The tale is told by M. F. Barnes, in her 1931 study Renaissance Vistas (and it has often been depicted by great painters, notably Botticelli and Carpaccio), of Saint Augustine, wandering along the seashore. Lost in cogitation upon the Holy Trinity, the saint meets a small boy who busies himself filling a hole in the sand with teaspoonfuls of water from the ocean. “What are you doing?” asks Saint Augustine. “Emptying the sea into this hollow,” the boy answers. “But that is impossible,” the saint exclaims. To which the boy responds: “Not more so than for you to put all the mystery of the Trinity into your small understanding.”
Anyone who has spent a year, as I have, attempting to write a short, one-volume history of classical music (I dislike the adjective “classical”, but can conceive of no better) will sympathize with that boy. However optimistically one begins, the work uncomfortably resembles trying to empty the sea with a teaspoon. When Berkeley-based musicologist Richard Taruskin wrote his own, predominantly splendid, Oxford History of Western Music (which appeared in 2005), he had the luxury of six volumes”and abundant staff-notation musical excerpts”at his disposal. Even then (whether through personal taste or through interventionist copy-editors), he ended up skimping his coverage of several topics. How much more skimping, therefore, must the hapless author of a one-volume history perpetrate! At his best, he will be bitterly aware of all the composers he has needed to leave out, who will line up in solemn and judgmental procession before his ashamed gaze, as Banquo’s descendants did before Macbeth’s. At his worst, he will make Procrustes look like a rank amateur.
The only thing that stopped me from being reduced to a state of total dithering impotence was the recognition (which dawned fairly early, I am pleased to report) that an honestly organized package tour is a legitimate endeavor, no less than is a pilgrimage or a sabbatical. My book had to serve as the equivalent of a package tour, confined as it was, and is, to 25,000 words. There could be no pretense that it matched Taruskin’s magnum opus, say, through sheer analytical depth. On the other hand, it would be as solidly constructed, highly polished, and readable as I could make it”with, perhaps, a capacity for piquing the interest of readers who would find Taruskin prohibitively erudite.
When you have only 25,000 words at your disposal, you become epigrammatic if it is the last thing you do. Inevitably there occurs the problem of how to treat those composers who demand inclusion (and whose omission would indicate outright incompetence on the historian’s part), yet who cannot be described in detail without breaching that adamantine word limit. Pretty soon, I worked out what had to be done with them. They would be summarized within a sentence, or at most within a paragraph. One aspect of my earlier life came to my rescue here: during the 1990s I broadcast a good deal on a Sydney classical FM radio station, where announcers had only a sentence or two in which to convey something of the composer whose music had just been performed.
So much for space considerations; but they were by no means my sole, or indeed my greatest, worry. There is also the little matter of necessarily discussing post-1945 classical music, a product notorious, on the whole, for emptying any concert hall quicker than the proverbial fire-hose.
This subject found Sir Kingsley Amis at his shocking best: “Twentieth-century music,” Amis wrote in 1982, “is like pedophilia. No matter how persuasively and persistently its champions urge their cause, it will never be accepted by the public at large, who will continue to regard it with incomprehension, outrage and repugnance.” Nine years beforehand, he had been more moderate and more discriminating, prepared to give certain twentieth-century composers a passing grade: “I still cling to parts of Sibelius, Rachmaninoff, Richard Strauss.” But that still leaves a lot of the twentieth century unaccounted for: because Rachmaninoff died in 1943, Strauss six years later, and Sibelius”despite surviving till 1957″released almost nothing after 1930.
Clearly something went horribly wrong with classical music in or shortly after 1945, something which left octogenarians like Strauss blissfully unaffected, yet which was almost bound to demoralize creators still in their youth. All right, then: what did go wrong?
