City Journal Spring 2014

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Spring 2014
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Stefan Kanfer
Has Technology Made the Concert Hall Obsolete? « Back to Story

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Concerning the quote from JSB at the beginning of this review, what he almost certainly meant was this: that with keyboard instruments you do not have to produce or create your own tone or tuning - it is all laid out for you. This is in contrast to things like singing and most string or wind instruments. In this sense playing keyboard instruments is simple - simpler than those other ways of producing music. Of course he expected people to work. It is less clear what he thought about "genius". He did also say that anyone who worked as hard as he did would achieve just as much. There might or might not have been an element of false modesty in that.
Also, since Bach lived in a society in which expressions of belief and piety were utterly routine - expected and essentially required - we don't really know much about his deepest inner feeling about religion and its relationship to the kind of creativity that he manifested. There is certainly no reason to think that he was an atheist or agnostic - that would have been highly unusual and would be very surprising. But where he stood, in his own mind and heart, on the spectrum of belief is something that we probably can't really know. He did take a kind of irreverent approach to the church and church work, at least from time to time, and he kept seeking secular employment.
Are you sure that Bach's influence waned in the 19th century? It waned in the 18th century, upon his death or even before. He was considered something of a fossil in his maturity. The story of the Musical Offering is instructive: Bach visited Frederick the Great, who asked him to improvise a three-part fugue on a melody of Frederick's devising. After Bach had done so with ease, Frederick challenged him to improvise a six-part fugue. Bach replied that this would take some time to work out. Das Musikalisches Opfer was the result. But Frederick was well known to prefer the simpler style coming into vogue at that time. Bach sensed that his art was being toyed with and slyly hinted as much with the title: the German could also be translated as "Musical sacrifice", or even "Musical victim."

The great revival began with a performance of the St. Matthew Passion that Felix Mendelssohn initiated and conducted in Leipzig in 1829. The Bach Gesellschaft was formed in 1850 and gradually published a scholarly edition of his complete works finishing only in 1900. In 1890, Cesar Franck died and Charles-Marie Widor succeeded him as professor of organ at the Paris Conservatoire. His teaching differed so radically from that of his predecessor that his class was initially stunned. Among the criteria he stressed was a thorough knowledge and mastery of the organ works of Bach.

I think the above shows that the appreciation of Bach grew, rather than waned, over most of the 19th century.

Aside from this quibble, I entirely agree with your observations. One might worry particularly about the future of the organ, in that most great organists become passionately interested in childhood and begin studying the instrument as soon as they are able. If, instead of the majestic marvel of an authentic pipe organ, all a young person has known are electronic substitutes, I can't imagine that a child would be seized with the desire to devote his life to playing it.

If vicarious electronic experiences are all one gets of the other instruments as well, one might equally fear for their future.

Thank you for the quote of Bach, "The aim and final reason of all music should be none else but the glory of God and refreshing the soul. Where this is not observed there will be no music, but only a devilish hubbub.

As far as I am concerned, the near-entropy of the rock and rap (in Robert Pattison's words, the triumph of vulgarity) besieging the ears of anyone who merely turns on the radio or walks down the street today is as complete and dramatic a fulfillment of that prophecy as one can imagine.



One last thing. Tonight I was listening to Ragnar Ulfung on my IPhone and asked my wife what she thought. She felt he was a tenorino. I told her that that voice was one of the biggest voices I ever experienced when I performed Jochannan in Salome to his Herod. It is amazing how powerful human voices can be, and how emaciated they are in modern media.
In fact, my wife and I went to a Met performance of Elektra and found one singer after another barely audible above the Strauss din. Until Agemmemnon appeared and blew us away. Who was THAT we both demanded, seeking the answer in our programs. None other than James King in his 80's. He could have taught those other wannabe's what singing is, but none asked, I'm certain.
Sadly, the teaching of the classics has serious deficiencies and many are the aspirers of classic prowess, and damn few are getting what they need. Where is the next Pavarotti who truly understands the importance of the epiglottis's maneuvering in making a stentorian sound?
If instant playback had been in practice a century earlier, there would be no sports legends. How often I've been thrilled by a live musical performance, which then sounded sloppy when I heard the recording of the same performance. As Mr. Kanfer points out, live music is as much about the audience and the performer as it is about the piece.
Recorded music is a gift which allows a wider audience to hear greatness. But being in the presence of a favorite performer, creating, gives us reason to be alive.
Corrected version:

Re. Steve Jobs to Yo-Yo Ma: Somebody said the same thing to the sixteen-year-old Yehudi Menuhin. This is old hat, and just as much a non sequitir now as then.

Comforting to know that S. Kanfer has such a solid grip on reality and able to distinguish real music lovers, real people, real pieces, etc.
Re. Steve Jobs to Yo-Yo Ma: Somebody (was it Einstein, and anyway why would anyone quote Steve Jobs on Bach performance?) said the same thing to the sixteen-year-old Yehudi Menuhin.

Comforting to know that S. Kanfer has such a solid grip on reality and able to distinguish real music loves, real people, real pieces, etc.
It is very odd to say that interest for Bach "waned" during the 19th century. Bach was in fact "rediscovered" in the 19th century--in a very real sense he was in fact first "discovered" in tht century. He had fallen into obscurity in the latter half of the 18th century. The period know as "The Rococo", exemplified by CPE Bach, the so-called "Gallant Style", which was part of the foundation of the first Viennese School of Haydn and Mozart, displaced high baroque composers like J. S. Bach.

In fact, prior to the 19th century, his following was, in the general public, regional and hardly European wide. Only among professionals and connoisseurs was he more broadly know.

Mozart talks about "discovering a Bach" who was "not the one we know, but his father". Much of this discovery had to do with the good works of F. Mendelssohn in his career as a conductor and teacher. Composers of Beethoven's time knew mostly the keyboard works and a few of the more popular orchestral works. It is only in the 19th century that printed editions of many of his works became available, and these had to be reconstituted from the parts--prior to that there were no full scores. Moreover, it is only in the 19th century do we see public performance organizations, the forerunners of our Philharmonic Orchestras, and amateur and semi-professional choral societies. Prior to this Bach larger works were mostly heard in regional courts or ina few churches in Protestant Germany. Certainly Bach's religious works were not part of Catholic services.


As for being a "composer for our times", well at least two facts put the lie to that: 1) he was a devout Christian, and 2) he unwaveringly pursued excellence. This would make him anything other than a "composer for our time".

So Mr. Elle is confused about both the past and the present.
The book is much better and more interesting than the review suggests. It tells the story of the modern discovery of Bach's music through great recordings and recognises the value to music lovers of recordings.
But it nowhere suggests that live performances are obsolete. Recordings offer another way of enjoying music, they do not replace the concert hall.
For readers interested in music, I recommend this book very strongly.
Most art, including music, can now be captured with breathtaking fidelity in electronic form.

The expensive part is the "display" of the art so recorded. But we're getting there. High quality speakers and high resolution touch screens and 3D printers will reach new heights.

The best marble sculpture may remain beyond high-fidelity replication for some time, but the trend is clear.
There have been a few lightweight articles, recently, posted on City-Journal.
This is the Litest.
Basing myself on the review, the book sounds jejune, facile, and trivial.
If some of the unattributed quotes (including the first) are from the book, the author is ignorant.
If they are from the reviewer, he's re-phrasing or mis-quoting. Lite, again.
In any case, he sounds pretty ignorant as well.

What is this "culture for dummies" we are now seeing here?