Thursday, March 20, 2014

Joseph Kerman has died

When I started this blog in 2011, I mentioned a few times that there were three very important writers on music that it was always worth your time to read. These were Charles Rosen, who passed away in 2012, Richard Taruskin, who is still with us and going strong, and Joseph Kerman who just died on March 17, 2014. Of course, all Norman Lebrecht can find to say about him is that he described Puccini's Tosca as a "shabby little shocker" in his book Opera and Drama. Makes me think I really should give that a read! But of course, Joseph Kerman is known for his many decades teaching musicology at UC Berkeley and for an exceptional book on The Beethoven Quartets that I have purchased a couple of times and refer to regularly. He also wrote an extremely fine book on Bach's keyboard fugues called The Art of Fugue that I also refer to regularly. This book really represents what a book on music can be. It is comprehensive and detailed and brilliantly revealing. It also comes with a CD containing not only performances of many of the works discussed but also COMPLETE SCORES in pdf format so that you can see exactly what he is talking about. Here is a sample page in which he is discussing a few measures in the C major fugue from the Well-Tempered Clavier, Bk 1:

This is the kind of writing on music that has no fear of talking about the details and in which no comment or opinion goes unsupported!

In complete contrast to the work of Joseph Kerman is the writing in a book on Sibelius I was reading yesterday as research for my upcoming posts on him. The book is called Jean Sibelius and His World and, save for one paper on his sketches, contains nothing but unsupported and often, in my view, unsupportable, baseless speculation in what I would call "new musicology lite style". In other words, just what you would get from not-terribly aware third-year undergraduates who have read some "new" musicology and not much else but have a lot of half-baked ideas to share with you. Shockingly, this book is published by Princeton University and the contributors are, many of them, actual professors of music at actual universities, though not very well-known ones.

In one paper, the author manages to avoid any discussion of the actual music in favor of long-winded musing over the significance of a comment Sibelius once made about how compositions are like butterflies, if you touch them the dust comes off and they are no longer so beautiful. Of course, Shostakovich made a similar observation once, with a different metaphor. Eating with a friend he commented that musicologists were like the cook in the kitchen. The chicken lays the eggs and we get to eat them when cooked, but the poor cook just cracks the eggs and scrambles them. In both cases, the observation is to the effect that musicology tends to be cold and distant analysis, which is not the ideal way to appreciate the beauty of music. But this writer takes off on a wild flight as follows:
Sibelius' butterfly metaphor fits the expressionist aesthetics of the fragility of individual utterance better than it does academic logic. This was combined with a readiness to deal with unlimited depths of sorrow and pain, and a naturalistic directness, alongside a gothic textural complexity.
Yes, hundreds of pages of this kind of writing! What's wrong with it is, it uses terms like "expressionist aesthetics" that are crying out for both explanation and examples. What do you mean by "expressionist aesthetics"? Do you even understand those words? Can you find me examples, musical examples in Sibelius' music that would illustrate this? What do you mean by the "fragility of individual utterance"? Is there some way in which Sibelius' individual utterance is more fragile than mine? Or yours? And how would you show this? And how will you illustrate or demonstrate his "readiness to deal with unlimited depths of sorrow and pain"? Apart from mentioning his alcoholism, of course. And where, in the music, did you get this idea? I won't even ask what you could mean by "gothic textural complexity" but, if you can't show it to me in the music, I ain't interested!

Don't people who write like this have editors any more? Or, better still, teachers who are willing to ask these kinds of questions? This book on Sibelius, I am afraid, is the opposite of useful. Instead of giving you actual information about Sibelius and his music, everything it says makes you less-informed, because your head is swimming with all this "gothic textural complexity" nonsense. You are literally stupider after reading.

Let's listen to the Symphony No. 2 of Sibelius to clear our heads. See if you can hear any "gothic textural complexity":


Bridge said...

Could you comment on this review of The Art of Fugue?

"Many years ago Joseph Kerman caused a storm in an operatic teacup by
describing "Tosca" as "a shabby little shocker", words that came back
to me reading this book, in which pedestrian analysis is garnished with
artiness - "this music lives on its wealth of exquisite detail, for which
no level of sensitivity can be too hyper". Kerman, who tells us his mother
"sang beautifully, and smiled when she sang" fancies himself as a writer
in the tradition of Tovey, but Tovey would never writen of "Bach's
stupefying modulations" or of the "Chromatic Fantasy" as "Bach at his
most Baroque, Bach at his most extravagant, untrammeled, physical, in
your face". We're in California & we're in decline. The CD is a swiz -
eight short music tracks plus a number of downloadable scores which are
from easily available editions. Four of the music tracks prove that you
can play Bach on just about anything except a modern Steinway."

I have to say I do not like Kerman's writing style that much - it is excessively subjective and flowery for an analysis in my opinion. Don't get me wrong, I don't think it should be simply a dry description of the musical elements, but this type of writing is unappealing to me. I also think it is a shade too informal and perhaps superfluous. Beyond insightful observations (like the parallel to the Mass in B minor though I dislike the wording) and detached opinions I don't think much more needs to be said. You don't really need a book to tell you how the music feels, in fact it almost seems like the excerpt was intended for a deaf person. If the rest of the book is all in this style I can't say I am particularly eager to pick it up especially in light of the quoted sentences in the Amazon review which are not exactly encouraging either.

Bridge said...

N.B.: "Detached" does not necessarily imply scarcity or a drier more impersonal writing technique, only that the two remain separate and not conflated. It's a delicate balance, very hard to achieve but not impossible.

Bryan Townsend said...

Bridge, you are sooooo opinionated! I like that. But remember this: for every truly wise writer, there are dozens of people who, out of sheer miserableness, pettiness or professional jealousy, are eager to smear him. Have a look and see if their opinions are as well supported as his. Or are they just making nasty gossip?

One problem with Kerman's Bach book is that even though it came out quite recently, it seems as if both the hardcover and softcover editions are out of print so you are stuck with Kindle. In my experience, inline musical examples do not come out well in Kindle books. I have the hardcover version and it is excellent. What I recommend you do is to either look inside the book on Amazon or get a free sample download. In either case you will have enough of Kerman's writing to judge for yourself and not have to rely on reviews like that one you quote. Or my opinion, for that matter.

Bridge said...

I don't know whether it's still in print but there are plenty of reserves left for both hardcover and paperback. There are naturally a lot of people that leave negative reviews just for the sake of leaving negative reviews but the review I linked seemed to be written by a reasonably honest and lucid person and you also certainly qualify. Just interested in getting a little perspective, as there are certain things one cannot gleam from just scanning a few random pages (there is also no PDF online.) I'll definitely take advantage of the "look inside" feature nonetheless and read a few pages - I hadn't actually noticed this particular book had that option. It's usually the first thing I do.