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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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).