Jun 03

Who’s Afraid of Classical Music: A highly arbitrary, thoroughly opinionated guide to listening to and enjoying symphony, opera & chamber music! by Michael Walsh ★★★★

This is the book that I should have read first before reading Who’s Afraid of Opera? This book was published in 1989 and thus is considerably dated. The Berlin Wall had not come down, and comments about “East” German abound. A lot happens in 30 years! He has no mention of any of the great performers after 1989, of which there are many. Walsh even admits that he is reluctant to make recommendations knowing how those in their prime in 1989 will be either dead or well past their prime in 2021. This book details how Walsh came to enjoy what we now call classical music. Walsh broadens the definition of classical music, though I find him missing the close character of modern classical music to jazz music. Walsh offers suggestions for attending a performance, and which performances to go to. He goes through a list of his favorite pieces, including symphonies, chamber pieces, opera, and then an assorted mishmash of other music that doesn’t fit a perfect category. He is quick to promote modern composers, suggesting that historical composers also were not greeted well by their contemporary audiences. There are reasons for that. First, contemporary composers are mostly coming out of academia, an institution that has truly lost its way. Secondly, like modern art, modern music no longer promotes the higher ideals, the organized, the structured, the better man in all of us. Minimalist music should not be surprised when it is greeted with a minimalist response. We listen to classical music because we wish to transcend the ordinary, and not to be dragged deeper into the mud of daily life. It is not the music so much as what the music is saying that I find repulsive.

Each chapter has an “interlude” that discusses a few favorite composers, providing their history, and a sampling of compositions worth hearing. Oddly, Baroque and pre-baroque music is nearly completely ignored. The reverence that is owed to Bach is missing, Walsh somehow placing Händel and Bach within the same category of “historical” or “pre-classical” composers—the plethora of wonderful composers, Buxtehude to Vivaldi, all go completely unmentioned. Walsh started his classical life with fairly modern pieces of composition, so it is no wonder that he is preoccupied with the contemporary drivel that we have out there. Even Walsh is willing to admit the serialism, atonality, 12-tone music, and the like, are mostly failed experiments with different tonalities. There are truly great contemporary composers, like Arvo Pärt and Górecki to name two, but they are unmentioned, perhaps because they are eastern bloc composers of no economic value to the west. If Walsh is going to throw Broadway musicals into the wastebasket of being opera or classical music, then much jazz requires similar treatment.

The book was fun to read and can be read in the space of one or two evenings. If one really wishes to gain an interest in classical music or opera, a MUCH better review, both in being entertaining as well as informative, will be found with Robert Greenberg’s Teaching Company series titled How To Listen To and Understand Great Music and How to Listen To and Understand Opera. Both of these series are highly recommended though they will occupy not just 1-2 evenings, but a whole month or two of listening pleasure—an activity of truly great value.

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