On the Bookshelf: Morbidity, Anti-Utopianism, and Rach 3

Dishing out advice is a quotidian culinary activity for folks such as myself, we who are charged with molding the minds of a steady stream of hopeful (or at least dutiful) college students.

We all collect tidbits of advice, each a favored bouquet garni to be sprinkled onto a lesson as the occasion demands. One of mine is to admonish my students to keep a book about music on the burner, as it were, at all times.

(If any of my students are reading this, now y'all remember: keep a book about music on the burner, as it were, at all times.)

Any book: composer bios are great given that we all have our favorites; performer bios have their place as well. Something historical about an era you find interesting, or about the history of your instrument or its notable performers, or a genre that is engaging your interest. A bit of peachy arch puffery from some twee aesthete, perhaps. Trifles of sweet boosterish nothing that preach rabidly to the choir. Something monstrous and nastily opinionated that makes hamburger of your sacred cows or downright repudiates your whole shebang.

Go for it. Read anything at first. Just keep 'em coming; you'll become more discerning in time.

Consider compilations of musical essays, which offer the pleasures of skimming, dipping, and sampling, and which may well offer a blessing often lacking in biographical monographs or staid historical tomes: energetic, engaging, and entertaining writing.

On my bookshelf at present — for I definitely practice what I preach, at least in this particular instance — stands a pair of retrospective compilations by two of the Bay Area's most distinguished musical essayists, Joseph Kerman and Richard Taruskin, both associated with UC Berkeley and notable figures in musical letters worldwide.

Anyone who has written off musicologists as lousy writers (so to speak) would do well to take a peek at the prose of these chaps, high-profile, high-end, high-status musicologists both. Within the confines of the two volumes under discussion, Kerman and Taruskin each offer witty, beautifully-turned English, each as interesting to read for the quality of his prose alone as for the content.

First up, Joseph Kerman's Opera and the Morbidity of Music, a collection of essays put out by New York Review Books, the publishing arm of the New York Review of Books. Given the venue, we may expect a set of book reviews, and to some extent the assumption holds. However, Kerman's subjects range widely, from book reviews through several obituaries (Maria Callas and Carlos Kleiber), essays on various topics, discussions of recordings, and even some commentary on individual compositions.

Given the breadth of coverage, one does not necessarily expect a single thematic unity, but in fact a certain motivic figure runs through the book. Kerman is one of those much-needed commentators who are on the whole upbeat about the current condition of music and its prospects for the future. He is quick to take doomsayers to task, such as his comments concerning Joseph Horowitz's Understanding Toscanini, an attack on the Italian maestro's domination of orchestral culture: "My advice to Joe Horowitz: get over it."

Kerman is not foolish enough to paint everything in rosy hues, needless to say: he knows his stuff and is not one to be hoodwinked into either vapid boosterism or sensationalist doom-mongering.

Kerman's overriding positivism is complemented by Taruskin's distinctly more curmudgeonly tone in The Danger of Music and Other Anti-Utopian Essays, a rich salade composée of essays for the New York Times and The New Republic with a final course of starchier fare from various scholarly pubs.

Taruskin may throw a few well-aimed stillettos into the breasts of his targets but he is no scenery-shredding commentarial diva.

Instead, he affects a take-no-prisoners stance when taking on the sterility, pomposity, and downright arrogance that has (alas) characterized a great deal of post-WWII criticism, composition, and commentary.

Here you will find articles which so delighted me at their original appearance that I have kept copies ever since, such as How Talented Composers Become Useless, one of the most toothsome roasts of academic serialism in the literature.

The relatively recent The Musical Mystique: Defending Classical Music against Its Devotees flew about the Internet in the wake of that ridiculous bit of grandstanding involving Joshua Bell as fake-busker at a D.C. metro station. (Taruskin was quick to point out that the only thing the "test" proved is that rush hour commuters have more on their minds than some guy fiddling; I would add that buskers are sonic polluters and as such should be fined, rather than rewarded with attention.) Taruskin starts the ball rolling with his demolition of the Busker-Bell caper, and takes it from there in a review of three separate books, two of which turn out to be propaganda manquée, while a third garners some (very cautious) praise from its alert, well-informed, and above all articulate reviewer.

Both collections are recommended reading for anyone who cares about music — or about good writing. For today's finale, I quote Joseph Kerman's Two Cheers for Rach 3, a gratifying paean to an oft-maligned piano concerto:

"Now nearly a hundred years old, Rach 3's life expectancy goes up every year, and given the wonders of bio-science, the piece is likely to end up in some dismaying retirement community of the twenty-second century, toothless, creaky, scarcely ecstatic, but still ready to play and above all garrulous."

You may acquire both books from Amazon: here's the Kerman, and here's the Taruskin.