimed John Lennon the most influential musician of all time, ahead of Bach (7) and Mozart (10). Paul McCartney's "Yesterday" has been recorded more than 3,000 times, more than any song in history.

In the course of various heats for the American Idol competition in 2006, more than 500 million votes were cast, the final alone attracting 63 million. As against this, the highest vote total for an American president was, for Ronald Reagan in 1984, 54.4 million.

For me, the question is still whether a triumph is based on numbers alone. There is no doubt that today's poet laureate (Carol Ann Duffy) is read far less than was Tennyson, the laureate of his day, and that Oxford University Press closed its contemporary poets list in 1999, which testifies to the decline of poetry. But fiction, various forms of visual art, and film still thrive, and it may be that the triumph of an art depends as much on the quality of an audience as on its quantity.

Be that as it may, Blanning does make out a case for, as he puts it, music per se. Still, the more discriminating will wonder what kind of triumph that is. Imagine if, in literature, the triumph would only be for Harlequin romances and bodice-rippers, for Stephenie Meyer and J. K. Rowling. As Blanning says elsewhere, "On the day that Greece votes for Turkey, and vice versa, we shall be able to say that the age of national rivalry is finally over."

Similarly, until Celine Dion buys a season ticket to the Philharmonic, Mariah Carey becomes a regular at the Opera, and Bruce Springsteen hosts a classical music TV show, we cannot say that classical music has achieved parity with the popular kind. Yet only then will music--not just music
per se, but silk purse music as well--have triumphed.

John Simon is the author, most recently, of  John Simon on Music: Criticism 1979-2005 (Applause Books).