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The (Lost and Found) Influence of Classical Music

By: Michael Taube
January 29, 2017

n the January 2017 issue of First Things, the highly respected Civil War historian Allen C. Guelzo discussed the decline of America’s love affair with classical music.

While recognizing that this musical genre “has become a vagrant of sorts,” he didn’t attribute its diminished status to changing tastes and tin-eared audiences. Rather, “American classical music has scarcely been about American music at all,” and there’s been “undue concentration on performance as an end in itself, and to the cult of performance stars.”

“Classical music in America did not decline in spite of Toscanini or Stokowski,” according to Guelzo, “but because of them.”

If we lay blame directly at the feet of performers, rather than listeners, this issue takes on a whole new light. While classical music may never achieve its past popularity in the U.S.—which, according to a seventy-year old Fortune poll that Guelzo highlighted, was at 62 percent—there could be room for a long-awaited revival of musical appreciation for great composers like Bach, Beethoven, and Mozart.

That said, is it fair for listeners to view performers as elitist prima donnas rather than musical enthusiasts? Which brings us to Japanese writer Haruki Murakami’s new book, Absolutely on Music: Conversations, and his incisive and illuminating discussions about classical music with legendary Japanese conductor Seiji Ozawa.

Murakami, “a fervent jazz fan for close to half a century,” has been “listening to classical music with no less enjoyment.” At the same time, he admits to having “never received a formal musical education, [has] virtually no technical knowledge of the field, and [being] a complete layman where most things musical are concerned.”

During the six occasions Murakami spoke with Ozawa between November 2010 and July 2011, it’s pretty easy to tell who was the student, and who was the master. Nevertheless, it adds to the charm of this remarkable book. If both men had had equal amounts of knowledge, it would have led to high-level discussions and frustrated its audience. Instead, a complete novice will feel included in the conversations, and realize there is much to learn and enjoy about classical music.

As the author notes, “[l]istening to jazz and the classics has always been both an effective stimulus and a source of peace to my heart and mind.” He agrees with jazz legend Duke Ellington’s famous comment, “There are simply two kinds of music, good music and the other kind”—and wisely puts both classical music and jazz in the “good” category.

Ozawa obviously regards classical music as something good, and great. He studied under the brilliant Berlin Philharmonic conductor Herbert von Karajan, and served as the New York Philharmonic’s assistant conductor under the equally brilliant Leonard Bernstein. He conducted various orchestras around the world, and was the music director of the Toronto Symphony, San Francisco Symphony, and Boston Symphony.

During these conversations, Ozawa opened up to Murakami on a wide range of topics. For instance, he compares and contrasts the styles of his two early mentors, Karajan and Bernstein. The former “set his desires in motion by sheer force of will—in Beethoven, say, or Brahms,” while the latter had “an instinctive ability to make long phrases” and was “more of what you’d call a genius.”

These two distinct styles were on full display in their recordings with Glenn Gould. He was a talented Canadian pianist well-known for his eccentric behavior, including wearing warm clothing and gloves year-round and talking to himself during performances. Gould was also notorious for changing the tempo of a piece, which caused some consternation for the two conductors. Bernstein, for his part, felt compelled to tell his audience about this in a 1962 recording of Brahms Piano Concerto No. 1 that Murakami and Ozawa listened to (and the latter remembered to some extent).

“Ordinarily, though, in a concerto,” Murakami asked, “who is ‘the boss’—the soloist or the conductor?” Ozawa answered this intriguing question in the following fashion, “In the case of a concerto, it’s mostly the soloist who does the heavy rehearsing. The conductor begins working on it maybe two weeks or so before the performance, but the soloist can be wrestling with it for six months or more. The soloist gets totally inside the piece.”

Another conversation contained some fascinating observations about two great composers, Beethoven and Brahms. Murakami initially asked why, when he listened to the instrumentation for the two composers, is “their sound is very different?” Ozawa agreed, and mentioned that “Beethoven himself changes a lot in the Ninth. His orchestrations were quite limited until he got to his Ninth Symphony.” Murakami went on to state his “impression is that when Brahms and Beethoven use a similar group of instruments, the result is still something different.” Moreover, “with Brahms, it’s as if a new sound comes in between any two sounds, making the whole thing one level denser. Maybe that’s why it’s so much easier to grasp the musical structure in a Beethoven piece.”

Ozawa’s answer is simplistic and brilliant. “Yes, of course,” he said. “The structure is much easier to see in a piece by Beethoven. You can hear the winds and the strings talking to each other. But Brahms creates his unique sound by blending the two together.” I’ve never heard this particular comparison before. Yet, it makes a great deal of sense when you listen to their musical compositions separately and together.

There are other intriguing topics in Absolutely on Music. Here are several examples:

  • Murakami asked Ozawa at one point, “Is waving the conductor’s baton difficult?” He responded, “Difficult? Hmm, I don’t know if it’s so difficult. But I had already internalized the technique in my late teens...Before I ever got to conduct a professional orchestra, I had already been conducting for seven years.”

  • In a discussion about reading musical scores, Murakami asks for an example of when “it hasn’t gone well.” Ozawa’s answer was honest and forthright, “When I can’t get the music into my head. Say, when I’m tired, or when my understanding or my concentration is off. I may be revealing trade secrets again here, but it often happens that the music you are going to perform at night is very different from the music you have to study that same morning.”

  • The topic of opera, which Murakami mentioned has been “a major part” of Ozawa’s career, eventually came up. Yet, Ozawa surprisingly said “to tell you the truth, nobody was further removed from opera than I was! By which I mean that Professor Saito never taught me a thing about opera. So as long as I stayed in Japan, I had nothing to do with it.”

  • Bernstein’s “enormous passion” for composer Gustav Mahler’s music due to their shared Jewish heritage is acknowledged by both men. Ozawa mentions that, in his friendship with Jewish musicians like violinists Itzhak Perlman and Isaac Stern, “there are areas deep down where I can’t fully grasp what they’re feeling or thinking.” The composer also amusingly notes that “a guy like me with a Buddhist father and a Christian mother and practically no religious feeling of my own; I suspect they think they can’t fully understand me!”

What readers will hopefully take away from these wide-ranging conversations is how down to earth they are. Murakami plays the role of the inquisitive interviewer who enjoys learning about the minutiae of classical music, while Ozawa is the imperfect musical genius whose love, passion and pure unadulterated joy for this art form made him a legend around the world.

While Absolutely on Music is detailed at times, neither man speaks above a reader’s knowledge or capacity to learn. Ozawa’s descriptions of musical pieces, performers and performances are also depicted with a beautiful simplicity— and, most importantly, without the slightest air of pomposity. If there is a way to bring the masses back to the Great Composers, this book will serve as a superb starting point.