Book Review Classical Music: A New Way of Listening

By Brilliant, Ira | The Beethoven Journal, Summer 1999 | Go to article overview

Book Review Classical Music: A New Way of Listening


Brilliant, Ira, The Beethoven Journal


Book Review Classical Music: A New Way of Listening Alexander Waugh Macmillan, 1995, 144 pp., $24.95 ISBN 0-02-860446-8 (hardback) (includes a CD with excerpts and movements from 38 pieces of music)

IRA BRILLIANT

ALEXANDER WAUGH, A LONDON CLASSICAL RECORD PRODUCER, music writer, and critic, has produced a book for beginners which uses his own concepts to guide listeners through the world of classical music. His introduction explains his purpose:

Wanting to appreciate classical music and actually having the confidence to appreciate it are, unfortunately, two different things. Everyone knows that classical music at its best is capable of moving listeners to tears, absorbing their complete attention, even changing their lives. But what is music "at its best"? How can listeners be moved to tears by what is essentially just a noise? And what is it that so wholly consumes their concentration? Classical Music: A New Way of Listening is a beginner's guide that suggests an easy new approach to the art of listening, helping you to focus on music's emotional message rather than on its technicalities. ... If classical music has not changed your life already, Classical Music: A New Way of Listening will help change it for you now.

How well Waugh succeeds will depend in good measure on the validity of his claims and how they pertain to all the varieties of style found in classical music. It must be stressed that "beginner" truly characterizes the level of the book, although a more knowledgeable listener might be curious to learn about the author's "new way." It is also possible that someone might accept the principles being presented and actually enhance his or her enjoyment of the special rewards of fine music.

The book's 144 pages contain illustrations on almost all the pages, a description of the orchestra and its instruments, a glossary of musical terms, a one-paragraph summary for each of forty composers, and the usual index. It leaves only a few chapters to present the essence of the concept for listening.

To define what music is Waugh makes use of quotations, some insightful, some merely clever. Examples: "Music is the eye of the ear" (Thomas Drake, d. 1618); "Music is itself" (Hanslick, 1825-1904); "Music is the only sensual pleasure without vice" (Samuel Johnson, 1795-1881); "Music is the art of thinking with sounds" (Jules Combarieu, 1859-1916). There are a dozen more to entice you.

His argument begins with the statement that the common element in all music is the mood that it produces. Fair enough. Then he proceeds to offer three categories, to which he assigns titles of Past, Present and Future, with the proviso that they are not to carry the usual meanings. We then are given the definitions that they are meant to bear for his purposes. "Past" refers to "music of a contemplative or reflexive nature, music that evokes nostalgia. It is usually slow and lyrical, perhaps with slow-moving harmonies, and is often played at the lower end of the instrument's range. It tends to be very melodic and frequently moves in a descending pattern" (p. 57). (Examples are Debussy's "Claire de lune," Fauré's "Pavane," and the third movement of the Brahms Third Symphony.) "Present" refers to "music of an uncomplicated tone that is moving neither forward nor backward. As its name suggests, it is music of the present, a musical statement of fact - a dance or march, for instance, or the recitative of an opera. It is often used to link passages of Past and Future" (p. 57). (The first movement of Beethoven's Eighth Symphony is one of the examples here.) "Future" is "music with forward momentum that seems to be questing or moving in anticipation of some future goal. Often featuring rapidly changing harmonies, it is unsettled and not very restful, making the listener wonder where it is leading and how it will be resolved" (p. 58). (Beethoven is used for two of the three examples: the third movement of the Fifth Symphony and the last movement of the String Quartet in A Minor, Opus 132. …

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