The more I thought about the question, the less convinced I became that it could be answered by concentrating on technical considerations. Here I defiantly and unapologetically differ from E. Michael Jones, who devoted an entire volume ( Dionysos Rising) to defending his conjecture that Wagner, aided by Schoenberg, brought about 1960s revolutionary violence through the sex-and-atheism-motivated destruction of musical tonality. Never mind the dubiousness of calling any of Wagner’s music”even at its most chromatically complex”atonal. Never mind the folly of calling the God-intoxicated Schoenberg an atheist. And never mind the effrontery involved in setting up a one-layman musical equivalent to the Index Librorum Prohibitorum, with its clear implication (or, in certain cases of individual arrogance, its active assertion) that any religious believer, let alone any Catholic, who admires music by Wagner or Schoenberg is objectively in mortal sin. (Some have actually maintained that any praise for Wagner compositions indicates complicity in “the culture of death.” Presumably Pius XII, who revered Wagner’s output and gently chided Maria Callas for singing it in Italian instead of in German, was similarly culpable.) No, wherever the problem lay, it could not be accounted for by E. Michael Jones” febrile quarter-truths. So where did it lie?
Gradually the solution came to me, as it must surely come to anyone who is enough of a historicist to appreciate the sheer novelty of our own music-producing arrangements. What characterized classical musical production after 1945″and what had almost never characterized classical musical production before 1945″was something so obvious, so much a part of our daily lives in 2007, that we seldom give a thought to it: namely, unlimited taxpayer funding.
We know what forms such funding takes when a Goebbels or a Zhdanov directs it. The forms it takes in the “free” world are usually less celebrated but hardly less grotesque (even if we leave aside such horrors as the National Endowment for the Arts” pandering to pornographers like Robert Mapplethorpe). Does modern cultural history contain a more embarrassing hallucination than the CIA’s belief that by subsidizing Jackson Pollock it somehow strengthened Western values? Or (to return to musical examples) a more spectacular example of the liberal death-wish than Pierre Boulez’s career? Boulez, a self-confessed “300% Marxist-Leninist,” is on record as demanding that the world’s opera houses be blown up”this demand got him briefly arrested in Basle, Switzerland, after 9/11″and he has inspired from his acolytes such priceless instances of Stalin-speak as “In the years after the second world war, music went through a period when, out of historical necessity, it was unattractive.” Still he flourishes. During the 1960s, he reduced even AndrÃ© Malraux (a figure who at least possessed some native spiritual strength, however otherwise erroneous) to grovel mode. Why? Heaven knows it is not through any public fondness for Boulez’s music. Nor is it through his”admittedly substantial”conducting abilities. It is because he, like his fellow apparatchiks throughout the West, has shamed and bullied regime after regime into concluding that if it shows the slightest reluctance to bankroll him, it is ipso facto “Nazi”. (Alex Ross’s new survey The Rest Is Noise has fascinating data”which I discovered only after my guide had gone to press”about how Uncle Sam oversaw such hypermodernist lunacies in Germany amid the Cold War’s first stages.) In my book, I phrase the point thus:
“Orwellian bureaucrats, answerable to no one, determined the nature of such new music as would gain official sanction. This was no mere charity for occasional deserving cases, such as the Danish and Finnish governments” pensions for, respectively, [Carl] Nielsen and Sibelius. This was the establishment of veritable states within states. For the first time in Western history outside Axis dictatorships, music would be not something that a private potentate or a church wanted, nor something for which customers had exhibited the faintest enthusiasm, but rather, something that dragooned audiences would get given, good and hard.”
Those last words are meant as a literary allusion. I had in mind, of course, H. L. Mencken’s definition of democracy.
It would, though, be ill-advised to end on too pessimistic a note. All the groaning and travailing of authorial parturition, particularly on so vast a theme, cannot conceal from me the fact that A Student’s Guide To Music History was, ultimately, a lot of fun to write. I hope that something of this enjoyment (as well as the research and sheer structural labor involved) transmits itself to the reader. And if I have somehow offended him”if he considers my attitude towards Mahler, for instance, to be hopelessly lukewarm, or if he has conceived a violent lust for Karlheinz Stockhausen’s creativity, or if he is irked by any other assessment in my pages”then he can always write his own book: helped in this task, it may be, by the bibliography near my guide’s end.
This article was originally published January 26, 2008.