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 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.


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.